Aretha Franklin Biography – American Singer, Songwriter, Pianist, Musician, Queen of Soul, Legacy

Aretha Franklin Biography
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Aretha Franklin. Atlantic Records, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Aretha Franklin Biography and Legacy

Aretha Franklin was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist, who is widely regarded as the Queen of Soul.

Her long and successful career would lead her to be considered one of the greatest, most influential, and best-selling artists of all time.

Early Life

Aretha Franklin was born on 25th March 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, to Clarence LaVaughn Franklin and Barbara Venice Franklin. Her father was a Baptist minister and civil rights activist and her mother was a gospel singer and pianist.

In 1944, when Aretha was only 2 years old, the family moved to Buffalo, New York. And by the time she was 5, the family had permanently settled in Detroit, where her father became the pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church.

However, Aretha’s parents had a troubled marriage, and in 1948, when Aretha was 6 years old, her parents separated and her mother returned to Buffalo, leaving the children behind in Detroit.

Aretha stayed with her father in Detroit and visited her mother during the summers, and her mother visited her in Detroit as often as possible.

When Aretha was 9 years old, her mother died due to a heart attack just eighteen days short of Aretha’s 10th birthday.

Aretha and her siblings were then raised with the help of several women in the community such as her grandmother and even the influential gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. It was under the influence of these women that Aretha first became interested in music and began learning to sing and play the piano by ear.

Her father’s passionate sermons led him to be known as the man with the million-dollar voice, making him a celebrity among the African-American population. His sermons even ensured him a solid income as he was invited to give sermons in various churches across the country. He was so well-known that many famous and influential personalities such as Martin Luther King, Sam Cooke, James Cleveland, Clara Ward, and Jackie Wilson frequently visited the Franklin household.

Aretha had minimal schooling in her youth, completing her freshman year at Northern High School but dropping out during her Sophomore year.

Start of Music Career

After becoming interested in music soon after her mother’s death, Aretha Franklin began singing hymns at New Bethel on her own.

By the time she was 12, her father took her on the road with him on his gospel caravan tours so that she could perform in different churches. Acting as her manager, he also helped her to get and sign her very first recording deal with J.V.B. Records in Detroit.

Aretha’s father brought in recording equipment at the New Bethel Baptist Church and helped Aretha record nine tracks on which she sang and played piano.

In 1956, when Aretha was 14 years old, J.V.B. released her first single, Never Grow Old, backed by You Grow Closer. The same year, five of her tracks were released on side one of the 1956 album Spirituals.

Also in the same year, J.V.B. helped Aretha record her first live album, Songs of Faith, at New Bethel Church. But the album would not be released until 1965 by Checker Records.

Aretha began frequently traveling to different places to sing. She traveled with the gospel music group The Soul Stirrers and even participated in the gospel circuit in Chicago, meeting other influential singers such as Dinah Washington and Mavis Staples.

In 1968, Aretha, aged 16, went on tour with Martin Luther King.

Musical Influences

As a young singer traveling about the gospel circuit, Aretha Franklin met and was influenced by several leading African-American musicians of the time such as Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, James Cleveland, and Sam Cooke.

Aretha first met Cooke when she visited California along with her father. Sam Cooke and Ray Charles would become two of her greatest influences. And James Cleveland, known as the King of Gospel, helped her to focus on her early career in a major way.

Venturing into Pop Music

In 1960, Aretha Franklin, aged 18, told her father that she wished to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke and start recording pop music instead of only gospel music. Her father agreed and the two moved to New York together, where her father helped her record two songs as demos for Columbia Records. Columbia was impressed and agreed to sign the 18-year-old Aretha.

In September of 1960, Columbia released Aretha’s first single, Today I Sing the Blues, which reached the top 10 of the Hot Rhythm & Blues Sellers chart.

Shortly thereafter, in January 1961, her first album, Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo, was released to much success. The album became the breakthrough she had been looking for. Her single, Won’t Be Long, entered the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. The album saw her performing in various genres such as blues, vocal jazz, rhythm & blues, standards, and doo-wop.

Early Success in Pop Music

By the end of 1961, Aretha Franklin was considered the new star female singer, officially putting her on the map of American music.

Her initial success was so great that Columbia released two more albums of hers, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin and The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin, in quick succession in 1962.

As the 1960s unfolded, Aretha recorded more pop music, delivering several hit singles along the way. It was during this period that she came to be known as the Queen of Soul.

Along with frequently recording singles and albums, Aretha also regularly performed in theaters and nightclubs, making up to $100,000 a year with her performances by the mid-1960s. She also made frequent appearances on rock and roll shows.

Leaving Columbia Records

Although Aretha Franklin was off to a great start with Columbia Records, her records failed to sell as expected, and she did not find commercial success.

By the time her contract with Columbia came to an end in November 1966, she owed the label money due to poor sales of her records. That was when Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records persuaded her to sign a deal with his label. Wexler hoped to make use of Aretha’s gospel background, something which Columbia had failed to do.

This change turned out to be one of the best decisions of her career. Her musical rapport with Wexler and the good working relationship they shared together led to a series of hits from 1967 until early 1972, during which time Wexler helped her produce the majority of her peak recordings with Atlantic.

Success with Atlantic

Aretha’s first album with Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, was commercially successful and went gold. The success of the album catapulted her to fame.

In another couple of years, Aretha Franklin became the most successful singer in the United States with several of her songs such as I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Respect, and A Natural Woman reaching the top-ten singles on the charts.

Her rendition of Otis Redding‘s Respect became her signature song and a feminist and civil rights anthem.

Working along with Wexler, Aretha would go on to produce some of her most popular songs over the following years such as Think, Chain of Fools, I Say a Little Prayer and Ain’t No Way.

In 1968, Aretha won her first two Grammys and was even honored with a day named after her.

In May of 1968, she went on her first tour outside the United States, and in June, she appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

By the early 1970s, Aretha and Wexler continued to produce critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums such as Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted, and Black. And her singles such as Rock Steady, Spanish Harlem, and Day Dreaming reached the top-ten singles.

In June 1972, her live gospel music album, Amazing Grace, was released to massive commercial success. The album would go on to sell over two million copies and is still one of the best-selling gospel albums of all time.

End of the Success Wave

By the mid-1970s, Aretha’s meteoric rise had begun to slow down and stagnate, putting an end to her tremendous success wave. By 1975, her albums were not selling that well and her singles were not as popular anymore.

Her reputation as a commercially bankable star was on the decline, and apart from an odd song now and then, none of her songs had much of an impact. After Wexler left Atlantic for Warner Bros. Records in 1976, her subsequent albums, Sweet Passion (1977), Almighty Fire (1978), and La Diva (1979) were all commercial failures.

In 1979, Aretha Franklin left Atlantic Records.

New Beginnings at Arista Records

Hoping to revive and rejuvenate her stagnant career, Aretha Franklin signed up with Clive DavisArista Records in 1980.

Her first album with Arista, Aretha, was released in 1980, and it included the hits United Together and her cover of Redding’s I Can’t Turn You Loose, the latter of which was nominated for a Grammy. Her second album, Love All the Hurt Away, was released in 1981 and included her Grammy-winning cover of R&B duo Sam & Dave‘s Hold On, I’m Comin’, and the popular title track duet with George Benson.

Aretha’s 1982 album, Jump to It, earned her the first gold album of her’s in seven years, with its title track becoming her first top-40 single in six years.

All of a sudden, Aretha found her career back on track, encouraging her to take risks and experiment with her choices rather than stick to a formula and stagnate. She now desired to break away from the adult contemporary sound of her previous two albums produced by Luther Vandross and decided to strive for a younger sound with her next album Who’s Zoomin’ Who? which was released in 1985.

This album was a great success and became her first album with Arista to be certified platinum, selling over a million copies and producing hits like the title track, Another Night, and Freeway of Love.

Her next album, again titled Aretha, was released in 1986 and included the hit singles Jimmy Lee, The Rolling Stone‘s Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and the international number one duet with George Michael, I Knew You Were Waiting For Me.

Along with recording albums, Aretha also toured regularly and provided vocals to TV shows.

Decline in Popularity

Toward the late 1980s, Aretha’s popularity was once again in the decline. By the early 1990s, her albums were flops on the charts and were mostly commercial failures.

