Aretha Franklin Biography

25 March 1942, Memphis, Tennessee, USA. Aretha Franklin’s music is steeped in the traditions of the church. Her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a Baptist preacher who, once he had moved his family to Detroit, became famous throughout black America for his fiery sermons and magnetic public appearances. He knew the major gospel stars Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, who in turn gave his daughter valuable tutelage, along with two other sisters Erma and Carolyn. At the age of 12, Aretha was promoted from the choir to become a featured soloist. Two years later she began recording for JVB and Checker. Between 1956 and 1960, her output consisted solely of devotional material, but the secular success of Sam Cooke encouraged a change of emphasis. Franklin auditioned for John Hammond Jnr. , who signed her to Columbia Records. Sadly, the company was indecisive on how best to showcase her remarkable talent. They tried blues, cocktail jazz, standards, pop songs and contemporary soul hits, each of which wasted the singer’s natural improvisational instincts. There were some occasional bright spots - ‘Runnin’ Out Of Fools’ (1964) and ‘Cry Like A Baby’ (1966) - but in both cases content succeeded over style.

After a dozen albums, a disillusioned Franklin joined Atlantic Records in 1966, where the magnificent ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)’, recorded in January 1967 in New York, declared her liberation. An album was scheduled to be made in Muscle Shoals, but Franklin’s husband Ted White had an argument with the owner of Fame Studios, Rick Hall. At short notice Jerry Wexler flew the musicians to New York. The single soared into the US Top 10 and, coupled with the expressive ‘Do Right Woman - Do Right Man’, only the backing track of which was recorded in Alabama, it announced the arrival of a major artist. The releases that followed - ‘Respect’, ‘Baby I Love You’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, ‘Chain Of Fools’ and ‘(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone’ - many of which featured the Fame rhythm section ‘borrowed’ by Wexler for sessions in New York, confirmed her authority and claim to being the ‘Queen Of Soul’. The conditions and atmosphere created by Wexler and the outstanding musicians gave Franklin such confidence that her voice gained amazing power and control.

Despite Franklin’s professional success, her personal life grew confused. Her relationship with husband and manager White disintegrated, and while excellent singles such as ‘Think’ still appeared, others betrayed a discernible lethargy. She followed ‘Think’ with a sublime cover version of Hal David and Burt Bacharach’s ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, giving power and authority to simple yet delightful lyrics: ‘the moment I wake up, before I put on my make-up, I say a little prayer for you’. Following a slight dip in her fortunes during the late 60s, she had regained her powers in 1970 as ‘Call Me’, ‘Spirit In The Dark’ and ‘Don’t Play That Song’ ably testified. Aretha Live At Fillmore West (1971), meanwhile, restated her in-concert power. The following year, another live appearance resulted in Amazing Grace, a double gospel set recorded with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. Its passion encapsulated her career to date. Franklin continued to record strong material throughout the early 70s and enjoyed three R&B chart-toppers, ‘Angel’, ‘Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)’ and ‘I’m In Love’. Sadly, the rest of the decade was marred by recordings that were at best predictable, at worst dull. It was never the fault of Franklin’s voice, merely that the material was often poor and indifferent. Her cameo role in the movie The Blues Brothers, however, rekindled her flagging career.

Franklin moved to Arista Records in 1980 and she immediately regained a commercial momentum with ‘United Together’ and two confident albums, Aretha and Love All The Hurt Away. ‘Jump To It’ and ‘Get It Right’, both written and produced by Luther Vandross, and Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, continued her rejuvenation. From the album, produced by Narada Michael Walden, Franklin had hit singles with ‘Freeway Of Love’, ‘Another Night’ and the superb title track. In the mid-80s, she made the charts again, in company with Annie Lennox (‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’) and George Michael (‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’), which went to number 1 in the USA and UK in 1987. Though by now lacking the instinct of her classic Atlantic recordings, Franklin’s ‘return to gospel’ One Lord One Faith One Baptism proved she was still a commanding singer. Through The Storm, from 1989, contained more powerful duets, this time with Elton John on the title track, James Brown (‘Gimme Some Lovin’’, remixed by Prince for 12-inch), and Whitney Houston (‘It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be’). The album also included a remake of her 1968 US Top 10 title, ‘Think’.

Franklin’s first album of the 90s, What You See Is What You Sweat, was criticised for its cornucopia of different styles: a couple of tracks by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager; a collaboration with Luther Vandross; a fairly thin title ballad; and the highlight, ‘Everyday People’, a mainstream disco number, written by Sly Stone and brilliantly produced by Narada Michael Walden. Another lengthy hiatus ensued before the release of 1998’s impressive A Rose Is Still A Rose, on which Franklin co-opted the songwriting and production talents of the cream of contemporary urban music. She re-confirmed her creative renaissance with the follow-up So Damn Happy. Released in 2003, it is unquestionably one of the best albums of Franklin’s career.

Franklin possesses an astonishing voice that has often been wasted on a poor choice of material, but she is rightfully heralded as the Queen of Soul, even though that reputation was gained in the 60s. There are certain musical notes that can be played on a saxophone that are chilling; similarly, there are sounds above the twelfth fret on a guitar that are orgasmic - Aretha Franklin is better than any instrument, as she can hit notes that do not exist in instrumental terms. Her vocal range and depth is truly remarkable. The superlative 4-CD box set Queen Of Soul, highlighting the best of her Atlantic recordings, confirmed her position as one of the greatest voices, if not the greatest, in recording history.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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