Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, is undoubtedly one of the most revered musicians of the 20th century. A singer, pianist and songwriter who transcended not only genres—from jazz, African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B and rock and roll—but seemingly 20th century American history itself, from her solidarity with civil rights activists to the apotheotic performance at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Born to a Baptist minister’s family, and raised in Detroit, her childhood home was often visited by notable musicians—like Sam Cooke and James Cleveland, and public figures, including Martin Luther King Jr—thanks to her Father’s fame as a preacher with a “Million Dollar Voice.” Her Father initially urged Franklin to begin recording gospel music at the age of 14. When she first signed with Columbia Records she focused on jazz. But it wasn’t until she left Columbia and signed with Atlantic Records that her career took off and she became known as the Queen of Soul.
Looking back, Smokey Robinson described meeting Franklin as a child at her Father’s home, astounded by her burgeoning piano and singing talent: “Aretha came out of this world, but she also came out of another far-off magical world none of us really understood….she came from a distant musical planet where children are born with their gifts fully formed.”
In 1967-68, her first years with Atlantic, she charted nine top ten pop hits, including “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect.” She became a superstar, gracing the cover of TIME magazine in June 1968, and was arguably one of the world’s most famous musicians during a period that saw the hey day of pop music’s most bankable and lasting stars.
During the 1960s and 70s she voiced her political commitments more explicitly, expressing solidarity with the civil rights movement, and most notably singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral.
In 2009, she made headlines for her performance of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, “twining together several strands of American history (Marian Anderson’s performance of the song, in 1939, Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s quotation from the lyrics, in 1963),” setting a tone of hopefulness for the proceeding decade.
One of her lasting moments will be her performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center in 2015, where she tapped into her youthful prowess, prompting tears from President Obama and ovations from Carole King: