Franklin, Aretha Louise

views updated

FRANKLIN, Aretha Louise

(b. 25 March 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee), singer who established herself in the 1960s as the "Queen of Soul."

From a young age Franklin was steeped in the tradition of black gospel music. Her father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin, was a well-known evangelical preacher and a nationally known gospel singer. Her mother, Barbara, was also a gospel singer. Franklin spent most of her childhood with her five brothers and sisters in Detroit, where her father was the pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church. Both at church and at home, Franklin's father introduced her to great black secular and gospel singers, among them Dinah Washington, Lou Rawls, Mahalia Jackson, and Sam Cooke. Her father's friendship with the jazz pianist Art Tatum and the blues singers Bobby Bland and Clara Ward exposed her to varied musical styles and traditions.

Franklin began singing in the choir of her father's church and eventually became a featured soloist. During the summer, she traveled the country with her father's gospel revival tour. Franklin, who had had one child out of wedlock at the age of fifteen, quit school after the birth of her second child, when she was seventeen. In the early 1960s, at age eighteen, Franklin left Detroit and headed toNew York City, where she signed her first major recording contract, with Columbia Records. Columbia marketed her primarily as a pop and jazz singer despite her roots in gospel music and her admiration for blues music, but Franklin brought the label no major hits. Success came quickly, however, when Franklin signed in 1966 with Atlantic Records, where the producer Jerry Wexler had a successful track record in building the careers of black musicians. More important, unlike Columbia Records' decision to market Franklin as a jazz and pop singer, Wexler decided to develop Franklin as a rhythm and blues artist rising out of gospel roots. His vision was more in sync with Franklin's natural musicality and instincts.

Franklin believed in music's universality. Although blues and soul music may have arisen out of the cotton fields of southern slavery, she felt and believed in its ability to speak to and reach people of all colors. The overwhelming success of her recordings for Atlantic proved that her belief was correct. Franklin's recording "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)" marked the first of a long list of hits for Atlantic in the late 1960s. Her recordings "Respect," "Baby, I Love You," "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman," "I Say a Little Prayer," and "Chain of Fools," among others, were all commercial and artistic hits that remain classics today. She also recorded many of her own songs, such as "Think" and "Save Me," some cowritten with her first husband, Ted White, or with her sister. In the 1960s Franklin established herself in the United States and in Europe as the undisputed "Queen of Soul."

Through her recordings and her concert and television appearances, Franklin displayed the sense of black pride that her father had preached, and that pride became the rallying cry of the U.S. civil rights movement during the turbulent decade of the 1960s. In particular, Franklin's "Respect" captured the essence of the times, the need for all people—white or black—to respect each other as human beings regardless of color. To many people, her recordings gave voice to the confidence and will of black Americans who had been struggling for equality for hundreds of years. As a black woman whose music was applauded and embraced by black people and white people alike, Franklin's enormous success reflected not only her huge talent but also the social, political, and cultural changes that had begun to take place in the 1960s. Franklin performed at various fund-raising events in support of the civil rights movement. The civil rights leader the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was a close family friend and an inspiration to Franklin. In 1968 she was honored to receive a special award from King's Southern Christian Leadership Council, which King personally presented to her. Later that year, Franklin would sing at King's funeral, after his assassination in Memphis.

Although Franklin is truly an artist of the 1960s, she continued to record through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and is still active today. Moving closer to mainstream pop music by the mid-1970s, Franklin had won by that time six gold albums, fourteen gold singles, and eight Grammy Awards. Eventually, she would win a total of seventeen Grammy Awards. In 1980 Franklin left Atlantic to move to Arista Records. At Arista she recorded in a wide variety of musical styles, from gospel to dance to pop, including the hits "Freeway of Love," "Who's Zoomin' Who," and "I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)." Although she was not as consistently commercially popular as she had been in the 1960s, she did enjoy considerable success. In 1998 Aretha released her fortieth album, A Rose Is Still a Rose, collaborating with younger stars and with the producers Lauryn Hill, Sean Combs, and Jermaine Dupri. The album reached the Top Forty in the rhythm and blues (R&B) music charts and was nominated for two Grammys, best female R&B vocal, and best R&B album.

Although her personal life has been marred by unsuccessful marriages and reports of financial and drinking problems, Franklin is recognized as a national treasure. (Franklin and White, who had married in 1961, had one child and were divorced in 1969. She had another child with Ken Cunningham before marrying Glynn Turman in 1978. They were divorced in 1984.) Time named her "one of the most influential people of the last century," and the popular television channel VH-1 ranked her number one on its list of the 100 greatest women in rock and roll. In 1987 Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was awarded a Grammy Legends Award in 1991 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. She also received a Kennedy Center Honors Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Performing Arts in 1994, the youngest person ever to be so honored. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the White House Millennium Council selected Franklin's "Respect" to be included in the time capsule that would preserve important cultural symbols of the twentieth century for future generations to learn about and enjoy.

All the many honors and awards that Franklin earned during her long career acknowledge her astounding achievement as an extraordinarily gifted singer and performer and an important symbol of the American civil rights movement. She has broken down traditional musical boundaries by melding the traditions of gospel, pop, jazz, rock, soul, and R&B music; by spreading gospel and blues beyond the black church; and by appealing to diverse audiences of these different musical genres. The fact that Franklin, who made her name in the 1960s, is still treasured today as one of the icons of American music is a testament to her contributions to American music, society, and civil rights.

Franklin's autobiography is Aretha: From These Roots (1999), with David Ritz. Other discussions of Franklin's life and career include David Nathan, The Soulful Divas (1999), and Mark Bego, Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul (2001). Additional biographical information can be found in Patricia Romanowski and Holly George-Warren, eds., The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (2001).

Matthew J. Pierce

About this article

Franklin, Aretha Louise

Updated About content Print Article