The Queen of Soul. Any serious music fan of the past 50 years would instantly know to whom that moniker applies. Actually, referring to her as the “Queen of Soul” sells her short. In point of fact, as you will see below, she was one of the true giants of her generation in the fields of soul, pop, and gospel, and even branched out into opera. Also, she was a strong advocate and role model for women, minorities, and the downtrodden, in general. Furthermore, she was one of the few individuals who was instantly recognizable by merely her first name.
Aretha Louise Franklyn was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, TN. Her father was a Baptist minister and a “circuit preacher,” that is, he travelled throughout the region to preach to congregations who did not have their own minister. It was from her mother, an accomplished vocalist and piano player, that Aretha inherited her musical talent.
Aretha did not have a happy childhood. Her father was a notorious philanderer, doubtlessly facilitated by his frequent absences from home on the “circuit.” Moreover, both of her parents had children with other than their respective spouses. By 1948, her parents had separated. Her mother had relocated to Buffalo with part of the family, and Aretha had gone with her father to Detroit. She saw her mother infrequently, and then when Aretha was nine, she died from a coronary.
Aretha demonstrated an affinity for music at an early age. By age six she was singing solos in church. By age 12 she was accompanying her father on his “gospel caravan” tours. At some point, she met the renowned singer, Sam Cooke, who was to become a significant influence on her career. At 16 she went on tour with Martin Luther King and even sang at his funeral.
As I said above, throughout her career she was a strong inspiration and advocate for women, minorities and the generally downtrodden. These attitudes were often reflected in her songs and served to enhance her popularity. For example, “Respect” became a symbol of empowerment for both women and African Americans, especially during the turbulent ’60s.
At the age of 18, aspiring to try a career in pop music, like Sam Cooke, she moved to NY and signed with Columbia Records. In 1966, not satisfied with her progress, she switched to Atlantic Records. From that point on, her career took off. She produced a series of “hits, including classics such as “Respect,” (perhaps, her signature “hit”), “Chain of Fools”, “Natural Woman,” “Think,” and “Spanish Harlem.”
Her versatility was astounding. She was the most charted female recording artist in Billboard’s history. She sold some 75 million records worldwide, making her one of the most prolific musical artists ever. She recorded in excess of 100 charted singles hits in both pop and R & B, including 17 top-ten pop singles, and 20 R & B number one singles. Additionally, she won 18 Grammys.
Her personal life was, to put it kindly, complicated. She had her first son at the age of 12. The father was a classmate. She bore a second child at the age 14. Aretha was very reluctant to discuss this aspect of her life with the public, but it is known that they were raised primarily by her grandmother and a sister while Aretha concentrated on her career.
Aretha was married twice and had two additional children. In the mid 1970s she relocated again, this time to California. Then, in 1982 she moved back to Detroit to be with her ailing father and siblings.
During her career Aretha suffered from various health issues. For example, she was considerably overweight; she had a strong fear of flying, which limited her international appearances, and from time to time she had to cancel performances due to “undisclosed medical problems.” Finally, earlier this month she was reported to be seriously ill with pancreatic cancer. She died on August 16 at the age of 76.
Aretha left behind a very strong legacy, for example:
1. I already discussed her civil rights activism, particularly as reflected in many of her songs.
2. In 1987 she became the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame.
3. In 2005 she was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame.
4. In 2012 she was inducted into the GMA Gospel Hall of Fame.
5. Rolling Stone Magazine has included her as one of the 100 Greatest Female Artists of All Time as well as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
6. Michigan has declared her a “natural resource” of the state.
7. She was the recipient of honorary degrees from various prestigious universities, such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
Following her death various tributes have come rolling in. Below please find a sample:
1. Rolling Stone Magazine called her “not only the definitive female soul singer of the sixties, [but also] one of the most influential and important voices in pop history.”
2. Elton John – “We were witnessing the greatest soul artist of all time.”
3. Barbra Streisand – Not only was she a uniquely brilliant singer, but her commitment to civil rights made an indelible impact on the world.”
4. Billy Joel – “We have lost the greatest singer of our time.
Rest in peace, Aretha. You were not only a fabulous performer, but a unique individual and will be sorely missed.