Artists Who Changed Music: Aretha Franklin



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Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul, and one of the biggest names in American music. She has been called “The Voice of Black America,” as well as “America’s Truest Voice,” “the voice that gave America its heart and soul,” and “the greatest singer in US history.”

Aretha Franklin’s achievements are nothing short of stunning. Over a career spanning an amazing seven decades, 112 of her singles entered the Billboard charts, and she released 39 studio albums, 8 live albums, and 58 compilation albums. She won 18 Grammy Awards, including eight Grammy Awards in a row for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, from 1968 to 1975.

In 1987, she was the first female artist to be inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall Of Fame. She came in at number one in Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100 of Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2005, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor. She also was active in the American Civil Rights movement.

So who was Aretha Franklin, and why and how exactly did she become one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and changed not only the course of music, but of American culture as a whole?

Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father was the famous Reverend C.L. Franklin, and her mother, Barbara Franklin, an accomplished piano player and gospel singer. The family moved to Detroit when Aretha was five, where her father became pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church. Because of her father’s infidelities, her mother moved back to Buffalo in 1948. She died in 1952 at the age of 34.

While living with her father, the young Aretha was exposed to many of the elements that would later shape her career. The Reverend C.L. Franklin was one of the most popular preachers of the era, and well-known across the US through tours and radio appearances. He was an extremely gifted speaker, and called “the man with the million-dollar voice.”

C.L. Franklin’s sermons were routinely complemented with gospel music. His celebrity status meant that a young Aretha would watch wide-eyed as scores of celebrities came to the family house. Among them were gospel stars like Clara Ward, James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke, as well as jazz musicians like Nat Cole, Art Tatum, and Oscar Peterson. C.L. Franklin also was a Civil Rights activist, and Martin Luther King Jr. was yet another famous regular house guest.

Aretha had begun to learn to play piano, one of the staple instruments of gospel music, and started singing solos in the New Bethel Baptist church by the time she was 12. Aretha performed in many of the churches where her father spoke, and, recognizing her talents, he started managing her. He organized a recording deal for Aretha with J.V.B. Records, which released her first single, “Never Grow Old,” in 1956, when she was still only 14.

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