The Vault of Soul: Aretha Franklin

Graphics by Kevin Shin

By Megan Doherty, Staff Writer


Aretha Franklin, universally known as the “Queen of Soul,” was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942. Her mom was a gospel singer and pianist while her dad was a nationally-known minister based in Detroit who also sang. Franklin’s parents separated when she was six, and she stayed with her dad in Michigan. Right before her tenth birthday, Franklin’s mom died from a heart attack. As a teenager, she performed throughout the country with her father on his gospel programs. Despite having musical parents, Franklin was largely self-taught.

At 18 she moved to New York City where she signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. There, she shifted her musical style to highlight more elements of blues and jazz. On top of that, Columbia placed her with an array of producers who didn’t give her much direction. They never tailored her music to a specific genre or age demographic. She sang anything from theatrical ballads to R&B geared to growing teen audiences. Critics recognized her undeniable talent, but she didn’t earn her booming popularity until 1966, when she switched to Atlantic Records.

At Atlantic, producer Jerry Wexler encouraged her to shape her own musical identity. She returned to her gospel-blues roots to create her first million-seller, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. With this album, she refined and renewed the thrilling mixture of gospel, blues, and rhythm associated with Ray Charles.

Her 1972 album, Amazing Grace, is widely considered one of the greatest gospel albums of all time. It features her live performance with a choir at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. She even has a documentary, also called Amazing Grace, detailing the recording process of the 1972 album. Fifteen years later, she became the first woman inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And that’s not all. Over her career, she placed more than 100 singles in the Billboard charts, received 19 Grammy Awards, and sang at Barack Obama’s first inauguration.

In late summer of 2018, Franklin died from pancreatic cancer at her home in Detroit. She was 76.



Since Franklin’s dad was such a prominent preacher, many celebrities visited his home. As a result, he became friends with many gospel musicians, such as Clara Ward, James Cleveland, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Mahalia Jackson, and early Caravans members Inez Andrews and Albertina Walker. Growing up around so much music and musical talent, Franklin became increasingly interested in and influenced by the gospel music surrounding her.

After her mom’s passing, several women took turns helping take care of the Franklin kids. One of them being “The Queen of Gospel” herself, Mahalia Jackson. While under her care, Aretha learned to play piano by ear. Clara Ward, leader of The Famous Ward Singers, also spent a lot of time in Franklin’s home since her group extensively toured with Franklin’s dad. Because of this, she, along with Jackson, became mentors and role model figures for Franklin.


Who Aretha Franklin Influenced

As such a renowned singer, generations of R&B singers, and even country singers like Dolly Parton, credit Franklin and her music as deeply impactful. Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, and Whitney Houston have admitted to emulating the Queen of Soul’s style. Houston was especially connected to and influenced by Franklin. Her mom, Emily “Cissy” Houston, sang backup for Franklin. So as a kid, Houston would pretend to be in her mom’s place, singing alongside Franklin.

“I remember when I was about 12, I would go into our basement where my mother had her recording equipment, and I’d take the mic and put on Aretha and we’d go at it for hours,” Houston told Ebony. “I’d just close my eyes and sing all by myself and imagine I was on stage singing to a packed house.”

On top of that, when Rolling Stone placed Franklin at the top of their 2008 list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” Mary J. Blige wrote, “Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing. Aretha has everything – the power, the technique. She is honest with everything she says.”


Awards Won:

  • Best R&B Performance (Grammy, 1968)
  • Best Soul Gospel Performance (Grammy, 1973)
  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987)
  • Pioneer Award for Lifetime Achievement (Rhythm and Blues Foundation, 1992)
  • Legend Award (Grammy, 1992)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award (Grammy, 1994)
  • Kennedy Center Honors (1994)
  • Vanguard Award (NAACP, 2008)
  • Honors Award for Musical Arts (BET, 2014)

Spotlight Tracks

“You Make Me Feel Like (A Natural Woman)” (Lady Soul – 1968)

Franklin’s exceptionally powerful, emotive vocals in “You Make Me Feel Like (A Natural Woman)” still moves us today – more than 50 years after its release. She sang an unforgettable rendition of “Natural Woman” in tribute to the song’s co-writer, Carole King, who was receiving the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in 2015. Even though King and her former husband Gerry Goffin wrote the quintessential track, Franklin’s vocals transformed it into the empowering song we know today. The strength in her voice assigned a deeper meaning to the lyrics. She’s not just singing about validation from a lover – she’s spreading self-love and confidence in an ethereal way.

“Think” (Aretha Now – 1968)

On top of singing her iconic track “Think,” Franklin also co-wrote it and plays the piano in the recording. With its defiant lyrics accompanied by fiery vocals, “Think” acts as an anthem for female empowerment. It’s for any woman who has felt mistreated. She penned it with her first husband, Ted White, and it tells the story of Franklin standing up to his domestic abuse. She left White when the song came out, and they divorced shortly after. Twelve years after its initial release, the tune saw a resurgence when she recorded a more upbeat version for the film “The Blues Brothers.” In the movie, Franklin appears as a waitress at a diner married to the cook. The brothers go into the diner to try to persuade Franklin’s on-screen husband to be their touring guitarist. So, Franklin lets her husband know that she thinks it’s a bad idea. When her husband asserts that he makes the decisions because he’s the man, she erupts into “Think.”

“Respect” (I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You – 1967)

Franklin’s classic tune “Respect” is actually a cover of Otis Redding’s song. She kept its original tempo and most of Redding’s lyrics, but she still inverted the track. Now, its largely known as a feminist statement, even though it didn’t start out that way. In Redding’s version, he calls for appreciation from his partner because he’s good to her. By flipping and adding some lyrics, Franklin asserts that women, especially women of color, are great and deserve respect. That’s why her vibrant cover became an anthem working on personal, racial, and gender-based levels. The Queen of Soul also added the infectious call-and-response bridge between her and the backup singers that served as a voice for female solidarity. Franklin’s proud that her songs are regarded as feminist anthems. “As women, we do have it. We have the power,” she told Elle in 2016. “We are very resourceful. Women absolutely deserve respect. Just to know I uplifted another person – I wouldn’t be doing anything else.”

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