Personalities | Aretha Franklin | Sixties | Rock

The undisputed Queen of Soul since the title was first applied to her in the late 1960s, Aretha Franklin has been hailed as the greatest soul diva of all time.

Possessing a voice of power and passion (and an underrated talent on the piano) she has turned her attention to everything from pop through jazz to classical; but with a grounding in gospel it was in soul music that she found her finest hours and her true home.

The Columbia Years

She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on 25 March 1942 to parents who were both nationally successful singers. She moved to Detroit with her family in 1949 and made her first recordings at the age of 14 singing hymns in her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church, also going on tour with him and her sisters Carolyn and Erma (who would both have successful singing careers of their own).

By 1960, she was tackling secular material, and was signed by John Hammond to Columbia (having also, it is rumoured, been wooed by Motown). Columbia saw her as a crossover pop and jazz artist, and although she had a string of minor hits for them in the early 1960s (the biggest a cover of the Al Jolson standard ‘Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody’), her talent was generally not well served by the choice of material.

The Atlantic Years

If the Columbia recordings were poorly focused, things came together with laserlike intensity in 1967 when she moved to Atlantic Records. The combination of Aretha Franklin with producer Jerry Wexler, arranger Arif Mardin and the rock-solid R&B of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section lit a fuse that delivered an opening salvo of 10 Top 10 hits for the label in her first two years alone. The very first recording session resulted in the smouldering gospel-tinged ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’, which opened her account at No. 9; the hastily convened second produced one of the defining moments of popular music, her blazing take on Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’. It was an instant US No. 1, resonating resoundingly with the rising confidence and pride of the black community, which broke her worldwide.

The success of ‘Respect’ was instrumental in the introduction of a new Grammy Award category in 1967, that of Best Female R&B Vocal, which Aretha won for the next eight years. From the start at Atlantic, and perhaps as the legacy of her Columbia years, she tackled material by an eclectic range of writers from both within the circle of soul and beyond: Goffin and King, Lennon and McCartney, Bacharach and David, Curtis Mayfield and Elton John all received early attention and chart success in her hands. With her gospel roots Aretha was a gifted arranger of vocals on many of her hits, and she and her sister Carolyn also featured in writing credits.

Unusually for a female soul singer at that time, her albums also sold consistently well. Her domination of the...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, general editor Michael Heatley


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