The fate of gospel music was forever altered in 1956 when a 14-year-old choir girl named Aretha first belted out "Precious Lord" for a congregation of 4,500 at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church. What followed this conception of the legendary "Lady Soul" is nothing short of amazing grace -- more than a dozen million-selling singles, 20 No. 1 R&B hits, a cover story in Time, a civil rights award from Martin Luther King Jr., a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 15 Grammys (including a lifetime achievement award in 1995) and a role alongside John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the cinematic jewel,The Blues Brothers.
Aretha Franklin's lifetime devotion to song, though often interrupted by personal turmoil and tragedy, created a soul standard that remains unchallenged and unbroken today. A dynamic diva since childhood, Franklin was born to a respected gospel singer and powerful orator who encouraged young Aretha, Carolyn and Erma to hone their voices and free their spirits. The three sisters sang in the church choir every Sunday, listening to the sermons of their father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, and rubbing elbows with future stars like Smokey Robinson and Sam Cooke.
An untouchable force behind the microphone, Franklin hit a stumbling block when she became a 15-year-old unwed mother. By age 17 she had two sons in Detroit and a future waiting in New York, so in 1960, Franklin's grandmother took the children and loaded their young mother on a bus to Manhattan, where she began recording demonstration tapes and attracting national attention. After declining offers from Motown and RCA, Franklin was finally snatched up by Columbia Records' renowned talent scout John Hammond.
The Columbia years proved controversial and confusing for Franklin, who was shepherded into unfamiliar pop music territory rather than her native R&B. Criticized as a white company that did not appreciate Franklin's talent, Columbia produced 10 respectable albums, but only one bonafide pop hit in six years: "Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody." When her contract expired in 1966, producer Jerry Wexler pounced on the raw talent, signing her to Atlantic and immediately digging into her R&B roots.
Wexler pushed Franklin into a cauldron of red hot blues when he brought her to the Florence Alabama Music Emporium studios in Muscle Shoals. There Franklin was to record with a crew of versatile and talented musicians like Cissy Houston, Duane Allman and Eric Clapton, but a drunken brawl between then-husband/manager Ted White and one of the musicians put those plans on hold. The singular completed work from Muscle Shoals, "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)," was a gospel-charged sensation that convinced Franklin to finish the album in New York. 1967's I Never Loved a Man was the first in a long line of LPs that brought America to its knees.
During the next three years, Franklin burned with passion and intensity, selling millions of albums with Top 20 gospel-crossover hits like "Respect," "Baby I Love You," "Chain of Fools," "Since You've Been Gone," "Think" and "The House That Jack Built." These radio staples contrasted with her Columbia recordings in their raw R&B foundation, upon which Franklin built an eclectic structure of gospel, blues, pop and rock. Perhaps the most stimulating song of its time, "Respect," took on several empowering translations during the era of black activism, feminism and sexual liberation. A rallying cry for social progress, "Respect," won Franklin two Grammy awards and an honorary award from Martin Luther King Jr. -- a man she would later eulogize with an uplifting rendition of "Precious Lord."
While fame tumbled down upon her, Franklin led a personal life of hardship hidden from the world. Her troubled eight-year marriage to White ended in 1969, after they had a son, Teddy Jr. That same year her father was arrested for possession of marijuana and she was rumored to be drinking heavily, but Franklin did not allow her personal strife to shut down the hit factory. "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Don't Play That Song," "Spanish Harlem" and "Rock Steady" were just a few of the hits Franklin scored in the early '70s, during which time she also gave birth to a fourth son, Kecalf, out of wedlock.
Franklin won Grammy awards every year between 1969 and 1975, and even sang at President Jimmy Carter's inauguration, but by the end of the '70s her record sales were beginning to dwindle. Franklin gave her career a kick-start in 1980 with a cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers, a movie that introduced Franklin to a younger audience. That same year she left Atlantic for Arista, which produced sleek new hits like "Freeway of Love" and "Who's Zoomin' Who." Franklin's first Arista album, released one year after her father died of gunshot wounds suffered during a robbery attempt at his home, became her highest charting album since 1972.
The pop follow-up, Aretha, included the Grammy-winning No. 1 duet with George Michael, "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)." A return to gospel came in 1987 with One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, which earned her a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance in the same year she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Franklin backed out of the spotlight in 1988, the year that her sister Carolyn, her brother and her manager all died.
What followed was a long line of accolades, a performance at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration and countless peripheral projects such as a biography and television special.
In 1998 Franklin released the critically acclaimed, A Rose Is Still a Rose. The album featured production work by the Fugees' Lauryn Hill and Sean "Puffy" Combs.