Aretha Franklin is an iconic American gospel, soul and R&B singer born in Memphis, Tennessee, but raised in Detroit, Michigan. On January 3, 1987 she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many have called her “The Queen Of Soul” and “Lady Soul”.
She is generally regarded as being one of the best vocalists ever by such industry publications/media outlets as Rolling Stone and VH1, due to her phenomenal ability to inject whatever she may be singing about with gut wrenching soul and sheer conviction. She has won 16 competitive Grammys and the state of Michigan has declared her voice to be a natural wonder.
Unknown by most people, Franklin surprisingly has only had 2 songs hit the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100, “Respect” in the 1960’s, and her 1980’s duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me”. However, many of her singles have hit Top 20, Top 10, and Top 5 positions.
As a child, Franklin and her sisters, Carolyn and Erma, sang at her father’s Detroit-area church and made her first recordings at the age 14. She signed with Columbia Records after being discovered by legendary A&R man John Hammond. In the early 1960s, Franklin had a few popular songs, most notably “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”. Though Columbia really wanted her as a jazz singer, the results never gave full rein to Franklin’s talents. Her greatest and most innovative work was yet to come.
After moving to Atlantic Records in 1967, Franklin teamed up with producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, resulting in some of the most influential R&B recordings of the 1960s, including “I Never Loved a Man “, a much more soulful and impassioned song than most of her earlier work. By the late 1960s, Franklin had earned the nickname “The Queen of Soul”, having become an internationally famous artist and a symbol of pride for the Black community. Franklin said herself of this period, “When I went to Atlantic, they just sat me down at the piano and the hits started coming”.
She released numerous Top Ten hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, dabbling in gospel music, blues music, pop music, psychedelic music and rock and roll, including notable covers of songs by The Beatles, The Band, Simon & Garfunkel, Sam Cooke and The Drifters. Live at Fillmore West
and Amazing Grace were two of her most influential full-length releases, the latter a double LP of live gospel music recorded in a Los Angeles Baptist church. Surprisingly she never made it to number one in the UK pop charts – the best result being a number four with her version of Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer” in 1968.
Among her most successful hit singles from this era were “Chain of Fools”, “You Make Me Feel “, “Think”, “Baby I Love You”, “The House That Jack Built”, and “Respect”, a cover of an Otis Redding single which became her signature song. After the R&B category was added to the Grammy Awards in 1968, she was virtually unchallenged, winning eight successive awards for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance; she later added three more Grammies in this category in the 1980s.
In the early 1970s, her music mellowed slightly, though losing nothing of its power, and she continued the hugely successful relationship with Wexler and Mardin while beginning to take a greater role in producing her work. A partnership with Quincy Jones led to a disappointing album in 1973 Hey Now Hey. But it still produced a standout track “Angel”, written by her sister Carolyn which became a soul classic.
She returned to working with Wexler, but their last collaboration, the Atlantic LP You was released in 1975.
Franklin released several LPs after You including Sparkle in 1976 which yielded a #1 R&B single, ” Something He Can Feel”, Sweet Passion, Almighty Fire and La Diva, her last Atlantic LP.
Wexler had now left Atlantic and the partnership was over. Despite working with artists of the stature of Curtis Mayfield, popularity and critical success waned during the mid to late 1970s and the 1980s, though she scored several hits, often with partners. Her most notable 1980s hit was the dance song “Freeway of Love”, which charted in 1985. Most critics dismiss her post-Atlantic material as far inferior to the legendary recordings of the mid to late sixties.
She married Ted White in 1962 and he became her manager during her years with Columbia Records. The marriage ended in 1969 and she has always refused to answer questions about it. A Time Magazine cover story in 1968 led to a lawsuit from Ted White over allegations that he had roughed her up in public. The affair made her guard her private life even more jealously and she gave no interviews for several years after that. She lives today in Detroit.
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