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Franklin, Aretha (1942- )

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Aretha Franklin (1942–)

In her five decades as a recording artist, Aretha Franklin, the undisputed “Queen of Soul,” has become a music legend. Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis on March 25, 1942. Her family soon relocated to Detroit where her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, became a minister at New Bethel Baptist Church and a prominent gospel performer in his own right. Reverend Franklin’s career exposed his daughter to gospel and soul music and to contemporary black icons such as Smokey Robinson, Clara Ward, and Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, as Aretha got older, her life was complicated with tragedies that included physical abuse by her first husband, as well as, the tragic shooting of her father in 1979.  He remained in a coma until his 1984 death. 

Aretha Franklin recorded her first album at the age of fourteen, The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin, while singing solos in New Bethel and going on tours with her father.  In 1960 she signed with Columbia Records. Despite producing ten albums together and her concert performances netting $100,000 in nightclubs and theaters, the Columbia style featuring Top 40 pop ballads proved an uneasy fit. Columbia tried to turn Aretha into a jazzy pop singer while she was determined to draw on her background in blues and gospel music. In 1966 Franklin signed with Atlantic Records, who gave her more creative control, and she began revolutionizing soul music by creating a sound all her own. 

By 1968 Aretha Franklin was considered a symbol of black pride and soul music. Her songs, Respect, You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman, Young, Gifted, and Black, and Think became anthems reflecting the growing militancy of African Americans in challenging racial oppression. Her Amazing Grace album released in 1970 which returned her to her church roots sold over two million copies and made her one of the most successful gospel singers of the era. Franklin appeared on the cover of Time magazine and received an award from Martin Luther King Jr. 

In the early 1970s, despite the success of her landmark 1971 album, Aretha Live at the Fillmore West, her career began to decline. She worked on the soundtrack to the film, Sparkle, with Curtis Mayfield, which produced her last Top 40 hits of the decade. 

In the 1980s, Franklin moved to Arista Records where she has recorded everything from gospel to dance music. While her last big hit was A Rose Is Still a Rose, produced by Lauryn Hill in 1998, Franklin continued to be a significant presence in the music industry and the African American community.  In 2001 she wowed audiences across the globe with her performance in VH1’s Divas Live: The One and Only Aretha Franklin and in 2009 she sang My Country ‘Tis of Thee at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame (1987), the highest number of Top 40 singles of any female performer (forty-five), and the youngest recipient of the John F. Kennedy Center Honors (1994). Over her career, she has won seventeen Grammies and has had twenty Number 1 R&B hits. Her 1967 album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You is considered the greatest soul album of all time while her 1971 Aretha Live at the Fillmore West is called one of the top five greatest live albums of the rock era. Aretha Franklin continues to record and perform music.

Sources:
B. Lee Cooper, “Popular Music: An Untapped Resource for Teaching Contemporary Black History,” Journal of Negro Education, (1979); Paul Friedlander & Peter Miller, Rock and Roll: A Social History (Boulder: Westview Press, 2006); Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, http://www.rockhall.com/inductee/aretha-franklin; Time Magazine, http://www.time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/franklin.html; Rolling Stone Magazine, http://www.rollingstone.com/artist/bio/_/id/4710.

Contributor:

University of Washington, Seattle

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