Aretha Franklin

“It’s the rough side of the mountain that’s the easiest to climb; the smooth side doesn’t have anything for you to hang on to.”

Aretha Franklin, American Queen of Soul, 1942-2018

Aretha Franklin was a self-taught soul singer and pianist known for such perennially popular songs as “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.” She won 18 Grammy Awards and, in 1987, became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, to a gospel singer mother and Baptist preacher father, she was a child prodigy who learned to play piano by ear, touring with her father’s revival show. Her childhood was cut drastically short, however: her first son was born when she was 12 years old, her second at age 14. That same year she recorded her first gospel album at their church in Detroit, MI, where she and her father had settled.

In 1960 Franklin left for New York City, where she signed with Columbia, who released Aretha the following year. She married Ted White, who became her manager, and her career flourished. In 1967 her cover of “Respect” became number one on both the R&B and Pop charts and she won her first two Grammys.

After her divorce, Franklin returned to her gospel roots, winning the Grammy for Best R&B Female Vocalist for eight years in a row. Concert tours were limited by her extreme fear of flying, thus she never performed overseas. Having jumped around record labels her whole career, she eventually founded her own, Aretha Records, in 2003.

A symbol of Black empowerment in the U.S. during the civil rights movement, she sang at the funeral of Martin Luther King, who was a friend of her father’s. She was also invited to sing at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. When she died, he asked for the cloche hat she wore to be part of the Presidential Library.

In later years, Franklin became known for unlikely collaborations. Her duet with George Michael “I Know You Were Waiting (For Me)” hit number 1 on the pop charts. In 2010, she sang a concert accompanied by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a classically trained pianist. Jennifer Hudson plays the iconic artist in the 2021 biopic, Respect.


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