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Summary Article: Aretha Franklin (1942–)
from African American Almanac
Singer, Pianist, Songwriter

Daughter of the famous Reverend Charles L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee. Raised on the east side of Detroit, Michigan, Franklin sang at her father's New Bethel Baptist Church. Although she began to study piano at age eight, Franklin refused to learn what she considered juvenile and simple tunes. Thus, she learned piano by ear, occasionally receiving instruction from individuals like the Reverend James Cleveland. Franklin's singing skills were modeled after gospel singers and family friends, including Clara Ward, and R&B artists like Ruth Brown and Sam Cooke.

At fourteen, Franklin quit school to go on the road with her father's Franklin Gospel Caravan, a seemingly endless tour in which the family traveled thousands of miles by car. After four years on the road, Aretha traveled to New York to establish her own career as a pop artist. In 1960 she signed with Columbia Records's talent scout John Hammond, who described her as an “untutored genius, the best singer … since Billie Holiday.” Her six-year stay at Columbia, however, produced only a few hits and little material that suited Franklin's unique talents.

In 1966 Franklin signed with Atlantic Records and, in the following year, she recorded a session for producer Jerry Wexler that resulted in the hit “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Loved You).” That same year, Franklin's career received another boost when her reworking of Otis Redding's song “Respect” hit the charts. Franklin's first album, I Never Loved a Man, was followed by a succession of artistically and commercially successful albums: Aretha Arrives (1967), Lady Soul (1968), Aretha Now! (1968), and This Girl's in Love with You (1970). Her prominence grew so great that Franklin appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1968.

During the 1970s Franklin continued to tour and record. In 1971 she released the live album Aretha Live at the Filmore West, backed by the horn and rhythm section of Tower of Power. Her next release was in 1972, Amazing Grace, which featured the Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. In 1980 she appeared in the film The Blues Brothers. Five years later in 1985 Franklin scored her first big commercial success in over a decade with the album Who's Zooming Who? featuring the single “Freeway of Love.” In 1988 she released a double live album One Lord, One Faith—an effort dedicated to her father who had passed away the previous year. The 1990s saw Franklin recording a track on the soundtrack for the film Waiting to Exhale (1995), performing at the VH-1 concert “Divas Live,” and receiving the National Medal of the Arts (1999).

In 2003 Franklin released her studio album So Damn Happy and in 2008 she collaborated with Mary J. Blige on Never Gonna Break My Faith, which earned Franklin her eighteenth Grammy Award. She received her nineteenth Grammy for “A House Is Not a Home,” a track from a tribute record for Luther Vandross (2005). Also in 2005 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor. Franklin sang at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009, and at the twenty-five-year celebration to mark the end of Oprah Winfrey's show in Chicago in May 2011. Franklin started her own record label, Aretha Records, in 2004 and released the album A Woman Falling Out of Love (2010).

Writing at the beginning of the 1990s, Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler observed that “it's easy to forget that a quarter century ago there was no one singing like Aretha Franklin.” He added, “Today, pop music is rich with glorious voices, females in Aretha's mold.” As Queen of Soul, Franklin has reigned supreme for the last four decades. Her music incorporates gospel, jazz, blues, and pop; and her voice brings spiritual inspiration to her gender, race, and the world.

Copyright © 2012 by Visible Ink Press®

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