“Trying to grow up is hurting, you know. You make mistakes. You try to learn from them, and when you don't it hurts even more.”
“I didn't think my songs would become anthems for women. But I'm delighted. Women probably immediately feel compassion and relate to the lyrics. We can all learn a little something from each other, so whatever people can take and be inspired by where my music is concerned is great.”
In a career that’s spanned over half a century, it’s undeniable that Aretha Franklin is a powerhouse. Think about it: who else is known as the Queen of Soul? She’s well accomplished, has fought for civil rights and liberties, has paved the way for other female artists who would follow her lead, and has left an incredible mark on the music charts. One of her biggest hits wasn’t even her own tune! Which one? Keep reading to find that out. On August 12, 2018, it was announced that Franklin was gravely ill, with her family and friends staying by her side. She died on August 16, 2018. Here, we take a look back at the incredible life Franklin has led, and the doorways she opened for so many artists today.
Franklin made quite the statement in 1987, becoming the first woman to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Who did the honors, you may ask? None other than Keith Richards. He introduced her as “the first lady to be inducted into the Hall of Fame." So, accurate, I guess?
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t the only place that’s recognized Franklin’s talent. Eight years before her induction there, she received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1985, the state of Michigan also declared her voice to be a “national resource,” although we’re not entirely sure what that entails. She was also awarded the Grammy Legend Award in 1991 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award three years later. In 2005, she received top praise with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
We all know that Franklin has a voice that exudes power. But did you know that she has a four-octave vocal range? With an ability like that, she has no need for something like auto-tune. In fact, she has a pretty interesting thought about it: “What is auto-tune? I don't even know what auto-tune is.” We don’t think she needs to know about it, either!
Things weren’t really easy for Franklin when she was young. Her father was a Baptist preacher and her mother a gospel singer. Franklin was only six years old when her parents separated. Within four years, her mother passed away because of a heart attack. Her father then moved the family from Tennessee to Michigan for his preaching position in the church and became renowned for his service.
Her career has been a very long, very enriching one. In 2017, Franklin announced that she would be collaborating with the one and only Stevie Wonder for a new album. In the same interview, though, she announced her retirement from performing. “I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from and where it is now,” she said.
Back in 2014, an unauthorized biography about Franklin was released, and she was none too pleased about it. She referred to Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz as “trashy.” The statement she released regarding the book indicated that she believed the author had been carrying a grudge for a long time, saying that “[the writer's] actions are obviously vindictive because I edited out some crazy statements he had the gall to try and put in my book written 15 years ago.” Note to self: don’t get on her bad side.
Franklin must have caught her mother’s singing ability because she earned a reputation for her own singing talent from a young age. In the beginning, you would have caught her singing in church in front of her father’s own congregation, and maybe even playing the piano. Her father was also known for his commanding and distinctive voice. She even taught herself how to play the piano. If that alone doesn’t scream talent, I don’t know what does.
Franklin didn’t even graduate from high school, but she did continue to study classical piano. In fact, in 2010, she performed with Condoleezza Rice, also a classical piano player, during a benefit in Philadelphia. Franklin has also received two honorary doctorates of music: one from Yale University and the other from Berklee College of Music.
She was only about 18 years old when, with her father’s okay, she went to New York to follow her singing dreams. Many labels tried to get her to sign, but it would be Columbia Records that caught her. Just a year later, she released her first album, the self-titled Aretha. Five years later, she made the move to Atlantic Records, where her career really took off. “Respect” was released that next year, in 1967.
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While she was with Atlantic Records, Franklin took some control back into her own hands. Not only did she sing, but she played the familiar piano as well. She also had either her two sisters singing back up vocals or the group Sweet Inspirations. One member of Sweet Inspirations just happened to be Cissy Houston, mother to future star Whitney.
With all of her connections in the entertainment industry, it would be pretty hard to believe if Franklin wasn’t a Godmother to at least one famous name. In this case, Whitney Houston. Franklin was known as Auntie Ree to Houston. Franklin was even set to sing at Houston’s funeral, but leg spasms forced her to cancel. “God knows I wanted to be there, but I couldn't,” she said after being criticized for her absence.
Disco nullified her popularity for a while, so she tried something new: film. She starred alongside Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, where she started to gain a new following. Many moons later, she took up her role again in Blues Brothers 2000.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his family were close friends of Franklin’s father. When he was assassinated in 1968, she performed “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral. Franklin’s producer at Atlantic, Jerry Wexler, described her performance as being “a holy blend of truth and unspeakable tragedy.” Just four years later, she also performed at the funeral for gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, which helped to cement her role in the world of gospel music.
Let’s stay in 1968 for just a quick moment. Back then, Detroit’s Mayor, Jerome P. Cavanaugh, declared February 16 to be Aretha Franklin Day. And, considering February is Black History Month, it’s perfect timing!
