The world has lost an icon that shaped the genre known as soul. Aretha Franklin passed away August 16 at the age of 76. America’s soundtrack wouldn’t be complete without the soulful vocal stylings of Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul broke barriers and paved the way for those following in her footsteps. Her voice was the epitome of gospel, soul, and the blues all rolled into one making her one of the greatest singers of all time.
Aretha Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee and grew up in Detroit to Baptist preacher, Reverend Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin and gospel singer Barbara Siggers Franklin. By the time she was 10, her mother passed away and the family relocated to Detroit, Michigan where C.L. began preaching at New Bethel Baptist Church where he gained national recognition. His services were broadcast locally and in other urban markets around the country, and 60 of his sermons, including the legendary “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” were released in album form. Aretha got the best musical education with some of the greatest vocalists of the gospel genre that were frequent guests at the Franklin household. Aretha and her siblings great up listening to Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, and James Cleveland.
Making African American Musical History
Starting at an early age, Aretha began singing at her father’s church and by the age of 14, her first recordings turned up on an album called Spirituals. Spirituals was released locally on the J.V.B. label in 1956 and re-released on the Battle label in 1962. Aretha’s five tracks formed the basis of the 1964 album Songs of Faith: The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin, issued on Checker Records, with additional material recorded by Franklin at services in other locations. She performed with C.L’s traveling revival show and became friends with Sam Cooke. Although gospel music was her foundation, Franklin also drew her musical prowess from blues and jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Sarah Vaughn to help develop her own vocal stylings. She was also inspired by Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and Nat King Cole, Lavern Baker, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. With a diverse range of influences, Franklin was able to fuse them all together to speak to the world in her own voice that defined soul music. Before she signed with Atlantic, she spent six years at Columbia Records. She was signed to the label in 1960 by John Hammond, the label’s legendary producer and talent scout, who’d heard a demo she cut in New York.
Inspiring a New Wave of Artists
In an interview with SoulTracks, Sam Cooke’s younger brother L.C. Cooke talked about writing Aretha Franklin’s song “Once in a While (Please Answer Me). “I was on my way to record in Atlanta, Georgia. So, I had just gotten out the shower, and had a towel wrapped around me. Aretha Franklin had stopped by, so I came out singing that song, she asked me what it was and I told her it was something I wrote. Aretha sat on my bed and cried until I gave her that song. That girl sat there and literally cried until I said I’ll let you record it. She said, “you can write another song, I just love that song. So, I said okay, you can have it,” said L.C.
Meanwhile Franklin’s tenure at Columbia yielded nine R&B hits including “Today I Sing the Blues” and “Runnin’ Out of Fools.” She also scored some pop crossover hits including “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” and “Won’t Be Long.” The songs were were far removed from the fiery, gospel-tinged soul for which she would become known.
Jerry Wexler signed Franklin when her contract with Columbia expired. With her switch to Atlantic in 1966, Aretha proceeded to revolutionize soul music with some of the genre’s greatest recordings. Her reign began with her first Atlantic single, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You),” a performance that unleashed the full force of Franklin’s mezzo-soprano.
Offering call-and-response background vocals on this and other tracks were Aretha’s sisters, Carolyn and Erma. The Sweet Inspirations, a Memphis-based vocal quartet that included Cissy Houston, also contributed background vocals to Franklin’s work in the studio and onstage.
Aretha Franklin and America’s Soundtrack
Franklin’s most significant contribution to America’s soundtrack landed in the form of “Respect,” which was her soulful take on the Otis Redding penned song.
The song reached number one on both the R&B and Pop charts, earning Franklin her first two GRAMMYS. It was the opening song on 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You. Other songs from the album included “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Dr. Feelgood” and her cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s civil rights-era anthem.
Her next three albums; Aretha Arrives (1967), Lady Soul (1968) and Aretha Now (1968)—included “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Baby, I Love You,” “Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)” and a soulful rendering of Carole King’s “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like).”
Her fifth Atlantic album, Aretha in Paris (1968) was recorded live in Europe. In 1968, she was hailed the Queen of Soul when legendary deejay Pervis Spann, the Blues Man, placed a crown on her head during a performance in Chicago. In 1968, Franklin performed at the funeral of her father’s friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., where she paid tribute to him with a stirring rendition of “Precious Lord.”
In the 1970s, Franklin saw even more success as she released albums Spirit in the Dark (1970), Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971), Young, Gifted and Black (1972) and Amazing Grace (1972). Spirit in the Dark featured five songs written by Franklin, which was more than on any album she released. Her 14th album You was released in 1975 and her tenure with Atlantic Records came to an end in 1979 after 19 albums. Franklin won eight consecutive GRAMMY Awards for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance, the last one for her 1974 single, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
That same year her father was shot during a home robbery and went into a coma and never recovered. Aretha’s next home was Arista Records. In 1982, she released Jump to It, produced by Luther Vandross, earning another GRAMMY nomination.
In 1985 Franklin returned to the top of the charts with another hit album: the pop record Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Featuring the single “Freeway of Love,” as well as a collaboration with the band The Eurythmics, making that record one of Aretha’s biggest-selling albums. In 1987, Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That same year, she released the album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, which won the GRAMMY for Best Soul Gospel Performance. Franklin scored the second number one pop hit of her career, “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” a duet with George Michael.
Continuing Her Reign as a Musical Influence
In 1993, she was invited to sing at former President Bill Clinton’s inauguration and the following year she received both a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors. She also later stood in for Luciano Pavarotti, who was too ill to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award, with her rendition of “Nessun Dorma.”
In 1998, Franklin was back on the charts with A Rose Is Still a Rose which was written and produced by Lauryn Hill.
In 2003, Franklin released her final studio album on Arista, So Damn Happy, and left the label to found Aretha Records. Two years later, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and became the second woman ever to be inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame. In 2008 she received her 18th GRAMMY Award for “Never Gonna Break My Faith,” a collaboration with Mary J. Blige.
She was also invited to sing at the 2009 inauguration of former President Barack Obama.
In 2011 Franklin released her first album on her own label, A Woman Falling Out of Love. In 2014, Franklin released Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics which reached number three on the R&B charts.
Celebrating Her Achievements for African Americans in Music History
Franklin was able to stay relevant and have hits over the course of her six-decade career crafting a sound and foundation that music in the future will follow forever. Over the course of her career, she earned 44 GRAMMY nominations, 18 GRAMMY Awards, and many more accolades. While her music lives on, the spirit and soul of Aretha Franklin will continue to be celebrated for years to come. Rest in peace Queen of Soul. We thank you for the soulful music, Aretha Franklin!