Aretha Franklin is widely regarded as a musical genius whose incomparable career has had an immeasurable impact and lasting influence on music and culture around the world. Raised in Detroit, she was largely a self-taught and gifted pianist and singer, recording some of her earliest tracks at age 14 at her father’s church.
Aretha eventually moved to New York and later California, releasing many hits, including “Chain of Fools” and “Never Loved a Man.” She moved back to Detroit in the early 80s, where she remained until her death.
From her crowning as the “Queen of Soul” in 1967 to her record-breaking gospel record “Amazing Grace” to her involvement and support of the Civil Rights movement, Aretha Franklin remained a groundbreaking artist. Throughout her life, Aretha shouldered family misfortune and balanced professional demands all while managing her public image.
Here are ten things you may not know about this remarkable artist:
- Franklin learned to play the piano by ear. Aretha's mother was a wonderful pianist, and renowned jazz and gospel pianists like Art Tatum and Reverend James Cleveland (who visited her childhood home) provided a strong informal education to the budding artist.
- Aretha Franklin passed away on August 16, 2018, at the age of 76, following a long-fought battle with pancreatic cancer. With a career spanning six decades, 38 studio albums and 6 live albums, umpteen awards, and 75 million records sold, Franklin more than earned the title of the "Queen of Soul."
- She performed at the inaugurations of three American presidents. Franklin first performed on the eve of Jimmy Carter's 1977 inauguration. She returned to Washington to take part in a two-hour concert on the night of Bill Clinton's first inauguration in 1993. Her most iconic performance, however, came at the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, where she performed a memorable "My Country, Tis Of Thee."
- Aretha Franklin reigns as the queen of R&B with no less than 44 Grammy nominations, 18 Grammy awards, five recordings in the Grammy Hall Of Fame, a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award (1994) and a Grammy Legend Award (1991). Over the course of her career, Franklin placed 73 songs on Billboard's Hot 100 and still leads all female artists for most weeks in the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs top 10 (333) and most appearances on the chart overall (96, with four credited as double-sided singles, making for an even 100 charted songs).
- Franklin used her money to fund social and civil rights activism. In addition to being a socially conscious artist in public, Franklin also worked behind the scenes to support the Civil Rights Movement. "When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll," Franklin's longtime friend, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, told the Detroit Free Press in 2018. "On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte. They put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign. Franklin regularly shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency."
- In addition to lifting people up through her songs and performances, Franklin also supported charities and non-profits like the NAACP, the Special Olympics, Feeding America, The Rainforest Foundation, and the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes.
- She was the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) is a museum and hall of fame located in Cleveland, Ohio, United States, on the shore of Lake Erie. The museum documents the history of rock music and honours Hall of Fame inductees who can range from performers to producers and engineers.
- Her hit song R.E.S.P.E.C.T. was about people respecting each other. She told Vogue in an interview “It's important for people. Not just me or the Civil Rights movement or women, it's important to people. As people, we deserve respect from one another.” She also explained to The New York Times that the phrase “give me my propers" was street slang for mutual respect.
- Aretha Franklin carried her purse everywhere, even onstage. A 2016 story in The New Yorker, by David Remnick explained that even early in her career, Franklin made a point of being paid upfront, in cash, before performances. Keeping her handbag on her or within eyeshot was a security measure. "It's the era she grew up in," television host and author Tavis Smiley told Remnick. "She saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off … and she won’t have it”. For her, it was a sign of respect.
- On top of her earthly accolades, In 2010 Franklin had an asteroid, "249516 Aretha," named after her by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration.) This symbolic gesture was to recognise and encapsulate her otherworldly talent.
The third edition of the Genius franchise series, starring Cynthia Erivo as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, and Courtney B Vance as CL Franklin, Genius: Aretha, will premiere on National Geographic from Wednesday 30 June 2021, at 21:00 (CAT).