Gifted with one of the most remarkable voices in the history of recorded music, Aretha Franklin poured her heart and soul into every riveting performance. The undisputed "Queen of Soul," Franklin began singing gospel music before establishing a successful career as a recording artist who tackled various genres, from jazz to rhythm & blues to opera, all with the same amount of conviction and masterful technique. Franklin's body of work included some of the most loved songs of all time, including the civil rights and female empowerment anthem "Respect" (1967), and the equally uplifting ballad "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" (1967). With a commanding presence that rivaled royalty whenever she stepped onstage, Franklin captivated music lovers of all ages, races, and walks of life while receiving the highest honors and praise from music critics and even world leaders. Franklin broke new ground in 1987 as the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a crowning achievement for an artist who deserved to be called the greatest singer of all time. Her death on August 16, 2018 at the age of 76 was mourned by generations of fans and peers.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, TN. After her mother died when she was 10 years old, Franklin's father - a Baptist minister and civil rights activist - and her grandmother raised her. The future music legend began singing at an early age and was a featured soloist at her father's church by the time she was a teenager. Franklin was exposed to gospel music during her formative teen years because singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward were frequent guests at her family's home. Her father, who often recorded his sermons for Checker Records, helped the aspiring singer sign a recording contract with the label's gospel division. In 1956, Franklin released her first album titled Songs of Faith and began touring with the Reverend Dr. James Cleveland, a pioneer of modern gospel music. However, being a young, single mother - Franklin had given birth to her first son when she was 13, followed by another birth at 16 - cut her faith-based music career short.
When she turned 18, Franklin switched gears and pursued a career as a rhythm & blues singer. After moving to New York City and signing with Columbia Records, she released the track "Today I Sung the Blues" in 1960, followed by her self-titled album a year later. Even though her background was in gospel, most of Franklin's earliest recordings were influenced by the jazz stylings of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. In the mid-Sixties, Columbia revamped Franklin's musical style from jazz to a Motown-inspired sound popularized by singers like Betty Everett and Brenda Holloway. Still, Franklin's career was at a standstill because her label could not quite figure out how to best showcase her vocal talent and superstar potential. Franklin, however, allegedly received her famous nickname in 1965 during a live show where the host handed her a tiara and declared her the "Queen of Soul."
Signing with Atlantic Records in 1966 proved to be Franklin's one-way ticket to stardom. Her 1967 recording of "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You") embraced the singer's gospel roots that had been missing from her sound during her years with Columbia. That same year, Franklin recorded a cover of Otis Redding's 1965 song "Respect" with her sisters Erna and Carolyn singing backup vocals. Her soulful, gospel-tinged rendition ¬- complete with her ad-libbing the lines "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me, take care, TCB" - soared all the way to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The empowering track also earned the singer the first two Grammys of her career at the 1968 awards ceremony: Best Rhythm & Blues Recording and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. While "Respect" was a commercial success, Franklin's authoritative delivery of the lyrics turned the song into a highly regarded anthem of the civil rights movement. The singer even made the cover of TIME magazine on June 28, 1968 - only the second African American woman to do so. She released three more hits in 1967 that later became R&B and soul classics: "Baby I Love You," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and "Chain of Fools," which earned Franklin another Grammy in 1969 for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
The rise of disco music in the Seventies marked a slow period in Franklin's career. After she released "Let Me In Your Life" (1974), which topped the R&B charts thanks to her cover of the Stevie Wonder-penned ballad "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)," Franklin began to have an estranged relationship with her record label. Atlantic Records pushed artists such as Roberta Flack to have successful releases while they found it quite difficult to place Franklin in the disco genre. After her disco-inspired album La Diva (1979) flopped, the singer ended her contract with Atlantic. Tragedy also struck Franklin's family that same year when her father was shot during an attempted robbery at his home in Detroit, MI. She eventually moved back from Los Angeles to Detroit in 1982 to help take care of her father. Franklin made her feature film-acting debut in 1980's "The Blues Brothers." The musical comedy film starred John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd - who were both fans of the singers - as brothers who attempt reunite their Blues Brothers band in order to raise money and save the orphanage they grew up in from foreclosure. Franklin performed her powerfully commanding song "Think" (1968) in one of the film's more humorous musical sequences. Franklin reprised her role in the 1998 sequel "Blues Brothers 2000," opposite Aykroyd and John Goodman, where she performed her signature song "Respect."
