Daughter of Detroit’s acclaimed Baptist preacher, the Reverend C L Franklin, Aretha Louise Franklin was just into her twenties when she signed to Atlantic in November 1966, but had already experienced more than a dozen years in the music biz – most recently at Columbia Records, where she had lost the company a then-whopping $90,000 over six years.
When Aretha arrived at Atlantic Records she immediately began recording at a heady pace. In 1967 and 1968 she released four albums – I’ve Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), Aretha Arrives, Lady Soul and Aretha Now – a fierce prolificacy aided by the groups of studio musicians who accompanied her – the Alabama boys at Fame in Muscle Shoals, the Dixie Flyers at Criteria in Miami, the crack New York players and a super-hot Los Angeles team. Each added a fresh spice to Aretha’s stew.
In fact, Atlantic had previously effected a similar transformation in the 1950s when they re-cast Ray Charles from a jazz pianist and crooner into a founding father of soul. Now, producer/fan Jerry Wexler, weighed down with work on Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge, offered Aretha’s contract to Stax for $25,000. They passed.
Luckily for Wexler, he soon heard her demo’s of I’ve Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), Dr Feelgood and Sweet Bitter Love and the penny dropped.
By 1969 Aretha was recording material for her two 1970 albums, This Girl’s In Love With You and Spirit In The Dark, at first in New York and then down in Miami.
The hits slowed in the 80s, and the 90s were a virtual desert for her, but 1998’s A Rose Is Still A Rose album successfully re-positioned her as the Godmother to a whole new generation of R&B stars. The sublime title track (penned by Lauryn Hill) stood comparison with her best work.
With a messy broken marriage behind her, Franklin has guarded her privacy over the past two decades, preferring to stay at home in Michigan to making music. The lasting impression now is of an artist wrestling with personal heartache, having said all she wants through her songs.
In November 2010, Franklin spent a week in Detroit’s Sinai-Grace Hospital for a serious illness which was later revealed to be pancreatic cancer.