Although a couple of her songs such as A Deeper Love, Willing to Forgive, and A Rose is still a Rose, were hits, the rest of them failed to leave any sort of impact.

In 1998, Aretha Franklin had a memorable performance at the Grammy Awards, wherein, on a last-minute request, she sang Luciano Pavorotti‘s aria Nessun Dorma. Over a billion people across the world saw the performance and she received a standing ovation from the audience at the end of it.

Aretha’s final album with Arista, So Damn Happy, was released in 2003 and included the Grammy-winning song Wonderful.

The following year, Aretha Franklin left Arista Records after more than 20 years with the label.

Career After Arista

Although Aretha Franklin was no longer the most popular or successful singer at the start of the 21st century, she continued to record songs and perform.

In 2007, she won a Grammy for best gospel performance for her song Never Gonna Break My Faith. In 2008, she released her 36th studio album, This Christmas, Aretha, which was also her first Christmas album.

In 2009, she performed the patriotic song, My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, at Barack Obama‘s inaugural ceremony.

In 2014, Aretha signed with RCA Records and released her 38th and final studio album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, featuring ten cover songs by female recording artists. Her cover of Adele‘s Rolling in the Deep debuted at Number 47 on the Billboard Chart, making her the first woman to have 100 songs on the chart.

Final Years

Although she did not tour as often anymore, Aretha Franklin continued to perform at special and important events in her final years. In 2017, she canceled a few shows due to health reasons, sparking concerns among her admirers.

In September 2017, she performed her last full concert at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, and in November 2017, she gave her final public performance at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City for Elton John‘s 25th Anniversary gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.


After being seriously ill for several days, Aretha Franklin, aged 76, died at her home on 16th August 2018 due to a malignant pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, which is different from the most common form of pancreatic cancer.

Several influential and well-known personalities paid tributes to her and mourned her death. Obama said she helped define the American experience, while civil rights activist and Baptist minister Al Sharpton called her a civil rights and humanitarian icon in acknowledgment of her support of various humanitarian causes.

On 19th August, a memorial service was held at New Bethel Baptist Church. A public-lying-in-repose was held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, where thousands of admirers paid their respects. On 31st August, a homegoing service was held at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, where personalities from various fields from entertainment to politics paid tribute to her. The event was covered by several news channels nationally and internationally.

Aretha was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit.


Aretha Franklin is now widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential singers of all time. She is often called one of the giants of soul and American pop music and is also considered one of the best gospel singers of all time.

She is universally praised and lauded for her vocal flexibility, musical intelligence, beautiful and skillful piano playing, and the sheer range and breadth of her catalog. She fully embodied the connection between African-American gospel music, blues, R&B, and rock and roll, in a way that few other musicians have been able to do.

Apart from being a successful musician, Aretha was also a passionate advocate for numerous humanitarian causes over the course of her life. She involved herself in the struggle for civil rights, women’s rights, and even Native American rights, donating money for these causes as well as taking an active part in demonstrations and marches. She also supported the struggles of indigenous people across the world.

Over the course of her long and successful career, Aretha was honored with numerous awards and honors in recognition of her achievements in the world of entertainment. Some of the awards and honors she received are the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Grammy Legend Award, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Centre Honoree, National Medal of Arts, Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, and several others.

She became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the second one to be inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame.

Aretha was also inducted into the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Memphis Music Hall of Fame. She frequently appears on various lists of the Greatest Singers of All Time, the Greatest Artists of All Time, and the Greatest R&B Singers of All Time.

Aretha’s voice and musical achievements earned her a reputation as the greatest singer of her generation, often described as the voice of the civil rights movement and the voice of black America.

Post offices, streets, subway stations, and even asteroids have been named in Aretha’s honor, and several universities have honored her with honorary degrees and doctorates. Her life has been the subject of movies (such as the 2021 biopic Respect) and TV series (such as National Geographic’s miniseries Genius, season 3), thereby keeping her name and legacy alive in popular culture.

We were fortunate to witness the talent of Aretha Franklin, a musical genius unmatched in her range, power, and soul. Her life and work have gone on to inspire countless musicians across the world, especially women.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Aretha Franklin truly was the Queen of Soul.