“Aretha Franklin is the undisputed ‘Queen of Soul’ and the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” (rockhall). “More than any other performer, she epitomized soul at its most gospel-charged” (Unterberger); her “finest recordings define the term soul music in all its deep, expressive glory. As Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun observed, ‘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…She is blessed with an extraordinary combination of remarkable urban sophistication and of the deep blues feeling that comes from the Delta. The result is maybe the greatest singer of our time’” (rockhall).
“As a measure of her impact, Aretha Franklin has charted more Top Forty singles – forty-five in all, since 1961 – more than any other female performer” (rockhall). “Yet as much of an international institution as she's become, much of her work – outside of her recordings for Atlantic in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – is erratic and only fitfully inspired, making discretion a necessity when collecting her records” (Unterberger).
Franklin was born in Memphis and raised in Buffalo and Detroit. “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 1950s” (Unterberger). Her father was “one of the best-known religious orators of the day…[and] a friend and colleague of Martin Luther King. Aretha…recorded her first album, The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin, at fourteen” (rockhall). The album was “released on the Detroit-based JVB Records…[and] reissued thirty years later as Aretha Gospel” (rockhall).
“Her greatest influence was her aunt, Clara Ward, a renowned singer of sacred music. Beyond her family, Franklin drew from masters of the blues (Billie Holiday), jazz (Sarah Vaughn) and gospel (Mahalia Jackson [and Reverend James Cleveland]), forging a contemporary synthesis that spoke to the younger generation in the new language of soul” (rockhall).
Columbia Records, 1960-1965:
Still, “there's a reasonable amount 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” (Unterberger).
“August 1, 1960: Aretha Franklin records four demos in New York City, which lead to a contract with Columbia Records” (rockhall) later that year after “legendary talent scout” (SHOF) “John Hammond heard a demo she cut in New York. She remained at Columbia for six years” (rockhall), “never truly breaking out as a star” (Unterberger). In fact, her only top 40 hit during that time was a cover of an Al Jolson tune, Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.
During that time, she recorded “ten albums that failed to fully tap into her capabilities. Paired with pop-minded producers, she dabbled in a variety of styles without finding her voice. Franklin was never averse to the idea of crossover music, being a connoisseur of pop and show tunes, but she needed to interpret them in her own uncompromising way. In Hammond’s words, ‘I cherish the albums we made together, but Columbia was a white company who misunderstood her genius’” (rockhall).
“October 1965: Aretha Franklin’s last recording session for Columbia Records paves the way for her signing to Atlantic Records in 1966” (rockhall).
Atlantic Records, 1966-1979:
Famous producer “Jerry Wexler was waiting in the wings to sign Franklin when her contract with Columbia expired” (rockhall). “It wasn’t until Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, that her signature style was born” (SHOF) and she “proceeded to revolutionize soul music with some of the genre’s greatest recordings” (rockhall). “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” (Unterberger). It was “a smoldering performance that unleashed the full force of Franklin’s mezzo-soprano. Offering call-and-response background vocals on this and other tracks were Carolyn and Erma Franklin (Aretha’s sisters) and Cissy Houston” (rockhall).
“In fact, that was to be her only session actually 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 actually 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 Aretha’s voice, which soared with a passion and intensity suggesting a spirit that had been allowed to fly loose for the first time” (Unterberger).
“Franklin’s greatest triumph – and an enduring milestone in popular music – was Respect. Her fervent reworking of the Otis Redding-penned number can now be viewed as an early volley in the women’s movement. It was the opening track on I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, her classic first album for Atlantic” (rockhall), which, “according to The Rolling Stone Album Guide, “may stand as the greatest single soul album of all time’” (rockhall).
Franklin’s “next three albums – Aretha Arrives (1967), Lady Soul (1968) and Aretha Now (1968) – included Chain of Fools, Think, Baby, I Love You, Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby), and a soulful rendering of Carole King’s A Natural Woman” (rockhall). They helped make her “one of the biggest international recording stars in all of pop” (Unterberger). “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 mid- to large-size hits for the next five years after that” (Unterberger).
“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” (Unterberger) and “released such critically acclaimed albums as Spirit in the Dark (1970)/ Young, Gifted and Black (1972); [and] Live at Fillmore West (1971)” (rockhall). “The first two of these tapped into themes of black pride and feminine empowerment” (rockhall). “Many…saw Franklin as a symbol of black America itself, reflecting the increased confidence and pride of African-Americans in the decade of the civil rights movements and other triumphs for the black community” (Unterberger).
Amazing Grace, “a 1972 double LP, was a reinvestigation of her gospel roots, recorded with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir” (Unterberger) “at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles” (rockhall) . “Remarkably, it made the Top Ten, counting as one of the greatest gospel-pop crossover smashes of all time” (Unterberger).
“Her Atlantic albums were…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” (Unterberger).
Aretha’s “most productive period ran from 1967 through 1972” (rockhall). “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 – but generally her artistic inspiration seemed to be tapering off, and her focus drifting toward more pop-oriented material” (Unterberger) in the later half of the seventies in which attempts were made to shoehorn Aretha’s sound and style into current trends. “Her lengthy tenure with Atlantic came to an end in 1979 after twelve years and nineteen albums” (rockhall).
“In the Eighties she recorded everything from gospel to dance music for Arista Records, finding the upper reaches of the charts with Freeway of Love and Who’s Zoomin’ Who” (rockhall). The former was “the soul diva’s return to the Top Ten for the first time in more than a decade” (rockhall).
“In 1987 Franklin had the second Number One hit of her career – I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me), a duet with George Michael - which came exactly twenty years after she topped the chart with ‘Respect.’ …She struck gold again in 1989 with “Through the Storm,” a duet with Elton John” (rockhall).
“Proving her durability, Franklin scaled the charts in 1998 with A Rose Is Still a Rose, written and produced by Lauryn Hill” (rockhall). The song’s success meant that Aretha had “charted singles in four consecutive decades” (rockhall).
A Summation of Her Work:
“Most would agree that her post-mid-‘70s recordings are fairly inconsequential when judged against her prime Atlantic era. The blame is often laid at the hands of unsuitable material, but it should also be remembered that – like Elvis Presley and Ray Charles – Franklin never thought of herself as confined to one genre. She always loved to sing straight pop songs, even if her early Atlantic records gave one the impression that her true home was earthy soul music” (Unterberger).
“In the meantime, despite her lukewarm recent sales record, she’s an institution, assured of the ability to draw live audiences and immense respect for the rest of her lifetime, regardless of whether there are any more triumphs on record in store” (Unterberger). “The longevity of her career, versatility of her voice, and undeniable depth of her talent has made Aretha Franklin arguably one of the most distinctive interpreters of American popular song” (SHOF).