In Memoriam: Aretha Franklin (1942–2018)


Aretha Franklin (1942–2018)

(Photo: DownBeat Archives/Atlantic Records)

She was the little girl who would be queen. Graced with a huge voice and even more powerful spirit, Aretha Franklin claimed her throne as the dominant female vocalist of her generation and a beloved cultural heroine.

During the past year she canceled a series of performances in New Jersey, New Orleans and Chicago. And recently, news that the 76-year-old Queen of Soul was gravely ill and in hospice care in Detroit, surrounded by family and friends, circulated. Franklin died Thursday at her home, according to various reports.

In the early 1950s, Franklin began singing solos in the Detroit church led by her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a gospel singer in his own right known as the Man With the Million-Dollar Voice. Franklin’s mother, Barbara, a gospel singer, was out of the picture by the time Aretha was 6, and died four years later. Her father began managing Franklin when she was 14, and her audience no longer was confined to the 4,500 congregants of the New Bethel Baptist Church.

She began performing on C.L.’s “gospel caravan” tours, and with his help, landed a recording deal with J.V.B. Records, which issued her first album, Songs Of Faith, in 1956. She sometimes traveled with the Caravans and the Soul Stirrers. It was a life-changing event when she observed how young people reacted to the talent and charisma of the Soul Stirrers’ lead vocalist, Sam Cooke.

“When I saw he went pop, you know, outside church, that’s what made me say, ‘I want to sing that stuff, too,’” she told Gerri Hirshey, author of Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music.

When she was 18, C.L. acceded to her wishes and helped her prepare a two-song demo with an eye toward landing a contract with a secular record company. If the auto industry was the engine that powered Detroit’s economy, music soon became its second-biggest export. But fledgling Detroit-based soul label Motown and its Tamla imprint lost out to industry powerhouse Columbia for the young dynamo.

Columbia released 10 studio albums by Franklin from 1961–’67, three of which reached the top 10 on Billboard’s R&B chart. But at Columbia, Franklin’s soulful voice was used to sing lushly orchestrated standards. With her move to Atlantic in 1967, she was off and running as a crossover superstar. Her affiliation with producer and Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler, and her sole session at the famed Muscle Shoals studio, yielded some of her greatest work. She scored nine Billboard Top 10 pop hits in her first year at Atlantic, starting with “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).” The album of the same title reached No. 2 on the pop chart, which tied 1968’s Lady Soul as her highest-charting LP. Her workup of Otis Redding’s “Respect” topped the singles chart, and Don Covay’s “Chain Of Fools” shot to No. 2 for Franklin. But her next 10 singles failed to make the Top 10, and only eight reached that lofty status for the rest of her career.

A gifted pianist and composer, Franklin’s repertoire included work by other songwriters, as well pieces that she wrote by herself and in collaboration with other tunesmiths.

Franklin enjoyed a spike of popularity in 1985 and reached new generations of fans, thanks to a string of hit singles on the pop charts: “Freeway Of Love,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” (a collaboration with pop duo the Eurythmics).

A Brand New Me, her 42nd studio album, was released in 2017 by Rhino and Atlantic, and featured lush orchestral arrangements of her iconic vocal recordings. But it always was onstage that she was particularly dazzling.

Aretha Live At Fillmore West, recorded in May 1971 with the singer backed by King Curtis & the King Pins, perhaps best captures the glory of a Franklin live performance. The album had its share of pop hits, including “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Love The One You’re With,” but still offers a raw, insistent quality missing from many of her studio efforts. Before a Bay Area audience weaned on the Grateful Dead, though, Franklin never was more soulful. She later called the three-night engagement the highlight of her career. Her live 1972 Amazing Grace, which former DownBeat Reviews Editor Aaron Cohen wrote a book on, is the top-selling gospel album in history.

Among her accolades are 18 Grammy awards and induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

As testimonials poured in from fellow musicians and admirers, plans were announced for a Nov. 14 tribute concert in Madison Square Garden. Sony Music Chief Creative Officer Clive Davis, who signed Franklin to his Arista label in 1980 and remained her close friend, reportedly had been planning the event before the singer’s illness was disclosed earlier in August. DB

  • 23_Village_Vanguard_Joey_Baron_by_Michael_Jackson_copy.jpg

    “Bill Stewart has nothing to prove,” Baron says. “I aspire to that ethic.”

  • 23_Charles_Lloyd_1_by_Dorothy_Darr.jpg

    “At this point in my life I’m still looking for the note,” Lloyd says. “But I’m a little nearer.”

  • McBride__Kahn_copy.jpg

    ​Christian McBride and writer Ashley Kahn meet for a DownBeat Blindfold Test hosted by New York University’s Jazz Studies program.

  • Samara_Joy_%C2%A92023_Mark_Sheldon-4639.jpg

    Samara Joy brought fans to their feet in the middle of her Newport set!

  • 20170912_CeramicDog_EbruYildiz_29-2_copy.jpg

    Ceramic Dog is, from right, Shahzad Ismaily, Ches Smith and Ribot.