Known as the Queen of Soul Music, Aretha Franklin, ’ was a singer, song writer, civil rights activist, actress and pianist.
She was born as one of four children to piano player and vocalist, Barbara (nee Siggers) and Clarance LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin, a baptist minister and circuit preacher; but she also had several other half siblings from her parent’s previous individual marriages.
She was born at home in Memphis Tennessee and moved to Buffalo, New York, with her family when she was 2. When she was 5, the family moved permanently to Detroit with her father taking over the pastorship at the New Bethel Baptist Church. Her parents had a troubled marriage which led to their separation in 1948. Her mother returned to Buffalo with her half brother but she often visited her children in Detroit. Before Aretha’s tenth birthday on March 7 1952, her mother died of a heart attack.
She learned to play the piano by herself and right after the demise of her mother, Aretha began singing solos at her father’s church. Her first debut was with the hymn, “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me”. At 12, her father decided to be her manager and would take her with him on his gospel tours so she could perform in different churches.
She signed her first recording deal with J.V.B. Records and released her first single in 1956, “Never Grow Old”, backed with “You Grow Closer”. “Precious Lord (Part One)” followed by “Precious Lord (Part Two)” in 1959.
In 1958, Aretha and her father traveled to California, where she met singer Sam Cooke. At the age of 16, Aretha went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and she would ultimately sing at his memorial service. After her 18th birthday, she told her dad she wanted to sing pop music, and moved to New York. Her dad followed as her manager, helped produce a two-song demo that caught the attention of Columbia Records. She was signed in 1960 and her first Columbia single, “Today I Sing the Blues”, was issued in September 1960 and eventually reached the top ten of the Hot Rhythm and Blues Sellers chart.
In 1966, she was signed to Atlantic and thrived with quite an impressive number of singles including her cover of Otis Redding’s Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and I Say a Little Prayer. In 1972, she released the live album Amazing Grace, which showcased her gospel background.
Aretha continued to release albums and perform throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In 2009, she performed My Country, ‘Tis of Thee at Obama’s first inauguration.
Aretha was deeply involved in the struggle for civil and women’s rights. She provided money for civil rights groups, covering payroll, and sometimes performed at benefits and protests
Aretha had four sons. She first became pregnant at the age of 12 and had a child named Clarence after her father on January 28, 1955. In January 22, 1957, at age 14, she had her second child, named Edward after his father, Edward Jordan. Both children took her family name. Aretha’s grandmother Rachel and sister Erma took turns raising the children so she could pursuee her career but made it a point of duty to visit them often. Franklin’s third child, Ted White Jr., was born in February 1964. He provided guitar backing for his mother’s band during live concerts. Her youngest son, Kecalf Cunningham, was born in 1970 and is the child of her road manager Ken Cunningham.
In 1961, she married her first husband, Theodore “Ted” White. After 7 years of marriage, she separated from him and eventually divorced a year later. She married her second husband, actor Glynn Turman in April 1978 at her father’s church. Her marriage to him made her a stepmother to Turman’s three children from a previous marriage. Franklin and Turman separated in 1982 after Franklin returned to Michigan from California, and they divorced in 1984.
Aretha received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1979, had her voice declared a Michigan “natural resource” in 1985, and became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Aretha was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1994, and was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, she became the second woman inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame. In 2011, she was ranked 19th among the Billboard Hot 100 All-Time top artists, and ranked first on the Rolling Stone list of Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2013, she was again ranked first in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Singers” list. In 2012, Aretha was described as “the voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of black America” and a “symbol of black equality”; Asteroid 249516 Aretha was named in her honor in 2014. I
n total, she sold more than 75 million records in her lifetime and won 18 Grammy awards. She had 77 entries in the US Billboard Hot 100 and 20 No 1 singles on the R&B chart.
Her last album was “A Brand-New Me”, released in November 2017. Her last original recording was “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” in 2014.
Aretha received honorary degrees from New York University and Harvard University in 2014, as well as honorary doctorates in music from Princeton Univerity in 2012; Yale Univerity in 2010; Brown University, University of Pennsylvania, Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory of Music and Univerity of Michigan in the years 2009, 2007, 2006, 1997 and 1987 respectively.
Aretha died of advanced pancreatic cancer after battling it for about 8 years. She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Detroit.