Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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FRANKLIN, Aretha

(b 25 March 1942, Memphis TN) Soul singer, aka 'Lady Soul', 'the Queen of Soul': she has had more million-selling singles than any other woman in the history of recorded sound, with 60 sides in the Billboard Hot 100 '61-82, 32 in the top 40; 33 LPs in top 200 '62-83, 14 in the top 20. The daughter of Rev. C.L. Franklin, a nationally famous gospel singer, she sang in her father's Detroit Baptist church with sisters Erma and Carolyn, and made first solo records at 14. She toured the gospel circuit, began singing secular material and signed to CBS/Columbia '61-6. Her albums included Aretha, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, and The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin, the first and best of four Columbia LPs to chart not counting compilations, at no. 69 '62, followed by Laughing On The Outside, Unforgettable, Runnin' Out Of Fools (no. 84 '64), Yeah!!!, Soul Sister, Take It Like You Give It, and Lee Cross '67. Columbia compilations included Take A Look '67 and two-disc In The Beginning '72. Eight CBS singles charted included 'Won't Be Long' '61 with Ray Bryant Combo; only one in top 40: 'Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody' '61, an Al Jolson chestnut also revived by comedian Jerry Lewis (no. 10 '56).

She won the New Star award in a down beat international critics' poll, but as much as everybody loved her voice Columbia hadn't presented her properly. She switched to Atlantic, then on a roll in the era's music; prod. Jerry Wexler, arr. Arif Mardin and engineer Tom Dowd found a groove for her passion, four-octave range, breath control and gritty conviction. Wexler sent her to Fame Studios at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where liquor and racial sensitivity among the bystanders (including her husband) got in the way (see entry for Soul); only one track and part of another were recorded, but the groove had been discovered. She split up with her husband and went into hiding; Wexler tracked her down, brought the band up to NY from Muscle Shoals and her first album was finished in a week. She had five top ten hits in '67 alone: 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)', 'Respect' (no. 1), 'Baby I Love You', '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman', 'Chain Of Fools': Lady Soul had arrived. '(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone', 'Think', two-sided hit 'The House That Jack Built'/'I Say A Little Prayer' followed '68. At the top after years of being mismanaged, with record shops not sure which bin to put her records in, she became 'controversial': i.e. difficult to interview. But the fans didn't mind; top 20 Atlantic albums included I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You and Aretha Arrives '67; Lady Soul, Aretha Now, Aretha In Paris, all '68; Soul and Aretha's Gold '69; This Girl's In Love With You '70; Live At The Fillmore West and Greatest Hits '71; Young, Gifted And Black '72, Let Me In Your Life '74.

But she was unhappy in her personal life; her friends waited for her in church: Amazing Grace was her triumphant return, recorded live in Los Angeles in January 1972 with Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir; the album won her eighth Grammy. 'If you wanna know the truth,' her father said, 'she's never left the church!' Old friend Mahalia Jackson lived just long enough to know that Franklin had come home, if only for a visit; just a month later Aretha sang at Jackson's funeral. Other albums included Spirit In The Dark '70, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) '73, With Everything I Feel In Me '74, You '75, Sweet Passion '77, Almighty Fire '78, La Diva '79; and songs from the film Sparkle '76, produced by Percy Mayfield. When sales of singles tapered off she switched to Arista and worked at first with Mardin, hoping to recapture her earlier success; also appeared in the John Landis film The Blues Brothers '80 singing 'Respect' and 'Think'. Arista LPs Aretha '80, Love All The Hurt Away '81, Jump To It '82, disco-style Get It Right '83 charted, last three in top 30, but relations with the label soured and Arista sought return of advances. Meanwhile, as she prepared to star in Sing, Mahalia, Sing in Detroit '84, her beloved father died.

She bounced back; a settlement with Arista out of court was followed by no. 13 LP Who's Zoomin' Who? '85 including her first top ten singles since '72 (title track and 'Freeway Of Love'); Aretha '86 featured a duet with George Michael and a cover of 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' with Keith Richards, '46 show tune 'Look To The Rainbow'. The Queen of Soul has never exceeded the excitement of her Atlantic debut, but she still reigns; in mid-1987 she made two-disc One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism in her father's Detroit church, with sisters, cousin Brenda Corbett, Joe Ligon from the Mighty Clouds of Joy, Mavis Staples, a 100-voice choir and Jesse Jackson preaching a sermon about drugs. Later chart albums (still on Arista) were Through The Storm '89, What You See Is What You Sweat '91, Greatest Hits (1980-94) '94; A Rose Is Still A Rose '98 had her in fine voice, let down by bland songs.

Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul 2007 was a double-CD on Rhino, classic stuff from the Atlantic vaults compiled and annotated by Jerry Wexler and David Ritz. The track-by-track documentation includes most of the backing musicians, and reads like a who's who of American music.

Her 38th studio album was Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love 2011, available only at Walmart, described by one critic as 'like a gourmet Sunday lunch buffet--indulgent, fattening, sugary and just in time for Mother's Day.' The heyday of Soul was over, but the voice was still good.