The Instant Expert: Aretha Franklin
Float through any social event with M's fast facts. This week Kevin McIndoe looks at the life and times of Aretha Franklin, dubbed the Queen of Soul, who turns 70 this month
THE BASICS Aretha Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, in a two-roomed wooden house in Memphis, Tennessee, the third of four children born to Barbara and CL Franklin, a Baptist minister. The family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where Aretha was brought up by her grandmother after her parents split.
WHY IS SHE THE QUEEN OF SOUL? Sheer talent, critical acclaim, commercial appeal, career longevity, timeless recordings and awards galore. Aretha was the first woman to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987. She topped Rolling Stone's Greatest Singers of All Time and was voted ninth greatest artist of all time. A winner of 20 Grammys, she can veer from blues to jazz to R&B to rock, and she has sold more than 100 million records. Ray Charles said: "There are singers, then there is Aretha. She towers above the rest."
WITH SONGS LIKE? Respect, I Say a Little Prayer, Baby I Love You, I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You), Spanish Harlem, (You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman, Chain of Fools, Think, etc, etc.
HOW DID SHE START OUT? Aretha grew up (like many singers) learning her craft in church, in this case her father's New Bethel Baptist Church. At 18, she started her career at Columbia Records singing jazz standards, but this material did her small justice. After she signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, the legendary producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin and the recording engineer Tom Dowd steered her to greatness. As she said: "They made me sit down at the piano and the hits came."
A GOOD SINGER, THEN? One of the best. Although her pitch has dropped since her earlier years, she has been likened to a bird who can screech, but always in tune. Technically, Aretha is a mezzo-soprano, whose vocal ability spans three octaves. She is also an excellent pianist, and a songwriter.
WHY IS SHE SO GOOD? While the ranges of Mariah Carey (reportedly, five octaves) and Celine Dion (four) may top Aretha's, these are not necessarily a barometer of quality. The measure of singers is by the number of notes they can actually sing, not just hit. Aretha produces a rich, voluminous, textured sound and has been known to hold a note for 20 seconds, and with little vibrato (take note, Mariah).
TELL ME MORE With perfect enunciation, intonation and phrasing, Aretha plunders the depths of her soul to uplift or sadden the listener. The late Wexler referred to her as "a difficult woman", but it is likely that she objected to being told how to sing a number. Respect, indeed!
SHE LIKES TO DO THINGS HER WAY? Oh, yes. Her take on I Say a Little Prayer blew an earlier version by Dionne Warwick out of the water. And, after hearing her rendering of Respect, its writer, Otis Redding, grumbled that she now "owned" it. When she was asked (with 20 minutes to go) to fill in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards, the orchestra had rehearsed the aria Nessun Dorma in his key. No pressure then, but Aretha brought the house down.
AND PRETTY INFLUENTIAL? Absolutely. It's difficult to find a female singer who hasn't been influenced by her - Patti LaBelle, Jennifer Hudson, Adele, Alicia Keys, Duffy, Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé, for example. Alas, the latter earned Aretha's displeasure by introducing Tina Turner, not her, as "The Queen" at a Grammy Awards ceremony in 2008.
STILL GOING STRONG? Yes. She still lives in Detroit and has no plans to retire.
Life wasn't always easy for these women, but we love their ability to dig deep, cross over and make some timeless classics.
NINA SIMONE (US, 1933-2003) The High Priestess of Soul, a singer, songwriter and classically trained pianist. Simone's rich contralto and sheer musicianship spellbound her audiences. Recommended: I Put A Spell On You
ROBERTA FLACK (US, 1937-) Like Simone a music scholar, the mellow-voiced Flack signed with Atlantic Records in 1968, where she rather overshadowed Aretha in the early Seventies. Recommended: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
ETTA JAMES (US, 1938-2012) Fiery blues singer known as The Matriarch of R&B. James was a prodigious talent, and took her first singing lessons at the age of 5. Also an electrifying jazz performer. Recommended: At Last
DUSTY SPRINGFIELD (UK, 1939-1999) Dubbed the White Queen of Soul, Springfield made Dusty in Memphis in 1968, an all-time masterpiece. Recommended: I Just Don't Know What To Do with Myself
TINA TURNER (US, 1939-) The Queen of Rock 'n' Roll, with gutsy, powerful vocals and a commanding stage presence. Recommended: River Deep, Mountain High