The outpouring of emotion was there for all to see, when the world heard of the death of singer Aretha Franklin. My personal social media feed, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram was awash with photos of her from various stages of her life/career as well countless YouTube clips of her performing song after song from a fantastic back catalogue.
If there was any doubt as to who can rightly claim to be called the ‘Queen of Soul’ I think that particular poll can be closed forever.
It really is job done.
Like most of my contemporaries my introduction to the songs of Aretha would have come from the likes of ‘Respect’ and ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ which I would have become aware of in my early 20s, though I’m sure I would have heard them at family parties when I was but a nipper. Both of those quickly became staples of any DJ set I put together during that latter period and the search for the various albums by her continued for many years after that.
She was born in 1942 in Memphis Tennessee though her family were on the move early into her life, first to Buffalo in upstate New York and then to Detroit. Her father CL Franklin was a Baptist minister at the New Bethel church there and her mother Barbara was a fine singer and an accomplished piano player.
CL had many extra martial affairs and their marriage collapsed with Barbara leaving Detroit and moving back to New York. She visited the family regularly though before she died in 1952, when Aretha was 10.
By that age Aretha had taught herself to play the piano by ear, picking up tunes from the radio, and she never did learn to read music.
She was a two-time mother by the early age of 14 and by then already on the road performing professionally. Her grandmother and sister Erma, later to be a singer in her own right, cared for the children.
CL had become very much the celebrity preacher by then and he also managed his daughter’s career as she began to accompany him on his tours around the country.
Aretha began her recording career in 1956, with the releases being gospel in flavour at that stage.
At 16 she was also on tour with Dr Martin Luther King and would later donate money from her singing career to cover wages for those involved in the civil right organisation. She also performed at benefits and fundraisers on a regular basis and was jailed on one occasion after getting caught up in a protest.
‘I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace.’ She later remarked.
She would later sing at Dr King’s 1968 funeral.
Looking to explore the possibilities of developing a secular career, thus following in the footsteps of her personal inspirations, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke prominent among them.
The first step to achieving that, involved a move to New York City and signing with Columbia records in 1960. Label executive and chief talent scout, John Hammond was delighted have captured her signature. ‘Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo’ became her first album in 1961, with the single ‘Won’t Be Long’ hitting number 7 in R&B chart.
She picked up the epithet ‘The Queen of Soul’ as early as 1964, but despite being a high earner on the live circuit, commercial success evaded her.
‘I cherish the albums we made together, but Columbia was a white company who misunderstood her genius.” Hammond would later comment. Upon the end of her contract at Columbia, she signed with Atlantic.
‘I don’t think there’s anybody I have known who possesses an instrument like hers and who has such a thorough background in gospel, the blues and the essential black-music idiom’ – Ahmet Ertegun, label boss at Atlantic.
Soon, she was recording at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals.
‘These cats are really greasy,’ her producer Jerry Wexler, said ‘You’re going to love it.’
It was obviously a better fit for her voice and songs that came from those early sessions include ‘I Never Loved A Man’ written by Ronnie Shannon and its classic B-side ‘Do Right Woman’ written by Penn and Oldham only emphasised that fact.
Chart success was immediate and she soon had her first number one in the pop charts with her cover of the Otis Redding song ‘Respect’ recorded on Valentines Day 1967 and then released in the April of the same year. It quickly became a gender and racial equality anthem.
‘They say that’s its a man’s world, but you can’t prove that by me, so as long as we’re together baby, you better show some respect for me.’
Her special relationship with producer Wexler went on to produce a whole heap of fabulous tunes such as ‘Natural Woman’ ‘Think’ ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ ‘Dr. Feelgood’ and ‘Chain of Fools.’ These and many more made up a grand total of 43 top 40 hit singles.
February 1968 saw her pick up the first two Grammys of the 17 she would eventually win overall, and also make the front cover of ‘Time’ magazine in the June.
Then returning to her gospel roots, her 1971 album ‘Amazing Grace’ went on to sell two million copies.
The top ten hits followed through to the early 70s, with ‘Day Dreaming’ -a personal fave of mine – ‘Rock Steady’ and ‘Spanish Harlem.’
She memorably appeared in the 1980 film ‘The Blues Brothers’ as a singing waitress and she was back in the charts in 1982 with the song ‘Jump To It’ produced by Luther Vandross, by this time on the Arista label. She was once again selling big numbers especially the duet ‘I Knew You Were Waiting’ with George Michael in 1986. Her career numbers would end up with 75 million records sold worldwide.
She received the Presidential Medal of Honour, the highest USA civilian award, in 2005.
She would sing ‘My Country, Tis of Thee’ at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009, following on from performances at the inauguration concerts for Jimmy Carter in 1977 and Bill Clinton in 1993.
‘American history wells up when Aretha sings’- Barack Obama.
She discovered in 2010 she was suffering from a tumour and surgery took place, signalling the beginning of health problems in the coming years.
Aretha Louise Franklin – ‘Lady Soul’ – died on August 16th in Detroit from advanced pancreatic cancer,aged 76.
Goodnight, God bless.
The Mumper of SE5