Sunday, May 1, 2011

FOCUS ON: ARETHA FRANKLIN


Aretha Franklin has been in the news lately due to some undisclosed health issue but luckily she seems to be on the mend and ready to return to the stage. It reminded me of what an important part she is to music of the 2oth century.

Everybody was familiar with gospel music but Aretha brought it to a whole new level by combining that with elements of pop and jazz to create her version of soul music and making her the queen of that sound.

I have always loved her magnificent voice, so full of life and character that could easily go from playful to heart-broken to defiant to deep despair, sometimes all in the same song but Aretha's true gift was taking any song, whether it was remaking a Beatles classic or Puccini's "Nessun Dorma" and making it sound like nothing you had ever heard before and making it truly her own.

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. She was the third of four children born to Barbara and Clarence LaVaughn Franklin. Her father, better known as C.L., was a Baptist minister which caused additional  tension between he and his wife and the couple separated shortly after moving the family to Detroit, Michigan when Aretha was four. Barbara Franklin passed away by the time Aretha was ten, so the children were mostly raised by their grandmother

Aretha learned how to play the piano by ear and she would sing in her father's church, eventually singing solos as a teenager. Aretha was inspired by many great gospel artists who would visit her father's home including Albertina Walker and Mahalia Jackson.

At fourteen, Aretha released her first album in 1956 which was a live recording of her performing in her father's church. A few years later, she was discovered by Columbia Records producer, John H. Hammond who also helped bring gospel singer, Sam Cooke to secular music and signed her to the label.

In 1961, her self-titled album on Columbia, "Aretha" was released when she was only nineteen. The album featured a collection of jazz/pop songs and the record found minor success initially but not much materialized with any her subsequent albums on the label. Columbia Records was well aware of  Ms Franklin's great talent but were trying to mold her into being like other popular artists of the day, such as Dinah Washington, who Aretha was a fan, instead of allowing  her to be herself.

By 1966,  Aretha decided not to renew her contract with Columbia and signed with Atlantic Records. The first album with this label, "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (With Bonus Tracks)" was released in 1967 and allowed her to stay true to her musical roots. The record proved to be the breakthrough that she needed as the title single went to number one on the r&b charts and number nine on the pop charts but it would be the next single that made her a household name.

"Respect", written and originally recorded by Otis Redding, became her first number one song on the pop charts as well as second on the r&b. It has become Aretha's signature song and was added to the National Recording Registry in 2002.

Aretha Franklin immediately became an international music star and was given the title, "The Queen of Soul". She would go on to release many successful albums throughout the rest of the 1960's and 1970's that featured the now classic songs such as "Chain Of Fools", "[You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman", "Day Dreaming" and her version of Dionne Warwick's hit, "I Say A Little Prayer". In 1972, she finally recorded another inspirational album, "Amazing Grace" that sold over two million copies and became the best selling gospel album of all time.

By the mid-seventies, Ms Franklin's popularity was on the decline as disco was emerging on the music scene. In 1979, she recorded "La Diva", a disco album that came out just as that movement was beginning to fade out and the record was one her worst selling ever in her career. After this album, her recording contract with Atlantic had expired and neither party was interested in renewing it.

Aretha was asked to appear along with other r&b legends Ray Charles and James Brown in the 1980 musical-comedy film, "The Blues Brothers (Collector's Edition)" and her performance garnered her rave reviews. Shortly after, Clive Davis of Arista Records became interested in trying to revive her recording career and signed her to his label.  Aretha received good reviews for her first album on Arista, "Love All the Hurt Away" in1981 with the title song, a duet with jazz/pop singer George Benson, hitting the r&b top ten but didn't do much in sales.

She was wisely paired up with one of her biggest fans, Luther Vandross to produce her next project, 1982's "Jump To It" in which the title track not only returned the Queen to the top of the r&b charts but also to the pop charts where the song went to number twenty-four. The album also became one of her best selling in years, selling over a half a million copies.

The rest of the decade was good to Aretha, most especially in 1985 with the release of the album,  "Who's Zoomin' Who?" that contained her international smash hit song, "Freeway Of Love" but also became her very first million selling album.

Aretha Franklin is one of the most successful and honored artists in musical history. During her career, she has earned eighteen Grammy Awards as well as two honorary awards, she has had 20 number one singles and 10 number one albums on the r&b charts, 45 Top Forty songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and 14 million selling singles, all more than any other female artist.

Ms Franklin was selected to sing at the inaugurations of President Clinton and President Obama, she was the first female artist to be inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987 and Rolling Stone magazine placed her at number one on their list of "The Greatest Singers Of All Time".

She had two sons, Clarence in 1955 and Edward in 1957 but has never disclosed their father's name. They were mostly raised by Aretha's grandmother as she pursued her career. Aretha married Ted White in 1961 who became her manager and co-writer.and the couple separated in 1969. They had a son, Ted Jr., who has been his mother's touring manager and guitarist.  She began a seven year relationship in 1969 with her musical director, Ken Cunningham and they had a son in 1970, Kecalf, who is a hip-hop rapper and producer. Aretha married actor, Glynn Turman in 1978 but they divorced in 1984.

There are so many great Aretha songs that it was very hard to just select only a few but here are some of my absolute favorites:

"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" - Aretha Franklin (1967)

"Since You Been Gone" - Aretha Franklin (1968)

"Ain't No Way" - Aretha Franklin (1968)

"Bridge Over Troubled Water" - Aretha Franklin (1971)

"Day Dreaming" - Aretha Franklin (1972)

"Angel" - Aretha Franklin (1973)

This is Aretha performing a rousing version of  "I Say A Little Prayer" live on the "The Cliff Richard Show" in 1970:



This is the music video of  "Freeway Of Love", filmed in the Motor City:

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