Queen of Soul: Remembering the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin

The Dallas Examiner

From the booming riffs of her gospel-inspired singing to her heart bursting lyrics, Aretha Louise Franklin has captivated the nation with her music that even former president Barack Obama claimed had “defined the American experience.”

Franklin, who died Aug. 16 at age 76, due to a longstanding battle with pancreatic cancer, persevered through several decades as the reigning “Queen of Soul” and her life is heavily honored by fans of her prestigious legacy following her death.

“You can hear Aretha Franklin in any female who makes the hairs stand up on your neck when they sing, said Grammy-winning rock singer Melissa Etheridge in a Biography.com interview. “You know they were inspired by Aretha Franklin.”

The illustrious singer was born on March 25, 1942, in the heart of blues and rock ‘n’ roll oasis Memphis, Tennessee. The daughter of local singer Barbara Siggers-Franklin and Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin, a renowned Baptist minister known as “The Man with the Million Dollar Voice,” she was the fourth of five children.

When Aretha was 6 years old, her mother left the family home with her brother and moved to Buffalo, New York, but still remained in contact with Aretha throughout the summer. In her autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots, she explained that during that time her mother was still very loving and responsible, and that she often came to visit them throughout the year and they would visit her during the summer, until she died in 1952, when Aretha was 10 years old.

Her father later moved the family to Detroit, Michigan. In Motown, her father’s popularity as a reverend grew as he developed relationships with many well-known Black innovators, such as gospel legend Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Martin Luther King Jr., who often visited their home. Her father also marched with King during the Civil Rights Movement.

Surrounded by greatness, young Aretha sang for her father’s congregation and taught herself how to play the piano by ear in the mid-1950s. Her father began bringing the child singer on tour when she was 12. She would perform at various churches.

In 1955, she gave birth to her first child, who she named Clarence Franklin after her father.

In 1956, she released her first gospel album, Songs of Faith, which was recorded live at her father’s church, New Bethel Baptist Church. The album included gospel favorites, Precious Lord, Never Grow Old and There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.

In 1957, she gave birth to her second child, Edward Franklin.

At age 16, the young mother of two boys began traveling with King during his civil rights tours across the nation. She continued to be a part of the movement for many years.

“Aretha was the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. She and her father were very significant when it comes to the influential people who supported our co-founder and first president, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” stated Dr. Charles Steele Jr., president and CEO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “And just like Gospel Great Mahalia Jackson, Aretha was there providing support with her voice. Given that voluminous voice she possessed, she motivated folks, not only through Rhythm and Blues, but also gospel. The first time Dr. King gave the I Have a Dream speech was in Detroit in June of 1963 – and the March on Washington was the following August. The largest march prior to the historic March on Washington was in Detroit, and she and her father were involved in that march and movement. That Detroit rally provided the motivation, excitement and energy we needed to mobilize people to Washington where Dr. King gave the famous I Have A Dream speech, which became renown and documented as one of the greatest speeches in history.”

Determined to make a better life for her sons, the musical icon left for New York at the age of 18 to launch her music career with family friend Sam Cooke.

In 1960, Aretha signed her first deal with Columbia Records and released her first single, Today I Sing the Blues, which reached Top 10 on the R&B charts.

The legendary teen vocalist ushered in a notable sound, mixing jazz with hard-hitting blues, doo-wop and the smooth sounds of rhythm and blues. However, despite her amazing voice, she only received moderate success with songs such as Won’t Be Long and Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody, her first Top 40 single.

In 1961, she married her manager Theodore “Ted” Richard White, who helped write several of Aretha’s songs while with the record lable. Three years later, she gave birth to their son, Ted White Jr.

In 1966, Aretha decided to make a business move she thought to be better for her career by signing with Atlantic Records. The transition was effective, as it fluidly collaborated her gospel influence with the expertise of producer Jerry Wexler, to transcend her from blues to pop. Her first Top 10 hit, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, was released in 1967 during this butterfly stage in her career.

But her legacy would reach a new peak after the release of her classic rendition of Otis Redding’s Respect, immersed with attitude and lyrics depicting a strong, confident woman. The song became a hit earning her two Grammy awards and an induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The song also became a landmark anthem for the civil rights and feminist movement.

Her reign as Queen at Atlantic Records continued after the release of top selling albums Lady Soul and Aretha Now, which gave birth to popular hit singles, Chain of Fools, Think and [You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman.

