Aretha Franklin is one of the most celebrated women in music history. She’s been hailed as the “Queen of Soul” since forever, was the first woman ever inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, has won 18 Grammys (for several years, she had more than any female artist in history), and has sold a whopping 75 million albums over the course of a stellar career. Her longevity rivals the Isley Brothers and the Rolling Stones, and her classic years featured the release of some of the greatest albums in the history of music. In 2011, she was declared the Greatest Singer of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine.
Smokey Robinson once said, “Everyone was singing and harmonizing, everyone was playing piano and guitar. Aretha came out of this world, but she also came out of another far-off magical world none of us really understood. She came from a distant musical planet where children are born with their gifts fully formed.”
So why does it feel like we still don’t fully appreciate Aretha Franklin?
As revered as she has always been, as beloved and iconic as she undoubtedly remains, the scope and the depths of Aretha Franklin’s artistry are oftentimes reduced to those classic hit singles and that inimitable voice. That voice is a thing of majesty and beauty, and her most famous songs are forever tethered to popular culture, but Aretha’s talents as an instrumentalist and songwriter, the variety and vision in her classic albums, and that aforementioned longevity, are sometimes peripheral to “that voice” in the way Aretha is viewed and presented. From the moment she signed with Columbia in 1959, Aretha was focused on charting and charting big. When she shifted to Atlantic in 1967 and teamed with producer Jerry Wexler, she and her then-husband and manager Ted White focused on her songwriting.
Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit by her devoutly Christian father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, young Aretha made her first record when she was just 14 years old and landed her first record deal at 18. She’d dropped out of school after family friend Sam Cooke convinced Aretha and her father that she could be a star. Columbia’s John Hammond signed her and immediately had the young singer recording jazz material like “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.” Franklin spent years recording songs that were better suited to Dionne Warwick or Betty Everett.
“[It] was more kind of ‘easy listening,’ as they say in Cashbox [magazine],” said Aretha in an interview with Record Mirror back in 1968. “I started off [at Columbia] with more powerful material—very similar to the kind of thing I’m recording now with Atlantic—and went on to slower music. But I can say that my big records and my success have been due to the backing which Atlantic have put behind me. I can say that I wouldn’t have had these hit records if it wasn’t for Atlantic, and their organization.”
At Atlantic, Aretha was given more creative latitude—she played piano and wrote more of the songs herself. Producer Jerry Wexler teamed her with the famous Muscle Shoals session musicians at FAME Studios. The shift to Atlantic kick-started Aretha’s most celebrated run, where she churned out epochal singles like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think” and “Chain of Fools.” In 1967, Aretha became a superstar after the release of I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Love You, an album where she co-wrote four of the eleven tracks. She would go on to write hits like “Think” and “Rock Steady” and “Day Dreaming,” but Franklin’s voice would overshadow her songwriting abilities and stellar piano play. As such, she’s rarely mentioned alongside Nina Simone, Elton John, or Joni Mitchell as a singer-songwriter/instrumentalist—a testament to the somewhat limited way that we celebrate Ms. Franklin. That could be a byproduct of hitmaking and having arguably the most amazing voice of all time. There was always an eagerness to assign Aretha’s classic years to the vision of Wexler, who’d plucked her away from Columbia and taken her down to Muscle Shoals. But Aretha had always known who she was, musically and creatively.
“My big ambition later on, when I was with Columbia, was to have a big record,” Aretha explained in 1967. “Ted and I have written quite a few songs—but the name on the label credits would be ‘White’—we write under my married name. I like writing, and don’t confine myself to just the words, or just the music. But I don’t particularly write songs with myself in mind.”
She’d never even expected “I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Love You,” her breakthrough single, to be a major hit.
“I was surprised. I could see more potential in ‘Respect,’” she said at the time. “In fact, I can say I knew that would be a hit song. Sometimes I can’t get a song right in the recording studio, though. We usually work things out beforehand, not like the Memphis studio where they don’t plan things like that, but can end up with a master. We usually know what we’re going to do. I sing and the musicians kind of fit things around me. Two of my favorite songs incidentally are ‘Rock-a-Bye,’ which was on Columbia, and ‘Chain of Fools.’”
