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The remarkable life of Aretha Franklin, one of the all-time great singers

“You’re the key to my peace of mind” sang Aretha Franklin in one of her most famous hits, ‘A Natural Woman’. And for millions of fans worldwide, she was that and so much more.

No accolade could have been too extravagant for the “Queen of Soul” who performed for presidents, collaborated with the biggest names in the business, won 18 Grammy Awards and was named the greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone in 2008.

Her inspiring gospel-honed vocals earned her global acclaim, with songs like ‘Think’ and ‘Respect’ transcending generations, while she skilfully put her own stamp on tracks by Gloria Gaynor, Adele and many more.

During her stellar career she sold more records than most artists can ever dream of, but her life was not always struggle-free.

Aretha with her 1972 Grammy Award - one of 18 she won. Credit: AP
Her honours included a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. Credit: AP

Born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, Franklin was the fourth of five children. Her parents were Baptist preacher Clarence La Vaughan “C.L.” Franklin and gospel singer Barbara, but they had separated by the time she was six and her mother died in March 1952.

C.L. moved the family to Detroit, where he became a renowned preacher. Having taught herself piano, Franklin began performing in front of her father’s congregation at the New Bethel Baptist Church. She proved such a success that live tracks was recorded at the church and her first album, “Songs of Faith”, was released when she was just 14.

She went on the road as part of her father’s “gospel caravan” but, as well as enjoying the genesis of her career, Franklin had to grow up fast – by the time she was 14 she had already had two of her four children – Clarence and Edward.

With her grandmother and sister helping to raise the children, Franklin was able to continue to pursue her career and attracted the attention of Colombia Records, who she signed with in 1960 and release the album ‘Aretha’ the following year.

That same year, aged 19, she married Theodore “Ted” White, who also acted as her manager. They had one child together – Ted White Jr – in 1964, but the couple would divorce in 1969.

Though she enjoyed moderate success with Colombia Records, Franklin chose to switch to Atlantic Records in 1966 and saw an almost instant upturn in fortunes, releasing her first big hit, ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’, in 1967. The song went to number one in the R&B charts and made the Billboard 100 top 10.

From that moment there was seemingly no looking back.

Over the course of the next two years Franklin released some of her most famous work, including ‘Respect’, ‘Baby I Love You’ and ‘Natural Woman’ and the albums ‘Lady Soul’ and ‘Aretha Now’, with her run of success culminating in her first two Grammy awards in February 1968.

Franklin performs with James Brown in 1987. Credit: AP

YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW...

  • Franklin’s third child, Ted White Jr, is known professionally as Teddy Richards and has provided backing guitar music for his mother’s band
  • She had a fear of flying since 1984
  • She stood in last minute to perform “Nessun Dorma” in the place of an ill Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards
  • Franklin taught herself to play the piano
  • She performed at the inaugurations of presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama
  • She was Whitney Houston’s godmother
She collaborated with George Michael on ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’. Credit: AP

Franklin became a major figure in the civil rights movement with her music – ‘Respect’ became one of the movement’s anthems - and she performed at Martin Luther King’s funeral.

In 1970, Franklin had her fourth child, Kecalf Cunningham, with her road manager Ken Cunningham.

Her star continued to rise in the early 1970s with more Grammys and her 1972 album ‘Amazing Grace’ selling more than two million copies, making it the best-selling gospel record ever at the time.

However, by the mid-70s she was being eclipsed by other performers and saw a slump in sales, culminating in a split from Atlantic Records.

Franklin with her second husband Glynn Turman and her son Kecalf in 1978. Credit: AP

Franklin married her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, in 1978 but there was tragedy a year later when her father was shot by burglars and was left in a coma, in which he remained until his death in 1984. That same year she was divorced from Turman.

With a switch to Arista Records and a cameo performance in 1980 film “The Blues Brothers” her career was revived – she performed in front of the Queen at the Royal Albert Hall, won more Grammys, returned to the top of the charts in 1985 with the album ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ and sung with George Michael on the number one single ‘I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’.

A major milestone in her long career came in 1987 when Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The albums (of varying success) and awards kept coming, along with performances at the inaugurations of President Clinton in 1993 and President Obama in 2009, in addition to singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Super Bowl XL in Detroit in 2006.

Amongst all of this, Franklin was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, founded Aretha Records in 2003 and received her 18th Grammy for ‘Never Gonna Break My Faith’ in 2008.

George W. Bush presents her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. Credit: AP
Franklin performed at President Obama's inauguration in 2009. Credit: AP

Her health has been an issue for several years, with Franklin experiencing dramatic weight loss and gain, as well as bouts of alcoholism, while in 2010 she had a tumour removed.

In October 2014, she became the first woman to have 100 songs on Billboard’s Hot R&R/Hip-Hop chart and that same month, with new label RCA Records, she released ‘Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics’.

If there was every any doubt about her enduring appeal, people need only watch her December 2015 performance at the Kennedy Center Honors.

The crowd, which included President Obama and his wife Michelle and singer-songwriter Carole King, rose to their feet - as some were left in tears - as she gave a memorable rendition of ‘Natural Woman’.

It was the perfect reminder of why, after more than 50 years on stage, she will be remembered as one of the greatest performers of all time.

Aretha Franklin in 2017. Credit: AP