Aretha Louise Franklin (March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018) was an American singer and songwriter. She began her career as a child singing gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, C. L. Franklin, was minister. In 1960, at the age of 18, she embarked on a secular career, recording for Columbia Records but achieving only modest success. After signing to Atlantic Records in 1967, Franklin achieved commercial acclaim and success with songs such as “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Spanish Harlem” and “Think”. By the end of the 1960s she was being called “the Queen of Soul”.
Franklin recorded acclaimed albums such as I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), Lady Soul (1968), Young, Gifted and Black (1972) and Amazing Grace (1972) before experiencing problems with her record company by the mid-1970s. After her father was shot in 1979, Franklin left Atlantic and signed with Arista Records, finding success with the albums Jump to It (1982) and Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985), and her part in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. In 1998, Franklin received international acclaim for singing the opera aria “Nessun dorma” at the Grammy Awards that year, replacing Luciano Pavarotti. Later that year, she scored her final Top 40 song with “A Rose Is Still a Rose”.
Franklin recorded 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top ten pop singles, 100 R&B entries and 20 number-one R&B singles, becoming the most charted female artist in the chart’s history. Franklin’s other well-known hits include “Rock Steady”, “Jump to It”, “Freeway of Love”, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who”, “Chain of Fools”, “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”, “Something He Can Feel”, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (with George Michael), and a remake of The Rolling Stones song “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.
Franklin won 18 Grammy Awards and is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time, having sold over 75 million records worldwide. Franklin received numerous honors throughout her career including a 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in which she became the first female performer to be inducted. She was inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. In August 2012, Franklin was inducted into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Franklin is listed in at least two all-time lists on Rolling Stone magazine, including the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
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Franklin’s birthplace, 406 Lucy Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born at 406 Lucy Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, to Barbara (née Siggers) and Clarence LaVaughn “C. L.” Franklin. Her father was an itinerant preacher originally from Shelby, Mississippi, while her mother was an accomplished piano player and vocalist. Her parents had three other children, and both C. L. and Barbara had children from outside their marriage. The family relocated to Buffalo, New York, when Aretha was two. Before her fifth birthday, C. L. Franklin permanently relocated the family to Detroit, Michigan where he took over the pastorship of New Bethel Baptist Church. Aretha’s parents had a troubled marriage due to stories of her father’s philandering and in 1948, the couple separated, with Barbara relocating back to Buffalo with her son, Vaughn, from a previous relationship.
Contrary to popular belief, her mother did not abandon her children; not only would Aretha recall seeing her mother in Buffalo during the summer, Barbara also frequently visited her children in Detroit. Aretha’s mother died on March 7, 1952, before Aretha’s tenth birthday. Several women, including Aretha’s grandmother Rachel and Mahalia Jackson, took turns helping with the children at the Franklin home. During this time, Aretha learned how to play piano by ear. Aretha’s father’s emotionally driven sermons resulted in his being known as the man with the “million-dollar voice” and earning thousands of dollars for sermons in various churches across the country. His celebrity status led to his home being visited by various celebrities, among them gospel musicians Clara Ward, James Cleveland and early Caravans members Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. Aretha attended Northern High School but later dropped out during her sophomore year.
Just after her mother’s death, Franklin began singing solos at New Bethel, debuting with the hymn, “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me”. Four years later, when Franklin was 14, her father began managing her, bringing her on the road with him during his so-called “gospel caravan” tours for her to perform in various churches . He helped his daughter sign her first recording deal with J.V.B. Records, where her first album, Songs of Faith, was issued in 1956. Franklin sometimes traveled with The Soul Stirrers during this time. At the age of 16, Franklin went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and in 1968 sang at his funeral.
After turning 18, Franklin confided to her father that she aspired to follow Sam Cooke to record pop music. Serving as her manager, C. L. agreed to the move and helped to produce a two-song demo that soon was brought to the attention of Columbia Records, who agreed to sign her in 1960. Franklin was signed as a “five-percent artist”. During this period, Franklin would be coached by choreographer Cholly Atkins to prepare for her pop performances. Before signing with Columbia, Sam Cooke tried to persuade Franklin’s father to have his label, RCA, sign Franklin. He had also been courted by local record label owner Berry Gordy to sign Franklin and her elder sister Erma to his Tamla label. Franklin’s father felt the label was not established enough yet. Franklin’s first Columbia single, “Today I Sing the Blues”, was issued in September 1960 and later reached the top ten of the Hot Rhythm & Blues Sellers chart.
