Mormon Music pauses for a moment this weekend to pay tribute to a true legend of the music world. Aretha Louise Franklin, dubbed “The Queen of Soul” by the end of the 1960s and throughout the remainder of her life, was a phenomenal singer, songwriter, and pianist. She passed away at her home in Detroit, Michigan, on Thursday morning, 16 August 2018, at the age of 76.
Although she was well known for her achieved commercial acclaim and success after signing with Atlantic Records and releasing songs such as “Respect”, “Chain of Fools”, “Think”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)”, and “Spanish Harlem,” Aretha Franklin’s true musical roots were found in gospel music. This was evidenced in every song that she sang and played on the piano, both secular and religious.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on 25 March 1942 at 406 Lucy Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, to Barbara (née Siggers) and Clarence LaVaughn “C. L.” Franklin. Her father was a Baptist minister and circuit preacher originally from Shelby, Mississippi, while her mother was an accomplished piano player and vocalist.
In 1946, her father permanently relocated the family to Detroit, Michigan, where he took over as minister of New Bethel Baptist Church. He was known as the man with the “Million Dollar Voice” and served as the minister from 1946 until his retirement in 1979. It was at New Bethel Baptist Church where Aretha began her career as a young child singing gospel music.
Her parents separated in 1948, and Aretha’s mother died of a heart attack on 7 March 1952, before Aretha’s tenth birthday. Several women, including Aretha’s grandmother, Rachel, and the famed gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, took turns helping with the children at the Franklin home. During this time, Aretha learned how to play piano by ear.
All the while, her gospel roots were being strengthened. Her father became a well-known preacher, with his emotionally driven sermons, earning thousands of dollars for preaching sermons in various churches across the country. His popularity led to his home being visited by various celebrities. Among those who visited the home were gospel musicians Clara Ward, James Cleveland, and early Caravans members Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews as well as Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke. Clara Ward served as a role model to the young Aretha.
Just after her mother’s death, Aretha began singing solos at New Bethel Baptist Church, debuting with the hymn, “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me.” At the age of 12, her father began managing her, taking her on the road with him during his “gospel caravan” tours for her to perform in various churches. He helped her sign her first recording deal with J.V.B. Records, and in 1956, her first album, Songs of Faith, was released. Aretha sometimes traveled with the gospel singing group, The Soul Stirrers, during this time. In 1958, she and her father traveled to California, where she first met the legendary singer, Sam Cooke. At the age of 16, Aretha went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. On 9 April 1968, at the age of 26, she sang at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta, Georgia.
After turning 18, Franklin confided to her father that she aspired to follow Sam Cooke in recording pop music and moved to New York. Her secular music career was born and the rest, as they say, is history – and what an amazing history it is.
Through all her immense success and fame, Aretha Louise Franklin never forgot where she started from and would always return to her gospel roots even when performing for major world audiences and dignitaries. In fact, her third live album was a full two-album set of gospel songs that she grew up with. The album titled Amazing Grace was released on 1 June 1972 by Atlantic Records. It ultimately sold over two million copies in the United States alone, earning a double platinum certification. As of 2017, Amazing Grace stands as the biggest selling disc of Aretha’s entire fifty-plus year recording career as well as the highest selling live gospel music album of all time. The album earned her the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance.
The double album was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California, during January 1972. A film documenting the making of the album was set to be released in 1972 but was shelved by Warner Bros. Amazing Grace was remastered and re-released in 1999 as a two-compact disc set with many unreleased takes.
“The Queen of Soul” is gone too soon, but the legacy of music that she leaves behind – both secular and religious – will live on for generations to come. Gladys Knight-McDowell, the Empress of Soul, wrote a note to Aretha in which she said:
Well, my sister our Father in Heaven has called you home, but we are so very grateful to him for blessing you with such an awesome gift to share with us. Your music set a standard for every single lady in this industry to rise to. You have touched minds, hearts, and spirits, including my own.”
She continues, “Yes, we are sisters and we squabbled as sisters do, but we also loved, supported and laughed together through our lifetime. I pray you have a smooth journey Ree Ree and hopefully I’ll get to sing with you in the Heavenly choir if I make it. Love you, Gladys