Before Aretha Franklin was a pop legend, she was a gospel and blues singer. Like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington before her, she has had to overcome prejudice, frustration, teen pregnancy and devastating emotional trauma during her career.
Fortunately, Aretha has been able to channel her feelings into some of the most memorable and soulful music of the 20th century. Aretha has had much in her life to rejoice about, and she has often expressed her optimism and happiness in her songs as well.
Her image has been largely shaped by those songs. She is the uncompromising “earth mother” who is steadfast and strong. Her singing is blisteringly honest and charged with emotion. Her voice is unmistakably pure, unrestrained, and soul-stirring.
Aretha’s shattering encounters with personal tragedy and pain have earned her the right to sing the blues as well. But the mention of her name cultivates a vivid mental picture of another Aretha–the survivor.
She possesses the most emotionally expressive five-octave voice of the rock and soul era. She has been able to span three decades with No. 1 hit records, from 1967’s “Respect” to 1987’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).”
The royal command performance, the unsurpassed total of 20 Grammy Awards, the movie and video performances, the sold-out concerts, the white Rolls-Royces and pink Cadillacs and the highly publicized romances are all part of the glamorous life she has led.
Yet, Aretha’s roller-coaster life hasn’t been one long joy ride down “The Freeway of Love.”
Fate has thrown several serious obstacles into her path. Desperation, domination, disappointment, prejudice, frustration, teenage pregnancy, weight problems and devastating emotional trauma are all part of her closely guarded private life.
Jerry Wexler, the late music journalist turned producer, once said Aretha’s personal life is so sad that he referred to her as “the mysterious lady of sorrow.”
The late Clyde Otis, one of the first African-American A&R executives for a major label, claimed that he was amazed she could sing at all in the ’60s. She was so depressed that she appeared to be carrying the weight of the whole world on her shoulders, he said.
John H. Hammond, one of the most influential figures in 20th century popular music, once said that Aretha had “terrible luck” with the men in her life, and that they all made her suffer.
But for each of her emotional low points, she has overcome her pain by channeling her frustration into creative energy. In turn, her determination has made her into an enduring star.
The erratic highs and lows of her life—public and private—have obviously given her an inner strength that is both powerful and inspiring. Her inner faith has also seen her through the worst of times.
After her initial reign of hit records and ten Grammy Awards while at Atlantic Records in 1960s and 1970s, she could have easily faded into a nostalgia act. Instead, in 1980 she moved to Arista Records, where she scored the biggest selling records of her career, and won ten more Grammy Awards.
Mark Bego interviewed not only Aretha Franklin, but several of the key people in her life to update his book “Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul.” Clyde Otis, Jerry Wexler and Arista Records’ Clive Davis provided key insights about the physical abuse she endured as a young woman and her mysterious health problems. The new and expanded book, released last week, further illuminates the story of the woman the world knows as The Queen of Soul. Also, check out Mark’s Web site at: MarkBego.com
When the word “diva” started to become associated with female performers outside the world of the opera—in the 1980s—Aretha was instantly classified as a “diva” supreme.
Aretha has worked overtime to become a “diva” in every sense of the word. She has staunchly defended her crown as the Queen of Soul, as witnessed by her many competitive battles with other divas like Patti LaBelle, Martha Reeves, Diana Ross, Natalie Cole, Mavis Staples, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and most recently Tina Turner.
While no one knows what the future holds for Aretha, some things are definite, and will remain unchanged.
One of those things is the incredible legacy that Franklin has built in her many years as a recording artist. She is a pop singing diva. She is a rock & roll legend. She is the peerless singer of gospel music, soul music, jazz, and even arias. There is no diva quite like her. Aretha Franklin is and always will be: the Queen of Soul.