Woman of the Week: Aretha Franklin

    Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Aretha Louise Franklin was the daughter of Clarence LaVaughn, a minister, and Barbara, who made a living as a gospel singer and pianist. Franklin had five siblings, all of whom moved from Tennessee to New York to Michigan as their father took on new pastoral positions across the North.

 

   The siblings parted ways early on in their lives due to their parents’ divorce and then the loss of their mother who had passed away before Aretha turned ten years old. Whilst dealing with the loss of her mother, Franklin turned to the piano and became more active in her church’s choir. When she turned 12, her father began to manage and invite her on his travels to deliver the gospel. At 16, Franklin befriended Martin Luther King, Jr. and went on tours with him, supporting his mission of enforcing civil rights and liberties.

 

    Franklin spent summers singing in venues around Chicago until at age 18, when she moved back to New York. Franklin was soon signed to Columbia Records where she stayed for six years. Shortly after signing and releasing singles, Franklin became an international sensation. Her first single at Columbia was "Today I Sing the Blues” which reached the top 10 of the Hot R&B Sellers chart. In 2014, Franklin became the first woman to have 100 songs on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Franklin released the album A Brand New Me in November 2017 which reached number 5 on the Billboard Top Classical Albums chart.

 

    One of Franklin’s many famous fellow performers included Cissy Houston, the mother of Whitney Houston. Franklin, or “Auntie Ree” according to young Whitney, was made honorary aunt. Despite the distractions that came with fame, Franklin remained close with her loved ones, introducing features and background vocals contributed by Houston and Franklin’s sisters.

 

    In 1980, Franklin signed the Arista Records and gave a memorable performance for the Queen of England at the Royal Albert Hall. She also did a cameo in the musical ‘The Blues Brothers’ in the same year.

 

    Her most famous performances include her show for the Queen of England in 1980, her rendition of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony in 2009, as well as her final performance during Elton John's 25th anniversary gala in 2017.

 

    Franklin received numerous awards, including 18 Grammy Awards, 18 American Music Awards, an honorary degree from Yale University, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was also inducted into many halls. She became the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the second woman inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame. Franklin also entered into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame, the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.

 

 

In 2015, then-President Barack Obama wrote the following about Franklin:

 

Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings. That's why, when she sits down at a piano and sings 'A Natural Woman,' she can move me to tears . . .  because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.

 

 

Aretha Franklin embodied the resilience, creativity, and grit to lift herself from a broken home to a life of bountiful successes which have stretched far beyond her lifetime. She provides, to this day, a beautiful lesson for any woman who wishes to craft raw, soulful expression into beautiful song.