Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018: an icon for feminism, the civil rights movement and the greatest soul singer of her generation

The Queen Of Soul, the “voice of black America”, Lady Soul, arguably the greatest singer in living memory – Aretha Franklin, who died in her Detroit home on August 16 aged 76, will go down in musical history as one of the few artists that not only defined their times but transcended them to become a key figure in social change.

Her glorious, roof-lifting performances on tracks such as ‘Respect’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, ‘Think’ and ‘Spanish Harlem’ set the bar for passionate soul music in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but also saw Franklin become an icon for feminism and the civil rights movement. Her febrile demands for respect and understanding chimed with counter-culture calls for equality, and becoming the most charted female in history with over one hundred singles hitting the US Billboard chart made her a symbol of hope and aspiration.

“American history wells up when Aretha sings,” Barack Obama said in 2015. “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 and vitality and hope.” 

Born Aretha Louise Franklin in Memphis, Tennessee on March 25, 1942 to a preacher father and a pianist and singer mother, Franklin learned piano by ear and first started singing church solos at the age of 10, following many family relocations, the separation of her parents and the death of her mother. Her father, himself dubbed “the man with the million-dollar voice”, would make thousands of dollars performing at church ceremonies and receive visits from Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Martin Luther King Jr. He became Aretha’s manager when she was 14, and already a mother to her first son, Clarence, who was named after her father. The elder Clarence Franklin helped Aretha sign to JVB Records, who released her debut album ‘Songs Of Faith’ in 1956. A crush on Cooke prompted Franklin to want to record non-religious pop music, and various labels vied for her signature at the age of 18, including Tamla and RCA, before Franklin settled on Columbia in 1960. 

Her period on Columbia saw her make notable inroads into the US charts, first hitting the Billboard Top 40 in 1961 with a cover of ‘Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody’ and scoring several major hits on the R&B chart, but it wasn’t until moving to Atlantic Records in 1966 that Franklin’s peak period began. In just the first half of 1967 she released her first major hits in ‘I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)’ and ‘Respect’, the latter becoming her first US pop Number One and an anthem for the feminist and civil rights movements. Her initial run of classic Atlantic albums – ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’, ‘Lady Soul’ and ‘Aretha Now’ – produced further legendary hits in ‘Think’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘Chain Of Fools’, all part of Franklin’s magical working relationship with producer Jerry Wexler. Franklin’s impact was marked by an appearance on the cover of Time magazine and being given a day in her honour by Martin Luther King Jr.

Franklin’s success would continue into the early ’70s, when her 1972 gospel album ‘Amazing Grace’ would sell 2 million copies, and she became the first R&B singer to headline San Francisco’s Filmore West venue. Further albums on Atlantic fared less well, however, and it wasn’t until moving to Arista in 1980 that her career was revived, thanks to poppier hits such as ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ and ‘Freeway Of Love’ as well as successful collaborations with The Eurythmics on ‘Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ and George Michael on ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’. Over 20 years on Arista, Franklin established herself as a grand dame of soul music, and since leaving the label in 2004 has made celebrated appearances at the 2006 Superbowl, at President Obama’s inauguration and at the 2015 ceremony to honour Carole King at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Her romantic life was as turbulent as her career – she was first married to Theodore White at the age of 19, but divorced in 1969 after a marriage marred by domestic violence. Her second marriage, to actor Glynn Turman in 1978, lasted six years and her plans to wed long-time partner Willie Wilkerson were scuppered in 2012 when Franklin called off their engagement. Franklin also struggled with alcoholism and chain smoking, and cancelled shows in 2010 in order to have surgery for an undisclosed tumour. Cancellations due to ongoing health issues continued throughout the decade, with Franklin telling one Detroit audience in 2017 to “keep me in your prayers”. She leaves behind four sons and a canon of inspirational soul music to rank amongst the most influential and impactful in history.