Aretha Louise Franklin
Born Marh 25, 1942
History was made in 1975, when Natalie Cole won the Grammy Award for “Best R&B Performance, Female” for her hit, This Will Be. Not because it was Cole’s first
Grammy. Rather, because it was the first time in eight years the award had been won by someone other than Aretha Franklin.
So repeatedly did Franklin troupe to the podium in the ‘60s and ‘70s to be honored for the best R&B performance by a woman that some music fans suggested, only half-jokingly, the trophy be renamed in her honor. Her Grammy dominance is one measure of her greatness. Another is the unbridled esteem of her fans.
“American history wells up when Aretha sings,” said Barack Obama, the president of the United States.
And Rolling Stone observed: “You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.” This was in a story compiling the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” a ranking that included the storied likes of James Brown, Patti Labelle, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles. At the very top of the list sat Aretha.
The woman who would grow up to be universally acclaimed as the “Queen of Soul” began life as a musical prodigy in a house filled with music. Her father was the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin, her mother the gospel singer Barbara Siggers. Two years after Aretha was born, the family moved to Buffalo, where her father briefly pastored a church. Two years after that, the family moved again, this time to Detroit where he pastored New Bethel Baptist Church.
In the Motor City, the couple and their four children took up residence in a six-bedroom parsonage in an upscale neighborhood of black doctors and teachers. His wife abandoned the family when Aretha was six, but this did nothing to slow C.L. Franklin’s meteoric rise. He was soon the most famous African-American preacher in America, his sermons broadcast on radio and heard all over the country, and recordings of them selling by the hundreds of thousands. The Franklin family was living a dream of black upward mobility. All of which made their home a must stop for the black entertainment royalty of that era.
Nat King Cole was a frequent visitor. So were Duke Ellington and Della Reese, Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine. Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland were family friends. Clara Ward – or so the gossip went – was Rev. Franklin’s lover. The neighborhood kids included Smokey Robinson and Diane Ross.
And in the midst of it all, soaking up greatness like a sponge, was Aretha.
At first, she sang only in her father’s church. But as a teenager, Franklin embarked on the gospel circuit. She was out for weeks at a time, sharing stages with the likes of Clara Ward and a handsome young gospel singer named Sam Cooke. A Detroit impresario named Berry Gordy got wind of young chanteuse and tried to sign her to his fledgling record label, but Rev. Franklin refused.
Young Aretha was moving in a grown up world and she was, in the lexicon of the day, “fast.” She was 14 when she had her first child. She had her second the next year. Aretha was recording by then, gospel standards like Never Grow Old.
She was, even at that age, a singer of remarkable originality, and power. Though still only a girl, she commanded with the authority of a seasoned veteran all the tools of the soul singer’s trade. She knew how and when to linger behind the beat or rush ahead of it, how and when to growl or swallow the lyric, how and when to bend the note toward heaven or stretch a word into gleaming, melismatic new shapes.
But most of all was that voice, that sound of righteousness and home truth, brimming with what the prophet Jeremiah called “fire shut up in my bones.” Except that this fire would periodically release itself in shouts and shrieks of glory and grace, redeeming the pain of old women picking cotton and old men bent beneath the slaver’s whip once a long time ago. Heaven leaned closer when Aretha Franklin sang.
At 18 years of age, she tried to follow Sam Cooke’s example and cross from gospel into the mainstream. She wound up at Columbia Records, where she plugged gamely along for six years, enjoying moderate success but no breakthrough.
That came in 1966 when Franklin left Columbia and signed with Atlantic Records. She would top the charts with first single release, the bluesy title song from her first album, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You). But it was her next release that would cement her place not simply in music, but in sociocultural history.
Respect, was written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, the mighty soul man from Stax Records, as a standard-issue slab of Memphis soul. The horns traced curlicues behind Redding’s brawny vocals as he issued a traditionally masculine plea to be taken seriously in his own home. But Franklin subverted and exploded the song, first by simply daring, as a woman, to sing it, appropriating for herself and, by extension, women in general, the role of the aggrieved breadwinner seeking her propers. Except, she didn’t plead. She demanded.
