Simply put, Franklin was arguably the greatest woman singer of the modern music era. With a voice that moved easily between thunderous power and wondrous finesse, she was the woman behind so much iconic music, and the clear role model for dozens of super starts who would try to follow in her shoes.
In a diva-filled business, Franklin was “the” diva, and somehow that was a complete compliment.
She was born in Memphis, Tenn. in 1942, the daughter of the famous pastor and civil rights activist C. L. Franklin. When Aretha was just 2 the family left Memphis for New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, and a Motor City legend was ready to be born.
The pastor was a fiery and captivating voice at the pulpit. It was fitting that he had a young daughter with a singing voice to match. Despite the fact that she had a child when she was just 14, and then another at age 15, the record labels came calling.
She’s so associated with Detroit that many assume Aretha Franklin was part of the Motown story, but Franklin never did sign with Motown. In fact, she turned down Berry Gordy’s fledgling label. Instead she signed with Columbia records which wanted to push her toward a jazzy feel. However, Atlantic Records saw a different path, wanting Aretha to put her gospel training to work and let it rip. The result was electrifying.
With producer Jerry Wexler pushing the buttons, Aretha suddenly owned the charts with songs like “I Never Loved A Man,” “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman,” and a remake of an Otis Redding song that became an American anthem — she was black, she was a woman, it was the late 1960s, and she was demanding “RESPECT.”
When she was dubbed “The Queen of Soul,” no one argued. Many saw her as the embodiment of black America. As Detroit Mayor Jerry Cavanagh declared “Aretha Franklin Day” in 1968, she shared the moment with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., just two months before his assassination.
There would be lulls in her career but by then the dye was cast. She was an icon, and her comebacks were always stunners — from an appearance in a “Blues Brothers” movie, to s a splash landing at Clive Davis’ Arista Records with the 1985 album “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” which had us all riding on a “Freeway of Love.”
Along the way there were several marriages and several children. There was heartache, too, such as the 1979 shooting of her father that left him in a coma. C. L. Franklin died five years later. Through it all, Aretha remained music royalty. In 1987 she became the first female artist ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even with a secure seat so high in the American musical canon, she was capable of pulling off marvelous surprises. In 1998 at the Grammy Awards, illness forced the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti to cancel at the last minute. With about 30 minutes to prepare, Aretha stepped in and blew the doors down with “Nessun Dorma,” the song Pavarotti was supposed to sing.
“He rushed to the stage after the performance and that just did everything for me. I just was all but overwhelmed that he rushed to the stage in the way that he did. He threw his arms around me, and he was a wonderful man,” said Aretha.
By 2005, she was so established as an American treasure that she tearfully accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. In 2008, more than 40 years after her first trip up the charts, who else but Aretha Franklin to sing at the inauguration of America’s first black president, setting a style standard for hats in the process.
A lifelong obsession with cooking and food meant weight problems that were all too evident. Legal trouble for one of her sons made for uncomfortable trips to headlines, too.
But appearance after appearance, song after song, year after year, there was never any doubt as to who wore the Queen’s Crown.