Franklin reignited her music career with the album Who's Zoomin' Who? (1985). Blending her soulful voice with pop and Motown sounds, Franklin landed back at the top of the charts with the up-tempo hit "Freeway of Love" and the female empowerment track "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," a duet with British singer Annie Lennox. The follow up album Aretha (1986) yielded another No. 1 song, a pop collaboration with George Michael titled "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me" that won Best R&B Performance - Duo Or Group with Vocals as well as a Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for the album Aretha. In 1987, the singer cemented her status as one of the most distinguished musical artists of all time when she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her body of work throughout the 1990s and early 2000s spanned different genres of music, including collaborations with hip-hop artists such as Lauryn Hill and Sean "Puffy" Combs for her 1998 album A Rose Is Still a Rose. Franklin brought the house down at that year's Grammy Awards with a moving rendition of the classic aria "Nessun Dorma" that Lucianno Pavarotti was supposed to perform. After the world renowned tenor bowed out of the ceremony due to illness, Franklin stepped in for him - with only 30 minutes of rehearsal time - and delivered one of the most talked about performances in the show's history. She capped off the year with an appearance on the televised concert special "Divas Live: An Honors Concert for VH1 Save the Music" (VH1, 1998), where her vocal prowess eclipsed her younger co-headliners, including Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Shania Twain.
Prestigious publications, esteemed organizations, and even U.S. presidents showered Franklin with various awards and accolades throughout her career. Rolling Stone magazine placed her at No. 1 on its list of "100 Greatest Singers of All Time" (2008) while also ranking her No. 9 on the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time" list (2004). Franklin was awarded The National Medal of Arts in 1999 by President Bill Clinton, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by President George W. Bush, and in 2009, was asked to perform "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" during President Barack Obama's historic inauguration. While her performance was another milestone in Franklin's career, it was the large, bedazzled hat she wore to the inauguration that stole the show. The big-bowed headpiece, designed by Mr. Song Millinery, was later donated to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. In 2010, Franklin embarked on a joint tour with former U.S. Secretary of State and classically trained pianist Condoleezza Rice, but had to cancel appearances due to broken ribs and abdominal pain that resulted from a fall at her home. Later that year, the ailing singer reportedly spent a week at Sinai Grace hospital in Detroit for undisclosed serious health reasons. Though Franklin remained in poor health, she continued performing and recording, self-releasing the 2011 album Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love before signing with RCA to release Aretha Franklin SIngs the Great Diva Classics, a covers album featuring a version of the Adele hit "Rolling in the Deep" that became Franklin's 100th charting single. Franklin's performance of Carole King's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors for King became a viral sensation in late 2015. A final album, A Brand New Me was released in late 2017, but despite its title, Franklin's involvement in the release was minimal: the album consisted of vintage Franklin vocal tracks given new orchestral settings. Aretha Franklin died in her home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on August 16, 2018, after weeks of media reports that her fragile health had deteriorated still further. She was 76.
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Released her debut album <i>Songs of Faith</i>
Signed with Columbia Records and released the track "Today I Sung the Blues"
Signed with Atlantic Records
Released her signature hit, a cover of Otis Redding's 1965 track "Respect"; also recorded the classics "Baby I Love You," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and "Chain of Fools"
Became the second African American woman to grace the cover of <i>TIME</i> magazine
Released the successful gospel album <i>Amazing Grace</i>
Received less commercial success with disco foray <i>La Diva</i>
Made feature acting debut in "The Blues Brothers," a musical comedy starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd; performed her song "Think" (1968) in the film
Made a comeback with <i>Who's Zoomin' Who?</i>; album featured tracks "Freeway of Love" and "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," a duet with British singer Annie Lennox
Topped the charts with the George Michael duet "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me" from the album <i>Aretha</i>
Made music history as the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Collaborated with contemporary artists Lauryn Hill and Sean 'Puffy' Combs on <i>A Rose Is Still a Rose</i>
Delivered memorable performance of the classic aria "Nessun Dorma" at the Grammy Awards after Lucianno Pavarotti dropped out at the last minute due to illness
Headlined the concert special "Divas Live: An Honors Concert for VH1 Save the Music"
Received The National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton
Published her memoir <i>Aretha: From These Roots</i>
Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush
Performed "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" during Barack Obama's presidential inauguration
Marked 50 years in entertainment business with the album <i>A Woman Falling Out Of Love</i>
Inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame
Made her final screen appearance in the documentary "Muscle Shoals"
Released her final studio album, <i>Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics</i>