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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Aretha Franklin

When asked by Patricia Smith of the Boston Globe how she felt about being called the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklins reply was characterized by grace but no false modesty. Its an acknowledgment of my art, she mused. It means I am excelling at my art and my first love. And I am most appreciative. Since she burst onto the public consciousness in the late 1960s with a batch of milestone recordings, Franklin has served as a standard against which all subsequent soul divas have been measured.
The combination of Franklins gospel roots and some devastating life experiences have invested her voice with a rareand often wrenchingauthenticity. It was like I had no idea what music was all about until I heard her sing, confessed singer-actress Bette Midler, as cited in Ebony. Though Franklins work in ensuing decades has rarely matched the fireor the sales figuresof her most celebrated singles, she has remained an enduring presence in contemporary music. The release of several CD retrospectives in the 1980s and 1990s, her 1999 autobiography, and her celebrated 2003 tour seemed to guarantee that her influence would continue unabated.

Birth of a Gospel Singer

Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee. She was raised in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of famed minister C. L. Franklin and gospel singer Barbara Franklin, who left the family when Aretha was small and died shortly thereafter. She was the absolute lady, the Queen of Soul told Ebonys Laura B. Randolph, while at the same time admitting that her memories of her mother are few. For his part, the Reverend Franklin was no retiring clergyman; indeed, he enjoyed the popularity and, to some degree, the lifestyle of a pop star. He immediately recognized his daughters prodigious abilities, offering to arrange for piano lessons; the child declined, instead teaching herself to play by listening to records.
Franklins talent as a singer was such that her father took her on the road with his traveling gospel show. She sang regularly before his congregation at Detroits New Bethel Baptist Church as well, and it was there that her performance of Precious Lord, among other gospel gems, was captured for posterity. She was 14 years old but already a spellbinding performer. Producer Jerry Wexlerwho shepherded Franklin to

At a Glance

Born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, TN; daughter of Clarence L (a Baptist minister) and Barbara Franklin (a gospel singer); married Ted White (a businessman and music manager), 1961 (divorced); married Glynn Turman (an actor), 1978 (divorced, 1984); children: Clarence, Edward, Teddy Richards, Kecalf Cunningham.
Career: Performed with fathers touring revue, recorded gospel music for Chess label, 1950s; singer and songwriter, 1960-; Columbia Records, recording artist, 1960-67; Atlantic Records, recording artist, 1967-80; actress, 1980-; Arista Records, recording artist, 1980-.
Awards: 15 Grammy awards, including 1995 lifetime achievement award; honorary Doctor of Law degree, Bethune-Cookman College, 1974; American Music Award, 1984; Ebony magazine, American Black Achievement Award, 1984; declared natural resource of home state of Michigan, 1985; first woman inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987; Entertainment Weekly magazine, named one of the greatest entertainers of the twentieth century, 1999; Black Entertainment Television (BET), Walk of Fame Award, 2003.
Addresses: Record company Arista Records, 6 West 57th St., New York, NY 11019; 9975 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212.
greatness on behalf of Atlantic Records some years laterwas stunned by the 1956 recording.The voice was not that of a child but rather of an ecstatic hierophant [a priest in ancient Greece], he recalled in his book Rhythm and the Blues.
Franklins life was no church social, however. She became a mother at age 15 and had her second child two years later. I still wanted to get out and hang with my friends, she recollected toEbonys Randolph, so I wanted to be in two places at the same time. But my grandmother helped me a lot, and my sister and my cousin. They would babysit so I could get out occasionally.
Though she was first and foremost inspired by gospel musicthe performance of Peace in the Valley by family friend Clara Ward at a funeral was a seminal influence on her desire to singFranklin soon became interested in non-religious music. Rather than dissuade her from this secular path, as some might have expected, her father encouraged her. In 1960 she traveled to New York, embarked on vocal and dance lessons, and hired a manager. She then began recording demonstration tapes.

