For nearly 40 years, Aretha Franklin has been an icon of contemporary pop music, known around the world as the "Queen of Soul." With her extraordinary range and incendiary gospel-inspired phrasing, Franklin exploded onto the music scene in the late 1960s becoming the country's leading female vocalist and one of the first female performers to inject the rhythms and intensity of black gospel music into mainstream pop.
She was raised in Detroit, where her father was a Baptist minister. She sang in the church choir as a child. At 14 she became a soloist in her father's traveling gospel revue and made her first professional recording. The major musical influences during these years were Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson, and James Cleveland.
She arrived in New York at age 18 and spent the first half of the 1960s appearing on a wide variety of stages, from seamy R&B clubs to concert halls, singing rhythm-and-blues and jazz to predominantly black audiences. It was in 1966, though, when she made her first recordings for Atlantic Records--"an explosive combination of economical songwriting, terse arrangements, and virtuoso, at times histrionic, vocal style" (The New Grove Dictionary of American Music)--that the legend was born. She went to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record a series of songs, beginning with "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)," that became best-sellers. More hits followed quickly: "Respect," "Baby, I Love You," "A Natural Woman," "Chain of Fools," and "Dr. Feelgood." Gold record followed gold record. In addition, she made a triumphal tour of Europe, where she was hailed as the successor to Bessie Smith. She was honored with Grammy Awards and Billboard magazine named her top vocalist of 1967. That era has now become known as the "golden age of soul," and Aretha Franklin is its defining artist, giving voice to a black sense of identity at the time of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American civil rights movement. "With a spectacular instrument, capable of a cornet's full brassy tone and agility over several octaves, Franklin can translate pride and heartbreak into soaring, diving improvisations" (The Washington Post).
By the mid-'70s Aretha Franklin had six gold albums, 14 gold singles, and eight Grammy Awards. She explained the popularity of her recordings by saying, "I look for a good lyric, a good melody, something meaningful. When I go into the studio I put everything into it. Even the kitchen sink."
In 1980 she realized her long-standing ambition to make movies with a knockout performance in The Blues Brothers. Then in 1987 she became the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She began the '90s with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Her greatest achievement, perhaps, has been the ability to break down boundaries, to appeal to this country's vast range of musical tastes. "Her voice is one of the glories of American music. Lithe and sultry, assertive and caressing, knowing and luxuriant, her singing melts down any divisions between gospel, soul, jazz, and rock" (The New York Times).