Aretha Franklin Biography

With her gospel-influenced voice and overpowering performances, Franklin stretched the boundaries of rhythm-and-blues and soul music, becoming known as the Queen of Soul.

Born: March 25, 1942; Memphis, Tennessee

The Life

Aretha (ah-REE-thah) Louise Franklin was born to the Reverend C. L. Franklin, a Baptist minister and gospel singer, and Barbara Siggers Franklin. When Franklin was six years old, her mother abandoned the family and died a few years later. Franklin and her family moved to Buffalo,NewYork, and then to Detroit, Michigan, where her father became the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in Detroit. At age eight, Franklin joined the choir, and at age twelve, she was singing solo. While attending her father’s church, Franklin embraced the music around her and molded her style. Franklin grew up on the east side of Detroit in a large house shaded by trees, but she was shy and isolated as a child.

Franklin had several mother surrogates, such as Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams, and Clara Ward, who were world-renowned gospel singers, and they had a great impact on her career. Franklin took piano lessons as early as age eight, but she was not disciplined enough to study the instrument. She disliked practicing beginner songs, wanting to playmore sophisticated songs immediately. Franklin’s father was an emotional gospel singer who befriended popular gospel and soul singers, and his powerful sermons moved large congregations. Franklin had a close relationship with her father, and she had a great desire to please him. At age fourteen, she dropped out of school in order to travel with her father and other performers. Her father preached and sang gospel songs, and she joined him in song. By age fifteen Franklin had her first child, and by age seventeen she had her second child. Her children remained in Detroit while Franklin continued her music career and recorded demo tapes with her father’s friends. In 1961 Franklin married Ted White, who was eleven years her senior. He was involved in real estate, and later he became Franklin’s manager. White and Franklin had an abusive marriage, and in 1969 they divorced.

Franklin married two more times: to musician Ken Cunningham and to actor Glynn Turman. She bore two more children, one son with White and another son with Cunningham. On June 10, 1979, Franklin’s father was shot during a robbery in his Detroit home. This left him in a comatose state for more than five years, until his death on July 7, 1984. The Music Franklin’s style was largely influenced by her father’s and Ward’s gospel singing. At eighteen years of age, Franklin decided to focus her career on pop music by signing for the Columbia Records label in 1960. She then signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, and in 1980 she signed with the Arista Records label. Franklin brought her gospel-inspired singing to soul music, and her songs display her exceptional vocal power and nuances of black vocal traditions. Early Works. Franklin was first recorded at the age of fourteen in a live session by the Checkers label in 1956. The album contains a set of gospel songs, including “Precious Lord.” Her album Aretha contains twelve songs, and it features Franklin playing the piano. On this album her song “Today I Sing the Blues” reached number ten on the rhythm-and-blues charts. Other songs on this album include “Over the Rainbow” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” In the early 1970’s Franklin released several albums geared thematically toward the Black Power social and political movement of the time, which promoted racial pride. This Girl’s in Love with You, Spirit in the Dark, and Young, Gifted, and Black all feature Franklin playing the piano in a gospel style, while Aretha Live at Fillmore West showcases Franklin’s ability to blend with a dominating rock sound. One of her most successful albums during this time period was Amazing Grace, which signaled a return to her roots, gospel music.

“Respect.” Franklin premiered “Respect” in the spring of 1967, and she recorded it on her album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Her interpretation of the song was much different from that of its originator, Otis Redding. Franklin approached the song with a full-throated ascending shout of freedom. The song utilizes background singers that provide a response to Franklin’s phrases. During the vamp section, Franklin employs lyric improvisation by developing the lyric in a way that meets her personal style. The song reached number one on the pop singles chart. “Chain of Fools.” “Chain of Fools” was first released as a single in 1967. Later, it appeared in several of Franklin’s albums. The word chain is emphasized, through repetition and through stressing the syllables “a-ee,” scooping from one note to the next. The overall song is in binary form with a verse and choral refrain, and there is an antiphonal texture during the repetitive chorus section. Franklin begins the verses in the upper range and drops her voice down the blues scale. During the a cappella section, hand-claps accompany Franklin and the background singers, reminiscent of early gospel male vocal quartets. During the vamp, the word chain continues to be emphasized, but Franklin adds lyric variation with her unpredictable soaring phrases. The song reached number one on the rhythm-and-blues charts and number two on the pop charts. “Natural Woman.”

Franklin recorded “Natural Woman” in 1967. In the beginning of this song, the piano is played in a gospel style at a moderate tempo, and Franklin sings with exquisite expression. Although Franklin was only twenty-five at the time she recorded “Natural Woman,” she sounds as if she were a much older woman who had overcome a lifetime of obstacles. The background singers create an antiphonal texture throughout the verses by harmonizing and scooping the syllables “ah-ew.” During the chorus, the background singers join Franklin in creating a heterophonic texture, and she utilizes lyric variation during the vamp as the song comes to an end. “Natural Woman” reached number two on the pop charts and number eight on the Billboard Hot 100. “I Never Loved aMan the Way I Love You.” “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” was one of Franklin’s most popular songs, and it was the title of an album released in 1967. Franklin sings this song with liberty, using a scooping technique, and her soaring voice is similar to a cry of pain. Very little background singing is utilized in the song. At the end of the piece Franklin transitions directly into a lyric variation as she extends the text by embellishing the lyrics. The song reached number one on the rhythm-and-blues charts and number nine on the pop charts. “Think.” “Think” was released in 1968 on Aretha Now.

The song is an anthem for women, encouraging them to demand the respect and the freedom they deserve. A fast-paced song, it begins with the piano being played in a gospel style and with the background singers creating an antiphonal texture. Between the verses, Franklin adds lyrical variation by filling in musical moments with material (such as an emotional, soaring wail) based on the lyrics. At the end of the song she employs lyric improvisation during the vamp, similar to many of her songs. “Think” reached number seven on the pop singles chart and number one on the black singles chart. “Young, Gifted, and Black.” “Young, Gifted, and Black” was released in 1971 on Franklin’s albumYoung, Gifted, and Black, which won aGrammy Award for Best Female Vocal Performance. The song was originally recorded in 1969 by Nina Simone, a singer, songwriter, pianist, and civil rights activist, under the title “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” The song celebrates and encourages young blacks during a time of blatant racism. Franklin sings with emotional power, beginning with a call-and-response pattern between Franklin and the piano. Shortly after the introduction, the background singers join her. This song reached number two on the rhythm-and-blues charts and number eleven on the pop charts.

Musical Legacy

At a young age, Franklin captivated the world with her soulful voice, and she remains a dominating figure. Her songs confront her personal life and the political movements of her time. She applied her gospel-inspired voice to soul music as well as to rock and roll. She has been honored with eighteen Grammy Awards, six gold albums, and fourteen gold singles. She was the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Tags: USA, Singer, 1940-1949