Ray Charles may have devised the structure, and Sam Cooke the personality imprint, but no vocalist has more embodied the essence of soul than Aretha Franklin.
From the time she first lent her astounding delivery, range and authoritative sound to the JVB/Battle album Songs of Faith as a 14-year-old gospel singer, it was clear Aretha Franklin had singular and magical talent. Her exhaustive list of triumphs and accomplishments include being the first female performer selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and being tabbed by Rolling Stone magazine as their choice for greatest vocalist of all time.
She's also nearly as remarkable a pianist as a singer, though in both cases she simply takes the quest for salvation that fuels the gospel experience and retools it for secular audiences, and her incomparable 1972 live LP Amazing Grace remains the biggest selling gospel album ever. Indeed the openings, refrains and accompaniment in numerous Franklin signature tunes, from her first huge soul hit "I Never Loved A Man" on through other classics like "Respect," "Ain't No Way," "Spirit in the Dark," "Since You Been Gone," "Chain of Fools" and even more pop-styled pieces like "I Say a Little Prayer for You" are straight gospel backbeats punctuating fervent lead vocals.
Despite her incredible ability as a soul and gospel singer, Franklin, who recently celebrated her 68th birthday, has never confined herself to one idiom. During a six-year sojourn on the Columbia label, about which legendary producer-critic John Hammond later said he regretted failing to make her a superstar, Franklin made an outstanding tribute LP to Dinah Washington and cut her fair share of amazing blues and jazz numbers.
But it was Jerry Wexler's genius in the late '60s, when he and Franklin worked together at Atlantic Records, that created the Aretha phenomenon. "We took her back to church," Wexler frequently said, though Franklin still worked in Elton John and Dusty Springfield covers alongside classic soul smashes during this time. Franklin's time with Atlantic lasted 13 years, a much shorter span than her 23-year run at Arista, during which she garnered a sizeable chunk of her Top 10 hits and Grammy awards. At Arista, Clive Davis helped her rebound from a serious slump near the end of the '70s, when some observers felt she had become stale and was losing ground to then-emerging acts like Natalie Cole and Chaka Khan. Davis' inspired suggestions included unusual collaborations with Annie Lennox and George Michael, and recording rock and dance tunes that sparked her revival. But eventually the same Davis tactics that rebooted Franklin's chart presence led to her disenchantment.
Franklin's "diva" image — currently on display in an undeniably savvy Snickers ad campaign — dates back to the early days and is as much a part of her reputation as her glittering skills. She began to chafe at Davis' insistence on supervising every musical turn and career move, which ultimately ended her time at Arista. "Clive Davis wanted me to stay and I wanted to stay, but we just could not come to terms on what things should be," Franklin told entertainment writer Louis Hau.
Now truly on her own, Franklin has big plans for the second decade of the 21st century. Her long-delayed album A Woman Falling out of Love is due this month, although it was initially set for release four years ago, and has already been bumped back from a January date. It's the second release from her new Aretha's Records label, and her first full-length project following the issue of the bombastic single version of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" that she sang at President Obama's inauguration last year.
Franklin, who's endured plenty of personal tragedy, from losing her mother at 10 to the deaths of all three of her siblings, says the title reflects the pain of a failed relationship, and the new album reaffirms Franklin's versatility and ability to collaborate with a wide range of performers. The guest list includes Faith Hill and gospel performers Karen Clark Sheard, Shirley Caesar and The Clark Sisters. Actor Billy Dee Williams contributes spoken word on one track, and elsewhere Franklin delivers a dynamic rendition of B.B. King's "Sweet Sixteen."
And if that weren't varied or challenging enough, Franklin's future plans include some classical concerts later this year with former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice serving as her pianist. Franklin says she'll eventually release another gospel album, but right now hopes fans will embrace the new music. Even if she never enjoys another No. 1 hit, Franklin has transformed American popular music as much as any artist of her — or any — generation, male or female, and should be remembered for that consistent, unswerving brilliance.