An Introduction to the Queen Of Soul
Aretha Franklin is hailed as one of the most successful female performers of all time. The Grammy award-winning R&B/soul/jazz/gospel songstress began her career singing gospel at the church of her minister father Clarence LaVaughn “C. L.” Franklin.
Her professional recording career started in 1960 and at first her singles only achieved minor successes. Towards the end of the decade as well as Aretha’s move to Atlantic turned her career around. Her subsequent singles became major commercial and critical triumphs, with some of the songs are celebrated up to now as undisputable oldies music classics.
She scored numerous Top 10 singles throughout the 60s music to 80s music era: “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”, “I Never Loved A Man the Way I Loved You”, “Respect”, “Baby I Love You”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone”, “Think”, “I Say A Little Prayer”, “ – as well as other Top 20/Top 40 hits.
At the height of her increasing popularity and success towards the end of the 1960s Franklin was bestowed the title as “The Queen Of Soul”, which she rightly deserves. To date, she charted 77 pop hits and 21 R&B smashes (including 20 number ones on the latter listing).
The legend that is Aretha Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, to an itinerant preacher father and gospel pianist/singer mother. Her parents separated when she was six. Days before her 10th birthday, her mother died of a heart attack. Franklin and her father moved to Detroit, Michigan and settled in a Baptist church there, where she sang gospel songs and played piano.
Franklin was a gifted child prodigy; her talents gradually began to get noticed. Her father’s popularity as a preacher gained him admirers such as Martin Luther King Jr., Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, and Sam Cooke, many of whom Franklin also befriended.
While she was a teenager Franklin had already cut gospel recordings but at the age of 18 she began recording secular material. She first got signed to Columbia Records in 1960 and recorded her first single “Today I Sing The Blues” which just barely broke into the Top 10 R&B singles chart that year.
In 1961 Franklin’s next single, “Rock-A-Bye Baby With A Dixie Melody,” went to the Top 40 pop chart for the first time. She experienced modest successes there, and in 1967 she and her husband/manager Ted White decided that Aretha should move to another label, which she eventually did – to Atlantic Records. That same year she released her single “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” which reached #1 on the R&B singles chart and #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first time that any of her songs reached that feat.
Further big hits such as her now-classic songs “Respect,” “Chain Of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Baby I Love You” – all charted in 1967 – were all commercial successes and gained her the regal title “Queen of Soul.” Aretha Franklin was now a star.
Towards the end of the decade Franklin later scored more hits with “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Think,” ”I Say A Little Prayer,” “The House That Jack Built,” and other minor hits on the Top 20 and Top 40, cementing her status as an R&B/soul superstar.
In 1968 Franklin was also appointed to sing at the funerals of both of her family friends – Martin Luther King Jr. (who was assassinated in 1968) and Mahalia Jackson (1972). After Jackson’s funeral, she released the gospel-soul live albumAmazing Grace which was one of her strongest works, having sold two million copies.
In the 1970s, a new genre was introduced, that is, disco. Its rise, as well as the popularity of disco artists caused Franklin’s star to dim a bit. Still, she managed to release albums that sold well: Young, Gifted and Black; Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky); Let Me In Your Life; and Sparkle. She scored a few hits during that decade through her singles “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Rock Steady,” “Day Dreaming” and “Until You Come Back To Me” and other minor hits. Otherwise, her failure to realize expected sales targets led her to the end of her relationship with Atlantic in 1979.
More problems ensued in her personal life. In 1979, her father was shot by a burglar who broke into his Detroit home. The incident left him with a coma. Franklin also had been hounded by the IRS. She resurrected her career (of sorts) when she did a cameo appearance in the film The Blues Brothers where she performed one of her old hits, “Think.” Her reemergence won her a new generation of R&B fans, and upon her move to Arista Records, Franklin issued her 1982 Jump To Itwhich went gold.
Franklin endured more tragedies – a bitter divorce from her second husband in 1982 and the death of her father in 1984. But she had to move on. The following year she released another album Who’s Zoomin’ Who? which had an eclectic and updated sound to it, to keep with the current musical climate. It was a biggest-selling album to date, netting her first platinum certification. The album’s success was buoyed by its singles “Freeway Of Love,” “Another Night” and the title track.
In 1986 she released another album, Aretha, which led to gold status in the US and Canada. In 1987 her collaboration with British star George Michael became a fruitful one, with the single they sang as a duet, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” becoming a #1 hit on both the US and the UK singles charts. That same year she was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, becoming the first female artist to achieve that feat. In 1994, she was given an honorary Grammy for her peerless contributions.
She also sang in the inaugurations of Presidents Jimmy Carter in 1977, Bill Clinton in 1994, and Barack Obama in 2009.
Despite these honors she refused to rest on her laurels, continuing to release albums Through The Storm (1989), What You See Is What You Sweat (1991), A Rose Is Still A Rose (1998), So Damn Happy (2003), This Christmas Aretha(2008), and Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love (2011).
Final years, death and legacy
In her final years, Franklin’s health seemed to turn for the worse as she had to cancel several of her scheduled concerts for undisclosed medical treatments. In September 2017, she gave her last full concert at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois.
On August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin passed away at her home in Detroit, Michigan, aged 76. The cause of death was reported to be advanced pancreatic cancer.
Colleagues and fans came to pay her respects at her funeral in a local Baptist church in Detroit. Among the big names who paid tribute during the memorial service included Ariana Grande, Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder and former president Bill Clinton, among others.
Aretha Franklin is the second winningest person in the Grammy Awards, receiving 18 trophies. In the span of the 50-odd years of her career, Franklin achieved 113 charting singles, including sixteen Top 10 pop hits and twenty number 1 R&B hits. For all these statistics and her commercial successes and triumph from her tragedies, the title “Queen Of Soul” truly belongs to her.