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Aretha Franklin

Biography

Aretha Franklin
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Aretha Franklin is not only the definitive female soul singer of the Sixties, she's also one of the most influential and important voices in pop history. Franklin fused the gospel music she grew up on with the sensuality of R&B, the innovation of jazz, and the precision of pop. After she hit her artistic and commercial stride in 1967, she made more than a dozen million-selling singles, and since then has recorded 20 Number One R&B hits. She moved toward the pop mainstream with fitful success in the Seventies, but in the late Eighties experienced a resurgence in popularity, and continues to record in a less ecstatic, more mannered style. Fittingly, after more than 40 years of helping to bridge the racial divide in her music, Franklin sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.

Franklin was born March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, became the pastor of the 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit in 1946 and was a nationally known gospel singer ("the Man with the Million-Dollar Voice"). Her mother, Barbara, also a gospel singer, deserted the family when Aretha was six and died four years later. Aretha and her sisters, Carolyn and Erma, sang regularly at their father's church, and Aretha's first recordings were made there when she was 14. The Franklins were among the most prominent black families in Detroit. Many future stars, including Smokey Robinson, knew the family, and in the Fifties Berry Gordy Jr. tried to sign Aretha to his fledgling Motown label. Reverend Franklin refused.

The teenaged Aretha toured the gospel circuit with her father, and she was befriended by Clara Ward (according to some sources, the Reverend Franklin's lover), Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, and Sam Cooke. Cooke, who had only recently crossed over from recording gospel to pop, was an inspiration to the young singer, encouraging her to sign with the label he recorded for, RCA. In fact, Aretha nearly did, until she was signed by legendary talent scout John Hammond to Columbia. She moved to New York, and at first found acceptance in the R&B market with "Today I Sing the Blues" (Number Ten R&B, 1960), "Won't Be Long" (Number Seven R&B, 1961), and "Operation Heartbreak" (Number Six R&B, 1961), but in six years and ten albums, she had only one pop hit: "Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" (Number 37 pop, 1961). Reissues have focused new attention on the importance of Franklin's Columbia years: She recorded several original songs ("Without the One You Love," "I'll Keep On Smiling," "Land of Dreams," "I Still Can't Forget") and a critically lauded tribute to her late friend Dinah Washington, as well as a 1962 version of "Try a Little Tenderness" that is said to have inspired Otis Redding to record it.

In 1966 she signed with Atlantic, and with the help of producer Jerry Wexler, arranger Arif Mardin, and engineer Tom Dowd, began to make the records that would reshape soul music. Her first session (and the only one recorded at Muscle Shoals, in Alabama) yielded "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)" (Number Nine pop, Number One R&B, 1967) and heralded a phenomenal three years in which she sold in the millions with "Respect" (Number One pop and R&B, 1967), "Baby I Love You" (Number Four pop, Number One R&B, 1967), "Chain of Fools" (Number Two pop, Number One R&B, 1968), "Since You've Been Gone" (Number Five pop, Number One R&B, 1968) and nine other singles.

Franklin's material ranged from R&B numbers by Otis Redding ("Respect") to pop fare by Carole King and Gerry Goffin ("[You Make Me Feel Like] a Natural Woman") and Lennon and McCartney ("Eleanor Rigby"). She also recorded many of her own songs, cowritten with her first husband and then-manager Ted White ("Dr. Feelgood," "Since You've Been Gone [Sweet Sweet Baby]," "Think"), or her sister Carolyn ("Save Me" [with King Curtis]), who received solo songwriting credit for "Ain't No Way." Most of Franklin's Sixties sessions were recorded with the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, who, after the first session, were imported to New York City, or with a band led by saxophonist King Curtis. Franklin herself was responsible for the vocal arrangements, whose gospel-style call-and-response choruses often featured her sister Carolyn as well as the Sweet Inspirations.

By 1968 Franklin reigned throughout America and Europe as "Lady Soul" — a symbol of black pride. She was presented an award by Martin Luther King Jr. (to whose cause her father had been a major financial supporter), and appeared on the cover of Time, the accompanying profile of which would be her last major interview for many years. As Time reported (and other sources have since concurred), Franklin's personal life was quite turbulent. Throughout her career, Franklin has remained an enigmatic figure, alternately outspoken and reclusive, and much of her personal life has been shrouded in secrecy. She had married White in 1961. She already had two sons, Clarence and Edward, born before her 17th birthday. With White, she gave birth to Teddy Jr., a guitarist in her band since the Eighties. Her marriage to White ended in 1969, by which time he had struck her in public on one occasion and shot her new production manager on another. Franklin herself was arrested in 1968 for reckless driving and again in 1969 for disorderly conduct. Also in 1969 her father was arrested for possession of marijuana. He hosted a controversial conference for a black separatist group that ended in a violent confrontation with Detroit police that left one officer dead and several other people wounded. During this time his daughter Aretha was rumored to be drinking heavily.

