Franklin's roots in gospel ran extremely deep. With her sisters Carolyn and Erma (both of whom would also have recording careers), she sang at the Detroit church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, while growing up in the 1950s. In fact, she made her first recordings as a gospel artist at the age of 14. Family friends Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke encouraged her recording career, and when Columbia Records producer John Hammond first heard the eighteen-year-old, he called her "an untutored genius, the best natural singer since Billie Holiday." It has also been reported that Motown was interested in signing Aretha back in the days when it was a tiny start-up. Ultimately, however, Franklin ended up with Columbia.
Franklin would record for Columbia constantly throughout the first half of the '60s, notching occasional R&B hits (and one Top Forty single, "Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody"), but never truly breaking out as a star. But it wasn't until Franklin moved from Columbia's pop/jazz orchestrations to Atlantic Records' soulful, R&B style in 1966, that her career skyrocketed. When Franklin left Columbia for Atlantic, producer Jerry Wexler was determined to bring out her most soulful, fiery traits. As part of that plan, he had her record her first single, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" at Muscle Shoals in Alabama with esteemed Southern R&B musicians. In fact, that was to be her only session actually at Muscle Shoals, but much of the remainder of her '60s work would be recorded with the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, although the sessions would actually take place in New York City. The combination was one of those magic instances of musical alchemy in pop: the backup musicians provided a much grittier, soulful, and R&B-based accompaniment for Aretha's voice, which soared with a passion and intensity suggesting a spirit that had been allowed to fly loose for the first time.
In the late '60s, Franklin became one of the biggest international recording stars in all of pop. Many also saw her as a symbol of Black America itself, reflecting the increased confidence and pride of African-Americans in the decade of the civil rights movements and other triumphs for the Black community. The chart statistics are impressive in and of themselves: ten Top Ten hits in a roughly 18-month span between early 1967 and late 1968, for instance, and a steady stream of solid mid-to-large-size hits for the next five years after that. Her Atlantic albums were also huge sellers, and far more consistent artistically than those of most soul stars of the era. Franklin was able to maintain creative momentum, in part, because of her eclectic choice of material, which encompassed first-class originals and gospel, blues, pop, and rock covers, from the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel to Sam Cooke and the Drifters. She was also a fine, forceful, and somewhat underrated keyboardist.
Franklin's commercial and artistic success was unabated in the early '70s, during which she landed more huge hits with "Spanish Harlem," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "Day Dreaming." She also produced two of her most respected, and earthiest album releases with "Live at Fillmore West" and "Amazing Grace". The latter, a 1972 double LP, was a reinvestigation of her gospel roots, recorded with James Cleveland & the Southern California Community Choir. Remarkably, it made the Top Ten, counting as one of the greatest gospel-pop crossover smashes of all time.
The late 70's brought both triumph and tragedy, as Aretha married actor Glynn Turman in 1978, but returned to Detroit when her father was shot by house burglars and lapsed into a coma in 1979
In 1980, she did a cameo performance in The Blues Brothers movie, and she changed her record label to Arista. Aretha Franklin began to get respect once again. Her 1985 album, "Who's Zoomin' Who", racked up her biggest sales yet, spawning another hit record, "Freeway Of Love". A 1989 gospel album, inspired by her father's death in 1984, earned another Grammy for her crowded shelf. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Critically, as is the case with many '60s rock legends, there have been mixed responses to her later work. Some view it as little more than a magnificent voice wasted on mediocre material and production. Most would agree that her post-mid-'80s recordings are fairly inconsequential when judged against her prime Atlantic era.
In 1995, she was involved in a lawsuit filed by Saks Fifth Avenue for allegedly not paying $262,851 in charges. The charges were dismissed, but her troubles didn't end there. The I.R.S. issued liens against her for not paying $500,000 in taxes, even though Franklin is estimated to be worth around $20 million.
1998's "A Rose Is Still a Rose" brought lukewarm response from record buyers and critics alike and it took until 2003 for her next effort, "So Damn Happy" to emerge. That effort was also a critical and commercial failure, selling just over 100,000 copies. After 23 years with Arista, Franklin parted with the company and decided to form Aretha's Records two years later. She released a duets compilation album, "Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen", in 2007. The album featured the Fantasia duet, "Put You Up On Game", which reached #41 on the Billboard R&B chart. A year later, she issued her first holiday album, "This Christmas, Aretha". After initially being released as a Borders exclusive, it was later issued by the DMI label.
In 2008, Aretha was honored as MusiCares "Person of the Year", two days prior to the 50th Annual Grammy Awards, where she was awarded her 18th career Grammy. On January 20th, 2009, Franklin was personally asked by newly-elected President Barack Obama to perform at his inauguration, where she sang "My Country 'tis of Thee". In 2010, Franklin received an honorary music degree from Yale University. Aretha released her thirty-eighth studio album, "A Woman Falling Out Of Love", on May 3, 2011, which peaked at #54 on Billboard's Hot 200.
2012 was filled with news for Ms. Franklin, who began the year by announcing her engagement to William Wilkerson, then calling it off two weeks later. After changing booking agencies from William Morris to I.C.M in April, she announced that a new album for RCA was in the works for later in the year. In early July, Aretha expressed an interest in appearing as a judge on the 2012 / 2013 season of TV's American Idol.
Whatever the future holds for Aretha, she's an institution, assured of the ability to draw live audiences and immense respect for the rest of her lifetime, regardless of whether there are any more triumphs on record in the future.