Initial success (1961–1966)
In January 1961, Columbia issued Franklin’s first secular album, Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo. The album featured her first single to chart the Billboard Hot 100, “Won’t Be Long”, which also peaked at number 7 on the R&B chart. Mostly produced by Clyde Otis, Franklin’s Columbia recordings saw her recording in diverse genres such as standards, vocal jazz, blues, doo-wop and rhythm and blues. Before the year was out, Franklin scored her first top 40 single with her rendition of the standard, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”, which also included the R&B hit, “Operation Heartbreak”, on its b-side. “Rock-a-Bye” became her first international hit, reaching the top 40 in Australia and Canada. By the end of 1961, Franklin was named as a “new-star female vocalist” in Down Beat magazine. In 1962, Columbia issued two more albums, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin and The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin, the latter of which reached No. 69 on the Billboard chart.
By 1964, Franklin began recording more pop music, reaching the top ten on the R&B chart with the ballad, “Runnin’ Out of Fools” in early 1965. She had two R&B charted singles in 1965 and 1966 with the songs “One Step Ahead” and “Cry Like a Baby” while also reaching the Easy Listening charts with the ballads “You Made Me Love You” and “(No, No) I’m Losing You”. By the mid-1960s, Franklin was netting $100,000 from countless performances in nightclubs and theaters. Also during that period, Franklin appeared on rock and roll shows such as Hollywood A Go-Go and Shindig!. However, Franklin struggled with commercial success while at Columbia. Label executive John H. Hammond later said he felt Columbia did not understand Franklin’s early gospel background and failed to bring that aspect out further during her period there.
Commercial success (1967–1979)
Aretha Franklin in 1967
In November 1966, choosing not to renew her Columbia contract after six years with the company, Franklin signed to Atlantic Records. In January 1967, she traveled to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record at FAME Studios to record the song, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” in front of the musicians of the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The song was later issued that February and shot up to number one on the R&B chart, while also peaking at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100, giving Franklin her first top ten pop single. The song’s b-side, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, reached the R&B top 40, peaking at number 37. In April, Atlantic issued her frenetic version of Otis Redding’s “Respect”, which shot to number one on both the R&B and pop charts. “Respect” became her signature song and was later hailed as a civil rights and feminist anthem.
Franklin’s debut Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, also became commercially successful, later going gold. Franklin scored two more top ten singles in 1967 including “Baby I Love You” and “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman”. Franklin’s rapport with producer Jerry Wexler helped in the creation of the majority of Franklin’s peak recordings with Atlantic. In 1968, she issued the top-selling albums, Lady Soul and Aretha Now, which included some of Franklin’s most popular hit singles, including “Chain of Fools”, “Ain’t No Way”, “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer”. In February 1968, Franklin earned the first two of her Grammys, including the debut category for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. On February 16, 1968, Franklin was honored with a day in her honor and was greeted by longtime friend Martin Luther King, Jr. who gave her the SCLC Drum Beat Award for Musicians just two months before his death. In June 1968, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
“Respect” was a huge hit for Franklin, it became a signature song for her.
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Franklin’s success expanded during the early 1970s in which she recorded top ten singles such as “Spanish Harlem”, “Rock Steady” and “Day Dreaming” as well as the acclaimed albums Spirit in the Dark, Young, Gifted & Black, and her gospel album, Amazing Grace, which sold over two million copies. In 1971, Franklin became the first R&B performer to headline Fillmore West, later releasing the live album Aretha Live at Fillmore West. Franklin’s career began to experience problems while recording the album, Hey Now Hey, which featured production from Quincy Jones. Despite the success of the single “Angel”, the album bombed upon its release in 1973. Franklin continued having R&B success with songs such as “Until You Come Back to Me” and “I’m in Love”, but by 1975 her albums and songs were no longer top sellers. After Jerry Wexler left Atlantic for Warner Bros. Records in 1976, Franklin worked on the soundtrack to the film Sparkle with Curtis Mayfield. The album yielded Franklin’s final top 40 hit of the decade, “Something He Can Feel”, which also peaked at number one on the R&B chart. Franklin’s follow-up albums for Atlantic, including Sweet Passion, Almighty Fire and La Diva, bombed on the charts, and in 1979 Franklin opted to leave the company.