Not only did Franklin teach herself to play piano, but she also managed to learn “Nessun Dorma,” an opera aria, in 20 minutes! Pavarotti was set to perform it at the 1998 Grammy Awards, but fell ill virtually last minute. Franklin stepped in and pulled off an incredible performance.
Franklin’s career is well over 50 years in the making, so she’s seen quite a few American Presidents in her time. She was even lucky enough to be invited to sing at three different inauguration ceremonies.
During Barack Obama’s inauguration, Franklin’s hat caused quite the talk just about everywhere. The designer, Detroit-based Luke Song, sold out of the style not long after garnering attention.
Franklin was part of a Women of Soul tribute at the White House while Obama was in office. When he introduced her, he made a slight gaffe: he misspelled respect! Alright, we get it. Things happen, right? But I mean, she even spells it out in her song of the same name.
In 2015, Franklin had the distinction of performing at the Kennedy Center. Then-President Obama was visibly emotional when she sang “Natural Woman” and talked about his feelings about the singer. “American history wells up when Aretha sings.” He went on to add, “nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll - the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.” Franklin may have gotten a little sassy (and we love it) midway during the performance when she took off the fur coat she was wearing and let it drop to the stage around her. The crowd that night loved it too, giving her a standing ovation.
Well, for Franklin it’s technically none of the above. It’s her tour bus! Turns out, she has an incredible fear of flying. It wasn’t always that way, though. There was an incident in 1982 when the plane she was on hit some bad turbulence and she’s been grounded ever since. “I’ve been to California from Detroit four times this year and Florida,” she's said. “I go wherever I choose to go comfortably on my custom bus.”
In 2011, Franklin disclosed that she had lost 85 lbs due to an undisclosed ailment. She never commented further about that ailment, but did say, “I've left that behind, I'm feeling wonderful.”
Around the time she became a mother of two, she did, in fact, record some music. The Songs of Faith album, recorded at her father’s church, was released in 1956. She then traveled with a revival show and even performed alongside famous gospel names like Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, and Sam Cooke.
If you aren’t singing it already, we’re going to try and get “Respect” in your head. This hit wasn’t just big on the charts–it was a revolutionary, empowering song for young women too. It was released around the same time when black activism, feminism, and female sexuality were all important topics in society that were beginning to gain more and more attention. The music industry also found it to be a hit; it scored two Grammy Awards that year. Even in later years, Franklin said she didn’t mind singing the hit, saying “I just find new ways of refreshing the song.” Oh, and speaking of refreshing the song: it wasn’t even her own! It was originally performed by Otis Redding. Franklin and her sisters added the distinctive "Sock it to me" harmony.
Franklin lived through the era when social change was a big deal. Her father was involved with the civil rights movement. Reverend Jesse Jackson was also along for the fight, and knowing Franklin for decades, he has some pretty good insight into her demeanor. “She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign. Aretha has always been a very socially conscious artist, an inspiration, not just an entertainer.”
In addition to the two Grammy Awards she won for “Respect,” Franklin has won 16 others! She’s known for being the only female artist in history to hold the record for reaching the charts, having 112 of her singles chart on Billboard. Combine that with her 75 million-plus records sold worldwide, and you have one of the biggest stars in music history.
You aren’t a real star unless you have something named after you, right? Lucky for Franklin, she had an asteroid named after her in 2014: 249516 Aretha.
Not many people can say that they were handpicked by the person themselves to star as, well, them. Jennifer Hudson can, though. Franklin chose the singer early in 2018 to portray her in a biopic. With support like that, there’s no doubt that Hudson will do an amazing job bringing Franklin’s life to the big screen.
There’s no doubt that Franklin’s life wasn’t the easiest. She struggled with alcoholism and was even a chain smoker. She gave up smoking way back in 1992, and later conceded that the smoking was bad for her voice.
Franklin, despite being so popular, has tried to lead a private life. There’s one topic that you’d be hard-pressed to get her to open up about: her father. In 1979, as she was performing at a concert in Las Vegas, he was shot by robbers and sadly stayed in a coma until 1984, when he died. Famous reverend Jesse Jackson presided over the funeral.
Franklin is a mom of, get this, four boys. I can only imagine what raising four boys must be like, but consider this: she had her first two sons by the time she was 14 years old. Clarence and Edward were in her life before she had her first single, while Theodore and Kecalf followed years later, in 1963 and 1970. She credits her family with helping her in those early years, saying “my grandmother helped me a lot, and my sister and my cousin. They would babysit so I could get out occasionally.”
Her health in recent years has become something of a hot topic. Both of her sisters died of cancer, one from throat cancer, and the other from breast cancer, while her brother succumbed to lung cancer. Over the next couple of years, she had to cancel quite a number of scheduled shows because of mysterious health reasons. At one point, Franklin underwent surgery, but—fiercely private up until the end— she continuously refused to discuss the source of the illness. When she died on August 16, her cause of death was revealed to be pancreatic cancer. She died surrounded by her inner circle of friends, family, and loved ones, just as she would have wanted. She was 76.
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