Written by Malvika Padin
Frequency 21 recognizes a simple fact, that black people have had an incredibly huge contribution to music over the decades. This is not just in a particular genre, but across all of them. Since Black History Month is about celebrating the contributions that black people have brought to the world across the ages, it seems only right that we should do our part by releasing four profiles on four artists, one to be released every week. These artists have contributed to music by either being a trendsetter, key founder of a particular genre, or a role model to the musical world across different genres. To continue our feature of celebrating Black History Month, we have decided to focus an article on the inspirational Aretha Franklin.
Multiple Grammy award winner Aretha Franklin helped drive two of the biggest cultural movements – civil rights and women’s movements. For these reasons and many more, this inspirational Queen of Soul deserves a mention in F21’s Black History Month special.
Aretha Louise Franklin, born in Memphis, Tennessee, on 25th March, 1942. Franklin, the fourth of five children -born to Reverend Clarence La Vaughan “C. L.” Franklin and Barbara Siggers Franklin, a gospel singer- displayed her musical gift at an early age. Largely self-taught, the prodigal Franklin was a gifted pianist with a strong voice.
By age 14 she had already recorded some her earliest tracks at her father’s church and begun performing at his travelling revival shows.
Life on the road exposed Aretha to adult behaviour and she became a mother –for the first time at 14 and then again at 16. After a brief hiatus – to focus on motherhood – she returned to performing and following her heroes such as Cooke and Dinah Washington into pop and blue territories.
In 1960, she travelled to New York, signed with Columbia Records and in 1961 released her album Aretha, two tracks of which went on to make the R&B Top 10. Bigger success awaited Aretha with her single Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody, which crossed over to No. 37 on the pop charts.
However, over the next few years, Aretha’s music failed to showcase her full talents and only enjoyed moderate success.
Moving record labels to Atlantic in 1966, Franklin hit her stride in the following two years, creating singles – showcasing her powerful voice and gospel roots- that would go on to become classics. The album Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) was released and the song Respect – a cover of the Otis Redding track – went on to reach No.1 on both the R&B and pop charts and won Aretha her first two Grammys
She continued to churn out multiple hits – I Say a Little Prayer, Think, and Chain of Fools, all of which hit reached the Top 10s. Her chart dominance earned her the title ‘Queen of Soul’ and established her as a symbol of black empowerment. She contributed to Dr. King’s movement with her 1967 single, Respect, which promoted civil rights and female empowerment. The year of 1968 saw her being enlisted to sing – a heartfelt rendition of Precious Lord – at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, following which she was also chosen to sing the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago.
Besides Respect, which became an unofficial anthem for the cause her other songs such as — You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman, Young, Gifted, and Black, and Think, all reflecting the growing militancy of African Americans in challenging racial oppression also gained attention.
As her career peaked, Franklin saw upheavals in her personal life, with a divorce from her husband in 1969. But this did nothing to slow her rise as she produced more hit singles.
Aretha’s success continued throughout the early 1970s branching out to expand her repertoire to rock and pop.
The 1972 album Amazing Grace – which marked Aretha’s return to her gospel origin – sold more than 2 million copies and went on to become the best-selling gospel album of all time. An album reflecting Aretha’s social, political and personal goals, this legendary album gives us a chance – even today- to know what it was like to hear the Queen of Soul sing gospel in her prime.
Then came 1985, when Aretha returned to the top of the charts with smash-hit, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? She hit No.1 on the pop charts, in her 1986 album featuring George Michael.
From here on out were a lot of firsts in Aretha’s life – from becoming the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 to being awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and Kennedy Centre Honours in 1993 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
The second woman ever to be inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame, Franklin also has 18 Grammys under her belt (eight of which were consecutive wins) and is one of the most honoured artists in Grammy history.
In the 2000s, the Queen of Soul still reigned supreme with an album released under own label, A Woman Falling Out of Love.
One of America’s biggest stars with reach that extends beyond music, Aretha Franklin is an example that any artist -who wants to use their music to make a difference to the world -needs to learn from.
You can check out Aretha Franklin’s stirring performance of You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015 here.