ARETHA L. FRANKLIN VISIONARY, MUSICIAN & VOCALIST, HUMANITARIAN, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST and MORE… “THE Queen’s REIGN: An Infinite Legacy of Soul”
- Category: Spotlight
- Created on 09 January 2019
- Written by Shernita Wiggins Wynder
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The Soul of a Woman...
Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I'm using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I'm happy with that.-Aretha Franklin
THE BIRTH OF SOUL
Born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 25, 1942, to parents, Reverend Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” and Barbara Franklin, Aretha Louise Franklin was destined for greatness from the womb. Her mother who was an accomplished pianist and her father, a Baptist minister coined “the million-dollar voice”…the bars of expectations were already set.
Aretha Franklin’s parents separated by the time she was five years old. Her mother moved to Buffalo, New York with her eldest brother and she and her younger siblings were relocated with her father to Detroit, Michigan. Having both parents who were gospel singers, it is no surprise, that Aretha would have a beginning in the gospel genre. Child prodigies are more common today because of the technology to be connected around the world with the ability to see via many media platforms, those who are gifted. However, in the 1950’s, children who were gifted and known were rare. Aretha fit into this category as a self-taught pianist who could not read music with a four-octave vocal range. Proverbs 18:16, tells us that, “A man's gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men.” (KJV)
This word rang true during the reign of our phenomenal Queen of Soul, the legendary Ms. Aretha L. Franklin. Although her childhood was not the ideal upbringing with the absence of her mother and the demands of a father, who shepherded a flock and provided support during the heart of the civil rights movement…it was the life God chose for her and I’d like to think she thrived even the more because of it. She had foundational teachings from being raised with her father Rev. C.L. Franklin who was a Civil Rights Activist that walked alongside the iconic, Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. and spending summers with her mother, who was skilled in the musicianship that she had come to love, and we have come to love her for in our lifetime.
Although Aretha’s mother passed away in 1952 just before her tenth birthday, she and her siblings were surrounded by strong support that included her father, grandmother, and the legendary singer Mahalia Jackson. Now if that isn’t a divine connection and a solidification of strength, I don’t know what is. Having those individuals in her life, no doubt helped to shape and mold what would become a life of unique creative abilities and multiple experiences and wisdom, on how to sustain and gain respect, in a world full of dire circumstances.
Growing up in the house with a father who was deemed a celebrity, by the standards of what a preacher in a mega-church today is considered, it was not by chance that this positioned Aretha Franklin to be in the company of individuals like Sam Cook, Dr. M. L. King, Jr., Jackie Wilson, Albertina Walker, the Reverend James Cleveland, and Clara Ward as reported by several media outlets. This would become a part of the character traits she possessed that made her able to walk in Queendom. She was used to being in the presence of greatness. She was a young child reared with qualities of strength and clarity on how to become WHO she truly wanted to be and to FIGHT for RESPECT, if you had to while doing so.
Following the death of her mother, Aretha took on the role of soloist at New Bethel Baptist Church. It was in her, it was probably expected. Her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin took Aretha with him when his gospel group traveled and performed for many churches. By the age of 12, her talents were evident because she had learned to play piano by ear (as we call it) fluently from simply listening to jazz records and had mastered a four-octave vocal range that made her sound more mature for her age. This was another part of the unique molding of her iconic talent that was rare during her time, but seemed to be popping up in her generation in the African-American culture. It is here, that Aretha’s father and those around her, helped to birth who we would lovingly come to know, as the famous Queen of Soul!
The Legacy of Soul...
