Remembering Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin is not an easy woman to describe.
The first female inductee in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone's no. 1 Greatest Singer of All Time, the Queen of Soul. The daughter of a celebrated preacher, a mother at thirteen, an activist. In the words of Obama, someone who "helped define the American experience". In her own: a singer for "people who accept it like it is." To list every one of her accolades and achievements would be nearly impossible. However, what's most compelling about Franklin is that her rise wasn't meteoric. Even the Queen of Soul did not become so overnight.
Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee to Clarence and Barbara Franklin. Clarence was a popular preacher originally from Mississippi and Barbara was a singer and pianist. Clarence, known as C.L., notably led the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom.
Aretha was C.L. and Barbara’s first and only child together, as they separated when she was four years old after moving the family to Detroit. Barbara returned to Buffalo, New York and left Franklin with her father. She died from a heart attack when Franklin was ten years old.
By 1956 she was already a big deal, a 14-year-old with the voice of an angel and a debut gospel album under her belt, as well as a burgeoning interest in blues, doo-wop and Broadway. The daughter of one of one of the most famous black reverends in the country, with two talented sisters and family friends that read like a laundry list of the civil rights movement's best and brightest - for anyone else it would have been hard to stand out. Despite that, her talent was evident from the start, and her transition from gospel to secular music was a natural one.
The Queen of Soul began singing at church, and soon she started traveling with her father to perform at services. She signed her first record deal for a gospel album with J.V.B. Records. When Franklin was only fourteen, she released her album Songs of Faith. After meeting the famous singer and songwriter Sam Cooke in 1958, she embarked on a tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Both of her sons were taken care of by her sister Erma and godmother Rachel.
Franklin briefly attended Northern High School in Detroit, but dropped out during her sophomore year to pursue her musical career. Her desire to move away from gospel music and record pop music led her to settle in New York, where she eventually signed with Columbia Records. “Today I Sing the Blues," her first single, was on the top ten chart for Hot Rhythm and Blues in 1960, marking her early success as a pop artist.
Once in that new space, however, it took her a while to find her feet. Specifically, it took nine albums, spanning everything from pop to show tunes, a solid decade of performing and recording, and a label hop from Columbia to Atlantic. New collaborator and vice-president of the label Jerry Wexler urged her to travel south to complete her newest project and, when tensions in the studio made that impossible, insisted on flying an entire rhythm section on a plane to New York. The result was inspired, a quintessential soul album that cemented the hallmarks of the genre among critics and general audiences who still didn't know its full potential. Aretha had arrived at her sound, and success was not far behind.
Franklin became a mother to her first of four sons at the age of twelve. She named her firstborn Clarence, after her father. She had her second son, Edward, when she was fourteen. Franklin married Ted White five years later and had her third son, Ted White Jr., in 1964. Their tumultuous marriage lasted until Franklin left him in 1968, citing domestic abuse. She divorced him the following year. she had a relationship with her road manager, Ken Cunningham, and had his child, her fourth son, in 1970.
Nine years after her first unsuccessful marriage, Franklin remarried actor Glynn Turman. On June 10, 1979, Franklin's father, Clarence, was shot twice and fell into a six-month long coma. Franklin left Los Angeles to return home to Detroit to be with her father whose health was declining. Franklin and Turman separated after four years of marriage and divorced in 1984, the same year Clarence Franklin passed away.
In 2005, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She has also received ten honorary degrees from prestigious American universities, including Yale, Brown, and Harvard. Former President Obama said of her legacy following her performance at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope”.
On August 16, 2018, she died of complications from a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor at the age of seventy-six. Aretha was in her home of Detroit.
Her career was much more far-reaching than that of simply a songstress. Franklin has become a symbol of black excellence and American culture. She embodied a powerful and influential black woman who was able to succeed as a solo pop artist in an era and industry wrought with biases.
Her 1967 cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect" quickly became an anthem for feminism and the civil rights movement. As a male singing the song, Otis’ version is asking for respect from a woman he is providing for. Conversely, in Franklin's version, she is asking for respect as a woman. While Otis’ version was not particularly popular, Franklin's became a chart-topping hit and instant classic. The song presents respect as something that should be both given and received, not one-sided. In her memoir Aretha: From These Roots, she explained that “Respect" spoke to “the need of a nation...it was one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance”. The idea of a black woman asking for respect was unusual at the time, but her compelling vocals made it clear that she deserved it. "Respect" shook both the critical and commercial world with its sheer power, becoming as fast of a favorite at the discos as it was in the civil rights world. With its success came a new slew of firsts: the first African American woman to grace the cover of Time Magazine, a day in her honor declared by the mayor of Detroit, a standing room only performance at the DNC.
One of her boldest political statements occurred in 1970, when she offered to post bail for Angela Davis, a political activist connected to communism who had been arrested for a courtroom shooting in California that resulted in the death of four individuals. In an interview with Jet Magazine, Franklin said, “Black people will be free…jail is hell to be in…I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people." Franklin was discouraged by her father, but stood behind her desire to stand up for Davis, who was later acquitted.
Aretha Franklin’s undeniable talent allowed her to break barriers and solidify herself as one of the great musical icons of the twentieth century. She was able to rise as a star from her gospel roots and not only make but maintain a lasting career and legacy.