Marriage of Gospel and Pop

While the R&B stars of Detroits Motown label won a crossover, or white, audience by tempering their wicked grooves with a playful elegance, their southern counterparts never bothered to tone down the raw physicality of the music. Like singer-songwriter-pianist Ray Charles, who has often been credited with the invention of soul music, Franklin brought the fire of gospel to pop music, her spiritual force in no way separated from her earthy sexuality.
Celebrated Columbia Records executive John Hammond was so taken by Franklins recordings that he signed her immediately. Her first Columbia album was issued in the fall of 1960. While a few singles made a respectable showing on the charts, it was clear that the label wasnt adequately showcasing her gifts, either in its choice of material or production. I cherish the recordings we made together, remarked Hammond in Rhythm and the Bluesbut, finally, Columbia was a white company [that] misunderstood her genius.
Franklins manager at the time, Ted White, was also her husband; they agreed that she should pursue other options when her contract expired. Wexler leapt at the opportunity to sign her to Atlantic; he originally intended to send her to Memphis to record with the staff of the legendary Stax/Volt studios, whod already made landmark recordings with the likes of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. Wexler himself had his hands full with other projects, but the task of producing Franklins first Atlantic sides ultimately fell to him, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd.
Wexler brought Franklin to the Florence Alabama Music Emporium (FAME) studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record with a unique group of musicians adept in soul, blues, pop, country, and rock. This able crew was stunned by Franklins power and prowess. Accompanying herself on piano, she deftly controlled the tone and arrangement of the songs she performed; this was an integral part of Wexlers strategy to capture her natural brilliance on tape. Backing vocals were provided either by her sisters Carolyn and Erma or by the vocal group the Sweet Inspirations, which featured Cissy Houston, mother of future singing star Whitney Houston. Wexler also brought in young rock lions like guitarists Duane Allman and Eric Clapton for guest spots.
Unfortunately, only one of two songsI Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)was finished when White and one of the musicians had a drunken row. White grabbed Franklin and they vanished for a period of weeks. Wexler balanced jubilation with anxiety; radio programmers around the country embraced I Never Loved a Man, and distributors clamored for an album, but the artist was nowhere to be found. At last she surfaced in New York, where she completed the unfinished Do Right Woman, Do Right Man; in Wexlers words, the result was perfection.


Franklins first album for Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You), was released in 1967, and several hit-filled LPs followed. During this crucial period she enjoyed a succession of smash singles that included I Never Loved a Man, the rollicking Baby I Love You, the pounding groove Chain of Fools, the supercharged Think, which she wrote, the tender, anthemic (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman, and a blistering take on Otis ReddingRespect. The latter two would become Franklins signature songs. With Natural Woman, according to theBoston Globes Smith, She gathers broken women in the circle of her arms, stitches our wounds with a wondrous thread.
Franklins version of Respect, coming as it did at a crucial point for black activism, feminism, and sexual liberation, was particularly potent. Wexler noted that Franklin took Reddings more conventional take on the song and turned it inside out, making it deeper, stronger, loading it with double entendres. Whats more, he noted, The fervor in Arethas magnificent voiceimplied not just everyday respect but sexual attention of the highest order, as implied by thesock it to me backup chorus she and her sisters devised.
Writer Evelyn C. White, in an Essence piece, referred to Respect as a revolutionary force in her own life. Franklinimpassioned, soulful licks and sly innuendos about sexual pleasure made me feel good about myself, she wrote, both as a black American and as a young girl about to discover sex. Eventually, the song would become an American pop standard; its spelling out of the title word would be referenced in countless articles and commercials. At the time of its release, however, it served primarily as a fight song for social change. It scored two trophies at that years Grammy Awards.
Franklins voice was crucial to the soundtrack of the era, and not just as a record playing on the radio. Franklins father was a close friend of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., and as a result, she herself was close to King and his family. When the crusading minister was assassinated in 1968, Franklin was enlisted to sing at his funeral. Wexler described her performance of Precious Lord as a holy blend of truth and unspeakable tragedy.
Franklin also sang the National Anthem at the Democratic Partys riot-marred 1968 convention in Chicago. Yet even as her soulful wail soothed a number of difficult national transitions and transformations, Franklins own changes were hidden from view. I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows, Wexler wrote. Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I dont pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.
Despite her inner turmoil, Franklin enjoyed phenomenal commercial success during these years. A number of other blockbuster Atlantic albums followed her debut on the label, and she proceeded to take home Grammys every year between 1969 and 1975. Still, she did not rest on her laurels; rather, she constantly explored rock and pop records for new material and recorded cover versions of songs by the Beatles, Elton John, the Band, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, and many others. She didnt think in terms of white or black tunes, or white or black rhythms,noted Wexler. Her taste, like her genius, transcended categories.
In 1972 Franklin sang at the funeral of gospel giant Mahalia Jackson, which suggested her stature in the gospel world; it was no surprise when Amazing Grace, an album of church music she recorded with Wexler, soared up the pop charts that year. At the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, she provided an a capella rendition of God Bless America.