IN THE BEGINNING WAS SOUL
Living with her father in Detroit, the home of Motown, placed her in the vicinity of the birth of an era of music with musicians and vocalist who would later also be revered as icons. Aretha’s longtime friend, Smokey Robinson, who at her funeral shared how they met as he visited her brother, Cecil at her house, would become one of them. So, I’m about eight years old and I’m outside playing with my neighborhood friends, and we’re shooting marbles because it was in a time when kids were able to play outside, you know. I don’t know if you guys even know what that is anymore. Richard Ross and another one of our friends came around and he had this new guy with him and he said, ‘This is Cecil.’ So, we all, like boys do, we started playing. And after a while we went around to see Cecil’s new house, because he had moved to Detroit from Buffalo. So, we go in and I’m walking around the house and looking. I’m seeing things I have never seen because it wasn’t anything like my house. If someone broke into my house, they’d better be bringing something. (Laughs) So, anyway, we walk around the house and ummm, I’m hearing music like the piano being played. And this voice sounds like a little girl singing and I go look into the room and I see you, you’re there. And you’re singing and it was my first meeting and my first sight of you, and ummm from that moment on, we have been so close and so tight…
Legends are bred by legends and attracted to other legends. I guess you can say, that in order to become what you are destined for, God will surround you with those who are already there, or headed in the same direction. Growing up in the city that birthed the Motown Sound, was a part of God’s plan and over the years, her life would become rooted in gospel, then spill into the secular circuit to give birth to the extraordinary sounds that flowed between multiple genres of music through her songs. Her father managed her talent and in 1956 at the tender age of 14, she recorded a gospel album entitled “Spirituals” released by the J.V.B. label and it would go on to be released a second time as “Songs of Faith: The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin. This would be the beginning of a long line of epic moments in the life of our Queen.
In 1960, she signed with Columbia Records and released her first album entitled “Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo” on February 27, 1961. It was her first release and like her close friend, Sam Cooke, Columbia had discovered a national treasure. This album had mixed reviews and Aretha was only 18 at the time of the release with sounds that reflected both jazz and pop culture, establishing her own soulful sounds.
This album was followed by “The Electrifying Aretha Franklin” (1962) and “The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin” (1962) and the first album to gain recognition reaching #69 on the Billboard Pop chart. Following this, her discography with Columbia reads like this: “Laughing on the Outside” (1963); “Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington” and “Runnin’ Out of Fools” (1964); “Yeah!!!” (1965); “Soul Sister” and “Take It Like You Give It” (1966); “Soft and Beautiful” (1969) the 15th album recorded by Aretha and the tenth and final album for Columbia Records before her transition to Atlantic Records. If you listen to these albums, even just a few tracks off of the albums, you will be able to hear the jazz, pop, and gospel sounds emanating from melodious vocals strong with varying ranges flowing in ways that only the Queen of Soul can bellow out. Even a song meant for a child’s lullaby, Aretha was successful in turning it into a swinging tune that will not lull you to sleep, but get you to stepping entitled “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Here we can hear a shift into another genre of music (Rock N Roll) with still soulful twists and jazzy steps into chords that demanded Respect! Her song “Rough Lover” is just the right stuff that independent women of her time were clearly sending a message that passivity was passing away.
In 1967 in the midst of her label change, “Respect” was released and becomes her first number one single for which she won her first two Grammy Awards (Best Rhythm & Blues Recording and Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female) in 1968 along with two other hits: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Baby I Love You” with Atlantic Records. She released the following albums with Atlantic Records, “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You” and “ArethaArrives” (1967); “Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now” (1968); “Soul 69” (1969); “This Girl’s In Love With You” and “Spirit In The Dark” (1970); “Young, Gifted, And Black” (1972); “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)” (1973); “Let Me In Your Life” and “With Everything I Feel In Me” (1974); “You” (1975); “Sweet Passion” (1977); “Almighty Fire” (1978); “La Diva” (1979). Arista Records would be graced with the wondrous vocals of Aretha Franklin with the release of “Aretha” (1980); “Love All the Hurt Away” duet with George Benson (1981); “Jump to It” (1982) hailed the comeback album produced by awarding winning Luther Vandross. This album stayed at number one on the R&B Billboard chart for seven weeks. Aretha Franklin’s first Pop Top 40 hit since “Sparkle” (1976) produced by Curtis Mayfield; “Get It Right” (1983); “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” to appeal to her younger audience, she had her number one international hit duet with George Michael “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” (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). Then Aretha released her own album with the same title “Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love” (2011). The thirty-seventh and final album released by Aretha Franklin would come from RCA Records entitled “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” (2014).
