5 Songs To Celebrate the Life and Career of Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul
What distinguished Aretha Franklin from all the stars that followed her was her ability to be a spiritual guide as much as an incredibly talented artiste.
Her fiery voice guided generations of men and women, becoming the voice of Black culture, female empowerment, and hope when all else fails.
By expressing her struggles through music, Franklin depicted American life. She bridged gaps between seemingly unbridgeable cultures, creating a sort of common consciousness everyone could delve into when they felt battered and defeated.
Her career, spanning seven decades, is seamlessly connected to her difficult life, and the passion she exhibited in the recording studio is the perfect representation of the courage she showed in real-life.
Franklin's songs will endure for generations because no one else has been able to portray the pain of heartbreak so faithfully or the everyday struggles so vividly. When listening to the Queen of Soul, the invisible boundary that separates successful singers and real-life difficulties seems completely gone.
Her songs will last forever because they're a cry for hope and optimism, even when the world outside seems to be telling us otherwise, or when our inner demons are about to annihilate us.
The story of Franklin is one of defiance, emancipation, and irreverence. A woman with a voice unlike any other, but also a story to tell: everyone’s story.
Today, I want to celebrate Franklin's incredible life by analysing the times when she released some of her most iconic songs: her career successes as well as her failures in life.
‘I NEVER LOVED A MAN (THE WAY I LOVE YOU)’ (1967)
Franklin was 25 when she reached the status of soul superstar, but by then, the Mississippi girl had experienced so much in her lifetime that she conveyed the wisdom way beyond her age.
Her mother, Barbara, died when Franklin was 10. By then, her parents had already divorced, and she was living with her father, the Baptist minister “CL” Franklin, also known as the “man with the million-dollar voice" due to his emotional and poignant sermons.
Franklin started learning how to sing and play the piano soon after her mother's death, and by the age of twelve, her father started managing her career and taking her on tour with his gospel caravans.
Around that time, Franklin became pregnant for the first time, and by the time she was fifteen, she was the mother of two boys, Clarence and Edward.
At 18, Franklin signed with Columbia Records. Her period at Columbia was defined by unsatisfactory releases for both the artiste and the label, as well as the singer's disastrous relationship with Ted White.
Her contract with Columbia ended in 1966, and the same year she signed with Atlantic, which started her rise to stardom.
“I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” was the song Franklin recorded at Muscle Shoals in Alabama during one of the strangest nights in music history.
The ensembled Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section accompanied Franklin on what they'll all recall as an unforgettable night when the first hit of the Queen of Soul came to be.
Unfortunately, the sessions ended abruptly due to an altercation between Ted White, trumpeter Ken Laxton, and producer Rick Hall.
The song was a huge success that skyrocketed Franklin's career. Her following hits in the late 60s, including “Chain Of Fools”, “Think”, “I Say A Little Prayer”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, cemented her position as the undisputed voice of R&B.
‘AMAZING GRACE’ (1972)
While Franklin's career continued to flourish for some time, by the mid-1970s, the singer was no longer the best-selling artiste she was in the early days of her Atlantic years.
Before then, Franklin released Amazing Grace, one of the most potent, best-selling gospel albums of all time.
Powerful and magnetic like the finest secular music, Amazing Grace is filled with the power and joy of Aretha Franklin, which makes each song unquestionably hers. The same can be said of the song of the same name.
The audience, mesmerised and galvanised, becomes an integral part of a recording that depicts the depths of religious passion with vivid clarity. One of Franklin's most memorable works.
The album Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) will prove to be a turning point in Franklin's career. Produced by Quincy Jones, it is ambitious and diverse, establishing the harmony between producer and singer.
However, despite the success of the single “Angel”, the album was largely ignored by audiences and critics alike.
Franklin continued her collaboration with Atlantic until the end of the 1970s, but all the albums that followed Hey Now Hey lacked the sensibility and energy that made her the Queen of Soul.
Still, I find this album one of the most progressive and vibrant of her discography.
‘WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO?’ (1985)
Aretha signed with Arista in 1980 in an attempt to revive and rejuvenate her career. She partially achieved her goal with the successful Who's Zoomin' Who?, produced by the acclaimed Narada Michael Walden, which became her first certified platinum.
The album features an addictive blend of genres, from funk to pop and dance, all carefully crafted to give Franklin’s voice the spotlight.
It is also a catchy comeback album, which lacks the genuine power of her earlier recordings, but with a perfect formula to grab the attention of a diverse audience in the 80s.
The namesake hit song, released as the album's second single, reached number seven on the US Billboard “Hot 100” chart that same year.
‘NESSUN DORMA’ (LIVE, 1998)
After Who's Zoomin' Who? and its follow-up Aretha, the singer didn't have other massive hits.
Her career, also because of her harsh temperament and complicated relationships with producers, slowly but steadily declined. Though one day, by pure chance, she had the opportunity to show the world her talent and passion were still pristine.
In 1998, at a moment’s notice, Franklin replaced Luciano Pavarotti to sing “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammy awards. Pavarotti was ill, but a few days earlier, Franklin sang Puccini's aria to pay tribute to the legendary tenor on the occasion of the MusiCares awards.
The impressive range of Franklin's performance gave a mystical, unheard-of aura to the Italian opera.
From whispers to a galvanising scream, the Queen of Soul delivered the performance of a lifetime, in a context where the classical atmospheres magnified the power of her unique voice.
After that, Franklin continued to perform and release music regularly. Most notably, she sang “America The Beautiful” at the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009.
Although her talent and passion accompanied her until she died in 2018, her Grammy performance in 1998 felt like a consecration: a brief moment when her personal life, career, and connection with the audience were perfectly aligned.
A moment that celebrates the timelessness of an artiste whose voice will resonate forever.
Cover: Atlantic Records/Wikimedia Commons
Elevate the way you listen to Aretha Franklin with KEF
Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.