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She is known the world over by her first name and as the undisputed “Queen Of Soul”.
This 2005 recipient of a Presidential Medal Of Freedom (the USA’s highest honour), has also won 17 Grammy Awards including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Grammy Living Legend Award.
She has also received countless international and national awards and accolades. Aretha has achieved global recognition on an unprecedented scale. She has influenced generations of singers from Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole and Mary J Blige to American Idol winner Fantasia Burrino and Oscar-winning Jennifer Hudson.
Her ever-distinctive soulful, to-the-bone vocal style has graced the music charts for over four decades and while her live performances have touched the hearts of millions since she began her musical journey as a gospel-singing child prodigy.
Beyond the timeless classic hits such as Respect, A Natural Woman, Chain Of Fools, Think, Daydreaming and Freeway Of Love among the dozens of chart-topping records that have established her as a cultural icon, Aretha Franklin’s catalogue of over 40 albums informs listeners of her unmatched, unparalleled artistry as an interpreter of song, bar none. Her elevation to “royalty” is indeed not just a function of her hit-making ability but of her unique inventiveness as a musician who fuses art and soul seamlessly.
As is widely known, Aretha – born in Memphis, reared in Buffalo but a long-time resident of Detroit – began her personal musical journey singing at her much-revered father Reverend CL Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church at a very young age. While she was unquestionably influenced by the presence of such gospel luminaries as Clara Ward (a strong influence), Mahalia Jackson and the Reverend James Cleveland in the Franklin household, it was secular performers such as Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke (also visitors to the Franklin residence) who helped shape Aretha’s wide-ranging interest in popular music. Young Aretha also heard the doo-wop sounds of Nolan Strong and The Diablos, The Moonglows, The 5 Royales and The Satins as well as popular 1950s hit makers such as Johnny Ace, Little Willie John, Jackie Wilson, Big Maybelle and Little Esther on the radio.
Aretha’s interest in a wide range of popular music became evident when she began her own recording career at Columbia Records, although it should be noted that her powerful, emotive style was first heard on a gospel recording made in 1956 with her father and released by Chess Records in the mid-1960s.
With the support of her father, Aretha travelled to New York City in 1960 and after a demo which contained her version of a Helen Humes tune titled Today I Sing The Blues made its way to the ears of executive John Hammond (responsible for signing such artists as Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Bob Dylan), Aretha was signed to Columbia in 1960.
Her first self-titled album, containing hits such as Over The Rainbow, Are You Sure, It Ain’t Necessarily So and All Night Long was a major artistic triumph for then-18-year-old Aretha and while it did not achieve any measure of major commercial success, it served notice that a new recording artist of note had arrived.
From 1961 to 1966, Aretha recorded nine albums that showcased her in a variety of settings that demonstrated her pure artistry. While mainstream acceptance may have eluded her, the Columbia recordings contain a treasure trove of well-crafted, superlative performances. Her earlier work for the label focused on popular songs of the day, time-honoured standards of the 1940s and 1950s and R&B-flavoured tunes that garnered Aretha airplay – known at the time as “turntable” hits.
Her sophomore 1962 Columbia album, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin contained Al Jolson (Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Holiday, You Made Me Love You), The Shirelles (Blue Holiday) and Louis Armstrong (That Lucky Old Sun). The Tender, Moving, Swinging Aretha Franklin was equally ambitious in its far-ranging repertoire encompassing Aretha’s own, poignant Without The One You Love, Billie Holiday’s God Bless The Child and a soulful turnaround on Try A Little Tenderness(revived a few years later by Otis Redding).
1963’s Laughing On The Outside set emphasised the kind of jazz and pop standards that appealed to the supper-club audience that Aretha was nurturing in live performances alongside appearances at such prestigious venues as the Newport Jazz Festival. In addition to her own I Wonder (Where Are You Tonight), the LP contained her interpretation of If Ever I Would Leave You and a stunning rendition of Skylark which remains a spectacular tour-de-force among Aretha’s many recordings.
