Aretha Franklin at 70

2012-03-23 13:46

Few artists enjoy the royal adulation and pageantry that Aretha Franklin commands.

The American Queen of Soul has contributed so much to modern music that today, as she turns 70, we should toast her life story with a standing ovation.

Franklin, through her signature song Respect, galvanised the 1960s civil rights movement in the US. The Otis Redding-penned tune was adopted by feminists as their anthem and minorities all over the world chant its lyrics in protest.

The daughter of the charismatic New Bethel Baptist Church Reverend CL Franklin, Aretha was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but grew up in Detroit, Michigan. Her voice was declared Michigan’s natural resource. She was the first female artist to be inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

She became a mother at age 16, three days after her birthday, when son Clarence was born. In 1959,
she had another son, Edward.

With her mother, Barbara, deceased earlier on, her grandmother brought up the boys while Aretha pursued her singing career.

In 1961 she married Ted White in Ohio. He became her manager and music co-writer. Their son, Ted White Jnr, was born in 1964. The couple divorced in 1969.

In 1968, she became only the second African-American woman to appear on the cover of Time Magazine and sang the national anthem in that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Between 1969 and 1976, she had a relationship with her road manager, Ken Cunningham, which bore her fourth son, Kecalf (Kenneth E Cunningham Aretha Louise Franklin), in 1970.

In 1978 she married actor Glynn Turman. They divorced in 1984.

In 2005 she was honoured with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by then president George W Bush. In 2009, she performed My Country ‘Tis of Thee at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

In early January, she announced her engagement to longtime companion William Wilkerson. She called it off within three weeks.

In a career that began in 1956, Franklin has bagged 18 Grammy Awards for performance and two honorary. For eight consecutive years – between 1968 to 1975 – she won the Grammys for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

It has been said that an artist’s greatness is sometimes measured by how many people aspire to sing the legends’ songs, or even better, how many artists attempt to sound like her. But of course in the case of the Queen of Soul, it would take something close to a miracle to mimic her sound.

From her first ground-breaking album released through Atlantic Records in 1967, Sister Ree has had songs that have been covered by many artists, young and old across all genres. Remember:

Originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965, Aretha put her personal touch in the song as only she knows how, making it an anthem for women all over the world. To date, it remains one of the popular songs performed on reality music shows like American Idols, where artists like Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson have attempted to command the same respect Ree demanded.

Day Dreaming
Unlike other artists, Aretha wasn’t big on writing songs herself.

Maybe that’s because of the structure that Atlantic Records had, always having songwriters on board ready to churn hits. But the few songs she wrote always made an impression, writing deep down from her heart.

Rumoured to have been inspired by a musician lover, Aretha penned this song in 1967, enlisting Donny Hathaway as the electric pianist that introduces the magical song. Years later, the hit would be performed and recorded by a number of R&B crooners like Mary J. Blige, Natalie Cole, Will Downing and Corrine Bailey Rae.

Natural Woman
Celine Dion, Mary J. Blige and even Rod Stewart are among the many singers that were enchanted by this Carole King-penned number; recorded by Aretha in 1967. Little did King know that this would be what I Will Always Love You has become to Dolly Parton (thanks to Whitney Houston). Aretha has been heard saying that she can never do a concert and not perform this song.
Ain’t No Way

A Whitney Houston favourite, the late singer (who was her goddaughter) performed the sad, pleading number in a lot of her shows, the most memorable performance being at the VH1 Divas Live concert in 1998 where she performed with her friend Mary J. Blige.

Carolyn Franklin, Aretha’s younger sister wrote the song after being in a troubled relationship. The original version recorded by Franklin in 1968 and it featured the powerful soaring soprano of Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mom). Patti LaBelle recorded the song in 2005 as a duet, featuring Mary J. Blige too.

Aretha fans were not pleased when Alicia Keys wrote Impossible for Christina Aguilera (from her 2002 Stripped album), using a similar arrangement of “Ain’t No Way” as well as an identical content; doing this without acknowledging the queen.

Other notable Aretha songs that have been covered by younger artists include All the King’s Horses (Joss Stone) and Rock Steady (Beverley Knight, Dawn Robinson of En Vogue); both written by Aretha. Then there was Get it Right, written by Luther Vandross after he was called in by Clive Davis to help revive Lady Soul’s career in the early 80s. Luther later recorded the song for his I Know album in 1998.

Jazmine Sullivan used a sample of the same song in Don’t Make Me Wait, taken off her Love Me Back album. Even hip hop stars have paid homage to the queen; like Kanye West (School Spirit containing Spirit in the Dark), Fugees (Seek Some Stardom containing Aretha’s arrangement of Bridge Over Troubled Water) and T.I (Let’s Get Away containing Day Dreaming).

It goes without saying that Lady Soul’s music has broken the barriers that most of her peers haven’t been able to do.

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