Great Women of Music: I. Aretha Franklin

In the first of a series of articles celebrating great women from the world of music, Artist Administrator Imogen Taylor shares her respect for the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

My first memory of the Queen of Soul comes from when I was in prep school. Whenever my dad would drive me home from swimming practice during the summer months, he would put the roof of the car down and blast some old-school soul, timing it so that he could sing along to the chorus of Aretha Franklin’s Respect at the top of his lungs as we drove through the quiet village streets. Suffering from chronic pre-teen embarrassment and much to my dad’s delight I sank down into my seat, cringing at the pedestrians’ heads turning in our direction as he belted out the lyrics. I quickly realised though that beneath the crippling fear of looking uncool, I absolutely loved it, and before long I was singing along with him. This is now one of my favourite memories, and it’s one of hundreds of musical moments that fused together over my childhood to kindle my passion for many different genres of music, and in particular my love of strong female performers.

Revered worldwide as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin is the most charted female artist in history. In 1987 she was the first ever female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010 she was ranked number one on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the ‘100 Greatest Singers of All Time’ and ninth of their list of the ‘100 Greatest Artists of All Time’. The landscape of soul and jazz would be completely different today if Aretha hadn’t overcome the obstacles that she did in order to make her music and make her mark on the world.

Aretha was born in 1942 at home in Memphis, Tennessee. Her mother was a skilled vocalist and pianist, while her father was a Baptist minister and preacher. Her childhood was turbulent, with her father’s infidelities and her parents’ subsequent separation, and the tragic death of her mother from a heart attack just days before Aretha’s tenth birthday. Without her mother to teach her, Aretha learned to play the piano by ear and began singing gospel solos at her father’s church. Aretha’s father started managing her when she was just twelve years old, and she began recording and travelling the gospel circuit. But life on the road exposed her to the adult world at such a young age, and Aretha had given birth to two children before she turned sixteen.

Despite all of this, Aretha was determined to move to New York and pursue her dream of making music. And indeed she did. She was first signed to Columbia Records in 1961 and during her decade-spanning career that followed she released no less than 131 singles, 42 studio albums, six live albums and 45 compilation albums. She is among the most honoured Grammy-winning artists in history, taking home her 18th Grammy in 2008.

“we all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right.”

Notwithstanding her own personal struggles, Aretha’s passion for and dedication to fighting for a better world was always evident in her incomparable, soulful voice and her empowering lyrics. She regularly sang at civil rights events, toured with Martin Luther King Jr. on his rallies, and when black civil rights leader Angela Davies was arrested and wrongfully branded a terrorist by President Nixon in 1970, Aretha offered to pay the $250,000 bail. During a time when women were still seldom treated with the equal respect they deserved, let alone the black population, Aretha’s stirring version of Otis Redding’s Respect became a call to action and an anthem of both the women’s rights and black rights movements. As she herself once said: “we all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It’s our basic human right.”

In 2015, President Obama said of Aretha: “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.” This young black girl from Memphis overcame her hardship to take on the world and left it in 2018 as the Queen of Soul with an inspiring, lasting legacy of resilience, soul, beauty and respect.

The playlist

Enjoy a selection of our favourite Aretha tracks in the playlist below:

Imogen Taylor first joined Askonas Holt as an intern in 2018, before returning last year as Artist Administrator in the Singers department. Growing up a keen classical musician, playing oboe and piano as well as singing, she later discovered her love of jazz and has sung in concert with renowned musicians John Etheridge and Digby Fairweather. 

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