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  • Choon Young Tan

Influential Women Series: Aretha Franklin

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

In this series of Cheat Sheets, we are celebrating the lives and achievements of influential women, as chosen by our writers.

Today, Choon looks at the life and legacy of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

Who is Aretha Franklin?

Born in Memphis, Tennessee on 25th March 1942, Aretha Louise Franklin came from a heavily religious and musical background. Her father was a Baptist minister and preacher while her mother was an accomplished pianist and singer. Out of her several siblings and half siblings, her sisters Erma and Carolyn were also singers with hits and songwriting credits of their own and often sang backup for her.

At the tender age of 12 after growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Aretha began her career with her father as her manager. In 1956, she released her debut single “Never Grow Old”. Her first album “Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo” followed in 1961. Her final musical release was her version of “Rolling in the Deep” from “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics”, an album of covers of songs made famous by female recording artists. Franklin passed away from a malignant pancreatic tumour on 16th August 2018, aged 76.

Why is she so influential?

Aptly named the Queen of Soul, Aretha broke racial and gender barriers, set records left, right and centre, and influenced countless singers who followed her - male and female, Black and non-Black, and from a wide variety of different genres.

Artists from the worlds of gospel, soul, R&B, jazz, disco, pop, rock, country, and even hip-hop and classical music have cited Franklin as a musical and vocal inspiration.

She was known as one of the earliest pioneers of melisma (the use of vocal riffs and runs in songs) in the mainstream music industry as her soul and gospel sound crossed over onto the pop charts and radio. As a Black female artist who also wrote and co-wrote some of her own songs over the years, she was one of very few in the first couple of decades of her career to do so.

What legacy has she left behind?

Franklin is the third most awarded female artist at the Grammys with 18 wins, plus three Special Grammy Awards, and has the most Grammys out of any female after awards for groups and collaborations are discounted. Rolling Stones magazine ranked her 1st on their list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time and 9th on their list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, the highest-ranking female.

She has been inducted into several Halls of Fame, the most prestigious being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; she was the first woman to be inducted in 1987.

As a young African American woman growing up during the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s, Aretha was a staunch vocal supporter of civil rights, racial equality, women’s rights, Native American rights, and LGBTQI+ rights. She financially supported civil rights groups and used her platform to speak out against violence towards and imprisonment of Black people, particularly women.

Her recordings of “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”, “Deeper Love”, and “Never Gonna Break My Faith” have been hailed as anthems for many of these movements and causes.

"the voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of Black America"

Many figures and organisations commended her for her work and support of humanitarian and civil rights. Former President Barack Obama stated that: “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.”

When inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012, she was described as “the voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of black America”, and in 2019 she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation arts award “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades.” This made her the first woman to receive the award in this category.

Head to our Gender Issues & Feminism section to read about the other women who have inspired A News Education's writers.

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