Aretha Franklin: The true story of The Queen Of Soul

Thursday 12th October 2017

Lins Honeyman documents the unsanitised life of the brilliant singer who turned gospel into soul music, ARETHA FRANKLIN

Throughout the history of popular music, certain artists have been given high-ranking accolades with the likes of Elvis Presley taking on the mantle of the King Of Rock 'n' Roll and Michael Jackson being crowned the Prince Of Pop whilst Mahalia Jackson and Madonna are widely accepted as the Queens Of Gospel and Pop respectively. In the world of soul music, there have been many contenders and pretenders for the crown of Queen Of Soul but none have come close to taking it from the self-styled legend that is Aretha Franklin.

In a career that has spanned some 63 years, the veteran soul singer has released in excess of 40 albums and has shaped the genre of soul music to make it what it is today. With an uncanny knack of taking other artists' songs and making them her own, the likes of Otis Redding's "Respect", Carole King's "A Natural Woman" and Burt Bacharach's "I Say A Little Prayer" proved early on in her career that she was a master interpreter of songs whilst Franklin originals such as "Think" and "Dr Feelgood" showcased her skills as a songwriter in her own right. With subsequent superstars like Whitney Houston, Beyonce and Alicia Keys all owing a debt of gratitude, it's clear that without Franklin's influence and output today's musical landscape would look very different without the lady they call the Queen Of Soul.

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis on 25th March 1942 to renowned Baptist preacher Reverend CL Franklin and his second wife Barbara. Joining siblings Erma and Cecil (and a half-sister Carl Ellan through a hushed up relationship that the sexually promiscuous Reverend had with a 12 year old girl), Aretha would become and remain the apple of his father's eye despite a further daughter Carolyn being born in 1944. In a move that would permanently affect her future superstar daughter's life and, in particular, her inability to trust those nearest and dearest to her, her mother Barbara decided to leave her husband and four children and return to her Mississippi home in 1948. Whether the decision for moving was due to Barbara having had enough of sharing her husband with other women or some other unknown reason, Aretha would yearn for her mother and would often visit her until her untimely death of a heart attack in 1952. Her mother's death naturally had a profound effect on the young Aretha resulting in an unhealthy introspection that lasted for several years.

Moving his family to Detroit, Reverend CL Franklin began to gain an increasingly higher profile as both a preacher and figure on the burgeoning civil rights scene. Establishing the New Bethel Baptist Church in the heart of the black entertainment sector of Detroit, the Reverend moved his family into a stately mansion in the altogether more affluent area of the city's north end and, despite his skin colour, became part of Detroit's elite. In an on-off relationship that would last until her death in 1973, renowned gospel singer Clara Ward would enter into a romantic relationship with CL Franklin and would become a major influence on his young daughter who, by this time, had started singing in church.

By the early '50s, Reverend CL Franklin was an established star on the gospel circuit and would take Aretha, now aged 12, out on the road with him to sing and play piano at events he was preaching at. During this time, Aretha would miss large chunks of schooling and grew into adulthood much sooner than expected on account of falling pregnant at the tender age of 12 before giving birth to a second child a couple of years later. Around this time, Aretha was recorded live singing a set of gospel standards which included Thomas Dorsey's "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and a batch of Clara Ward songs and it became clear that she possessed an innate sense of expression and timing when it came to performing. As her brother Cecil states in David Ritz's in-depth biography Respect, "When you listen to the early things that Aretha recorded, you realise that it's all there."

As well as being influenced musically by Clara Ward, during her teens Aretha would also draw on the decision by the likes of Sam Cooke and Ray Charles to take gospel sounds and make them secular. The crossover by other church acts to the mainstream proved to Aretha that she could set her sights beyond the boundaries of her father's preaching circuit and onto greater things. At the end of the '50s and at the still relatively young age of 18, both Aretha and her father started putting together plans to make her a star.

In 1960, CL Franklin took his daughter to New York to record a demo that revered music mogul John Hammond of Columbia Records would end up listening to. Having worked with the likes of Benny Goodman and Count Basie as well as bringing jazz legend Billie Holiday into a studio for the first time, Hammond knew talent when he saw it and not only signed her immediately but also took the decision to produce Aretha's debut album for the Columbia label. However, Hammond later admitted that he never got the chance to produce the fledgling star the way he had envisioned and that "those first sessions were put together in haste." Such was her father's determination to make his daughter a star that pressure was put on Hammond to record and release an album as quickly as possible and the 'Aretha' album was hastily issued in 1961 with the relatively well-received singles "Right Now" and "Won't Be Long" being released in time for Christmas 1960. On its way to becoming a fairly big hit, the latter single unfortunately failed to cross over into pop territory as predicted largely on account of the artist's failure to turn up for press interviews. In fact, Aretha's habit of missing important dates would become a regular and career-sabotaging feature of her working life from then on.

