Aretha Franklin revolutionized Gospel music. She brought it to the masses, and it was no longer something that was found only in the realms of churches. She was the true Queen of Soul. A symbol of black power, Aretha sang at the inaugural ceremonies of two American presidents.
Singing sensations such as Chaka Khan, Mariah Carey, Mary J Blige and Whitney Houston have been inspired by the exploits of a lady known as Aretha Franklin. Simply known as “The Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin evokes a tremendous sense of pride in the African-American community.
Aretha was born in 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee. Religion was in her blood because her father was Reverend C.L. Franklin. Aretha’s sisters Carolyn and Emma were singers at the church where their father preached. Gospel singing was extremely popular at the time. Aretha followed the footsteps of her sisters and already had cut a deal with a recording company by the time she was fourteen years old. It was very evident from an early age that she was far more talented than her elder sisters. Aretha not only became famous all over the world for her singing, but her talent as a keyboardist also requires special mention.
When it seemed that the child prodigy was unstoppable, her career hit a road block. By the time she was fifteen years old, she was pregnant and at the age of seventeen Aretha was the mother of two children. Aretha overcame these hitches in style. John Hammond was Columbia Record’s official talent scout, and offered Aretha a contract with the famous company.
The hits began to roll in. Aretha’s gospel songs were being sung by everyone in America. Her popular numbers included “Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Think,” “Respect,” and “The House That Jack Built.” She added many variations to Gospel singing. One of her hits “Dr. Feelgood” had obvious sexual undertones. Her success was unparalleled at one point in time when she had ten songs in the Top Ten between 1967 and 1968. Another phenomenon of which she was one of the pioneers is doing the cover versions of famous artists. Aretha Franklin gospelized “Eleanor Rigby” of The Beatles, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel, Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Something He Can Feel” by Curtis Mayfield. Aretha expanded her oeuvre when she ventured into blues, pop, rock, and even some Pink Floyd-style psychedelic music.
Another reason for her success was that she had a singing style that could accommodate other artists. Collaboration with her was not very difficult from a creative perspective. Aretha has collaborated with a number of artists from different genres. Aretha and George Michael won the Grammy for “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” Queen also went on to win the Grammy with “Freeway Of Love.” Apart from these, she has successfully collaborated with Luther Vandross, Carole King, Narada Michael Walden, Quincy Jones, George Benson, and P. Diddy.
Her songs were seen as symbolism of triumph of the African-American community over the evils of racism and the success of the civil rights movement launched by Martin Luther King Jr. Aretha’s marriage life had a lot of ups and downs. She was divorced twice and her marriage to Ted White was replete with problems. White became her manager after their marriage and was once arrested for possession of marijuana. They had a son together called Teddy Jr.
Aretha’s professional career floundered at various points in time. She has been accused of being inconsistent when it comes to the quality of music produced. But she has been one of the most prolific singers of all time. During her contract with Columbia Record’s she was forced to tone down her style and move towards pop music. The record company was of the opinion that R&B was dying out. Aretha entered into a contract with Atlantic on the completion of her contract with Columbia Records. The producer for Atlantic was Jerry Wexler. He realized that he had a golden goose in his hands. Instead of trying to convert it into another animal, he gave Aretha a key board and let her loose. The world had never seen the quality of R&B music that Aretha came up with. This was her most successful period as a musician.
Later Aretha moved from Atlantic to Arista Records. This was the period when she successfully collaborated with various artists. During this time her father was shot dead by an armed robber who was trying to infiltrate the house.
One of the criticisms leveled at her was that she has not been able to crack the international market. In spite of sustained efforts by the record company to promote her overseas, all that she could manage on was a number four on the British Charts. In 1984, Aretha was sued for breach of contract because of her fear for flying prevented her from performing.
Aretha Franklin has been a favorite with the Grammy’s. Till date she has won seventeen of them, including a seven year spell between 1969 and 1975 where she won them every year. She sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. Aretha also sang at the inauguration for Presidents – Jimmy Carter and William Clinton. In 1986, her voice was declared a natural resource by the Michigan Legislature. In 1987, she was the first woman inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.