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Franklin, Aretha (1942—)

Franklin, Aretha (1942—)

As the career of singer, songwriter, and pianist Aretha Franklin makes evident, the black church—its ministers, its members, and its music—have had a profound influence on popular music. A fruit of the black Baptist church, Franklin is one of the most important female artists to translate gospel music—with all its intensity—into soul music. Her talent was nurtured by a who's who of gospel song—Clara Ward, James Cleveland, and Mahalia Jackson—and her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin, was a gospel singer in his own right. For the past thirty years, Franklin has reigned as the "Queen of Soul," winning more Grammy Awards than any other female vocalist—at least one a year from 1967 through 1974 and then in 1981, 1985, and 1987. From 1960 to 1992, 89 of her songs were in the pop or R&B Top Forty, with twenty of them reaching number one on the R&B chart. Franklin was the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine (in June, 1968), and in 1987 she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. By the mid-1980s, Franklin had racked up a total of twenty-four gold records. The state of Michigan has designated her voice as a natural resource.

The eldest of three sisters, Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25, 1942. During her childhood, her family moved to Buffalo and then to Detroit, where she grew up. Her father, the celebrated Reverend C. L. Franklin, ministered the 4,500 member New Bethel Baptist Church. Rev. Franklin was one of the first ministers to have a nationally broadcast radio program, and at one time he earned up to $4000 per sermon. His eldest daughter taught herself to play the piano at the age of eight. Her father's national stature and influence drew such well-known gospel singers as James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, and Clara Ward to their home for improvisational praise sessions. Two of the Clara Ward Singers helped rear Aretha after her mother's separation from the family. Franklin absorbed the rich black musical experience in her father's church and by the age of twelve began touring with him, singing solos.

Her recording career began in 1951 when she and her sisters Carolyn and Erma made a 78, singing behind their father on the Gotham label. In 1956, Franklin recorded the hymn "Where We'll Never Grow Old," profoundly influenced by her mentor, Clara Ward. Following the path of one of her idols, Sam Cooke, who had made a successful transition from gospel to pop, at the age of eighteen Franklin left Detroit for New York, where Major Holley, a bass player for jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, helped look after her while she made the rounds in an attempt to be discovered. John Hammond, the legendary impresario who had encouraged Columbia Records to sign Mahalia Jackson, among other talents, heard Franklin and encouraged the company to sign her. While with Columbia, Franklin released a number of recordings: "Today I Sing the Blues" and "Won't Be Long" were moderately successful R&B hits.

After her contract expired with Columbia, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in 1967. With the savvy producing skills of Jerry Wexler, Franklin recorded "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" with the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, rhythm section, her own piano accompaniment, and the backup vocals of her sisters. The single and the album of the same title achieved gold status, and Aretha had arrived. A string of gold records followed, including "Respect," her first single to top both the R&B and Pop Charts. The album also included such popular hits as "Dr. Feelgood," "Baby, I Love You," "Chain of Fools," and "Since You've Been Gone." Her next hit songs, "Think" and "I Say a Little Prayer," went gold, along with her Lady Soul album in 1968. In 1969, "See Saw" and the album Aretha Now similarly attained gold status. "Don't Play that Song" in 1970 and her 1971 version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" also were hits. In 1972, she won two Grammys for the albums Young, Gifted, and Black and Amazing Grace. In 1973, Franklin scored again with "Master of Eyes" and in 1974 with "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing."

The mid-to late 1970s saw a dry spell in Franklin's creative hitmaking. Disco had begun to gain favor, adversely impacting the sale and popularity of soul and R&B. In 1980, Franklin signed with Arista Records, and by 1982 she had made a successful comeback with the album Jump on It. In 1985, the Who's Zooming Who album, with the hit "Freeway of Love," went gold. But in 1987, Franklin returned to her roots with the album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, her first gospel collection in fifteen years. A duet with George Michael entitled "I Knew You Were Waiting" became her second number one Pop hit.

Franklin's relentless productivity, diverse repertoire, and sheer volume of recordings make a simplified overview of her style difficult. To be sure, if one were to distill her style, it would boil down to her rhythmic gospel piano style and arrangements that accompany her voice with all its ecstatic tension. Beginning with her recording for Atlantic, Aretha Franklin essentially defined soul music as vital, genuine, sexual, and visceral, reflecting the struggles and triumphs of the human spirit. "It is her fierce, gritty conviction…. She flexes her rich, cutting voice like a whip; she lashes her listeners—in her words—'to the bone,' for deepness," Time magazine observed. All in all, it has been Franklin's faith and "hard knocks" that enabled her to embrace a song, dramatizing it and making it her own.

The early Columbia sessions were a fallow period in terms of her mature individual stylistic development, persistently marred by the company's attempt to pigeonhole her style into jazz and pop arrangements, not allowing for her freedom of expression. But at Atlantic, the arrangements of Franklin's music were based on her piano accompaniment to her voice. Upon her arrival at the studio to record, arrangers such as Arif Mardin would base everything around her piano and voice renditions, adding the backup vocals of sisters Carolyn and Erma. Atlantic allowed Franklin to exercise a great deal of artistic control, encouraging her creativity and a selection of songs that meant something to her. The first album, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), paid homage to her musical idols: Sam Cooke in "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "Good Times," and Ray Charles, who had previously merged gospel with pop beginning with the recording of "I've Got a Woman," is represented in a moving and undeniably convincing "Drown in My Own Tears."

Franklin's personal life has been a turbulent one. During her childhood she faced one traumatic experience after another. At the age of six, her mother abandoned the family, leaving Aretha's father to provide the nurturing and support of the children. From a young age, Aretha toured on the gospel highway, where the attendant pitfalls that she encountered on the road were not always in her best interest. She was the mother of two boys by the time she reached seventeen. Her marriage to her manager, Ted White, who had been known to rough her up from time to time, ended in divorce. Her second marriage to actor Glynn Turman also ended in divorce. In 1979, her father was shot by a robber in his home and remained in a coma for several years, never recovering. Through it all, Franklin has ardently guarded her private life and remained the "Queen of Soul."

Franklin has been active for several social causes and an activist for black pride and Civil Rights. Her father was a friend of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Franklin sang at King's funeral. She recorded "Young, Gifted and Black" as an affirmation of positive black consciousness and pride. Her unabashed celebration of sexual liberation with "sock it to me" in "Respect" and "taking care of business is really this man's game" in "Dr. Feelgood" was liberating to many women. Franklin sang for the Democratic National Convention in 1968, for the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, and again for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Three television specials—Aretha in 1986; Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul in 1988; and Duets in 1993—have featured Franklin's life and music.

Franklin has shared her songs of love, hurt, respect, and black pride, but not much of her personal life. The Queen of Soul may soon talk in the form of an autobiography in collaboration with David Ritz, biographer of B. B. King, Marvin Gaye, Etta James, and Ray Charles. Whether singing gospel or pop, music is a balm and an alter ego for Franklin. "It does get me out of myself… " she has said. "I guess you could say I do a lot of traveling with my voice."

—Willie Collins

Further Reading:

Bego, Mark. Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989.

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