Later years (1980–2018)
Franklin performing on April 21, 2007, at the Nokia Theater in Dallas, Texas
In 1980, after leaving Atlantic Records, Franklin signed with Clive Davis’ Arista Records and that same year gave a command performance at the Royal Albert Hall in front of Queen Elizabeth. Franklin also made an acclaimed guest role as a waitress in the comedy musical, The Blues Brothers. Franklin’s first Arista album, Aretha, featured the No. 3 R&B hit, “United Together” and her Grammy-nominated cover of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”. The follow-up, 1981’s Love All the Hurt Away, included her famed duet of the title track with George Benson while the album also included her Grammy-winning cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin'”. Franklin achieved a gold record—for the first time in seven years—with the album Jump to It. Its title track was her first top 40 single on the pop charts in six years.
In 1985, inspired by a desire to have a “younger sound” in her music, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? became her first Arista album to be certified platinum. The album sold well over a million copies thanks to the hits, “Freeway of Love”, the title track, and “Another Night”. The following year’s Aretha album nearly matched this success with the hit singles “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Jimmy Lee” and “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me”, her international number-one duet with George Michael. During that period, Franklin provided vocals to the theme songs of the TV shows A Different World and Together. In 1987, she issued her third gospel album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, which was recorded at her late father’s New Bethel church, followed by Through the Storm in 1989. Franklin’s 1991 album, What You See is What You Sweat, flopped on the charts. Franklin returned to the charts in 1993 with the dance song “A Deeper Love” and returned to the top 40 with the song “Willing to Forgive” in 1994.
In 1998, Franklin returned to the top 40 with the Lauryn Hill-produced song “A Rose Is Still a Rose”, later issuing the album of the same name, which went gold. That same year, Franklin earned international acclaim for her performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammy Awards. Her final Arista album, So Damn Happy, was released in 2003 and featured the Grammy-winning song, “Wonderful”. In 2004, Franklin announced that she was leaving Arista after over 20 years with the label. To complete her Arista obligations, Franklin issued the duets compilation album, Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen, in 2007. The following year, she issued the holiday album, This Christmas, Aretha, on DMI Records.
Franklin singing at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama
Franklin performed The Star Spangled Banner with Aaron Neville and Dr. John for Super Bowl XL, held in her hometown of Detroit in February 2006. She later made international headlines for performing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony with her church hat becoming a popular topic online. In 2010, Franklin accepted an honorary degree from Yale University. In 2011, under her own label, Aretha’s Records, she issued the album, Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love.
In 2014, Franklin was signed under RCA Records, controller of the Arista catalog and a sister label to Columbia via Sony Music Entertainment, and was working with Clive Davis. An album was planned with producers Babyface and Danger Mouse. On September 29, 2014, Franklin performed to a standing ovation, with Cissy Houston as backup, a compilation of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” on the Late Show with David Letterman. Franklin’s cover of “Rolling in the Deep” was featured among nine other songs in her first RCA release, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, released in October 2014. In doing so, she became the first woman to have 100 songs on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart with the success of her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, which debuted at number 47 on the chart.
Franklin, waiting to perform at the White House in 2015
In December 2015, Franklin gave an acclaimed performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors during the section for honoree Carole King, who co-wrote the song. During the bridge of the song, Ms. Franklin dropped her fur coat to the stage, for which the audience rewarded her with a mid-performance standing ovation. She returned to Detroit’s Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day 2016 to once again perform the national anthem before the game between the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions. Seated behind the piano in a black fur coat and Lions stocking cap, this rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” lasted over four minutes and featured a host of improvisations by Franklin.
Franklin released the album A Brand New Me in November 2017 with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which uses archived recordings from her past. It peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Top Classical Albums chart.
