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Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin in 1967

Photo: Atlantic Records, Public Domain

Why current?


“Respect” is the new movie about Aretha Franklin, the famed American singer, pianist and songwriter, known as the Queen of Soul.  It is the first feature film by director Liesl Tommy and stars Jennifer Hudson in the lead role.

The movie tells the story of Franklin’s life, beginning with her childhood in 1950’s Detroit and taking the audience through her life – up into the glories of her unparalleled singing career and down into the depths of some of her tragic personal struggles.

Years ago, Aretha Franklin herself chose Jennifer Hudson to play her.  Now, three years after Franklin’s death, audiences get to learn about the singer’s life through the prism of Hudson’s voice.  She has her own look and her own sound and does not attempt to mimic Aretha.  Instead, Hudson seems to capture the spirit of Franklin, in her confidence and passion.

Squeezing any life story-let alone a story as rich as Franklin’s – into a little over two hours on screen is not really possible, let alone a story as rich as Franklin’s.  Reviewers comment that some of the darkest moments in the singer’s life are either glossed over or left out altogether.  But ultimately, the music shines through, and this reflects what many say about Franklin’s artistry: it expressed both the intricacy and the vastness of human experience with an honesty that regular story-telling could never achieve.

Franklin was not only an extraordinary artist who influenced scores of musicians over the decades and bent the trajectory of musical trend lines with her singular style.  She was an activist, too, and gave voice to the “power and pain,” as former president Barack Obama put it, of generations of people who fought for civil rights in the United States.  Her music became the soundtrack for the fights of women, racial minorities, and anyone else calling for justice.

“Being the Queen is not all about singing….It has much to do with your service to people.” 

-Aretha Franklin

More about Aretha Franklin

– Born Aretha Louise Franklin on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee.

– Her father was a well-known preacher, and her mother was a gospel singer.  When Franklin was two years old, the family moved to Detroit, Michigan.  When she was six, her parents split up, and her mother left.

– Franklin was the third of four children.  Her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, also became professional musicians.

– At an early age, Franklin displayed an unusual musical gift.  She soon became part of her father’s church services, singing and playing the piano.  She was largely self-taught as a musician.

– Aretha did not have an easy life.  She first became pregnant at the age of 12, and her second child was born when she was 15.  She went on to have two more children in her 20’s.

– She was just 14 years old when she recorded her first album of gospel music.  Some years later, she signed with a big record label – Columbia Records – and recorded several albums, none of which became particularly successful.

– Franklin’s breakthrough came in 1967, when she moved to Atlantic Records and recorded the album that would launch her to stardom.  Songs like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” ” Chain of Fools,” and “Think” became immediate hits – and have never since lost their power and magic.  It was at this time that Franklin became known as the “Queen of Soul.”

– And then there was… “Respect,” the iconic song that was not just a defining musical moment, but also a cultural cornerstone.  The song was actually a cover of the original by Otis Redding.  But Aretha made it all her own.  Although the words of the song are about respect on a personal level, Franklin’s rendition became the rallying cry of the women’s movement, as well as of the civil rights movement.  The song came to be about respect and dignity for everyone.

– Franklin won a Grammy Award in 1968 for “Respect.”  But this was just the beginning.  She would go on to win 17 more over the course of her career and was nominated for Grammys an additional 26 times.  She dominated the air waves into the mid-70’s, and during a time of racial segregation in music and on the radio, Franklin’s appeal to fans of all races was groundbreaking.

– From an early age, Franklin was involved in the civil rights movement, even touring with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when she was a teen.  She would later sing at his funeral in 1968.

– Franklin appeared in the 1980 movie, “The Blues Brothers,” featuring her blazing hit, “Think.”

– In 1987, Aretha became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  She won numerous other honors, like the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was given to her in 2005 by President George W. Bush.

– Franklin’s musical range was remarkable.  She joined forces with artists from various musical genres, including Carlos Santana, Annie Lennox, George Michael, Elton John, and Whitney Houston.  At the 1998 Grammy Awards, she stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti to sing “Nessun Dorma,” one of opera’s most famous arias.

– Toward the end of her life, though new recordings by Franklin were appearing less frequently, the quality of her voice remained just as rich and dynamic as it had been during her younger years.  She famously sang a soul-stirring version of “My Country Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, which was particularly meaningful since Aretha had been the musical voice of the civil rights movement in America for so many years.  In 2015, at the age of 73, she stunned the audience at the Kennedy Center Honors – and brought President Obama to tears – with her performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

– Franklin’s last appearance was on November 7, 2017, at the annual concert for Elton John’s AIDS Foundation in New York City.  Less than a year before her death, Franklin brought the house down with her still extraordinary vocal power.

– Franklin died on the morning of August 16, 2018, at her family home in Detroit.  She had been battling pancreatic cancer.

Sources: Dargis, Manohla, The New York Times, “‘Respect’ Review: Giving a Queen Her Propers,” https://www.nytimes.com/movies/respect-review, August 12, 2021; Wolk, Douglas and Browne, David, Rolling Stone, “Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, Dead at 76,” https://www.rollingstone.com/aretha-franklin, August 16, 2018; Morris, Chris, Variety, “Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, Dies at 76,” https://variety.com/aretha-franklin, August 16, 2018;