Aretha Franklin was one of the giants of soul music, and indeed of American pop as a whole. More than any other performer, she epitomized soul at its most gospel-charged. Her astonishing run of late-’60s hits with Atlantic Records — “Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby I Love You,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Think,” “The House That Jack Built,” and many others — earned her the title Queen of Soul. Franklin never rested on her laurels. Following the early-’70s LPs Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted and Black, she scored more hits on the R&B charts than pop, adeptly following the progression of soul in the ’70s and ’80s thanks to her collaborations with Curtis Mayfield (1976′s Sparkle) and Luther Vandross (1982′s Jump to It). Franklin made a triumphant return to pop with 1985′s Who's Zoomin' Who? and its Top Ten single “Freeway of Love,” which was followed in 1987 by the George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” which became her first number one hit on the Billboard charts since “Respect” in 1967. Franklin spent the next three decades performing and recording regularly, maintaining her status as the Queen of Soul until her death in 2018.
Franklin’s roots in gospel ran extremely deep. With her sisters Carolyn and Erma (both of whom would also have recording careers), she sang at the Detroit church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, while growing up in the ’50s. In fact, she made her first recordings as a gospel artist at the age of 14. It has also been reported that Motown was interested in signing her back in the days when it was a tiny start-up. Ultimately, however, Franklin ended up with Columbia, to which she was signed by the renowned talent scout John Hammond.
Franklin would record for Columbia constantly throughout the first half of the ’60s, notching occasional R&B hits (and one Top 40 single, “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”) but never truly breaking out as a star. The Columbia period continues to generate considerable controversy among critics, many of whom feel that Franklin’s true aspirations were being blunted by pop-oriented material and production. In fact, there are a number of fine items to be found on the Columbia sides, including the occasional song (“Lee Cross,” “Soulville”) where she belts out soul with real gusto. It’s undeniably true, though, that her work at Columbia was considerably tamer than what was to follow, and suffered in general from a lack of direction and an apparent emphasis on trying to develop her as an all-around entertainer, rather than as an R&B/soul singer.
When Franklin left Columbia for Atlantic, producer Jerry Wexler was determined to bring out her most soulful, fiery traits. As part of that plan, he had her record her first single, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” at Muscle Shoals in Alabama with esteemed Southern R&B musicians. In fact, that was to be her only actual session at Muscle Shoals, but much of the remainder of her ’60s work would be recorded with the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, although the sessions would take place in New York City. The combination was one of those magic instances of musical alchemy in pop: the backup musicians provided a much grittier, soulful, and R&B-based accompaniment for Franklin’s voice, which soared with a passion and intensity suggesting a spirit that had been allowed to fly loose for the first time.
In the late ’60s, Franklin became one of the biggest international recording stars in all of pop. Many also saw her as a symbol of Black America itself, reflecting the increased confidence and pride of African-Americans in the decade of the Civil Rights movement and other triumphs for the Black community. The chart statistics are impressive in and of themselves: ten Top Ten hits in a roughly 18-month span between early 1967 and late 1968, for instance, and a steady stream of solid medium to large hits for the next five years after that. Her Atlantic albums were also huge sellers, and far more consistent artistically than those of most soul stars of the era. Franklin was able to maintain creative momentum, in part because of her eclectic choice of material, which encompassed first-class originals and gospel, blues, pop, and rock covers, from the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel to Sam Cooke and the Drifters. She was also a fine, forceful, and somewhat underrated keyboardist.
Franklin’s commercial and artistic success was unabated in the early ’70s, during which she landed more huge hits with “Spanish Harlem,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “Day Dreaming.” She also produced two of her most respected, and earthiest, album releases with Live at Fillmore West and Amazing Grace. The latter, a 1972 double LP, was a reinvestigation of her gospel roots, recorded with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. Remarkably, it hit the Top Ten, making it one of the greatest gospel-pop crossover smashes of all time.
Franklin had a few more hits over the next few years — “Angel” and the Stevie Wonder cover “Until You Come Back to Me” being the most notable. Her Atlantic contract ended at the close of the ’70s. She signed with the Clive Davis-guided Arista and scored number one R&B hits with “Jump to It,” “Get It Right,” and “Freeway of Love.” Many of her successes were duets, or crafted with the assistance of contemporaries such as Luther Vandross and Narada Michael Walden. In 1986, Franklin released her follow-up to Who's Zoomin' Who?, the self-titled Aretha, which saw the single “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” a duet with George Michael, hit the top of the charts. There was also another return to gospel in 1987 with One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Franklin shifted back to pop with 1989′s Through the Storm, but it wasn’t a commercial success, and neither was 1991′s new jack swing-styled What You See Is What You Sweat.
After 1994, Franklin eased into elder stateswoman territory, performing regularly and releasing albums every few years. A Rose Is Still a Rose went gold upon its release in 1998, thanks to two number one R&B hits: its title track and “Here We Go Again.” It also contained the Grammy-winning song “Wonderful.” Following 2003′s So Damn Happy, Franklin left Arista after A Rose Is Still a Rose — the label would release Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen in 2007; she formed her own imprint, Aretha’s Records, for 2008′s This Christmas. After 2011′s A Woman Falling Out of Love, she reteamed with Clive Davis at RCA, who connected her with the likes of Babyface and OutKast’s André 3000 for 2014′s Sings the Great Diva Classics, where she covered Gladys Knight, Barbra Streisand, and Adele. A Brand New Me, an archival release featuring classic Aretha vocals in front of newly created orchestral arrangements by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, appeared in 2017.
Also in 2017, Franklin canceled several concerts due to health problems, but she managed to appear at a show celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Elton John AIDS Foundation that November. It turned out to be her last public performance. Over the course of 2018, her health worsened due to pancreatic cancer. Franklin started to receive hospice care on August 13 and died at her home in Detroit three days later. The memorial service held on August 31 at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple featured testimonials from peers, Civil Rights leaders, and politicians, and was televised around the world.
The first posthumous Franklin release was the compilation The Atlantic Singles Collection 1967-1970, which appeared in September 2018. It was followed in March 2019 by the re-release of Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings. The career-spanning four-disc box set Aretha appeared on Atlantic in July 2021, timed to coincide with the release of the Jennifer Hudson-starring biopic Respect. ~ Richie Unterberger & Steve Leggett