In memory of Aretha Franklin
Franklin’s legacy dazzles generations
Aretha Louise Franklin, born March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, became the voice for many generations throughout her lifetime. Franklin grew up in a very religious and musical household with a minister and preacher as a father, and a successful vocalist and pianist as a mother. These influences in her life lead her down the beginning of the path to her many major feats over the course of her career from 1956 to 2017.
Franklin’s singing career began at a young age as a gospel singer for the New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father served as a minister. Over the course of her early childhood, Franklin’s parents split due to her father’s infidelity, and her mother later passed from a heart attack when Franklin was around age 10. Franklin and her siblings were cared for with the help of her grandmother and Mahalia Jackson. During this time, Franklin began to learn the piano by ear and gained more musical influences in her life.
Franklin’s father’s status as a successful preacher and minister, known as the man with “The Million Dollar Voice,” opened up many opportunities for her to network and get more involved in the civil rights movement happening during the time of her upbringing. Because of her father’s famous sermons, Franklin was able to associate with people of high status in the Civil Rights Movement like Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Wilson, and Clara Ward, who became mentors to Franklin’s musical endeavors.
By age 12, Franklin began travelling and performing in her father’s “gospel caravan” where she began gaining velocity under the management of her father. Her father helped her sign a deal with J.V.B. Records and she released her first album, Songs of Faith, under J.V.B. in 1956 when she was just 14. After the release of her debut album, Franklin occasionally toured with The Soul Stirrers. By age 16, Franklin was gaining national attention. She began touring with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later sang at his funeral in 1968.
Franklin, at age 18, decided to make the move to New York City to follow similar endeavors as Sam Cooke in recording pop music. She produced a two-song demo that eventually caught the eye of multiple record labels from RCA, Tamla, and Columbia. Franklin signed with Columbia in 1960 as a five-percent artist. Her first single off Columbia, “Today I Sing the Blues,” debuted in Septempber of 1960 and later reached the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot R&B Sellers chart.
Franklin remained signed with Columbia for the duration of 1960 to 1966. She went on to release many charting records under Columbia including her first secular album, Aretha: With the Ray Brant Combo, which featured her Billboard Hot 100 charting single “Won’t Be Long,” which also went on to chart at number seven on the R&B charts.
Before 1961 was out, Franklin earned her first Top 40 single with “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” As her time at Columbia progressed over the next five years from 1961 to 1966, Franklin released two more albums under the label—The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, and The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin; both of which eventually deemed her the title “Queen of Soul” from a radio host during her performance at the Regal Theater in Chicago.
By 1964, Franklin started to record an increased amount of pop music. Her single “Runnin’ Out of Fools” earned her a top 10 charting on the R&B charts in 1965. She also made her debut over various other charts with songs like “You Made Me Love You,” and “(No No) I’m Losing You,” which made their debuts on the Easy Listening charts. Despite her continued, mild commercial success with Columbia, Franklin decided to make the move to another record label in search of profound commercial success.
In 1967, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records and began to work with esteemed recording studio FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. She earned her first top 10 single in a pop category from the song “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” despite recording sessions being cut short due to a brief altercation between her then manager, husband, and FAME Studios owner, Rick Hall.
Franklin later recorded her own rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect” in 1967. Franklin’s rendition quickly shot to number one on the R&B charts and the pop charts. “Respect” quickly became Franklin’s trademark song and gave her the commercial success she was looking for when leaving Columbia.
“Respect” was hastily deemed a civil rights and feminist anthem, even to this day, with article headlines from NPR stating, “‘Respect’ Wasn’t A Feminist Anthem Until Aretha Franklin Made It One.” “Respect” also earned Franklin her first three Grammy nominations and first two Grammy wins. She was instantaneously immersed into the civil rights movement and women’s rights with the release of “Respect.” Franklin frequently covered payroll and donated a substantial amount of money to these civil rights groups and often performed at benefits and protests. She was also a strong, quiet supporter of Native American rights in addition to black rights.
Franklin went on to release her debut Atlantic album, which was also her tenth studio album by the time of release. The album eventually went gold and earned her two more top 10 singles, including “Baby I Love You” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” After multiple years of commercial success at Atlantic and many more top 10 singles on various charts, Franklin started to experience some slowing of success with later albums released with Atlantic. In 1975, her commercial success slowed tremendously, and she was no longer a top seller with albums or singles.
By the end of the decade, Franklin left Atlantic and signed with Arista Records from Clive Davis. The switch in record labels proved to be beneficial, earning her a gold record for the first time in seven years and a Top 40 single for the first time in six years with the album Jump to It. Franklin stayed with Arista for over 20 years and officially left the label in 2007. After leaving Arista, she released a holiday album This Christmas, Aretha with DMI Records.
From 2008 on, Franklin continued her career under a self-label and later with RCA Records for the last four years of her career. Over the final years of her career and life, Franklin struggled greatly with undisclosed health issues and rumored pancreatic cancer starting in 2010, which resulted in the cancelling of multiple performances.
Franklin’s final performance was for Elton John’s AIDS Foundation on Nov. 7, 2017. By Aug. 13, 2018 news broke out that Franklin was gravely ill and surrounded by family and friends, including Stevie Wonder and Jesse Jackson.
Aretha Franklin passed on Aug. 16, 2018 at age 76 from a reported pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor. She lives on through her timeless 37 studio albums, 18 Grammy Awards, and her four children.