Possessing what is unquestionably one of the greatest voices in recorded history, over the decades Aretha Franklin reigned as a member of music royalty she notched up over 75 million sales, a mass of instantly recognisable hits and was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She received 18 grammys, performed at the inauguration ceremonies of 3 US Presidents, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and had a string on honorary degrees.
As remarkable as these accomplishments are, ultimately none will compare to her legacy, the “Queen of Soul” touched her audience with more than just her talent.
Born in 1942 Aretha’s journey toward becoming a music icon was set on course by her parents. Her father was both a Baptist minister and prominent civil rights activist whilst her mother was a piano teacher. Destined to learn and perform Gospel songs from an early age, this gave her an invaluable musical grounding, but, her start in life was by no means easy and makes her later accomplishments all the more inspirational.
Aretha’s family moved to Detroit when she was 5 although her parents separated shortly afterwards and she sadly lost her mother to a heart attack when she was just 9 years old.
Shortly afterwards Aretha began to perform solos at her father’s church, learned to play piano by ear and was performing regularly joining her father on tour with other gospel artists.
At the tender young age of just 12 Aretha gave birth to the first of four sons and welcomed her second child into the world before her 15th birthday. With the help and support of her family she subsequently left school to concentrate on her music.
Early Career & Columbia Period
Since her father’s friends included many respected Gospel singers and early Soul icons (Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Clara Ward), Aretha’s talent was already discovered and being nurtured.
In 1956 Aretha’s father helped her sign her first recording contract with nine tracks recorded live at her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church which can be heard on the album “Songs of Faith”. Following this she continued to perform on the Gospel circuit and even toured with Martin Luther King before signing with Columbia in 1960.
However, despite Franklin’s talent and growing recognition, of the 10 studio albums she recorded for Columbia only 2 managed to break into the top 100 billboard album charts.
Retrospectively it is generally considered that Columbia missed a beat opting to steer her toward Easy Listening and Jazz inspired numbers over any amount of material that took full advantage of her capacity of her Gospel roots and ability to belt out a tune.
For many it is her 1964 tribute album to Dinah Washington “Unforgettable” that stands out from this period. The emotional investment is abundant, not only was Aretha’s father good friends with Washington and conducted her funeral, but Washington had admired Franklin’s voice from an early age and spoke of her as the “next one”.
It would not be until Aretha signed with Atlantic Records that her commercial success would begin to truly blossom with a slew of now classic hits and albums which bought her worldwide recognition.
In the 12 years with Atlantic from ’67 – ’79 Franklin recorded 15 studio albums in a body of work containing her most recognisable tracks and a wealth of lesser-known musical gems.
From the very first track of her first album for Atlantic her ascent to the throne as “Queen of Soul” was complete. Opening with her earth shattering vocal on the rework of Otis Reading’s “Respect”, the album “I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You” reached No.2 on the Billboard album chart.
“Respect” went on to become Aretha’s first No.1 single, win 2 Grammys and an anthem for feminism and the civil rights movement.
It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.” Aretha on “Respect”
The follow up album “Aretha Arrives” did not receive quite the same level of critical acclaim but 1968 saw the release of two more iconic studio albums.
Opening with the Soul classic “Chain of Fools” Franklin’s “Lady Soul” album went onto sell over a million copies in the US alone and includes the single “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Women”.
Followed in quick succession, her 13th studio album “Aretha Now” contained more classics such as “Think” and “I say A Little Prayer”. However, what should have been a wondrous year for a 24 year old with the world at her feet was turned upside down with the assassination of her close friend Martin Luther King just prior to the album’s release. A prominent supporter of the civl rights movement throughout her life Aretha performed “Precious Lord” at his memorial service.
With the enormous popularity of her earlier recordings, many of Franklin’s subsequent albums for Atlantic can often be a little overlooked today. Yet “Soul 69”, “Spirit in the Dark” and “Young Gifted and Black” are all classic albums any soul, blues, R’n’B or jazz fan would be hard pushed not to appreciate.
Given the success of Franklin’s studio albums over her 60 year career it may come as a surprise that it is actually Franklin’s 1972 live Gospel album “Amazing Grace” which remains her best selling of all time. Recorded in just two days at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A. this is Aretha’s return to her roots and arguably her most captivating album.
The later half of the 70’s saw far less commercial success for Franklin, her last album for Atlantic failing even to reach the Billboard Top 100. However, in what was to be a resurgence of her success, in 1980 she signed a new deal with Arista and in the same year made her memorable appearance in The Blues Brothers performing a ramped up version of “Think”.
Her 1981 album “Love All the Hurt Away” features her Grammy winning cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” whilst 1982’s “Jump to It” was her first Gold Selling album in a decade.
Whilst Aretha’s career was firmly back on track, this period of her life was marred with the tragic loss of her father in 1984. Having been shot during an expected robbery in 1979 he had fallen into a coma from which sadly he would not awaken from.
The following year in 1985 (and still just 43 years old) Franklin released her 30th studio album which would become her best selling studio album. “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” went platinum and includes her collaboration with Eurythmics and another feminist anthem “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”.
The following year saw another album “Aretha” and more collaborations. Joined by Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, Franklin’s vocals seem to effortlessly trump Jagger on the sassy scale with a rework of “Jumping Jack Flash”. The album also contains her famous duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” is one of her most successful singles having reached No.1 in several charts around the world.
Aretha had reached the pinnacle of her commercial success and in the years which followed the rate of new material slowed although she continued to attract new fans. A 1994 remake of the dance classic “A Deeper Love” scored a her a No.1 in the US Dance Charts whilst 1998 saw her team up with the likes of Lauren Hill and Puff Daddy for the contemporary R’n’B album “A Rose Is Still a Rose”.
Having earned two nominations for an R’n’B album her attendance at the Grammys later that year produced one of the most notable performances of her career. Stepping in at the very last minute for Luciano Pavarotti Franklin delivered a rapturous, spellbinding version Nessun Dorma in front of a TV audience of over a billion viewers. From R’n’B to Opera as if it were effortless.
A week ago, we lost the most important female singer of industry music! Aretha Franklin we will always remember you.
Here Aretha presents one of her most refined vocal performances: ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the Grammy Awards 1998 pic.twitter.com/kC1EI1CT8d
— Legendary Female Vocalists (@FemalesVocals) August 24, 2018
Aged 76 Aretha Franklin passed away at her home on August 16th 2018 surrounded by her family and friends. She had reportedly been suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer.
Her life was celebrated on August 31st at a Homecoming Service in Detroit with a mass of musical and spoken tributes from a host of her closest friends.
A tribute concert to Franklin, celebrating her music, is scheduled for November 14, 2018, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Charities & Legacy
Aretha’s talent was simply boundless. She has inspired generations of performers and gifted the world with a body of work that has already stood the test of time and will continue to do so for ever and a day.
We often here people speak of how the world is a poorer place following someones death and without doubt her passing is a great loss. However, Franklin’s support for the civil right movement and the numerous charitable causes she supported during her lifetime, ensures whilst the world is poorer, she also left it in a far better place.
In more recent years a lot of Franklin’s attentions were focused on her local community of Detroit. She donated food in great quantities and helped to provide thousands of dinners at her Thanksgiving Gospel Music Feast.
Here are some good causes and charities Aretha is known to have supported.
The Feeding America network is the USA’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, working to connect people with food and end hunger. www.feedingamerica.org
Elton John AIDS Foundation
The Elton John AIDS Foundation fund programmes to help those living with, affected by or at risk of HIV/AIDS and strive to create an AIDS free future through science, support and most of all compassion. www.ejaf.org
Robert F Kennedy Human Rights
A nonprofit human rights advocacy organization that works to realize Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s dream of a peaceful and just world by advancing human rights. www.rfkhumanrights.org
“The question you have to ask yourself at your death, ‘did I leave the world better? Is there anybody else that’s better off because I lived?’ And of course Aretha can say that very boldly. She left the world better in a lot of ways,” Robert Smith Jnr, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, Detriot