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Aretha Franklin Facts: All About The Queen of Soul

Aretha Franklin is one of the best-selling musicians of all time with over 75 million worldwide record sales and had one of the most recognizable voices on the planet. The Queen of Soul was wildly influential in getting the genre off the ground and turning it into a potent force, with her contributions to the music industry being beyond question.

But she was far more than just a great singer, she was a great person. In this article, we’ll take a look at Franklin’s life and go over some of the most interesting facts about her that we could find. 

Aretha Franklin Was Born in 1942

Aretha Louis Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father was a prominent Baptist minister, and her mother was an accomplished piano player and singer. At two years old, her family relocated to Buffalo, New York, but by five, she had permanently moved to Detroit, Michigan. 

She Earned Her Title As the Queen Of Soul

July 15, 1967 – Aretha Franklin trade ad for Baby I Love You. Image source: Atlantic Records, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even from an early age, listening to Franklin sing was an absolute treat. She was described as a “powerful mezzo-soprano” and had a singing range well beyond what any normal artist could pull off. Despite not being able to read music, her ability to arrange songs was unparalleled, as was her musical intelligence. 

January 26, 2007 – Barack Obama at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. Image source: SEIU Walk a Day in My Shoes 2008, edit by Matthias.kötter, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

She was the epitome of soul music, drawing on gospel roots and blending it with R&B music to create something magical. She was a giant of the industry, inspiring and paving the way for every artist who would come after her. Barack Obama summed up her musical abilities well when he wrote about her in 2015:

“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R. & B., rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings.”

Aretha Franklin’s Father Was Her Manager As A Child

Franklin got an early start in her music career, moving out of the church stage to public concerts by the age of 12. Her father was her manager from that point on—at least for a time—helping her secure her first recording contract with J.V.B. Records. After finishing nine song recordings, she and her father would use a chunk of the money to buy recording equipment for the New Bethel Baptist Church. 

October 16, 2011 – Aretha Franklin at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Image source: Tami A. Heilemann-Office of Communications, US Dept. of Interior, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Her father was also an important figure in his own right and a famous name in gospel circles. His influence on both his church and the Civil Rights Movement meant that big names passed through Franklin’s childhood home often. Musicians like Clara Ward and James Cleveland were often around, with Ward becoming something of a mentor to the young Franklin. Other people were also friends with her father, including the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. while he was a member of the Caravans. 

She Was A Self-Taught Musician

From the archives: Aretha on piano

Franklin was a self-taught musician, learning to play the piano by ear and remaining unable to read music throughout her career. This comes as a shock to a lot of people, especially considering how accomplished she became as a musician. As she got older, she wanted to be trained professionally to play piano, specifically wanting to attend and learn at Juilliard. 

She admitted to regretting not learning to read music in a 2003 interview with Vanity Fair that also included her admission to wanting to go to school. Unfortunately, her busy schedule kept her from ever enrolling in music school, however, she did take private lessons with a musician trained there, so she got to live out part of her dreams. 

Aretha Franklin Had Her First Son At The Age of 12

Many don’t know it, but Franklin became pregnant and had her first son at the age of 12. She named him after her father, Clarence. At 15, she gave birth to her second son Edward. Her grandmother and sister helped her take care of both sons while she was getting her singing career off the ground, and she would eventually have two more sons, Ted White Jr. in 1964 and Kecalf Cunningham in 1970. 

She Began Her Pop Recording Career At the Age of 18

May 1961 – Sam Cooke in the recording studio. Image source: Macfadden Publications page 1, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At 18, Franklin decided to move to New York and work with Sam Cooke. Her father, still her manager, agreed with the decision and helped her record two demo songs to take with her. She and her tracks would be presented to Columbia Records, who signed her in 1960.

Aretha Franklin Was An Activist

Franklin’s father was a prominent African-American preacher who was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement. So, it should come as no surprise that she would be just as involved as her father. She would take on all manner of issues, from the struggles of civil rights to women’s rights. She would often support groups and movements she agreed with by giving them money and covering the payroll of those groups with her donations. 

One of the most famous stories about her activism revolves around Angela Davis. Davis was involved in an attempt to free an incarcerated Black Panther member in 1970, leading to a deadly shootout and seeing her arrested. She was officially charged with conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder thanks to the guns from the shootout being registered to her.

October 7, 1969 – Angela Davis speaking publicly. Image source: Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Davis was a well-known but divisive person, though this didn’t seem to bother Franklin. Despite her being labeled a domestic terrorist by Richard Nixon, Franklin decided to bail her out of jail. In an interview with Jet magazine, she had this to say about the situation:

“Angela Davis must go free. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”

November 20, 2014 – Angela Davis lecture and discussion. Image source: Columbia GSAPP, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And while Davis was denied bail, making Franklin’s attempt unsuccessful, she would be acquitted on all charges and would publicly thank the singer on numerous occasions. 

Franklin was also a strong supporter of Native American rights. While most people don’t know it, she often quietly donated money to indigenous groups around the world struggling for their own rights, especially when it came to movements supporting Native American and First Nation cultural rights. 

January 20, 2009 – Aretha Franklin sings My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee at the US Capitol during the 56th presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. Image source: Cecilio Ricardo, U.S. Air Force, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Franklin would also perform at Obama’s presidential inauguration ceremony in 2009. The performance of My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee was meant to inspire audiences around the world, and without a doubt, it achieved that goal. She wore a stunning outfit that went viral for the performance, with the hat later being loaned to the Smithsonian and a replica being placed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After her death, Obama wanted her unique hat, and it eventually became part of his presidential library. 

