A canny ability to blend soaring gospel and soul-deep R&B, city attitude with country values, gritty feminism and stark emotion transformed Franklin into a towering figure in popular music. "No one can copy her," Jerry Wexler, Franklin's legacy-defining Atlantic Records producer, memorably argued. "She's all alone in her greatness."
Still, Aretha Franklin's life was not without its twists and turns.
Originally from Memphis, she moved to Detroit in 1946 when her father C.L. Franklin took over as pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church. Aretha was 3. By the time she was 6, her parents had separated; Franklin's mother died before she was 10. Not long after, Aretha performed publicly for the first time. She began her musical life, and her professional career, in gospel – following her father's career path with 1956's Songs of Faith.
It seemed almost preordained. C.L. Franklin, after all, had become known as the "million dollar voice" while touring as a celebrity speaker on the gospel circuit. Franklin joined her dad's traveling gospel revue at 14. "His delivery was very dynamic," Aretha told Rolling Stone in 2014. "If he had chosen to be a singer, he would've been a great one."
Aretha had her own dreams. The elder Franklin's home often welcomed a broad variety of African-American leaders and celebrities – including Sam Cooke, a crossover artist who encouraged Aretha to consider a shift to popular music. Unfortunately, that initially led to a series of embarrassing stumbles with Columbia Records. Franklin struggled to establish her own identity with a label that wanted to fashion her into a lounge singer.
She seemed destined for obscurity while still a teen. In fact, the obviously ill-fitting "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" was her biggest pre-Atlantic Records hit, and it reached only No. 37. Columbia never knew what to do with Franklin, eventually losing as much as $90,000 on some half dozen albums. Then Atlantic stepped in, pairing her with producer Jerry Wexler, and all of the embryonic talent buried on those sleepy Columbia sides came bursting forth for the future Queen of Soul.
"She was my personal project," Wexler later told the Detroit Free Press. "I had heard her voice on her records on Columbia and it really demonstrated her brilliance, but they were not commercially feasible in my opinion – and in the opinion of the buying public – because at Columbia, they tried to make her everything from Edith Piaf to Judy Garland to Peggy Lee."
Lots of tributes around Detroit. RIP.
Just finished watching The Blues Brothers as my own little tribute.