A Period of Decline

Having parted ways with husband/manager Ted White some years earlierstories circulated in the press charging that hed struck her in publicFranklin married actor Glynn Turman in 1978. They divorced some six years later. By the end of the 1970s, her record sales had dwindled, but she took an attention-getting turn in the Blues Brothers movie, in which she both acted and sang; the film and the Blues Brothers albums, recorded by Saturday Night Live funnymen and blues and soul fanatics Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, helped fuel a new mainstream interest in 1960s soul.
In 1980 Franklin elected to leave Atlantic and sign with Arista Records; the labels slick production and commercial choice of material earned greater sales than she had enjoyed for some time, particularly for the single Freeway of Love. She earned three more Grammys during the decade. Nonetheless, Dave DiMartino of Entertainment Weekly groused that most of her hits at Arista have been assembled by big-name producers like Narada Michael Walden and might have easily featured another singer entirelylike, say, label mate Whitney Houston.DiMartino also objected to the relentless pairing of Franklin with other stars for much-hyped duets, remarking, Like Aretha Franklin needs a gimmick? Most critics agree that Franklins 1980s recordings do not stand up to her earlier or her later work.
In 1979 Franklins father was shot by a burglar in his home and fell into a coma. He died several years later, having never regained consciousness. As Ebonys Randolph wrote, When youve said as many goodbyes as Aretha, its impossible not to be palpably shaped by loss. The singer cited a point during her fathers hospitalization as the most difficult decision of her life. We had to have a trach [a tracheotomy, a procedure that involves cutting through the vocal chords], she confided, and we were afraid it would affect his voice, which was certainly his living.

The Queen Is Still On

Despite the difficulties of the early 1980s, further triumphs lay ahead for Franklin. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, won a Grammy for best soul gospel performance in 1988, and was the subject of an all-star documentary tribute broadcast on public television. She also sang at the inauguration of president Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997, and won a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1995. Franklin might not have been the commercial powerhouse that some of her younger acolytes, like Houston and Mariah Carey, had become, but when she appeared in the VH1 television program Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin in 2001, she confirmed that she truly was one of the great entertainers of the century.
Franklin moved back to the Detroit area in the mid-1990s and began to assert more control over her musical career. She announced her intention to start a record label, which would be called World Class Records. Im looking for space, she told the Boston GlobeIm the CEO. With her new label she was able to promote the musical careers of her sons, Kecalf Cunningham, Eddy Richards, and Teddy Richards.
In 1998 Franklin released a new album, A Rose Is Still a Rose. With tracks produced by rising stars Sean Puffy Combs (later known as P. Diddy) and Lauryn Hill, the album showed that Franklin could keep up with current hip-hop sounds. Critics hailed the album as her best effort in many years, and she followed it in 2003 with So Damn Happy, which featured collaborations with contemporary stars Mary J. Blige and Troy Taylor, and music veterans like Burt Bacharach. Though the albums proved that Franklin could keep up with musical trends, what made them stand out was the thing that had always made Franklin great: her voice. The producers seemed to understand what Franklins fan always knew: that her voice was a natural treasure.
Franklin had always performed occasionally, but in 2003 she set out on an extensive tour to sold-out dates across the country. Though many wondered if The Queen Is On tour would be her last, Franklin told Jet:
Im going to always be singing. Singing is definitely my thing.

