Louise Levy looks at the ‘Queen of Soul’

Born with an amazing voice, Aretha Franklin grew up surrounded by music, especially by her mother who was an accomplished piano player and vocalist. Franklin began singing when she was nine, and around this time began to learn the piano – by ear!

Her life changed when she was 18 and she walked into New York’s Columbia Records to record with the Ray Bryant Combo. Even at 18 her voice was astonishing and powerful, although Columbia did not have any idea of her future. A year later in 1961, Franklin was declared ‘New-Star Female Vocalist’ in the DownBeat Critics Poll, a measure of general agreement for the jazz press.

In late February of 1962, a month before she turned 20, she appeared for a week at The Village Gate. She shared the billing with pianist and composer, Thelonious Monk who, like her, was an extraordinary talent. Early in the year, Franklin had signed to the roster of Columbia Records. In July, she sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Newport Jazz Festival.

During her time with Columbia, she leaned into jazz as a signal of adult pop culture, with the genre central to her musicianship. Franklin enjoyed a healthy relationship with jazz, beginning with her self-titled Columbia debut on which she recorded Who Needs You? Over the next few years, she released a series of albums that included performances of Love for Sale, Misty, For All We Know and dozens of other standards. She performed with jazz musicians such as Kenny Burrell, Milt Hinton, Ray Bryant, and George Duvivier.

In 1966, Franklin left Columbia and signed with Atlantic Records, where with her new partner, Jerry Wexler, she produced some of her best work and recorded her biggest hits. She later recorded the jazz album on Atlantic titled Soul 69, which featured songs such as Crazy He Calls Me and was supported by jazz greats like Ron Carter, Joe Zawinul and Grady Tate – on all these recordings, Franklin accompanied herself on piano and surrounded herself with many jazz musicians.

In the political arena, Franklin was actively involved in the civil rights movement through her music and personal connections. She helped pay for free concerts, housed activists, and helped fundraise. In 1967, Respect became the anthem of the civil rights campaign and the feminist movement.

Aretha Franklin was known as the ‘Queen of Soul’. In the 1998 Grammy Awards, she stood in for Luciano Pavarotti when he was suddenly taken ill, performing the aria Nessun Dorma as a tenor, a performance seen by a billion viewers, and to an absolute standing ovation.

In 2005 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from G.W.Bush. President Barack Obama wrote “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty, vitality, and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings.”

Aretha Franklin died in August 2018 at the age of 76 She earned a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, receiving the special award for her ‘indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades’. Her famous legacy of music spans almost 50 years. She achieved milestones as the first woman in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and having a song 73 times in the Billboard Top 100. The 2021 biopic Respect followed Franklin’s life as a child prodigy, a rising star to international success, and her family and abusive marriage. In 2022, Rolling Stone ranked Franklin at number one on its list of the ‘200 Greatest Singers of All Time’.

Such hits as Respect, Baby I Love You, A Natural Woman and Think continue to move new generations of listeners.

This article appears in the March edition of the 2MBS Fine Music Sydney Magazine