In the wake of the legendary Dinah Washington’s unexpected passing in late 1963, Aretha recorded a tribute to the singer with powerful accompaniment by some of New York’s top musicians. Unforgettable reminded many of Washington’s best work. The unquestionable highlight, a compellingly real Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning is delivered with absolute conviction and intensity as only Aretha can.
Aretha’s albums helped create a loyal if limited audience. The 1964 Runnin’ Out Of Fools, produced by Clyde Otis (who had worked extensively with Dinah Washington) gave Aretha a mid-level pop and R&B hit single and was followed by a magnificent album that allowed her the opportunity to put her own indelible stamp on the hits of her female contemporaries such as Dionne Warwick (Walk On By), Barbara Lynn (You’ll Lose A Good Thing), Brenda Holloway (Every Little Bit Hurts) and Baby Washington (I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face). Producer Otis masterminded most of Aretha’s sessions from 1964 until 1966.
Aretha’s stint at Columbia ended with some of her most R&B-flavoured work for the label, portending what would follow when she joined Atlantic in late 1966 through such tunes as Ashford & Simpson’s Cry Like A Baby, Van McCoy’s Sweet Bitter Love and magnificent sides like (No, No) I’m Losing You and One Step Ahead that began alerting discerning listeners of Aretha’s inherent soulfulness. Albums such as Soul Sister, Take It Like You Give It and Take A Look, each containing a number of stellar Franklin compositions, offered a glimpse of what was to come.
Legend has it that Louise Bishop, a Philadelphia disc-jockey called Aretha to advise her that Atlantic Records was interested in signing her. By January of 1967, she was in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, seated at the piano, recording the first of 14-million-selling singles for the label.
I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) was a benchmark recording not just for Aretha but for female recording artists everywhere. In the same way that Sam Cooke and Ray Charles had created a fusion of gospel, pop and soul as male vocalists with mainstream success, Aretha was the first, pioneering, female artist to do the same in 1967. Jumping out of the first Atlantic LP (named after that first aforementioned No 1 R&B and Top 10 pop hit) was Aretha’s reading of Otis Redding’s Respect which took her to the top the world over.
With her first gold album under her arm, she was back in Atlantic’s New York studios in short order working with producer Wexler, arranger Arif Mardin and engineer Tom Dowd on the appropriately-titled Aretha Arrives which included Aretha’s take on such tunes as The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction and Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life.
Aretha’s career moved into high gear with constant performances, major television shows, her first Grammy Awards and her initial European visit in 1968 where she played before sold-out audiences in the UK, Sweden and France (where she cut a live LP, Aretha In Paris). On the recording front, the hits showed no signs of stopping: her third Atlantic LP, the remarkable Lady Soul yielded Chain Of Fools, (Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone, A Natural Woman and the Franklin classic Ain’t No Way.
The 1968 set Aretha Now was another gold set thanks to Aretha’s own Think (which has subsequently been used in dozens of film soundtracks and television ads) and I Say A Little Prayer, a brilliant innovative workout on the Dionne Warwick hit of the same year. Aretha’s 1969 critically-acclaimed jazz-flavoured set Soul ‘69 was a masterpiece in creative expression, showcasing the artist’s innate ability for interpretation via Smokey Robinson’s Tracks Of My Tears, Sam Cooke’s Bring It On Home To Me and Big Maybelle’s Ramblin.’
A fixture on the pop and R&B charts thanks to more hits like Share Your Love With Me, her own Call Me and The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby (all included on 1970’s This Girl’s In Love With You) and the 1970 LP Spirit In The Dark (which featured Don’t Play That Song, another million-selling R&B chart topper), Aretha ventured into new territory at the start of the new decade, appearing before a mostly-rock-oriented audience at San Francisco’s Fillmore West venue, winning them over with her versions of Stephen Stills’ Love The One You’re With and Bread’s Make It With You alongside glorious performances of Dr. Feelgood, Bridge Over Troubled Waters and a version of Spirit In The Dark that included a spontaneous appearance by Ray Charles. The resultant live album was another benchmark in the Franklin career, deftly followed in short succession by a studio set Young, Gifted & Black which included Aretha’s time-honoured Daydreaming (which has since been recorded by Natalie Cole, Will Downing and Mary J Blige among others), the funky Rock Steady and a heartfelt rendition of the title cut, originally recorded by Nina Simone.