Music style and image
According to Richie Unterberger, Franklin is “one of the giants of soul music, and indeed of American pop as a whole. More than any other performer, she epitomized soul at its most gospel-charged.” She has often been described as a great singer and musician due to “vocal flexibility, interpretive intelligence, skillful piano-playing, her ear, her experience”. Franklin’s voice has been described as being a “powerful mezzo-soprano voice” and has been praised for her arrangements and interpretations of other artists’ hit songs. Of describing Franklin’s voice as a youngster on her first album, Songs of Faith, released when she was just fourteen, Jerry Wexler explained that Franklin’s voice “was not that of a child but rather of an ecstatic hierophant”.
Aretha Franklin and William Wilkerson watching Roger Federer at the 2011 US Open.
After being raised in Detroit, Franklin relocated to New York City in the 1960s, where she lived until moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. She eventually settled in Encino, Los Angeles where she lived until 1982. She then returned to the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan to be close to her ailing father and siblings. Franklin maintained a residence there until her death. Following an incident in 1984, she had cited a fear of flying that prevented her from traveling overseas; she performed only in North America afterwards.
Franklin was the mother of four sons. She first became pregnant at the age of 12 and gave birth to her first child, named Clarence after her father, on January 28, 1955. The father of the child was Donald Burk, a boy she knew from school. On January 22, 1957, then aged 14, Franklin had a second child, named Edward after his father Edward Jordan. Both of her children took her family name. While Franklin was pursuing her career and “hanging out with [friends]”, Franklin’s grandmother Rachel and sister Erma took turns raising the children. Franklin’s third child, Ted White Jr., was born in February 1964 and is known professionally as Teddy Richards. He has provided guitar backing for his mother’s band during live concerts. Her youngest son, Kecalf Cunningham was born in 1970 and is the child of her road manager Ken Cunningham.
Franklin was married twice. Her first husband was Theodore “Ted” White, whom she married in 1961 at age 19. After a contentious marriage that involved domestic violence, Franklin separated from White in 1968, divorcing him in 1969. Franklin then married her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, on April 11, 1978 at her father’s church. By marrying Turman, Franklin became stepmother of Turman’s three children from a previous marriage. Franklin and Turman separated in 1982 after Franklin returned to Michigan from California, and they divorced in 1984. At one point, Franklin had plans to marry her longtime companion Willie Wilkerson. Franklin and Wilkerson had had two previous engagements stretching back to 1988. Franklin eventually called the 2012 engagement off.
Franklin’s sisters, Erma and Carolyn, were professional musicians as well and spent years performing background vocals on Franklin’s recordings. Following Franklin’s divorce from Ted White, her brother Cecil became her manager, and maintained that position until his death from lung cancer on December 26, 1989. Sister Carolyn died the previous year in April 1988 from breast cancer, while eldest sister Erma died from throat cancer in September 2002. Franklin’s half-brother Vaughn died two months after Erma in late 2002.
Her half-sister, Carl Kelley (née Jennings; born 1940) is C. L. Franklin’s daughter by Mildred Jennings, a then 12-year-old congregant of New Salem Baptist Church in Memphis, where C. L. was pastor.
Franklin was performing at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, on June 10, 1979, when her father, C. L., was shot twice at point blank range in his Detroit home. After six months at Henry Ford Hospital, still in a state of coma, C.L. was moved back to his home with 24-hour nursing care. Aretha moved back to Detroit in late 1982 to assist with the care of her father, who died at Detroit’s New Light Nursing Home on July 27, 1984.
Some of her music business friends have included Dionne Warwick, Mavis Staples, and Cissy Houston, who began singing with Franklin as members of the Sweet Inspirations. Cissy sang background on Franklin’s hit “Ain’t No Way”. Franklin first met Cissy’s daughter, Whitney, in the early 1970s. She was made Whitney’s honorary aunt, not a godmother as has been occasionally misreported, and Whitney often referred to her as “Auntie Ree”.
Whitney Houston died on February 11, 2012. Franklin said she was surprised by her death. She had initially planned to perform at Houston’s memorial service on February 18, but her representative claimed that Franklin suffered a leg spasm and was unable to attend. In response to criticism of her non-attendance, she stated, “God knows I wanted to be there, but I couldn’t.”
