Franklin’s mother, Barbara, was a gospel singer and pianist. Her father, C.L. Franklin, presided over the New Bethel Baptist Church of Detroit, Michigan, and was a minister of national influence. A singer himself, he was noted for his brilliant sermons, many of which were recorded by Chess Records. Her parents separated when she was six, and Franklin remained with her father in Detroit. Her mother died when Aretha was 10. As a young teen, Franklin performed with her father on his gospel programs in major cities throughout the country and was recognized as a vocal prodigy. Her central influence, Clara Ward of the renowned Ward Singers, was a family friend. Other gospel greats of the day—Albertina Walker and Jackie Verdell—helped shape young Franklin’s style. Her album The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin (1956) captures the electricity of her performances as a 14-year-old.
At age 18, with her father’s blessing, Franklin switched from sacred to secular music. She moved to New York City, where Columbia Records executive John Hammond, who had signed Count Basie and Billie Holiday, arranged her recording contract and supervised sessions highlighting her in a blues-jazz vein. From that first session, “Today I Sing the Blues” (1960) remains a classic. But, as her Detroit friends on the Motown label enjoyed hit after hit, Franklin struggled to achieve crossover success. Columbia placed her with a variety of producers who marketed her to both adults (“If Ever You Should Leave Me,” 1963) and teens (“Soulville,” 1964). Without targeting any particular genre, she sang everything from Broadway ballads to youth-oriented rhythm and blues. Critics recognized her talent, but the public remained lukewarm until 1966, when she switched to Atlantic Records, where producer Jerry Wexler allowed her to sculpt her own musical identity.
At Atlantic, Franklin returned to her gospel-blues roots, and the results were sensational. “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” (1967), recorded at Fame Studios in Florence, Alabama, was her first million-seller. Surrounded by sympathetic musicians playing spontaneous arrangements and devising the background vocals herself, Franklin refined a style associated with Ray Charles—a rousing mixture of gospel and rhythm and blues—and raised it to new heights. As a civil-rights-minded nation lent greater support to black urban music, Franklin was crowned the “Queen of Soul.” “Respect,” her 1967 cover of Otis Redding’s spirited composition, became an anthem operating on personal, sexual, and racial levels. “Think” (1968), which Franklin wrote herself, also had more than one meaning. For the next half-dozen years, she became a hit maker of unprecedented proportions; she was “Lady Soul.”
In the early 1970s she triumphed at the Fillmore West in San Francisco before an audience of flower children and on whirlwind tours of Europe and Latin America. Amazing Grace (1972), a live recording of her performance with a choir at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, is considered one of the great gospel albums of any era. By the late 1970s disco cramped Franklin’s style and eroded her popularity. But in 1982, with help from singer-songwriter-producer Luther Vandross, she was back on top with a new label, Arista, and a new dance hit, “Jump to It,” followed by “Freeway of Love” (1985). A reluctant interviewee, Franklin kept her private life private, claiming that the popular perception associating her with the unhappiness of singers Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday was misinformed.
In 1987 Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In addition, she received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1994, a National Medal of Arts in 1999, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. While her album sales in the 1990s and 2000s failed to approach the numbers of previous decades, Franklin remained the Queen of Soul. In 2009 she electrified a crowd of more than one million with her performance of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, and her rendition of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” during the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 2015 was no less breathtaking.
Much of Aretha’s life story was told in her 1999 autobiography ‘Aretha: From These Roots’ and it was revealed in 2018 that actress Jennifer Hudson would play Aretha in a film about her life. National Geographic's Genius: Aretha, received praise from critics for Cynthia Erivo's portrayal of Aretha. But Aretha's family were not consulted and did not approve the four-part series.
Just before her 75th birthday, Aretha announced it would be her last year of touring. She died the following year aged 76 from pancreatic cancer, surrounded by family and friends at her home in Detroit. As guests arrived for her televised funeral, more than 100 pink cadillacs lined the streets of Detroit reflecting the lyrics of her 1985 hit ‘Freeway of Love’. Speakers and performers included former US president Bill Clinton and singer Stevie Wonder – all paying their respects to a remarkable woman.
Aretha had four sons, two of whom were looked after by her sister and grandmother during her early career.
Ani Di Franco