While the incomparable Aretha Louise Franklin was starting a legacy that could not be duplicated in original form…she was establishing some amazing connections that will never be severed, also. Beginning with her children. Dispelling the myths about single mothers and teen moms, hers and her children’s lives have knocked the negative statistics out of the water, Aretha had her first child Clarence at the age of 12 and her second son Edward at the age of 14. In a New York Times article by Lena Williams “Pregnant Teen-Agers Are Outcasts No Longer” she stated that unlike today when pregnant teens are heralded as role models for keeping their child and still attending school, in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s teen moms were considered pariahs, ostracized and sent away in secret to have their child. (I know this to be a fact concerning my own mother’s pregnancy with me at age 15. She had to drop out of school and move to another state to begin her life). However, Aretha, had the support of family. Aretha’s grandmother Rachel and sister, Erma helped to raise her two boys. She was not fond of discussing her entrance into motherhood early in interviews, but she didn’t have to, she survived it and still launched a career with the help of her family. Franklin’s other two sons, Ted “Teddy Richards” White Jr (1964) and Kecalf Cunningham (1970) were born during her adult years. Aretha said in an interview, I’ve been a wonderful and very good mother. That’s what I’m most proud of first…
In addition to her childhood friend Smokey Robinson, Aretha had friends she developed in her career like Dionne Warwick, Mavis Staples and Cissy Houston. They were her backup singers in the group Sweet Inspirations. Franklin met Cissy’s daughter Whitney in the early 1970’s and was dubbed as Whitney’s honorary aunt and not godmother as the media misreported. Whitney referred to Aretha Franklin as “Auntie Ree.” Then there are many others like Stevie Wonder, Stephanie Mills, Curtis Mayfield whom she worked on the Sparkle soundtrack for the film and Clive Davis of Arista Records, 1981’s “Love All the Hurt Away” of the title track with George Benson. Cicely Tyson, Rev. Jesse Jackson who she met through her father’s Civil Rights days with Dr. Martin L. King Jr., Regina Bell, and more.
TRAIL OF ACTIVISM, HONOR, AND LEGACY
Aretha Franklin touched the lives of many young and old. Some of her most accomplished feats began in the 1960’s when she traveled with her father during the Civil Rights Movement. She learned a lot about standing up for the rights of others and being strong in the face of adversity. When the Civil Rights Movement needed financial help, she along with Sidney Pointier, Nancy Wilson, Harry Belafonte, Mahalia Jackson and Sammy Davis Jr. were there and always answered the call, while writing much-needed checks, Xernona Clayton said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC). Her family was said to have been connected to the family of Dr. King’s up to the second generation through their fathers. Ambassador Andrew Young shared in the same article that, Aretha was a child of the movement,” Young said. “She is such a natural. Even when she was called upon for meetings or events, she was available when other celebrities professed to be unable to attend due to illnesses, she was there and her song R-E-S-P-E-C-T became a civil rights mantra for the movement as did many of her songs during that time. When activist Angela Davis was arrested and accused of possessing the weapon that murdered someone during a shootout, Aretha was ready to put up bail. But Angela was not eligible for bail. She was ready to put up $200,000 if she had to…and in those days, that was a lot of money. Because of her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin’s consistent involvement as a pastor-activist, Aretha grew up knowing the importance of equal rights and fighting to achieve them whenever necessary. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution article by Ernie Suggs and Shelia M. Poole) On April 9, 1968, Aretha would sing at the memorial service of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” just a couple of months after she was given an award by Dr. King on stage.
Over the years, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, would be awarded many honors, even after her death. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1979), voice declared a Michigan “natural resource” (1985), first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1987), The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded her a Grammy Legend Award (1994), recipient of the National Medal of Arts (1999), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005) just to name a few. She sang at the inauguration of three Presidents: Carter, Clinton and Obama. Aretha sang for Kings and Queens (something her father told her she would one day do), sang in the presence of Pope Francis, performed in the film The Blues Brothers, had streets and a park in her hometown named for her, a high school dropout with several honorary doctorates and Congressional medals of honor given to honor her legacy.
As our reigning Queen yielded to her illness on August 16, 2018, at the age of 76 in Detroit surrounded by family and close friends, we will never forget where we were and will forever be amiss without her humble presence, warrior-like spirit, fashionista style, and outspoken reminders that our fight is ongoing. Her funeral would take place over several days and end with a Celebration Fit for a Queen with celebrity and activist Who’s Who in attendance. To her family, she was a mother, grandmother, sister, auntie, best friend, and more…to us, we will forever remember Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul who left behind an infinite legacy for past, present and future generations to come.▄