Selected works


The Great Aretha Franklin, Columbia, 1960.
The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, Columbia, 1962.
The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin, Columbia, 1962.
Aretha Franklins Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1967.
I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You) (includes I Never Loved a Man [the Way I Love You], Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Baby I Love You, and Respect), Atlantic, 1967.
Aretha Arrives (includes [You Make Me Feel Like a] Natural Woman and Chain of Fools), Atlantic, 1967.
Take a Look, Columbia, 1967.
Lady Soul, Atlantic, 1968.
Aretha Now, Atlantic, 1968.
Aretha in Paris, Atlantic, 1968.
Soul 69, Atlantic, 1969.
Arethas Gold, Atlantic, 1969.
This Girls in Love with You, Atlantic, 1970.
Spirit in the Dark, Atlantic, 1970.
Aretha Live at Fillmore West, Atlantic, 1971.
Young, Gifted and Black, Atlantic, 1972.
Amazing Grace, Atlantic, 1972.
The Beginning/The World of Aretha Franklin 1960-1967, Columbia, 1972.
Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), Atlantic, 1973.
Let Me in Your Life, Atlantic, 1974.
Everything I Feel in Me, Atlantic, 1975.
Ten Years of Gold, Atlantic, 1977.
Sweet Passion, Atlantic, 1977.
Almighty Fire, Atlantic, 1978.
La Diva, Atlantic, 1979.
Aretha, Arista, 1980.
Jump to It, Arista, 1982.
Get It Right, Arista, 1984.
Whos ZoominWho? (includes Freeway of Love), Arista, 1985.
Aretha, Arista, 1987.
Love All the Hurt Away, Arista, 1987.
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, Arista, 1988.
Through the Storm, Arista, 1989.
What You See Is What You Sweat, Arista, 1991.
Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings, Atlantic, 1992.
Greatest Hits: 1980-1994, Arista, 1994.
A Rose Is Still a Rose, Arista, 1998.
So Damn Happy, Arista, 2003.


The Blues Brothers, 1980.
Blues Brothers 2000, 1998.

Recordings with other artists

Curtis Mayfield, Sparkle (soundtrack), 1976.
Think, The Blues Brothers (soundtrack), 1979.
JumpinJack Flash, JumpinJack Flash (soundtrack), 1986.
George Michael, I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me), Columbia, 1987.
If I LoseWhite Men Cant Jump (soundtrack), EMI, 1992.
All Men Are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, 1994.


Aretha, 1986.
Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, 1988.
Duets, 1993.
Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin, VH1, 2001.


Aretha: From These Roots (autobiography; with David Ritz), Villard, 1999.



Gourse, Leslie, Aretha Franklin: Lady Soul, F Watts, 1995.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, Billboard, 1991.
Werner, Craig Hansen, Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, Crown, 2004.
Wexler, Jerry, and David Ritz, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Knopf, 1993.


Billboard, February 28, 1998, pp. 13-14.
Boston Globe, June 14, 1991, p. 39; March 21, 1994, p. 30; September 29, 1995, p. 55.
Detroit Free Press, June 10, 1994, p. 3D; June 18, 1994, p. 2A.
Ebony, April 1995, pp. 28-33; August 1998, pp. 90-93.
Entertainment Weekly, May 15, 1992, p. 64; Nov. 1, 1999, p. 81.
Essence, August 1995, pp. 73-77.
Jet, August 21, 1995, p. 33; May 18, 1998, pp. 60-65; September 29, 2003, pp. 58-64.
Newsweek, October 4, 1999, p. 68.


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