The undisputed “Queen of Soul” and the “Voice of Black America”, Aretha Franklin was perhaps one of the biggest giants of soul music and indeed of American pop music as a whole. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, a title held by her for 40 years until 2017. She passed away on August 16, 2018 at the age of 76 after suffering from pancreatic cancer, leaving behind a legacy of recordings that remain as anthems defining soul music.
Life and career
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee to a preacher and Civil Rights activist father and a pianist-vocalist mother. Born amidst tragedies of family relocation, the separation of her parents, and the death of her mother, Franklin learned piano by ear and first started singing church solos at the age of ten. Her father was himself a prominent Gospel performer and she became a regular performer at the New Bethel Baptist Church. She grew up with celebrities like The Caravans, Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and Sam Cooke who played a pivotal role in her vocal development as a child.
After her father, C.L. Franklin gained fame for his recorded sermons for Checker Record, he helped Aretha sign to JVB Records, who released her debut album “Songs of Faith” in 1956. She was just fourteen years old. Aretha was pregnant at the age of fifteen and at the age of seventeen she was a mother of two. Notwithstanding her personal ups and downs, in 1960 she signed with Columbia Records. At Columbia, Aretha’s songs created notable ripples in the US charts. She first hit the Billboard Top 40 in 1961 with a cover of “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”. Her popular numbers included “Since You’ve Been Gone”, “Respect”, and “The House That Jack Built”.
By the end of 1961, Franklin was named as a “New-star female vocalist” by Downbeat Magazine. Her initial run of classic Atlantic albums – “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You”, “Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now” – produced further glorious and legendary hits and set the stage for some roof-lifting performances in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Franklin undoubtedly became an icon for black pride, feminism and the civil rights movement. In 1966, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records and began revolutionizing soul music by creating a sound all her own.
In 1967, Franklin released her most famous song, “Respect” which immediately became a civil rights and feminist anthem of that time. Though it was originally released in 1965 by Otis Redding, it was Franklin’s idea to turn the overall vibe of the song from desperation into female power, from a plea to a demand. It was perhaps the most brilliant single act of pop reinvention in the history of American music, and it made Franklin a star overnight. According to Franklin, it was the right song at the right time. By the 1970s, Franklin was a celebrated symbol of Black hopes and aspirations. Her albums like “Young, Gifted, and Black” and “Think” became anthems reflecting the growing militancy of African Americans in challenging racial oppression. In 1971, she became the first R&B performer to headline Fillmore West, later that year releasing the live album “Aretha Live at Fillmore West”.
Life behind the stage
Franklin had a turbulent life both personally and professionally. She was married twice; first to Theodore White at the age of 19 but divorced him in 1969 after being subjected to domestic violence. Franklin then married her second husband, actor Glynn Turmann, in 1978 at her father’s church which lasted for six years. Franklin also struggled with alcoholism and chain smoking. She cancelled her shows in 2010 to undergo surgery for a tumour. Although Franklin had cancelled some concerts the past decade due to various health reasons, she told one Detroit audience in 2017 to “keep me in your prayers”.
Aretha and the Civil Rights Movement
During the 50’s, Franklin was surrounded by Civil Rights activists from a young age and spent her groundbreaking career supporting those who fought for equality—and setting an example of herself as an American success. Franklin was also a strong supporter of Native American rights and participated in movements that supported First Nation rights. She provided money for civil rights groups; at times covering payroll, and performed at benefits and protests.
One of the most powerful examples of Franklin’s commitment to Civil Rights was when she offered to post bail for revolutionary activist and scholar Angela Davis in 1970 after Davis, a member of the Communist Party, was accused of assisting a courtroom takeover that ended in four deaths. Born just two years apart, Davis and Franklin both represented the brilliance, militancy, and defiant beauty of their generation of black women. Franklin wasn’t afraid of losing her audience or future opportunities because of her support for a radical freedom fighter.
Awards and accolades
In 1967, Franklin was honoured with a day named for her and was greeted by long time friend Martin Luther King Jr. who gave her the SCLC Drum Beat Award for Musicians two months before his death. She appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in June, 1968. Franklin received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1979 and was also the youngest recipient of the John F. Kennedy Center Honors (1994).
During the entire span of her career, Franklin won eighteen Grammys and had twenty Number 1 R&B hits thus being the honoured recipient of the Grammy Legend Award in 1991, then the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. She was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Inducted to the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012. Barack Obama, a huge fan of the hers requested that the soul singer perform at his presidential inauguration in 2009.“American history wells up when Aretha sings”, Barack Obama said in 2015 and added “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
Aretha’s voice was America at its best. It also transcended national boundaries, invoking the West African cultures that gave birth to diasporic musical practices; appealing to a global audience who appreciated her sound. Through her artistry and mass appeal, she set the tone of a political and social movement anchored in a yearning for freedom. Following the news of her death, Franklin was mourned by not only fans of her music, but those who recognized her role in the Civil Rights Movement. However, the “Queen of Soul” shall continue to live through her music that redefined the American experience across all cultures and platforms.
Featured image source: The Atlantic