Franklin was a registered Democrat. In 2014, she was granted the honorary degree of Doctor of Arts from Harvard University for her contributions to music.
Franklin dealt with weight issues for years. In 1974, she dropped 40 pounds during a crash diet and maintained her new weight until the end of the decade. Franklin again lost the weight in the early 1990s before gaining some back. A former chain smoker who struggled with alcoholism, she quit smoking in 1992. Franklin admitted in 1994 that her smoking was “messing with my voice”, but after quitting smoking she said later, in 2003, that her weight “ballooned”.
In 2010, Franklin canceled a number of concerts after she decided to have surgery for an undisclosed tumor. Discussing the surgery in 2011, she quoted her doctor as saying it would “add 15 to 20 years” to her life. She denied that the ailment had anything to do with pancreatic cancer, as it was rumored. On May 19, 2011, Franklin had her comeback show in the Chicago theatre. In May 2013, Franklin canceled two performances to deal with an undisclosed medical treatment. Later in the same month, Franklin canceled three more concerts in June and planned to return to perform in July. A show scheduled for July 27 in Clarkston, Michigan was canceled due to continued medical treatment. In addition, she canceled an appearance at a Major League Baseball luncheon in Chicago honoring her commitment to civil rights on August 24. She also canceled a performance of September 21 in Atlanta due to her health recovery.
During a phone interview with The Associated Press in late August 2013, Franklin stated that she had a “miraculous” recovery from her undisclosed illness but had to cancel shows and appearances until she was at 100% health, estimating she was about “85% healed”.
Franklin later returned to live performing, including a 2013 Christmas concert at Detroit’s Motor City Casino. She launched a multi-city tour beginning in mid-2014, starting with a performance of June 14 in New York at the Radio City Music Hall.
In 2017, Franklin canceled a series of concerts due to health reasons. During an outdoors Detroit show, Franklin told the audience to “keep me in your prayers”. In July 2017, Franklin reemerged, appearing to lose more weight before a performance at the Wolf Trap in Virginia. In 2018, Franklin also canceled a series of shows citing doctor’s orders. Franklin’s final performance was at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City during Elton John’s 25th anniversary gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation on November 7, 2017.
Final illness and death
On August 13, 2018, Franklin was reported to be gravely ill at her home in Riverfront Towers, Detroit. She was reported to be under hospice care and surrounded by friends and family. Stevie Wonder and Jesse Jackson, among others, had visited her. Franklin died at home on August 16, 2018, aged 76. The cause was reported to be advanced pancreatic cancer.
Franklin wipes a tear after being given the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 9, 2005, at the White House. She is seated between fellow recipients Robert Conquest and Alan Greenspan.
Franklin received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1979, had her voice declared a Michigan “natural resource” in 1985, and became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded her a Grammy Legend Award in 1991, then the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. Franklin was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1994, recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1999, and was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. She was inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2005.
Franklin become the second woman inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. She was the 2008 MusiCares Person of the Year, performing at the Grammys days later. Following news of Franklin’s surgery and recovery in February 2011, the Grammys ceremony paid tribute to the singer with a medley of her classics performed by Christina Aguilera, Florence Welch, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride, and Yolanda Adams. That same year she was ranked 19th among the Billboard Hot 100 All-Time top artists, and ranked first on the Rolling Stone list of Greatest Singers of All Time. Later in 2013, she was again ranked first in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Singers” list.
Inducted to the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012, Franklin has been described as “the voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of black America” and a “symbol of black equality”. Asteroid 249516 Aretha was named in her honor in 2014.
“American history wells up when Aretha sings”, president Obama explained his emotional response to her performance of “A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. “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 June 8, 2017, the City of Detroit honored Franklin’s legacy by renaming a portion of Madison Street, between Brush and Witherell Streets, “Aretha Franklin Way”.
On January 29, 2018, the Oakland Press’s correspondent Gary Graff confirmed that the American Idol runner-up Jennifer Hudson will take the role to play Franklin in her coming biopic. The news was announced by the the film’s executive producer Clive Davis, who made public their decision on the choice of actors casting in the film two days before Graff’s article was publish.
An all-star tribute concert to Franklin, celebrating her music, is scheduled for November 14, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.