Her following works – top ten selling album Young, Gifted and Black and platinum selling gospel album Amazing Grace – reassured her seat on the throne through the early 1970s.

Her ruling didn’t come without its hardships, however. After years of living with an abusive husband, the couple was divorced by 1970. That year, she gave birth to her youngest son, Kecalf Cunningham, fathered by her road manager, Ken Cunningham.

In 1971, she performed Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water during the 13th annual Grammy’s award ceremony. She held the No. 2 spot for most Grammy performances after singing on seven Grammy stages – Whitney Houston later tied with her.

Aside from her family issues, Aretha also developed a drinking problem and struggled to remain relevance in a genre that once crowned her “queen.”

In 1979, her father was shot during a home invasion, which years later led to his death from complications associated with his injuries.

Later that year, she released La Diva in hopes of tapping into the disco craze, but failed to chart. After the commercial failure, the soul pioneer left Atlantic Records and began a fresh start with legendary music executive Clive Davis at Arista records in 1980.

The transition reemerged the queen to her throne. The star began to shine bright again as she effortlessly reintroduced her icon status in the 1980s pop era. That year, Aretha delivered an astonishing performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall for Queen Elizabeth and appeared in the cult classic film, The Blues Brothers.

In 1982, she received her first certified gold album in seven years with Luther Vandross-produced album Jump to It. Her following albums, 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who and the Aretha remastered edition, further extended Aretha’s catalog with platinum album certifications, Grammy award-winning hit Freeway of Love and her international number one duet with pop star George Michael, I Knew You Were Waiting For Me.

“Don’t say Aretha is making a comeback because I never went away,” she said.

Her musical evolution opened the floodgates of the music industry leading to an outpour of accolades to the soul heroine. The State of Michigan celebrated the singer and declared Aretha’s renowned voice as a natural resource in 1985. A couple of years later, the soul diva became the first woman inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and received a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Album for her third gospel effort One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, which was recorded at her late father’s church.

In 1989, she performed the theme song for the second season of Its a Different World. The more lively recording was used for four seasons, which aired from 1989 to 1992.

As a new decade passed, the new era didn’t stop the famed Queen of Soul from succeeding. In 1994, The Grammy’s honored Aretha with a Lifetime Achievement award. Two years later, her Lauryn Hill-produced single A Rose Is Still a Rose became a top 40 hit and the album under the same name became certified gold.

“You got singers that are trained and then you have natural singers – people, in my opinion, who were just born to sing,” she said during an interview on Oprah in 1999. “Hopefully, I was one of those people.”

By the start of the new millenium, she waned from the music but her rewards as a decorated singer persisted. She released her final Arista album, So Damn Happy, in 2003 which produced Grammy-winning song Wonderful. In 2005, she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former president George W. Bush for her musical contributions.

Her memorable performances sustained the 2000s. In 2009, Aretha became the topic of pop culture again after performing My Country,‘Tis of Thee at the inauguration of the first African American president Barack Obama. Previously, she had performed at inaugural balls for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. However, she refused the invitation to perform at the ball for Donald Trump, according to news sources.

Following the historical showing, the groundbreaking vocalist released a cover of Adele’s Rolling in The Deep debuting at number 47 on the Billboard, which made her the first woman in history to have 100 songs on the R&B charts. In 2016, Aretha gave another extraordinary performance of the National Anthem at Super Bowl XL with R&B singer Adam Neville and a 150-member choir.

Soon the soul queen’s career would encounter a life-threatening obstacle. In 2010, Aretha canceled a performance due to health issues from an undisclosed tumor. After receiving surgery, the singer denied rumors the tumor was related to pancreatic cancer.

Aretha still continued to suffer from health complication, which forced her to cancel several concerts.

“Keep me in your prayers,” Aretha said to her audience at a 2017 outdoor Detroit show.

On Aug. 13, the media reported that the admired entertainer was gravely ill at her Detroit home. She was placed under hospice care and surrounded by family and some of her celebrity friends such as Stevie Wonder and Jesse Jackson. Three days later, she died from a reported pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.

Fans and famous figures paid their respect to the legendary performer, from Oprah to Minister Al Sharpton, who recognized her as a “civil rights and humanitarian icon.”

Her memorial service was held Aug. 19 at her later father’s church in Detroit. A private funeral will be held Aug. 31, along with a two-day public viewing of her casket at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, according to her publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn.

The Queen of Soul will be buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit.

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