Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942. A gifted singer and pianist, Franklin toured with her father’s traveling revival show and later visited New York, where she signed with Columbia Records. Franklin went on to release several popular singles, many of which are now considered classics.
In 1987, she became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2008 she won her 18th Grammy Award, making her one of the most honored artists in Grammy history.
The fourth of five children, Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, to Baptist preacher Reverend Clarence La Vaughan “C. L.” Franklin and Barbara Siggers Franklin, a gospel singer. Franklin’s parents separated by the time she was six, and four years later her mother succumbed to a heart attack. Guided by C. L.’s preaching assignments, the family relocated to Detroit, Michigan. C. L. eventually landed at New Bethel Baptist Church, where he gained national renown as a preacher.
Aretha Franklin’s musical gifts became apparent at an early age. Largely self-taught, she was regarded as a child prodigy. A gifted pianist with a powerful voice, Franklin got her start singing in front of her father’s congregation. By the age of 14, she had recorded some of her earliest tracks at his church, which were released by a small label as the album Songs of Faith in 1956. She also performed with C. L.’s traveling revival show and, while on tour, befriended gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Clara Ward.
But life on the road also exposed Franklin to adult behaviors, and at the age of 14, she became a mother for the first time. A second child followed two years later. After a brief hiatus, Franklin returned to performing and followed heroes such as Cooke and Dinah Washington into pop and blues territory. In 1960, with her father’s blessing, Franklin traveled to New York, where after being courted by several labels, including Motown and RCA, she signed with Columbia Records, who released the album Aretha in 1961.
Though two tracks from Aretha would make the R&B Top 10, a bigger success came that same year with the single “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” which crossed over to No. 37 on the pop charts. But while Franklin enjoyed moderate results with her recordings over the next few years, they failed to fully showcase her immense talent. In 1966, she and her new husband and manager, Ted White, decided a move was in order, and Franklin signed to Atlantic. Producer Jerry Wexler immediately shuttled Franklin to the studios at the Florence Alabama Musical Emporium.
Backed by the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section—which included session guitarists Eric Clapton and Duane Allman—Aretha recorded the single “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” In the midst of the recording sessions, White quarreled with a member of the band, and White and Franklin left abruptly. But as the single became a massive Top 10 hit, Franklin re-emerged in New York and was able to complete the partially recorded track, “Do Right Woman—Do Right Man.”
The Reign of the Queen of Soul
Hitting her stride in 1967 and 1968, Franklin churned out a string of hit singles that would become enduring classics, showcasing Franklin’s powerful voice and gospel roots in a pop framework. In 1967, the album I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) was released, and the first song on the album, “Respect”—an empowered cover of an Otis Redding track—reached No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts and won Aretha her first two Grammy Awards. She also had Top 10 hits with “Baby I Love You,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Franklin’s chart dominance soon earned her the title “Queen of Soul,” while at the same time she also became a symbol of black empowerment during the civil rights movement of the time. In 1968, Franklin was enlisted to perform at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during which she paid tribute to her father’s fallen friend with a heartfelt rendition of “Precious Lord.” Later that year, she was also selected to sing the national anthem to begin the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Amidst this newfound success, Franklin experienced upheaval in her personal life, and she and White divorced in 1969. But this did not slow Franklin’s steady rise, and the new decade brought more hit singles, including “Don’t Play That Song,” “Spanish Harlem” and her cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Spurred by Mahalia Jackson’s passing and a subsequent resurgence of interest in gospel music, Franklin returned to her musical origins for the 1972 album Amazing Grace, which sold more than 2 million copies and went on to become the best-selling gospel album at the time.
Franklin’s success continued throughout the 1970s, as she branched out to work with producers such as Curtis Mayfield and Quincy Jones and expanded her repertoire to include rock and pop covers. Along the way, she took home eight consecutive Grammy Awards for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance, the last coming for her 1974 single “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
But by 1975, Franklin’s sound was fading into the background with the onset of the disco craze, and an emerging set of young black singers, such as Chaka Khan and Donna Summer, began to eclipse Franklin’s career. She did, however, find a brief respite from slumping sales with the 1976 soundtrack to the Warner Brothers film Sparkle—which topped the R&B charts and made the Top 20 in pop—as well as an invitation to perform at the 1977 presidential inauguration of Jimmy Carter. In 1978, she also remarried, to actor Glynn Turman.
A string of chart failures ended Franklin’s relationship with Atlantic in 1979. The same year, her father was hospitalized after a burglary attempt in his home left him in a coma. As her popularity waned and her father’s health declined, Franklin was also saddled with a massive bill from the IRS. However, a cameo in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers helped Franklin revive her flagging career. Performing “Think” alongside comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd exposed her to a new generation of R&B lovers, and she soon signed to Arista Records.
Her new label released 1982’s Jump To It, an album that enjoyed huge success on the R&B charts and earned Franklin a Grammy nomination. Two years later, she endured a divorce from Turman as well as the death of her father.
Back to the Top
In 1985, Franklin returned to the top of the charts with a smash-hit album: the polished pop record Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Featuring the single “Freeway of Love,” as well as a collaboration with the popular rock band the Eurythmics, the record became Aretha’s biggest-selling album yet. Her follow-up, 1986’s Aretha, also charted well and eventually went gold, and her duet with British singer George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” hit No. 1 on the pop charts.
In 1987, Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was also awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Detroit. That same year, she released the album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, which won the Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance.
Following another relatively quiet period in her career, in 1993, Franklin was invited to sing at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, and the following year she received both a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors. She would also be the focus of multiple documentaries and tributes as the decade progressed. Nearing its conclusion, Franklin reprised her former role in Blues Brothers 2000, released the gold-selling “A Rose Is Still a Rose” and stood in for Luciano Pavarotti, who was too ill to accept his Lifetime Achievement Award, with her rendition of “Nessun Dorma” commanding stellar reviews.
With 18 Grammys under her belt, Franklin is one of the most honored artists in Grammy history, ranked among the likes of Alison Krauss, Adele and Beyoncé Knowles. In 2011, Franklin released her first album on her own label, A Woman Falling Out of Love. To support the project, she performed several concerts, including a two-night stint at the famed Radio City Music Hall in New York. With fans and critics alike impressed with her performances, she successfully proved that the Queen of Soul still reigns supreme.