It was a small moment that would reverberate for decades. On January 24th, 1967, Aretha Franklin was struggling to record “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” her first project for Atlantic after several years recording more conventional material for Columbia. As Franklin would recall, something with the studio musicians wasn’t clicking until someone said, “Aretha, why don’t you sit down and play?” Taking a seat at the piano, Franklin quickly cut the smoldering track that would become her first No. 1 R&B hit. “It just happened,” she said. “We arrived, and we arrived very quickly.”
And it never stopped. For more than five decades, Franklin was a singular presence in pop music, a symbol of strength, women’s liberation and the civil rights movement. Franklin, one of the greatest singers of all time, died Thursday, according to the Associated Press.
Dubbed the Queen of Soul in 1967, Franklin loomed over culture in several monumental ways. The daughter of a preacher man, she was born with one of pop’s most commanding and singular voices, one that could move from a sly, seductive purr to a commanding gospel roar. From early hits like “I Never Loved a Man” and “Think” up through later touchstones like “Sisters Are Doin’ it for Themselves” with Eurythmics, there was no mistaking Franklin’s colossal pipes. As one of her leading producers, Jerry Wexler, said of her simmering gospel-pop classic, “Spirit in the Dark,” “It was one of those perfect R&B blends of the sacred and the secular … It’s Aretha conducting church right in the middle of a smoky nightclub. It’s everything to everyone.”
But Franklin was more than just a titanic vocalist who could effortlessly move through pop, jazz, R&B, gospel and disco. Known to her fans simply as “Aretha,” Franklin was an inordinately complex pop star — “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows,” wrote Wexler in his memoir. Although she exuded a regal, imposing presence, Franklin’s life often seemed shakier than her voice. She coped with a broken family, at least one bad marriage, a drinking problem and health and musical direction issues that made her infinitely relatable and beloved. “In her voice, you can hear the redemption and the pain, the yearning and the surrender, all at the same time,” Bonnie Raitt told Rolling Stone in 2003.
Her journey — from singing in her father’s church and tackling tasteful pop at the dawn of her career before becoming the voice of the civil rights movement — also embodied the African American experience of the 1960s. Her brawny, funked-up makeover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” based on what Wexler called her own “stop-and-stutter syncopation” idea, was more than just a Number One pop hit in 1967. “She had no idea it would become a rallying cry for African Americans and women and anyone else who felt marginalized because of what they looked like, who they loved,” Barack Obama said in 2014. “They wanted some respect.” At 16, she went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and later sang at his funeral.
Born in Memphis on March 25th, 1942, Franklin was groomed for gospel glory from her childhood: her father was the renowned and popular Reverend C.L. (Clarence LaVaughn) Franklin, “The Man with the Million-Dollar Voice,” and she recorded her first album of gospel when she was 14 years old. Her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was also a gospel singer. When young Aretha was two, she and her family moved to Detroit. It was there where Aretha was quickly steeped in church services (her father was the star preacher at the New Bethel Baptist Church) and music. Thanks to her father’s success, household visitors included Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.
Franklin was one of five children, but the family didn’t stay together long; when she was six, her parents broke up and her mother moved to Buffalo. A child prodigy, Franklin began singing and playing piano as part of her father’s congregation and recorded her first album of gospel when she was 14. Her idol Sam Cooke was on the verge of crossing over to the musical mainstream and Franklin hoped to do the same. In 1960, she signed to Columbia Records, with which she recorded a string of polite, generally unthrilling records, singing standards, jazz and blues. “We knew that Columbia was a worldwide label, and I think the feeling probably was that the promotion would be better than, say, a Motown,” she said later. Over the next six years or so, she had a couple of Top Ten R&B singles like “Won’t Be Long,” but didn’t make yet stand out in an increasingly crowded pop field.
Starting with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” everything changed. Signing with Atlantic and working with Wexler, who initially paired her with the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Franklin found her musical and social voice in volcanic tracks like “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” and her version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” written by Carole King, Gerry Goffin and Wexler. In the spring of 1967, her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect” became an anthem for that charged moment in the history of civil rights and the women’s movement. Franklin brought those two worlds together in ways no one had done before. “‘Respect’ had the biggest impact, truly global in its influence, with overtones for the civil-rights movement and gender equality,” Wexler said. “It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it’s hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined.”
Franklin was also one of pop’s greatest interpreters. Whether singing gospel standards or material by contemporary songwriters, she made everything she tackled her own. Her recordings weren’t simply “covers,” but makeovers. “When you heard her do something, I don’t care whose song it was, like Paul Simon’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’” says drummer Bernard Purdie, who worked with her the late 1960s and early Seventies. “Nobody knew Paul Simon wrote it. When Aretha sang it, that’s the way it was sung by everybody after. Same with ‘Respect.’ When she sang it, nobody knew Otis Redding.”
Between 1967 and 1974, she hit the R&B Top Ten 33 times. Her 1968 Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (for “Respect”) was the first of eight consecutive times she would take that honor (she came back and won it again in 1982, 1986 and 1988). Franklin was a constant presence on the radio throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies. She sang her own songs, rock and R&B covers, and material written for her (like “Let It Be,” her version of which came out shortly before the Beatles), and turned it all into solid gold. In an era when radio was still heavily segregated, she crossed over to white audiences effortlessly. The subject of the songs she recorded was almost always tormented romantic love; their subtext was often about political liberation.
