Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Aretha was brought up in a truly special time within a community that shaped her purpose in life from an early age. Franklin’s father was a traveling preacher who quickly became a local celebrity in Detroit. He was even offered a record deal to create an album of his sermons. Aretha absorbed and studied gospel music in her youth, learning to play piano and, later on, to sing. By the time she was 14, her father brought her on tour with him to sing gospel music to his followers. Aretha benefitted greatly from the experience and her father’s personal connections, even getting the chance to meet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man she would come to be dear friends with. Her strong ties to her faith and to promoting social equality are hallmarks of her career.
After earning her own recording contract at the age of 18, Aretha began her ascent to superstardom. She struggled with her early recordings, but achieved breakout success in 1967 with the song that would become her anthem, the Otis Redding-penned “Respect.” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools” quickly followed. Each of these songs were sensational hits, making her a household name and allowing her to earn a comfortable living off of her music. Franklin’s songs from this time were featured prominently by civil activists, and many considered her to be the “voice of the Civil Rights Movement.” The song “Respect” was more than just a toe-tapping radio hit, it was a source of empowerment and unity that all African Americans could rally behind. The energy, urgency, and simplicity of the message of equality in both the music and activism dovetailed so perfectly that many historians consider the two to be inseparable.
Aretha’s impressive career has seen plenty of other high points over the past fifty years. She has worked with icons like Clive Davis, Annie Lennox, Quincy Jones, and Stevie Wonder. She has performed all over the world, including royal events in Europe and the inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama. The Grammy Foundation has awarded Franklin 20 times, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She was the first female artist ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she was the second African American woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine. The accolades go on and on, yet none seems to be able to give proper justice to the power and passion behind Aretha’s voice.
There is no doubting the significance that Franklin’s music has had in support of civil and women’s rights, but she has also devoted much of her personal time and energy in support of important causes. To name but a few of the organizations that Aretha has contributed to are Feeding America, the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, The Rainforest Foundation, and MusiCares – the charitable arm of the Grammy Foundation that offers resources to those in need of medical and financial assistance.
Aretha Franklin continues to be a wellspring of inspiration and passion. Because of her work and the work of the countless people she has inspired, each day the world moves closer to achieving a universal level of Respect and realizing the Dream of Dr. King.