Aretha in 1967 at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals
Aretha in 1967 at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals

Aretha: A Career In 360 Words

Her gift was her voice that at the high end was as sharp as a barber’s razor and at the low end as soft as a lamb’s wool.

Her talent was in discovering songs to express her inner lady day soul and creating arrangements for them that suggested divine intervention had taken hold of her heart. They were then, and remain forever, unparalleled.

Her legacy is twofold: Delivering an irreversible vocal truncheon to America’s systemic racial intolerance, and offering women of the world an emphatic credo that stated it was time to rise up and respect themselves.

The appellation ‘Queen of Soul’ was, as the story goes, given to her by Chicago DJ, and Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Pervis Spann at the outset of her chart-busting career in the late ‘60s.

Her background was writ from the pages of American history. Born into a family of little means, she started singing in a Detroit Baptist church where her father was a minister. She went on to record a series of unspectacular gospel albums for Columbia Records that breathed her spirit but lacked her exceptionalness.  

Her delivery from obscurity to discovery was extraordinary.

After a failed career at Columbia, she was lured to sign with the then-nascent Atlantic Records by partner Jerry Wexler, a Bronx-born son of a German Jewish father and a Polish mother. In the late ‘40s he had worked as a reporter, writer, editor at Billboard Magazine and successfully had the publication change the name of the Race Records chart to Rhythm & Blues Records. Racial prejudice was not in his blood.

Under Wexler’s wing, Franklin booked into FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in January of 1967. She was in the heart of Klan country, supported by a quartet of musicians as white as the cast of The Andy Griffith Show or Gilligan’s Island, two popular network TV shows of the time. It was an unconventional choice of place and cast, but it produced pure magic and extraordinary results.

From thereon in, the mould was cast, and Aretha went on to sell more than 70 million records, win 18 Grammys and perform for three US presidents (see separate obituary in FYI here).

– Editors note: A 30-track, 2-LP collection of Aretha’s 30 Greatest Hits, spanning her Atlantic Records’ years, compiled by Kim Cooke and annotated by Larry LeBlanc in 1987, became a #1 hit in 34 countries yesterday at various online stores.

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