In 1972, Aretha broke new ground recording in Los Angeles with a full choir under the direction of childhood mentor Reverend James Cleveland. With her father in attendance, Amazing Grace gave Aretha the opportunity to display the essence of her gospel roots via unforgettable performances on material such as Precious Lord, Take My Hand (which she had sung at the funeral of slain civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1968), Precious Memories, Clara Ward’s How I Got Over and the spiritual Old Landmark. The two-LP set achieved double-platinum status and remains one of the best-selling gospel albums of all time.
Working with the legendary Quincy Jones, Aretha crafted the innovative Hey Now Hey set in 1972 and Jones himself claims her reading of Somewhere (from West Side Story) along with her sister Carolyn’s beautifully-penned Angel are among his favourite recordings of all time.
The 1974 LP Let Me In Your Life propelled Aretha back to the top thanks to Stevie Wonder’s Until You Come Back To Me and her version of the Wilson Pickett hit I’m In Love and Aretha, ever-present as a multiple Grammy Award winner and firmly established as mainstay in popular music, continued her recording work with a succession of mid to late-1970s albums that include With Everything I Feel In Me, Sweet Passion (produced by Lamont Dozier), La Diva (produced by Van McCoy) and two fine sets produced by Curtis Mayfield, 1976’s gold LP Sparkle (which contained the No 1 R&B hit, Something He Can Feel) and 1978’s Almighty Fire.
Ready for a change, Aretha began her longest association with one record company throughout her illustrious career when she signed with Arista Records in 1980. Working closely with label chief Clive Davis, the renowned industry veteran (whom she has frequently termed “The Chairman”), Aretha crafted a series of strong-selling albums during the Arista years, most notably a 1980 self-titled set and 1981’s Love All The Hurt Away (the title cut of which was an excellent duet with George Benson). However, it was a creative union with singer/songwriter/producer Luther Vandross (who had long stated that Aretha was one of his primary influences) in 1982 that catapulted Aretha back to the top via the infectious Jump To It and subsequent gold album. A second collaboration with Vandross, Get It Right was well received in 1983 with Aretha returning to the recording studios in 1985 following the passing of her father a year earlier.
Working with producer Narada Michael Walden, Aretha experienced a whole new level of international success scoring her first platinum album with Who’s Zoomin’ Who, spurred on by the runaway hit Freeway Of Love and Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves (with Annie Lenox). The follow up album, 1986’s Aretha gave the artist another major smash via I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), a duet with Britain’s George Michael. In 1987, Aretha returned once more to New Bethel Baptist Church for the recording of her second gospel project, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, once again displaying the power of her mastery in the genre with highlights that included Oh Happy Day, Surely God Is Able and Packin’ Up Gettin’ Ready To Go which featured her sisters Carolyn and Erma.
Subsequent albums for Arista included 1989’s Through The Storm (which featured duets with Whitney Houston, Elton John and James Brown) and 1991’s What You See Is What You Sweat (on which Aretha worked with Burt Bacharach and Luther Vandross among others). After a seven-year absence, Aretha returned to the studios for another triumph, working with Lauryn Hill on A Rose Is Still A Rose, a gold LP that included the million-selling title cut along with production work by Sean Combs and Jermaine Dupri among others. A single release from the album, Here We Go Again, also include Aretha’s unforgettable reading of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, inspired by her impromptu performance of the classical aria at the 1998 Grammy Awards when she stepped in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti.
In 2003, Arista released Aretha’s So Damn Happy, whose title track was one of three Franklin compositions that graced the album along with the hit single, The Only Thing Missin.
Inventive, innovative, always stretching her own artistic boundaries, we can be sure that when Aretha herself says she still has so much more music to share, the best is yet to come from the one and only “Queen Of Soul”.