Franklin’s arrangement sweetened the harder edges of Redding’s version, her fiery performance whipped along by a chorus of sassy backtalk. “Just a little bit,” the background singers cooed, counterpointing her demands for “respect.” And then comes, the dramatic break where the music falls away and Franklin twice spells out what she wants in case it is not by now abundantly clear: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” The backstory of Franklin’s life at that moment – for six years, she had been in a physically abusive marriage to her first husband Ted White; they would divorce in 1969 – only adds to the drama of the performance.
More than a song about a trifling lover, Aretha Franklin’s Respect became an anthem for both the Civil Rights and women’s rights movements. People soon forgot that Otis Redding had ever sung it. Or as he groused good-naturedly, Respect was the song that “a girl took away from me.”
Respect would snare for Franklin the first two of an eventual 18 Grammy Awards and inaugurate a period of critical and commercial dominance. From Chain of Fools to Think to A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like) to I Say A Little Prayer to Spanish Harlem to Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) to Something He Can Feel, Franklin simply could do no wrong. Her reimagining of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was a masterwork, turning the pop duo’s gossamer meditation into a full on gospel testimony, complete with a two-minute, take-your-time intro of piano solo and background singers cooing, “don’t trouble the waters.”
In 1972, at the height of her powers, she released Amazing Grace, a live gospel album that celebrated her church roots. It was yet another landmark performance.
By the late 1970s, as musical mores were changing and Franklin was beginning to seem more creatively exhausted, the hits became harder to come by. This was also a period of personal tragedy for her. In 1979, her father was shot by burglars. He lapsed into a coma and died in 1984. That same year, she and her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, divorced after six years together.
But that period of personal adversity was also a period of professional reinvigoration. Franklin appeared with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in the 1980 comedy The Blues Brothers. It was also in that year that she left Atlantic Records for a new home at Arista Records. A new series of hits would follow, including Jump To It, Who’s Zoomin’ Who, Freeway of Love and I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me). In 1987, Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.
She left Arista in 2003, though she would continue to record on her own label, Aretha Records. In 2005, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2009, she sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration though, in a rarity, she was almost upstaged that day. The culprit was her own hat, a gray felt creation with a rhinestones and a giant bow that set tongues to wagging and the Internet albaze.
By this point, Franklin was no longer the commercial powerhouse she once had been and her voice did not always deliver the lustrous highs that had come so easily in her youth. But on any given night she was still capable, of reminding anyone who might have forgotten just who she is and what is capable of.
One such night was the 1998 Grammy Awards ceremony when the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who had been scheduled to accept a Living Legend award and perform his signature aria, Nussun Dorma, called in sick. On 20 minutes notice, Franklin – who is not, let the record show, an opera singer – performed this song from Turandot by Giacomo Puccini with such power and assurance that she brought an audience of music royalty to its feet for an extended ovation.
And then, there was the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors wherein Franklin performed A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like), for Carole King, co-writer of the song and one of the night’s honorees. The performance Franklin gave that night was one for the ages, one she pulled from some deep place to which mere mortals have no access. She sang the tender lyrics of a woman’s awakening in a voice strong and true and freighted with awesome feeling. She sang it in the voice of a heart laid bare.
King clapped and jumped and seemed at times about to topple off the balcony. President Barack Obama wiped away tears. And then Franklin, who had begun the song seated at her piano shrouded in a mink, stood up to the finish the song and dropped the pricey fur to the floor in a gesture of pure, grand dame authority, and it was all over.
The New Yorker magazine asked Obama about Franklin’s performance that night. The president replied by email: “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
Which is, of course, inarguable. But with all due respect to Obama’s celebrated eloquence, he could have boiled all of that down to just seven words that have been and always be the essential truth about this greatest of American singers:
Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul.