Aretha Louise Franklin (March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018) was an American singer, songwriter, actress, pianist, and civil rights activist. Franklin began her career as a child singing gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, where her father C. L. Franklin was a minister. At the age of 18, she embarked on a secular-music career as a recording artist for Columbia Records. While Franklin’s career did not immediately flourish, she found acclaim and commercial success after signing with Atlantic Records in 1966. Hit songs such as “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Chain of Fools”, “Think”, and “I Say a Little Prayer” propelled her past her musical peers. By the end of the 1960s, Aretha Franklin had come to be known as the “Queen of Soul”.
Franklin continued to record acclaimed albums such as I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), Lady Soul (1968), Spirit in the Dark (1970), Young, Gifted and Black (1972), Amazing Grace (1972), and Sparkle (1976) before experiencing problems with her record company. Franklin left Atlantic in 1979 and signed with Arista Records. She appeared in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers before releasing the successful albums Jump to It (1982), Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985), and Aretha (1986) on the Arista label. In 1998, Franklin returned to the Top 40 with the Lauryn Hill-produced song “A Rose Is Still a Rose”; later, she released an album of the same name which was certified gold. That same year, Franklin earned international acclaim for her performance of “Nessun dorma” at the Grammy Awards; she filled in at the last minute for Luciano Pavarotti, who canceled his appearance after the show had already begun. In a widely noted performance, she paid tribute to 2015 honoree Carole King by singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Franklin recorded 112 charted singles on Billboard, including 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top-ten pop singles, 100 R&B entries, and 20 number-one R&B singles. Besides the foregoing, Franklin’s well-known hits also include “Ain’t No Way”, “Call Me”, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”, “Spanish Harlem”, “Rock Steady”, “Day Dreaming”, “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”, “Something He Can Feel”, “Jump to It”, “Freeway of Love”, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who”, and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (a duet with George Michael). She won 18 Grammy Awards, including the first eight awards given for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (1968–1975). Franklin is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 75 million records worldwide. Franklin has had #1 records in every decade since the 1960s with the rerelease of “Never Gonna Break My Faith” in June 2020.
Franklin received numerous honors throughout her career. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1987, she became the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine ranked her number one on its list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” and number nine on its list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2019 awarded Franklin a posthumous special citation “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.”
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, to Barbara (née Siggers) and Clarence LaVaughn “C. L.” Franklin. She was delivered at her family’s home located at 406 Lucy Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee. Her father was a Baptist minister and circuit preacher originally from Shelby, Mississippi, while her mother was an accomplished piano player and vocalist. Both Mr. and Mrs. Franklin had children from prior relationships in addition to the four children they had together. When Aretha was two, the family relocated to Buffalo, New York. By the time Aretha turned five, C. L. Franklin had permanently relocated the family to Detroit, where he took over the pastorship of the New Bethel Baptist Church.
The Franklins had a troubled marriage due to Mr. Franklin’s infidelities, and they separated in 1948. At that time, Barbara Franklin returned to Buffalo with Aretha’s half brother, Vaughn. After the separation, Aretha recalled seeing her mother in Buffalo during the summer, and Barbara Franklin frequently visited her children in Detroit. Aretha’s mother died of a heart attack on March 7, 1952, before Aretha’s tenth birthday. Several women, including Aretha’s grandmother, Rachel, and Mahalia Jackson, took turns helping with the children at the Franklin home. During this time, Aretha learned how to play piano by ear. She also attended public school in Detroit, going through her freshman year at Northern High School, but dropping out during her sophomore year.
Aretha’s father’s emotionally driven sermons resulted in his being known as the man with the “million-dollar voice”. He earned thousands of dollars for sermons in various churches across the country. His celebrity status led to his home being visited by various celebrities. Among the visitors were gospel musicians Clara Ward, James Cleveland, and early Caravans members Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke all became friends of C. L. Franklin, as well. Ward was romantically involved with Aretha’s father from around 1949 to Ward’s death in 1973, though Aretha “preferred to view them strictly as friends”. Ward also served as a role model to the young Aretha.
Civil rights activism
From her time growing up in the home of a prominent African-American preacher to the end of her life, Franklin was immersed and involved in the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights. She provided money for civil rights groups, at times covering payroll, and performed at benefits and protests. When Angela Davis was jailed in 1970, Franklin told Jet: “Angela Davis must go free … Black people will be free. I’ve been locked up (for disturbing the peace in Detroit) and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people”. Her songs “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” became anthems of these movements for social change. Franklin and several other American icons declined to take part in performing at President Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration as a large-scale act of musical protest.
Franklin was also a strong supporter for Native American rights. She quietly and without fanfare supported Indigenous Peoples’ struggles worldwide, and numerous movements that supported Native American and First Nation cultural rights.
- Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo (1961)
- The Electrifying Aretha Franklin (1962)
- The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin (1962)
- Laughing on the Outside (1963)
- Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington (1964)
- Runnin’ Out of Fools (1964)
- Yeah!!! (1965)
- Songs of Faith (1965)
- Soul Sister (1966)
- Take It Like You Give It (1967)
- I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967)
- Aretha Arrives (1967)
- Lady Soul (1968)
- Aretha Now (1968)
- Soul ’69 (1969)
- Soft and Beautiful (1969)
- This Girl’s in Love with You (1970)
- Spirit in the Dark (1970)
- Young, Gifted & Black (1972)
- Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) (1973)
- Let Me in Your Life (1974)
- With Everything I Feel in Me (1974)
- You (1975)
- Sparkle (1976)
- Sweet Passion (1977)
- Almighty Fire (1978)
- La Diva (1979)
- Aretha (1980)
- Love All the Hurt Away (1981)
- Jump to It (1982)
- Get It Right (1983)
- Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985)
- Aretha (1986)
- Through the Storm (1989)
- What You See Is What You Sweat (1991)
- A Rose Is Still a Rose (1998)
- So Damn Happy (2003)
- This Christmas, Aretha (2008)
- Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love (2011)
- Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics (2014)
- 1972: Black Rodeo (documentary)
- 1980: The Blues Brothers (as Mrs. Murphy)
- 1990: Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones (documentary)
- 1998: Blues Brothers 2000 (as Mrs. Murphy)
- 2003: Tom Dowd & the Language of Music (documentary)
- 2012: The Zen of Bennett (documentary)
- 2013: Muscle Shoals (documentary)
- 2018: Amazing Grace (documentary)
Death and funeral
On August 13, 2018, Franklin was reported to be gravely ill at her home in Riverfront Towers, Detroit. She was under hospice care and surrounded by friends and family. Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson and ex-husband Glynn Turman visited her on her deathbed. Franklin died at her home on August 16, 2018, aged 76, without a will. The cause of death was a malignant pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor (pNET), which is distinct from the most-common form of pancreatic cancer. Numerous celebrities in the entertainment industry and politicians paid tribute to Franklin, including former U.S. president Barack Obama who said she “helped define the American experience”. Civil rights activist and minister Al Sharpton called her a “civil rights and humanitarian icon”.
A memorial service was held at New Bethel Baptist Church on August 19. Thousands then paid their respects during the public lying-in-repose at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. The August 31 Homegoing Service held at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, included multiple tributes by celebrities, politicians, friends and family members and was streamed by some news agencies such as Fox News, CNN, The Word Network, BET and MSNBC. Among those who paid tribute to Aretha at the service were Ariana Grande, Bill Clinton, Rev. Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, Faith Hill, Fantasia, The Clark Sisters, Ronald Isley, Angie Stone, Chaka Khan, Jennifer Holliday, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah, Shirley Caesar, Stevie Wonder, Eric Holder, Gladys Knight, Cedric the Entertainer, Tyler Perry, Smokey Robinson, and Yolanda Adams. At her request she was eulogized by Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. of Salem Baptist Church in Atlanta, as Williams had eulogized her father as well as speaking at other family memorials. Williams’s eulogy was criticized for being “a political address that described children being in a home without a father as ‘abortion after birth’ and said black lives do not matter unless blacks stop killing each other”. Franklin’s nephew Vaughan complained of Williams: “He spoke for 50 minutes and at no time did he properly eulogize her”.
Following a telecast procession up Seven Mile Road, Franklin was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit.