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Spotlight Artist - Aretha Franklin

 

Aretha FranklinThe spotlight is on the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin,  a title she was given early in her career.  She began her singing career singing in her father's church at the age of ten and started recording four years later. After several years in the gospel circuit and with her father's blessing, she formed a secular pop music career at the age of eighteen, signing with Columbia Records, where she was branded by its CEO John Hammond as his most important act since Billie Holiday. Franklin's Columbia period wasn't as successful as hoped and in late 1966, Franklin switched over to Atlantic Records, where she began recording a string of popular hits including "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)", "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", "Think", "Chain of Fools" and what later became her signature song, "Respect".

Upon hearing her demos, legendary Columbia A&R man John Hammond remarked that he felt he had heard the greatest singer since Billie Holiday, whom Hammond had also discovered when she herself was eighteen, and agreed to work with her to Columbia despite Sam Cooke's offer to have Franklin sign with his RCA label. In September 1960, Columbia issued Franklin's first single, "Today I Sung the Blues", which became her first charted success, reaching number 10 on Billboard's R&B chart. In January 1961, Columbia issued her debut album Aretha. Many of Franklin's Columbia recordings diversified from standards, vocal jazz, blues, doo-wop and rhythm and blues. Following the release of her first Columbia album, Franklin scored a second R&B hit with "Won't Be Long", which peaked at number seven and also became Franklin's first charted single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 76. Later in 1961, Franklin had her first double-sided hit with the songs "Operation Heartbreak" and "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody". "Operation Heartbreak" was a typical rhythm and blues ballad that showcased Franklin's gospel-pop vocals while her rendition of "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby" was produced in a hip gospel-influenced R&B melody. While "Operation" peaked at number six on the R&B chart, "Rock-a-Bye" became her first top forty single, peaking at #37 on the chart, and also reaching the top 40 in Australia and Canada. By the end of 1961, Franklin was listed as one of the Top Ten jazz singers in Downbeat magazine, also making the list for 1962 and 1963.

In 1962, Columbia issued two more Franklin albums, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin and The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin, the latter album charting at number 69 on the Billboard Pop LPs chart. Throughout 1962, Franklin released six singles, of which five reached the Hot 100. None of the songs reached the R&B chart as Columbia had figured Franklin would find success as a jazz vocalist. However, none of the songs released were successful and quickly dropped out of the charts. None of Franklin's 1963 songs for Columbia reached the Hot 100 and by the end of the year, Columbia dropped the push to make Franklin their answer to Dinah Washington, a singer Franklin had used as a vocal and musical model for much of her early Columbia releases. Hammond later admitted that he felt Columbia didn't understand Franklin's gospel background and failed to bring that aspect further in her Columbia recordings. In 1964, Franklin recorded a critically revered tribute album in honor of Washington following Washington's 1963 death titled Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington. Though she still occasionally recorded jazz material, by 1964, Columbia, influenced by the success from independent labels such as Motown and Scepter and artists such as Dionne Warwick and Martha and the Vandellas decided to push Franklin in a modern pop-soul direction, releasing the pop ballad, "Runnin' Out of Fools", which returned Franklin to the charts in early 1965, peaking at number 57 on the Hot 100 and reaching 30 on the R&B chart, with the album of the same name reaching 84 on the Pop LPs chart and number 9 on the R&B LPs chart. In 1965, she had a top 20 R&B single with "One Step Ahead" and reached the Easy Listening charts with the pop ballads, "You Made Me Love You" and "(No, No) I'm Losing You". During this period, Franklin appeared on teen pop shows such as Shindig!, Shivaree and Hollywood A Go-Go.

Though Franklin wasn't yet a constant hit maker, Franklin's recordings during this period as well as her performances garnered her critical praise. Sometime in 1964, Franklin was crowned by Chicago radio deejay Pervis Spann as "the new queen of soul" during a performance in Chicago. This title would become more bestowed upon her in more than just a couple years. In 1966, she released her final charted single for Columbia, "Cry Like a Baby", which reached #27 on the R&B chart, becoming one of the first charted successes for the songwriting team Ashford & Simpson. That year, Franklin's husband of five years, Ted White, took her father C. L.'s place as her manager and decided that Franklin should no longer record for Columbia. Under White's advice, Franklin signed with top R&B label Atlantic Records, who signed her in January 1967. Following her success with Atlantic, Columbia would issue albums and leftover recordings of Franklin's for several years to capitalize on the Franklin market.

