Rhino Black History Month: Aretha Franklin

Thursday, February 6, 2014
Rhino Black History Month: Aretha Franklin

There may be a few contenders for the title of Queen of Soul through the annals of music, but if there’s one name that’s always going to come up in everyone’s short list, it’s Aretha Franklin.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 25, 1942, Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, was a minister, thereby putting her in close proximity to choirs literally from the day she was born, but his success as a sermonizer earned him a certain degree of celebrity, resulting in close encounters with such gospel singers as Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland, more secular performers like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, and even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s arguable that Aretha’s ascent to the throne started when she was 10 years old, as that’s when she took her first solo at New Bethel Church in Buffalo, New York, tackling the hymn “Jesus, Be a Fence around Me,” but the real rise didn’t begin until 1960, when she “went secular,” as it were, and signed to Columbia Records. Aretha’s first single for the label, “Today I Sing the Blues,” hit the top 10 of the R&B charts. Not a bad start.

But, of course, it was Aretha’s jump from Columbia to Atlantic in 1967 that really sealed her success, coming right out of the gate with a top-10 pop single, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and promptly following that with her first chart-topper, “Respect.” From there, the hits just kept on coming, with “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” all released in ’67 and all making it into the top 10.

All told, Aretha’s career took her into the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart an astounding 88 times throughout the course of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s – her first hit was actually in 1960, with “Won’t Be Long” (#76) – and while she hasn’t crossed over again since the start of the new millennium, she continued to turn up on the R&B charts all the way up through 2011, with “How Long I’ve Been Waiting.”

You’d be hard-pressed to beat a first hit / last hit combo like that one, but the Queen of Soul hasn’t concluded her reign quite yet: while Aretha hasn’t released a new studio album since 2011’s Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love, she’s been working on a covers album produced by Babyface and Don Was and executive-produced by Clive Davis. Given her history when it comes to interpreting other people’s material, we’d say there’s good reason to be excited about the project’s possibilities.