Aretha was a hands-on performer in the studio. Although paired with Wexler throughout much of her legendary stint at Atlantic and having worked with luminaries ranging from Curtis Mayfield to Stevie Wonder to Luther Vandross, Aretha had taken an active role in co-producing her records. But she never had any desire to be entirely self-produced—despite the fact that she had the capability to make those records herself.
“That’s just too many hats—it’s a lot of responsibility,” she said to David Lathan in 1978. “It’s enough singing and writing material. I wouldn’t even think about it—no, it’s not going to happen. Writing the tunes and just perfecting your own vocal performances is enough work. Now I do co-produce things because you’ve always got someone else you can relate to and exchange ideas with.”
And the pain of her personal life has not been something she’s always been eager to discuss. She became a mother when she was barely 14 years old. With “Papa Don’t Preach” a major hit that year, Aretha was asked by Interview magazine if the song had any personal resonance with her because of her own history as a teenage mother with a religious dad.
“Well, that’s very, very personal and nothing I care to discuss,” she said—before shifting the focus to her own ambitions. “I’m very happy with things just the way they happened for me, and what I’m going to do now is go back and get my diploma. I’ve thought about going to MSU [Michigan State University] to enroll as a special student in music theory.”
She’d had two children by the time she was 15, and would endure two high-profile divorces. She and White divorced in 1969, ending a marriage marred by White’s domestic abuse and manipulations. Franklin would marry actor Glynn Turman in 1978, but the couple split in 1984. Franklin and Turman would remain friendly—she sang the theme song for his hit NBC show A Different World. “Glen was a sharp guy,” she told Wendy Williams in 2011. “And he’s a beautiful man. We talk all the time.”
Franklin called off her engagement to Willie Wilkerson in 2012. The couple had been discussing marriage ever since the late 1980s, but it doesn’t appear to be a preoccupation for Franklin—even if it is an institution that she’d always had respect for.
“I don’t feel that everyone has to deal with a piece of paper,” Franklin said back during her marriage to Turman. “But it’s always been here and I think it always will be. Personally, I agree with the tradition that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage! I think, though, that it’s an individual thing up the people involved. I do feel that people are getting back to some of the more traditional, basic things in life.”
In 2014, David Ritz released a controversial biography about the singer called Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. It presented Aretha as obsessive about food and sex, delusional about love, insecure regarding other popular female singers, overbearing towards her sisters, and financially irresponsible. Expectedly, Franklin slammed the book.
“As many of you are aware, there is a very trashy book out there full of lies and more lies about me,” she said via statement. “Clearly the writer has no class, no conscience or standards!
“To say I was jealous of Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross and Whitney Houston is just plain crazy!!! After 50 years of great family, friends, fans, music and concerts; 18 Grammy Awards—a record number, the National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian award in the country, and too many other awards for which I’m thankful. Please give me one reason why I would be jealous? I appreciate and enjoy them all!”
Aretha Franklin’s life and music are endlessly fascinating. We should always remember that when thinking of her. She’s more than just the “Auntie Ree” in the fancy church hat, the matronly figure of modern music. She’s one of the most dynamic artists of all time with a story that’s begging to be told. She survived through shifting tastes, reinventing herself repeatedly—going from a singer of standards to the Queen of Soul to an adult contemporary superstar. She charted in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and as she announces her retirement, it’s clear that she’s earned the right to walk away however and whenever she wants. She’s done everything she set out to do. And she knew how she wanted this to go—she knew way back in 1968, when she was just beginning to enjoy major success. In the interview with Record Mirror, she was asked if she could see herself still performing hits like “Think” in the years to come.
“No, I shouldn’t think so,” the 26-year old laughed. “Music changes—and I’m gonna change right along with it.”