Shortly after signing to Atlantic, Atlantic's co-CEO and producer Jerry Wexler took Franklin and her husband to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record Franklin's first recordings for Atlantic at FAME Studios where Franklin recorded with the respected instrumental band, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. There, Franklin recorded "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)". Shortly after the song had finished recording, the session ended abruptly after Franklin's husband and an engineer had a row after the engineer allegedly confronted White over his rough handling over Franklin. The row resulted in White and Franklin returning to New York where it took weeks to reach contact. Figuring that it would be easier to record at Atlantic's New York studios, Wexler sent some of the Muscle Shoals musicians to New York. After finally locating Franklin, she entered the studio to record the b-side to "I Never Loved a Man", "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man". "I Never Loved a Man" was released in February 1967 and became Franklin's first top 40 hit single, reaching number nine on the Hot 100 and became her first number-one single on the R&B charts. "Do Right Woman" also gained notable airplay eventually landing at number 37 on the R&B chart, giving Franklin her first double-sided hit single in six years.

The following April, Atlantic issued Franklin's second single, "Respect", a song composed and initially recorded by Otis Redding. Re-arranged by Arif Mardin and Franklin, the song was delivered from a female's point of view and produced a gospel-styled version with Franklin using her gospel vocals over the lyrics. The call and response vocals were arranged by Aretha and her little sister Carolyn, who sung in the background on the song alongside her older sister Erma. Franklin added in the ad-lib, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, take care, TCB". In response her sisters shouted "sock it to me" repeatedly. The song became Franklin's first number-one single on the pop charts and her second number-one single on the R&B charts and became a worldwide hit, peaking at number 10 in the UK. The success of Franklin's first three singles pushed her Atlantic debut album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, into the top ten becoming her first album to sell over a million copies, earning a gold plaque. The album featured another future Franklin standard, "Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)". Later in 1967, Franklin issued the album, Aretha Arrives, which included another top ten single, "Baby I Love You", her third of the year. That summer, Atlantic issued a fourth single, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", written for Franklin by songwriting team Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Before the year was over, Atlantic issued a fifth single, the Don Covay-composed "Chain of Fools", which became her fifth consecutive top ten pop single. 

In 1968, Franklin earned her first two Grammy Awards for "Respect". Eventually, Franklin would win eight consecutive Grammys under the category of Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Franklin's hit streak continued in 1968. In that year alone, Atlantic issued nine singles, all of which found success in either the United States or the United Kingdom. Among her most notable hits that year included "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone", its b-side "Ain't No Way", "Think", "The House that Jack Built" and a soulful rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "I Say a Little Prayer", the latter reaching the top five of the UK and reaching the top ten in several other European countries and Australia. The success extended to her albums: Lady Soul peaked at number two on the pop albums chart and topped the R&B and jazz albums charts, with three of its singles reaching the top ten of the pop chart, then a record. Aretha Now, her second 1968 album, reached number three. Both Lady Soul and Aretha Now each sold a million copies becoming the next two albums to reach gold status in the United States. Franklin began touring outside the United States that year. A successful performance at Paris' Olympia Theater led to the release of Aretha in Paris. Franklin also performed successfully in the UK, Switzerland and the Netherlands. In 1968, she became the second black notable celebrity after Martin Luther King, Jr. to make the cover of Time magazine. However, the article included stories of Franklin's childhood and personal life that led Franklin to not discuss her personal life to the media. Franklin's marriage to Ted White also suffered that year and at the end of the year, they announced a legal separation.

In the meantime, Franklin's recordings also touched audiences during times of social change as songs like "Respect" and "Think" were used as clarion calls to the civil rights, feminist and black liberation movements of the late 1960s. As a result Franklin was often referred as "Soul Sister #1" and "Lady Soul" alongside the now-recognized title of "Queen of Soul". Franklin struggled with personal issues in 1969, which included finalizing her divorce from Ted White, who also left as her manager. Franklin's brother Cecil replaced him as her manager from then on. Despite this, Franklin had a number-one single with her cover of "Share Your Love with Me" at the end of that year. In early 1970, Franklin scored another number-one R&B hit with her composition, "Call Me", her first composition without interference from Ted White, whom Franklin alleged bullied his way to earn composition credit rights to some of Franklin's hits such as "Sweet Sweet Baby" and "Think". During this period of personal change, Franklin reconnected with her spiritual roots as well as her African roots, adopting an Afrocentric look and replaced her trademark bouffant hairdos with "The Natural", or the Afro. Franklin also began incorporating rock songs into her repertoire, having success with covers of "The Weight", "Eleanor Rigby" and "Let It Be", releasing her version of the latter before the Beatles issued theirs. That year, Atlantic issued two Franklin albums, This Girl's in Love with You and Spirit in the Dark, which recalled Franklin's sound going through a transitional period, with the latter album incorporating even more gospel music, with the title track recorded with the Dixie Flyers as a notable example. Franklin had another international hit in 1970 with her cover of "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)". Franklin had a further hit that year with her rendition of Elton John's "Border Song" and the ballad "You and Me" by the end of the year. Franklin had several more hit singles in 1971 including the Simon & Garfunkel ballad, "Bridge Over Troubled Water", a cover of "Spanish Harlem" and "Rock Steady", with all three reaching Top 10 and "Spanish Harlem" in particular peaking at number two on the Hot 100. That year, Franklin released the live album, Live at Fillmore West, where she became one of the few black artists to perform at the fabled venue.[11] Embracing funk, gospel and pop, Franklin's next Gold-certified album was 1972's Young, Gifted and Black, which included the Top 10 pop hit, "Day Dreaming". That same year, Franklin recorded the live gospel album, Amazing Grace, backed by James Cleveland and his choir. The double album became Aretha biggest selling career album and eventually sold over two million copies, becoming the best-selling pure gospel album of all time.

By 1973, Franklin made plans to work on a jazz album with Quincy Jones at the helm instead of Jerry Wexler. Midway through, however, Jones and Franklin decided to mix the album with several experimental pop material mixing it with Franklin's own R&B songs. The result was Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky). Despite the success of the Carolyn Franklin-penned ballad, "Angel", the album failed to go gold as fans and critics then struggled with the album's material. Wexler returned as producer of Franklin's next album, Let Me in Your Life, which included her hit renditions of Stevie Wonder's "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" and Bobby Womack's "I'm in Love". The album nearly sold a million copies and landed Franklin a Grammy for her slower rendition of the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell hit, "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing". During this period, Franklin had ditched her Afrocentric look for a more glamorous look influenced by a dramatic weight loss. Franklin's follow-up to "Let Me in Your Life," 1974's "With Everything I Feel in Me" failed to become successful. The following year, the album, You found similar failure. That year, Franklin and Atlantic as a whole suffered a loss when Jerry Wexler moved from Atlantic to Warner Bros. Records. With the success of other Atlantic artists such as The Spinners and Roberta Flack, Franklin was no longer Atlantic's top-selling artist. Then in 1976, her eight-year Grammy-winning streak ended when Natalie Cole won the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for the song "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)". Franklin's decline subsided somewhat with the release of the Curtis Mayfield-produced soundtrack of the film, Sparkle and the hit single, "Giving Him Something He Can Feel", which became Franklin's sixteenth number-one hit on the R&B charts. Sparkle eventually sold half a million copies resulting in the album being certified gold. The same year, the RIAA introduced the platinum award as a result of an album selling over a million US copies. Though several of Aretha's Atlantic albums may have sold a million copies, none of them have been updated to Platinum status.

 In 1977, Franklin had her seventeenth number-one R&B hit with "Break It to Me Gently" but the song's parent album, Sweet Passion, failed commercially and artistically. A second album with Mayfield, the troubling Almighty Fire (1978), also bombed, and a foray into disco with Van McCoy on the album, La Diva, stalled at #146 and produced dismal sales after its release in late 1979. Troubled by the news of her father's shooting at his Detroit home during this time and other issues, Aretha decided not to renew her Atlantic contract after twelve years with the company.

In 1980, Franklin won acclaim for her brief role as a soul food cook and wife of Matt "Guitar" Murphy in the film adaptation of The Blues Brothers. Seeking a fresh charge in her musical career, Franklin opted for a contract with Clive Davis' Arista Records, the reasoning being that she was seeking the same type of partnership she had enjoyed while working with Jerry Wexler in Atlantic. Davis agreed and signed Franklin to Arista. Later that year, Arista issued Aretha, which included her first Hot 100 charted single in three years with "United Together", peaking at number 57 on the chart, while also peaking at number three on the R&B chart, which was also her first top five R&B hit in three years. The album also included a cover of The Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes". The following year featured the album, Love All the Hurt Away. The title version, an adult contemporary duet with George Benson, became her first top 50 single on the Hot 100 in several years peaking at number 46. The album was notable for Franklin's gospel rendition of Diana Ross' "It's My Turn" and her Grammy-winning cover of Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'".

Franklin's third Arista album, Jump to It, was produced by Luther Vandross and was released in 1982, helping Franklin to earn her first Gold-certified album since 1976, as well as her first top 40 single in five years with the title track, which also became her first #1 R&B hit in five years. Following the nascent failure of 1983's Get It Right, Franklin laid low, avoiding publicity for a year and a half as she coped with the death of her father and surviving a plane accident that gave her agoraphobia. Returning to the recording studios in late 1984, Franklin was hooked with producer Narada Michael Walden, who helped to produce Franklin's first ever million-selling album with Who's Zoomin' Who?, released in 1985. Inspiration for the album's making was due to Franklin listening to songs on the radio and, liking what she heard, opted for a "younger sound". Mixing Franklin's brand of R&B and soul with elements of modern dance and modern rock, the album returned Franklin to the top ten of the pop charts, with "Freeway of Love" becoming her biggest hit in years reaching number three on the pop chart and reaching number one on the R&B chart, making it her 20th and final number-one single on that chart. The album's follow-up hits included "Who's Zoomin' Who", "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves", which featured Annie Lennox, and "Another Night". The music videos for "Freeway of Love", "Sisters" and "Another Night" gave Franklin coverage on music video channels exposing her to a brand new audience. Who's Zoomin' Who later became Franklin's first platinum album, selling well over a million copies.

Franklin followed up that success with a nearly platinum-selling 1986 album, also titled Aretha, including her rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash", "Jimmy Lee" and her first number-one pop hit in 20 years with the George Michael duet single, "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me", which became her first and only number-one single in both the UK and Australia. To keep up the workload, Franklin performed a concert TV special for Showtime and also contributed her voice to several TV networks including theme songs for the shows "A Different World" and "Together". In 1987, Franklin scored a number-one gospel album with One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, following that up with the 1989 pop album, Through the Storm. Due to the changes in R&B music, the album failed to go gold despite her hit duet with Elton John also titled "Through the Storm". Arista released a much-ballyhooed duet between Franklin and Whitney Houston titled "It Isn't, It Wasn't, It Ain't Never Gonna Be" which only became a modest success. During this period, Franklin's life faced more tragedy as she lost her manager brother Cecil and sister Carolyn to cancer. Franklin returned briefly to the pop charts in 1991 with the ballad, "Ever Changing Times" which included Michael McDonald singing background vocals. The song was featured on Franklin's poorly received album, What You See Is What You Sweat. Before releasing that album, Franklin quit chain smoking, which slowly resulted in Franklin's voice regaining some of the power it had presumably lost. Franklin contributed to the Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit soundtrack, scoring a dance hit with "A Deeper Love", which became a UK top ten hit. That song and two other newer recordings, "Honey" and "Willing to Forgive" was featured on Franklin's Arista compilation album, Greatest Hits: 1980-1994. Both of the latter songs charted with "Willing to Forgive" becoming Franklin's first top 40 hit in five years. Franklin scored a modest R&B hit with the ballad "It Hurts Like Hell" off the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack in 1996. A year and a half later, Franklin reached the top 40 again with the album, A Rose Is Still a Rose and its title track, written and produced by Lauryn Hill. The title track peaked at #26 on the Hot 100 remarkably 37 years after Franklin reached the pop chart. That year, Franklin's reputation was further raised by a performance at the 1998 Grammy Awards where she performed an impressive rendition of the opera ballad, "Nessun Dorma", ending in a standing ovation.

In 1999, Franklin issued her memoirs, Aretha: From These Roots. A year later, Franklin performed on the 25th anniversary showcase for Arista Records and a year after that performed in her own tribute show on VH1' Divas special, nearly three years after delivering a show-stopping performance in the first benefit show of the special. During this period, she also contributed vocals on modern R&B albums by K-Ci & JoJo and Mary J. Blige among others.

In May 2011, commemorating her 50th anniversary year since the release of her first non-gospel recording, Franklin issued her fortieth studio release, A Woman Falling Out of Love, exclusively through WalMart off her label, Aretha Records. The album peaked at number 54 and only stayed on the Billboard charts for only two weeks, selling around 25,000 copies in the States. Franklin recorded two duets with longtime friend, Ronald Isley of The Isley Brothers, recording "The Way We Were" on Aretha's album, while recording "You've Got a Friend" on Isley's record, Mr. I. Later in September, Franklin contributed duet vocals to the Tony Bennett rendition of "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" on his chart-topping Duets II album.

Aretha is reportedly working on a new album with producers Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Danja at the helm of the project.
 

 

 

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