Eight years later, she and several other iconic singers would decline a performance at Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony. It was meant as a mass act of musical protest. The last two entries are here mainly to show her political alignments and her uncompromising attitude when it came to politics and people’s rights. 

Her Career Earned An Incredible Amount of Awards and Accolades

The list of awards Franklin won in her career and the honors bestowed upon her is almost endless. But we’ll try to summarize some of the biggest achievements of her music career in this section of the article. 

She won 18 Grammy Awards, but she was nominated for an award at the ceremonies 44 times in her career. She would go on to also win four awards at the NAACP Image Awards.

November 9, 2005 – Aretha Franklin being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Image source: White House photo by Paul Morse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She became the first woman to ever be inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded her the Grammy Legend Award in 1991 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. She would also be awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Award, and the National Medal of Arts.

She would also earn inductions into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame and the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame and had an asteroid named after her in 2014. How cool is that? 

She Had A Major Fear of Flying

Franklin was terrified of flying, but that phobia was something she dealt with for a reason. In the 80s, she was on a small, two-engine plane traveling between Atlanta and Detroit. On her way home, the plane encountered intense turbulence. In her words, “That plane was dipsy-doodling all over the place.” I’ll never refer to turbulence another way in my life.

May 26, 2013 – Two planes (DC-3, twin-engine, and single-engine plane) at Cape Cod Airport. Image source: Kevin Rutherford, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Turbulence is scary, especially for new flyers, people who haven’t gone through it before, or anyone who was already uneasy about flying in the first place. Franklin would develop a terrible fear of flying from the incident, though she would spend time trying to get over it in her later years. 

In an interview in 2014, she discussed the classes she took to overcome her fear of flying. “I did take a class, Fearless Flyers, but I missed two weeks of it and my fellow students went on to Indiana and passed, and I didn’t, so I need to make those two classes and then hopefully I’ll pass and I’ll be able to fly again.” Despite her efforts, she never did get over the fear and never got back on another airplane. 

Her Voice Was Declared A Natural Resource

One quick and interesting note, in 1985, the Department of Natural Resources for the state of Michigan officially declared her voice a natural resource. In their statement, Franklin’s voice was announced as one of the state’s natural resources and something to be managed with respect. 

George Michael, Aretha Franklin - I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) (Official Video)

While this was all in good fun, calling her the greatest singer of her generation is an accurate statement, so protecting and preserving it is paramount. 

Respect Wasn’t Actually Her Song (At Least to Start With)

Speaking of respect, Franklin’s most famous signature song was actually not hers to begin with. The track Respect was written by soul singer Otis Redding and released as a single for his 1965 album Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul. It was a crossover hit for him, but his name wouldn’t be the one remembered next to this illustrious song. 

Franklin covered and rearranged the track in 1967, resulting in an even bigger hit that gave her the most famous signature song of her career. Her interpretation was significantly different, formed around themes of human dignity, revolving around traditional gender roles, and altering the music to be much more uptempo. 

Aretha Franklin - Respect (Official Lyric Video)

It would go on to become a feminist anthem in the 70s and one of the greatest R&B songs of the era. It would win two Grammy Awards in 1968 for Best Rhythm and Blues Recording and Best Rhythm and Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female. By 1987, it would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, included in the National Recording Registry in 2002 by the Library of Congress, and ranked on almost every list of the best tracks ever by major publications.

Recommended: Top songs about respect of all time

Aretha Franklin Was Mistakenly Identified as Whitney Houston’s Godmother

September 1, 2009 – Whitney Houston performing on Good Morning America in Central Park, New York City. Image source: Asterio Tecson, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I recently did an article about Whitney Houston and almost all of the articles I looked over for it said that Franklin was her godmother. This is entirely untrue, hence, why it was left off of that facts list about Houston. 

Franklin did know Houston well, but she was unable to attend Houston’s funeral in 2012 due to swollen feet. Dionne Warwick—Houston’s cousin and another music icon—said some words at the funeral. She mentioned Franklin before realizing she was not in attendance, stating: “She loves Whitney as if she were born to her. She is her godmother.”

October 23, 2021 – Dionne Warwick. Image source: Montclair Film, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Franklin is and was in fact not Houston’s godmother, at least not in the sense that people took Warwick’s statement. Houston’s mother corrected what Warwick said within days, but by then, the press had run with the story.

Franklin later addressed it five years later, sending a fax to the Associated Press that said Warwick made libelous statements about her. A later interview added clarity, with Franklin saying Warwick “…blatantly lied on me… fully well knowing what she was doing.”

She Won A Posthumous Pulitzer Prize

One award Franklin was given stands out among the numerous others she earned throughout her career. She would eventually be honored with a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation in 2019, making her the only individual woman to have earned that award thanks to her “indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.”

Aretha Franklin Retired in 2017 and Passed Away in 2018

Aretha Franklin's final public performance

Franklin went on a local television station in Detroit to announce her official retirement in 2017 after a career spanning more than five decades. She went on her final music tour that year and returned back to Detroit. In August 2018, she passed away in her home at the age of 76 years old. 

After her death, she would be honored and remembered on numerous occasions. Fans added unofficial tributes to two subway stations in New York City. During the American Music Awards in 2018, the show was closed by Gladys Knight, Donnie McClurkin, Ledisi, Cece Winans, and Mary Mary as the all-star group paid tribute to Franklin by performing gospel songs from her 1972 album Amazing Grace

Aretha Franklin Finds Her Sound | Genius: Aretha

A biopic piece would be released in 2021 that covered Franklin’s life, as well as her life becoming the subject of a National Geographic anthology series Genius. The latter of those would be denounced by her family as they stated they were not involved, though that is in dispute as the production appears to have been endorsed by the Franklin estate.

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