Aretha Franklin was considered the greatest soul musician of all time. She is known as the ‘Queen of Soul’ in the world. She was not just one of the best musicians that the USA has produced but, she was a powerful civil rights activist as well. She was an incredible singer and pianist and toured with her father’s traveling revival show. She was discovered and signed by Columbia Records when she was visiting New York. Under the renowned production house, she released a countless number of brilliant compositions that are still extremely popular in the global soul community. She was the first female artist to get placed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. She won a total of 18 Grammy Awards in her entire career. She is one of the most honored musicians in Grammy history.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25th, 1942. Her father Reverend C. L. Franklin was a Baptist preacher and her mother Siggers Franklin was a gospel singer. Her parents were separated when she was only six. Four years after that her mother died of a heart attack. The family relocated to Detroit, Michigan due to her father’s preaching assignments. C.L was introduced to the New Bethel Baptist Church and became a nationally renowned preacher in a very short time.
Franklin started her musical career at a very young age, born with an amazing musical talent she was sort of a child prodigy. She was mostly self-taught. Armed with her exceptional piano playing and powerful singing skills, he began singing before her father’s congregation.
She began recording her music by the time she became 14 at her father’s church. The songs were released in the form of the album called, ‘Songs of Faith’ through a small label in 1956. She used to tour with her father’s revival group and she came across some of the greatest gospel musicians such as Sam Cooke, Mahalia, Jackson, and Clara Ward, and more.
In 1960, Franklin moved to NYC and later moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. She lived in Encino, Los Angeles until 1982. After that, she returned to her hometown of Detroit to stay close to her father and her siblings. She is the mother of four sons. Her first child, Clarence was born when she was only 12. Though there are some speculations, everybody thought that the father was a boy from her school, Donald Burk. But in a handwritten will discovered in 2019, she said that the father was Edward Jordan. Her second son with Jordan was born in 1957. She had the third child with her husband at that time Theodore White in 1964. Her youngest son was born in 1970 with her road manager Ken Cunningham. Her first two sons took her family name.
Franklin had a long musical career stared since she was very young. She was active in 2017 until her health deteriorated.
Franklin began singing at New Bethel after her mother’s death. Her father started bringing her with his gospel tours when she was 12. With his help, she signed with J.V.B. Records. Her father installed recording equipment inside the church and there she recorded 9 tracks. The songs were released by the production house in 1956. Her first single was ‘Never Grow Old’. Her first album, ‘Songs of Faith’ was released in 1965 by Checker Records. She was just 14 years old when the album was recorded.
At the tender age of 16, she toured with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and she also sang at his funeral in 1968. Her biggest influences were Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Ray Charles. The King of Gospel, James Cleveland also helped her shape her career as a gospel singer.
With Columbia Records
After Franklin turned 18, she told her father that she had decided to go to New York following Sam Cooke to do pop music. Her father was her manager at that time. He gave her his permission to follow her dreams. He also helped her produce a two-song demo that made a huge impact on her career. The demo made a great impression on Columbia Records and they signed her as a ‘five percent artist’ in 1960. She trained under Cholly Atkins to prepare for her pop debut. Though Sam Cooke talked with her father to let her sign with his production house, RCA, Franklin decided to join Columbia. Another record label owner named Berry Gordy, the owner of the Tamla label pursued Franklin and her sister Emma to join his production, but their father rejected his offer as he thought the label was not established enough at that point.
Franklin released her first single with Columbia, ‘Today I Sing the Blues’ in September 1960. It topped the Hot Rhythm & Blues Sellers chart effortlessly. Her first solo album, ‘Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo’ was released in January 1961. The single, ‘Won’t Be Long’ from the album became her first song to get placed in Billboard Hot 100. It also reached the number 7 spot on the R&B chart. She flawlessly executed songs in different genres like vocal jazz, R&B, standards, blues, doo-wop, and more. Her song, ‘Rock-a-Bye You Baby with a Dixie Melody’ became an international hit. She was named the ‘New-star female vocalist’ by DownBeat magazine.
With Atlantic Records
Franklin’s contract with Columbia Records expired in November 1966. As she did not achieve much commercial success there, she owed money to the label. She then decided to join Atlantic records being pursued by producer Jerry Wexler. He focused on her gospel background. He wanted to popularize a ‘tenacious form of rhythm & blues that became increasingly identified as soul.’ With the new label, she gave out a series of hit numbers between 1967 and 1972. But the next seven years were not much fruitful.
In 1967 she recorded the track, ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’ in just a day as the session was canceled due to a conflict between her manager and husband Ted White and studio owner Rick Hall. The song was eventually released in the next month and it reached number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was her first time hitting the top 10 list. She modified Otis Redding’s song ‘Respect’ which hit the number one spot on both pop and R&B lists. It became an anthem for civil rights and feminist movements.
At Atlantic Records, she became ‘the most successful singer in the nation’ in 1968. After several chart-topping hits, she left the label in 1979.
With Arista Records
Franklin joined Arista Records in 1980. In the same year, she performed in front of Queen Elizabeth at London’s Royal Albert Hall. She also made a guest appearance in the comedy musical ‘The Blues Brothers’. Her first album with the company was, ‘Aretha’ in 1980. The cover of Redding’s ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’ from the album earned her a Grammy nomination. She accomplished gold records for the first time in seven years with her album ‘Jump to It’ in 1982. She gave out hits singles such as, ‘Jimmy Lee’, ‘Freeway of Love’, ‘I Knew You Were Waiting for Me’, and more during her Arista years.
She performed in front of Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families. A little boy was so overwhelmed by her singing that he climbed up to the stage and hug her as she kept on singing. Her final album with the label was ‘So Damn Happy’ in 2003. She spent over 20 years with the label.
In 2008, Franklin released a holiday album ‘The Christmas, Aretha’ with DMI Records. She performed ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ in 2009 at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony. He released another album, ‘Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love’ in 2011 with her own label Aretha’s Records. In 2014 she signed with RCA Records. In 2017, she released her album, ‘A Brand New Me’ in November 2017. After that, she canceled many shows due to bad health conditions.
Civil rights Activism
From a very young age, she was very much involved with the civil rights and women’s rights movements. She funded many civil rights groups. Her songs, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Respect’ were popular anthems for civil rights and women’s rights movements. She also strongly supported the rights of the Native Americans and First Nation Cultural rights. She declined to perform at President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 alongside many musicians as a protest.
Franklin was reported to be seriously ill on August 13th, 2018. She was at that time at her home in Detroit. She died three days later, on 16th August at 76. She died of pancreatic cancer. Her memorial was held at New Bethel Baptist Church. Many celebrities, politicians, and her family and friends paid homage at her service at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit.
Alicia Parker is a fashion enthusiast studying at the University of California. She contributes to Daily Music Roll as a music blogger and writes a review of various music on a daily basis