Whilst she already had given birth to two children who, by now, where being looked after by the Franklin siblings' maternal grandmother Rachel Franklin (affectionately known as Big Mama), 1961 would see Aretha marry her first husband Ted White - a Detroit pimp who would take over from her father (and interim manager Jo King) as his wife's manager. Whilst her father effectively disapproved of his daughter's involvement with White, Aretha recognised that her new spouse had the contacts and drive to propel her into stardom. However, despite having a child together, the marriage became contentious and rumours of White's domestic abuse against his wife were rife until their eventual divorce in 1969.

Shortly after Aretha got married, Columbia producer Bob Mersey took over from John Hammond in the attempt to move the singer into the limelight. An experienced all-rounder (the Beatles and Hollies would later cover his "A Taste Of Honey" and "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" respectively), Mersey produced three Franklin albums - 'The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin' (1962), 'Laughing On The Outside' (1963) and 'Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington' (1964). Around the time that the first Mersey album was recorded, Aretha would appear at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival alongside luminaries such as Oscar Peterson, Count Basie and her idol Clara Ward to an enthusiastic reception.

The live album 'Yeah! In Person With Her Quartet' and the mildly-successful 'Soul Sister' would see light of day in 1965 but for the rest of that and the following year, Aretha effectively went into hiding despite the attempts of a number of Columbia producers to tempt her back to the studio and find that elusive hit.

In 1966, Atlantic Records vice-president and producer Jerry Wexler would enter Aretha's life and make a profound difference. Wexler, who had recently worked with big names such as Solomon Burke, Sam And Dave and Wilson Pickett - not to mention the now legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section - received a phone call out of the blue advising him that Aretha was ready for him. With Ted White brokering a deal with Wexler, the scene was set for Atlantic's latest signing to finally make it big thanks to Wexler's drive and expertise and Aretha's sheer talent. Sessions soon got under way for the recording of Aretha's first Atlantic album 'I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You' before disaster struck.

Following a successful first day of recording, various members of the Muscles Shoals crew celebrated by going out drinking that night. Ted White had also been drinking and had got into an argument with one of the white horn players who had been playing at the session. Shoals producer Rick Hall claimed to have gone to White and Aretha's hotel room in an attempt to smooth things out only for White to become verbally aggressive. Before long, the arguments evolved into a fist fight and, according to her account of the incident in her sanitised autobiography many years later, Aretha took a flight home the next day on her own. According to youngest sister Carolyn, Aretha felt that her husband had undermined the session: "She said he was drunk half the time and belligerent as hell. She said she didn't want to see him again."

Meanwhile, Jerry Wexler tried everything to contact the would-be star and, after 10 days of relative silence, Aretha agreed to pick up the session again with the condition that the recording would take place in New York instead of Muscle Shoals but with the same band. With her debut album in the can, the title track was released as a single and became Aretha's first million-seller. Immediately afterwards, her version of Otis Redding's "Respect" was released and resulted in her career taking off like a rocket. Now recognised as the definitive version, Aretha's take on the song is full of groove, style and attitude with some suggesting that it was reflective of her dysfunctional marriage to Ted. Shortly after the single's release, Aretha played Chicago's Regal Theatre and was crowned 'Queen Of Soul' by DJ Pervis Spann in a tongue-in-cheek ceremony that the recipient most definitely took literally.

By this point, demand for Aretha to appear live in concert had multiplied and she employed Ruth Bowen as her agent who noticed a sharp increase in the star's intake of alcohol: "Everyone knows she possesses natural genius but she'd been using booze to numb the pain of her lousy marriage. Liquor didn't calm her nerves. Liquor made her sloppy." Whilst on stage in Columbus, Georgia, Aretha fell off stage and broke her arm - something that had the potential of putting the recording sessions of her second album 'Aretha Arrives' in jeopardy. However, instead of her injury being the cause of the sessions being delayed, Jerry Wexler claims that Aretha's non-appearances were due to her taking offence against him for signing her eldest sister Erma to the record label - something he denied any part in. However, Aretha finally showed up for what would turn out to be awkward and frosty sessions.

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Reader Comments

Posted by Jim Radford in Scottsville, VA @ 02:06 on Aug 17 2018

Another fine article from Lins. Very informative and interesting. He gives credit where credit is due, honors Aretha's memory and legacy, and yet he tells the unvarnished truth about this supremely gifted and often self-destructive artist. Good job, Lins.

Posted by Geegi Motton in Bakersfield, California @ 21:24 on Feb 6 2018

The Queen of Soul has always touched me through her music and will always remember her beginning.She was brought up loving the Lord and raised accordingly.I'm going to continue loving you Aretha because you're my Queen forever
Love you and God Bless you

Posted by Marcus in Devon, England @ 12:51 on Oct 15 2017

Her music has been a constant in my life. Her range and phrasing and timing leave her alone at the top of the main sic mountain. I have often been dismayed at some of the negativity toward Aretha by some in the US. you should cherish this woman and the contribution she has made to your great country and the wider world.

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