Aretha Franklin is one of the giants of Soul music, and indeed of American pop as a whole. More than any other performer she epitomized Soul at its most Gospel-charged. Her astonishing run of late-'60s hits with Atlantic Records - "Respect", "I Never Loved a Man", "Chain of Fools", "Baby I Love You", "I Say a Little Prayer", "Think", "The House That Jack Built" and several others, earned her the title Lady Soul, which she has worn uncontested ever since. Yet as much of an international institution as she's become, much of her work, outside of her recordings for Atlantic in the late '60s and early '70s, is erratic and only fitfully inspired, making discretion a necessity when collecting her records.
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. 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, 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 pianist.
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 And 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 And 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, she 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, but that did not come to pass.
Overcoming a series of canceled concerts due to health concerns in 2013, Aretha announced plans late that year for a new album on which she would record some songs made famous by other iconic female singers. On May 29th, 2014, Aretha received an honorary doctor of arts degree from Harvard University for her contributions to music. In late September, she and her band brought the house down with a performance on The Late Show With David Letterman when they performed a cover of Adele's "Rolling In The Deep" from her new album, "Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics". Released as a single in October, that song helped Aretha reach another career milestone when it became her 100th title to appear on Billboard's R&B chart. She was the first female and only the fourth artist overall to accomplish that feat. The album debuted at #3 on the R&B chart and at #13 on the Billboard 200, her highest charting effort since 1985's "Who's Zoomin' Who".
On March 5th, 2015, the now 72-year-old Aretha appeared on US TV's American Idol and told the group of 16 finalists that they should "Keep physically fit... and stay away from the wrong kind of people... anything that would be career ending." She went on to say "Meet the challenge and kick butt!" She continued to entertain fans across the country with her stellar talent over the Summer, but was forced to cancel a performance at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas in August due to exhaustion. In late August, 2016, she was forced to cancel another month's worth of shows due to unspecified health issues. In early February, 2017, Aretha told a Detroit TV station that she was planning to retire from showbusiness after making one last album with Stevie Wonder. Although she would still do the occasional show, Franklin said, "I'll be pretty much satisfied, but I'm not going to go anywhere and just sit down and do nothing. That wouldn't be good either."
Sadly, the 76-year-old Queen Of Soul died of pancreatic cancer at her home in Detroit, Michigan on August 16th, 2018. During her career she amassed twenty Billboard R&B chart toppers, forty-five Billboard Top 40 hits and won eighteen Grammy Awards. Her funeral took place at Detroit's Greater Grace Temple on August 31st. Several of the nation's top recording artists performed, including Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Ronald Isley, Jennifer Hudson, Faith Hill, Fantasia and Yolanda Adams. The September 1st edition of Billboard's Hot R&B / Hip-Hop Songs chart listed Franklin's signature tune, "Respect" at #21. A concert movie called Amazing Grace, shot at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in January, 1972, was scheduled to premiere at the DOC NYC film festival in New York on November 12, 2018. Although Aretha herself did not want the film released, it had the full support of her estate after her death. The film was also slated for release to theatres later in the year.
In February, 2019, Rhino Records announced a March 22nd release date for "Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings", a four-LP set available on vinyl for the first time. In mid-April, she was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer prize for what was called "her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades." Aretha was just the 12th musician, and first female performer, to be given the citation, joining the likes of Bob Dylan, Scott Joplin and John Coltrane.
Aretha was back in the news again in May, 2019 when stories were published that stated that a total of three, hand-written wills had been found in her suburban Detroit home. The latest one was dated March 2014 and appeared to leave the singer's assets to family members. Some writing was said to be extremely hard to decipher, and the four pages had words scratched out and phrases in the margins. David Bennett, an attorney for Franklin's estate, was quoted as saying that the estate is involved in "many continuing projects... including various television and movie proposals, as well as dealing with various creditor claims and resulting litigation."
On a brighter note, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation in early July, 2019 that would designate a portion of highway M-10 as Aretha L. Franklin Memorial Highway. In a statement to the press, she noted Franklin's "creativity and voice contributed to our musical and cultural history in Michigan."