The hits continued (giving her more million-sellers than any other woman in recording history) – including "Don't Play That Song" (Number 11 pop, Number One R&B, 1970), "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (Number Six pop, Number One R&B, 1971), "Spanish Harlem" (Number Two pop, Number One R&B, 1971) and many more. In the early Seventies she gave birth to her fourth son, Kecalf, and in 1978 she married actor Glynn Turman. During this time Franklin seemed to be searching, sometimes aimlessly, for direction. But this period was not without its high points: Spirit in the Dark, Live at the Fillmore West, and Young, Gifted, and Black were all critically acclaimed. The pure gospel Amazing Gospel (recorded live in L.A. with her father officiating and the Reverend James Cleveland at the piano and conducting the choir) would be her final album with Wexler. During her last years with Atlantic she moved from producer to producer: Quincy Jones (Hey Now Hey), Curtis Mayfield (Sparkle, which included "Something He Can Feel," a 1992 Top Ten hit for En Vogue and Franklin's last Top 40 pop hit for nearly six years), Lamont Dozier (Sweet Passion), Van McCoy (La Diva). Her concerts became Las Vegas-style extravaganzas, and she soon established a reputation for her idiosyncratic (some would say ill-advised) costume choices. She also began showing signs of the unpredictability that would dog her career, particularly after a bad experience while flying resulted in a phobia that curtailed her touring.

In 1980 Franklin left Atlantic, signed with Arista, and positioned herself as the grande dame of pop. Her cameo appearance (she sang "Respect" and "Think") in The Blues Brothers movie that year has been cited as the beginning of a new phase. Her first two Arista albums were produced by Arif Mardin, and each included an old soul standard as well as glossier MOR material. "Love All the Hurt Away," a collaboration with George Benson, went to Number Six on the R&B chart in 1981. Her version of Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'" earned a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female. With the Luther Vandross-produced Jump to It, she reestablished herself as a hitmaker when the title tune reached Number One R&B and Number 24 pop in 1982. Vandross was also behind the board for Get It Right.

But the momentum of her commercial comeback was halted by a series of personal tragedies, beginning with the 1979 attack on her father, in which he was shot by burglars in his Detroit home. He began to recover from his injuries but then lapsed into a coma state from which he did not emerge before his death in 1984. In 1982 Franklin moved back to the Detroit area, where she still lives. Two years later, she and Turman divorced. The year after her father's death, Franklin came fully back into the public eye with Who's Zoomin' Who (Number 13, 1985), a Narada Michael Walden-produced work that spun off three hit singles: the Grammy-winning "Freeway of Love" (Number Three pop, Number One R&B, 1985), the title track (Number Seven pop, Number Two R&B, 1985), and a Top 20 duet with the Eurythmics, "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves." The album, which included guest performances by Clarence Clemons, Dizzy Gillespie, Carlos Santana, Peter Wolf, and most of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers, as well as backing vocals by sister Carolyn and Sylvester, among others, became her highest-charting album since 1972. The hits' accompanying videos were heavily played on MTV, and Franklin found the pop crossover success that had once eluded her. Its followup, Aretha, included the Top 30 "Jimmy Lee" (Number Two R&B, 1986) and a version of "Jumpin' Jack Flash," produced by and featuring Keith Richards, as well as her Grammy-winning Number One duet with George Michael, "I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)" (1987).

Subsequent albums were less popular. Her critically acclaimed One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism marked a return to gospel and featured Mavis Staples and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. It earned Franklin her 15th Grammy, for Best Female Soul Gospel Performance. Despite its hit title track (a duet with Elton John; Number 16 pop, Number 17 R&B, 1989), Through the Storm peaked at Number 55, and 1991's What You See Is What You Sweat made the lowest showing of any new album in her career. It contained a Number 13 R&B cover of Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People."

In 1987 Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The following year Franklin's sister Carolyn died of cancer; around the same period her brother and manager, Cecil, also died. She appeared with Frank Sinatra on his Duets album and in 1993 starred in her own television special, Duets, which featured her singing with a number of current pop stars, including Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Smokey Robinson, George Michael, and Rod Stewart. She appeared at the inaugural celebration for President Bill Clinton, where her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" (from Les Miserables) barely got more attention than her wearing a fur coat (for which she offered no apologies). "A Deeper Love" (Number 63 pop, Number 30 R&B, 1994), from the Sister Act 2 soundtrack, was written and produced by Robert Clivilles and David Cole of C + C Music Factory. "Willing to Forgive" was another Top 20 R&B hit that year. In 1994 Franklin received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In 1996 Franklin signed a three-album deal with Arista for a reported $10 million. The next year, she was accepted into the Juilliard School of Music to study classical piano, and she recorded a new version of "Respect" for the movie Blues Brothers 2000, in which she reprised her role as a restaurant owner. She also formed a record label, World Class Records, primarily to release gospel music. In 1998 she delivered her 49th album, A Rose Is Still a Rose, a career-revitalizing collaboration with current stars such as the Fugees' Lauryn Hill and producers Sean Combs and Jermaine Dupri.

Franklin's highly anticipated autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots (written with David Ritz), was released in 1999. She then entered the new century by selecting, with the White House Millennium Council, "Respect" to be included in a time capsule to preserve significant cultural achievements for future generations. Franklin has recorded sporadically in the 2000s, releasing 2003's So Damn Happy and then parting ways with Arista to start her own Aretha Records label.

Franklin's final Arista release was the 2007 duets collection Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen, which put her back in the R&B Top Ten at Number Seven. It featured her performances with artists including Vandross, Frank Sinatra, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Gloria Estefan, Annie Lennox, George Michael, John Legend, American Idol star Fantasia, and Mary J. Blige. A Woman Falling Out of Love, Franklin's first album for her Aretha Records label, is slated for a 2010 release.

In 2004 Rolling Stone ranked Franklin ninth on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, behind acts such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown; four years later, she ranked number one on the magazine's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2005 President George W. Bush awarded Franklin The Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2009 she sang at the Obama Inauguration wearing a much-talked-about gray wool hat with a giant ribbon that was later put on display at the Smithsonian Institute.

Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.

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