Franklin’s 1971 shows at San Francisco’s Fillmore West, immortalized on the live album Aretha Live at Fillmore West, were a visceral example of her crossover ability, but they weren’t a given success: “I wasn’t sure how the hippies reacted to me,” she later said. But in a sign of how she could easily cross musical fences, she blew away the counterculture crowd. When she learned her hero Ray Charles was in the crowd, Franklin pulled him out for the encore and the two wound up trading piano and vocal parts on an epic version of “Spirit in the Dark.” “She turned the thing into church,” Charles said later. “Excuse my French, but I have to say that this b—- is burning down the barn — I mean, she’s on fire.”
Franklin’s personal life was turbulent — the cover story that Time magazine ran on her in 1968 famously noted that her husband and manager Ted White had “roughed her up in public,” and they divorced the next year. But Franklin’s voice never let her down. Her 1972 live gospel album Amazing Grace returned her to her roots and went double platinum, and her ability to sing glorious pop resulted in her 1973 smash “Until You Come Back to Me.” In 1974, Rolling Stone asked her what made her happy. “My children,” she said. “And having little get-togethers and making up a whole lot of food. And gold records. And love.”
Over the course of the late 1970s, Franklin gradually fell off the charts, as her attempts to keep up with the times came off as tepid schlock. As she told Rolling Stone in 2012, “When I first started, my dad said to me, ‘No matter how good you are, and no matter how successful you are, one day, the applause is going to die down. And one day the applause is going to stop. One day the hallelujahs and the amens are going to stop. And one day the fans might not be there.’ I saw some of that come to pass, and it was absolutely true. At one point, my records were not being played, and of course that immediately crossed my mind.”
Rev. C.L. Franklin was shot in 1979 after a shootout with burglars in his home. (After one burglar shot Franklin, rupturing his femoral artery, Franklin went into a five-year coma and died in 1984; he never got to see his daughter’s comeback.) Franklin had a jubilant cameo in the Blues Brothers movie in 1980, yet her musical career remained in limbo.
In 1980, Franklin left Atlantic for Arista, where she began working with Clive Davis, and two years later, the collaboration paid off: 1982’s “Jump to It,” produced by Luther Vandross, brought Franklin back to R&B radio. But it was the 1985 album Who’s Zoomin’ Who? that made her a full-on crossover star again: she collaborated with pop artists like Eurythmics and Carlos Santana on the LP, and “Freeway of Love,” her final Number One R&B single, introduced her to the MTV generation. “Many thanks to myself for being disciplined and growing as a producer,” she wrote in the liner notes to 1986’s Aretha.
Never one to shy away from being contemporary or having pop hits, Franklin continued with the successful formula of recording with younger artists she’d influenced, cutting singles with George Michael, Elton John and Whitney Houston. In 1998, her acolyte Lauryn Hill wrote and produced the hit “A Rose Is Still a Rose” for her.
But Franklin was also up for challenges. She stepped in to sing “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammys when Luciano Pavarotti was unable to perform, a trick few other non-opera singers would even have dared. As Franklin told Rolling Stone in 2012, “You have to give people what they want and what they’re paying for. After that, you can pretty much do whatever you’d like to do. But once you’ve given them what they’re paying for, then you can put some things in that you would like to sing, and they’re very well accepted when they’re performed dutifully.”
In her later years, Franklin was frequently sidetracked by health problems, and her recordings were slow to appear and spotty; A Woman Falling Out of Love, which she’d started recording in 2006, was finally released on her own label in 2011. In 2010, Franklin faced rumors that she was battling pancreatic cancer after canceling her scheduled performances; Franklin denied the cancer diagnosis, instead revealing she had surgery to remove a tumor. Franklin also canceled her scheduled 2018 performances after her doctor recommended that the singer rest for at least two months. Franklin last performed in November 2017 at Elton John’s annual AIDS Foundation gala.
Still, the power of her voice never left her. In 2014, her version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” a song that would have been unimaginable without her, became the Queen’s 100th R&B chart hit. (The song was part of her last new album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.) “She’s an original,” Franklin told Rolling Stone in 2012. “Love her lyrics — reminiscent of the Carole King lyrics of the Sixties. Just better! ‘We coulda had it all’! Sure you’re right, Adele!” In 2009, she sang at Barack Obama’s Presidential inauguration, a triumphant moment for the Civil Rights movement her music had influenced so deeply. “When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her,” Mary J. Blige told Rolling Stone in 2008. “She is the reason why women want to sing.”
Over the course of her six-decade career, Franklin garnered 44 Grammy nominations, winning 18, and became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1994, at the age of 52, Franklin became the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.
Looking back in 2016 at her version of “Respect,” Franklin elucidated both her own recording and its cultural impact. “I loved it, and I wanted to cover it just because I loved it so much,” she said. “And the statement was something that was very important, and where it was important to me, it was important to others. It’s important for people. Not just me or the Civil Rights movement or women — it’s important to people. I was asked what recording of mine I’d put in a time capsule, and it was ‘Respect.’ Because people want respect — even small children, even babies. As people, we deserve respect from one another.”