Before she was a global sensation, Aretha Louise Franklin was a young girl with a big voice. She was born in a tiny home in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942 to C.L. and Barbara Franklin. Her parents, a well-known Baptist minister and a talented singer and musician, laid the groundwork for their daughter's roots in the gospel traditions of the church early on. When she was 5, the family moved to Detroit when her father took over as pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, and it later became the center of the Civil Rights Movement in Detroit. It was there that Aretha Franklin's talents and views grew.
Though she became known as the Queen of Soul, Franklin's music was genre-bending—it touched on everything from gospel to pop—and her songs topped the R&B charts as well as the pop charts. Here's what you should know about the artist whose career spanned some six decades before her death from a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor on August 16, 2018, at the age of 76.
Aretha Franklin knew Sam Cooke from childhood and wanted to emulate his career.
In the early 1950s, Franklin met Cooke—who is often referred to as the King of Soul—at her church. "I was sitting there waiting for the program to start after church, and I just happened to look back over my shoulder and I saw this group of people coming down the aisle," she told NPR in 1999. "And, oh, my God, the man that was leading them—Sam and his brother L.C. These guys were really super sharp. They had on beautiful navy blue and brown trench coats. And I had never seen anyone quite as attractive—not a male as attractive as Sam was. And so prior to the program my soul was kind of being stirred in another way."
Much like Franklin, Cooke was the son of a minister and started his career in gospel before transitioning to pop. "All singers aspired to be Sam," Franklin told Rolling Stone in 2014. "Sam was what you call a singer's singer … He didn't do a lot of running around on the stage, and because he knew he didn’t have to. He had a voice, and he didn't have to do anything but stand in one place and wipe you out."
Aretha Franklin's dad grounded her divaness.
When Franklin was 16, she visited New York City—her first time beyond Detroit's city limits since her family moved there from Memphis when she was 5—and took vocal lessons and a choreography class. "When I went home, I didn't think I was supposed to do housework anymore," she told Canadian TV in 1998. "This is too mundane for me. I'm not supposed to do that. I've been to New York. I'm a star now!"
She explained how she watched her sisters and cousin clean house, but didn't chip in. Her father walked into the room and asked her why she wasn't helping. "I said, 'I'm a star. I'm not supposed to do that. I've been to New York City.' He said, 'Well, listen, star, you better get in the kitchen and introduce yourself to all those dirty dishes.' I have not been a star since. I really needed that. He grounded me and he gave me balance, and from then on I'm not a star, I'm the lady next door."
As a teen, Franklin toured on the gospel circuit, and by 1960 she had a record deal with Columbia. By October of that year, her first label single, "Today I Sing the Blues," was released. It reached No. 10 on the R&B chart, but generally, Columbia didn't know how to market her. Franklin's albums and songs were middling chart hits, and though she was making good money touring, she wasn't a top act. When her contract expired in late 1966, she chose to move to Atlantic Records. There, her career skyrocketed.
Her hit "Respect" was about respecting everyone.
When Franklin recorded Otis Redding's song "Respect" in 1967, she didn't have a specific feminist or civil rights agenda in mind. "My sister and I, we just liked that record [Respect]," Franklin told Vogue in 2016. "And the statement was something that was very important … It's important for people. Not just me or the Civil Rights movement or women—it's important to people. … As people, we deserve respect from one another.” That's also what the song's line "give me my propers" refers to—Franklin told The New York Times that the phrase was street slang for mutual respect.
The anthem was Franklin's first No. 1 hit, and it quickly became her signature song. Not only did the song empower others, but it was a lifelong mantra for Franklin. "I give it and I get it," she said of the importance of respect. "Anyone that I don't get it from does not deserve my time or attention."
Franklin wrote the most famous line of "Respect"—and it wasn't sexual, as many have suggested.
Besides the "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" refrain, the repeated lyric "sock it to me" is the most famous line of the song. Redding didn't write that part, though—Franklin did. In 1999, Franklin told NPR that she and her younger sister decided to include the line while playing around on the piano one day. "It was a cliché of the day," Franklin said. "We didn't just come up with it, it really was cliché. And some of the girls were saying that to the fellows, like, 'Sock it to me in this way' or 'sock it to me in that way.' It was nonsexual, just a cliché line." The two backup singers who sang that refrain were Aretha's sisters, Erma and Carolyn.
Aretha Franklin carried her purse everywhere, even onstage.
At the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin performed a show-stopping rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" for honoree Carole King (who co-wrote the song in 1967 specifically for Franklin, and then recorded a version of her own for her 1971 solo album, Tapestry). When she walked out on stage, Franklin was wearing a floor-length mink coat and carrying a sparkling clutch, which she laid on top of the piano before sitting down to play—a habit she had had for decades.
In a 2016 profile in The New Yorker, editor David Remnick wrote that Franklin made it a point early in her career to be paid upfront—in cash, sometimes of amounts up to $25,000—before performances, so keeping her handbag on her or within eyeshot was a security measure. "It's the era she grew up in," television host and author Tavis Smiley told Remnick. "She saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off … and she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her."
"She's got her money, she's ready to move, to go wherever she needs to be," Rickey Minor, who was the musical director of the Kennedy Center Honors, told The New York Times. "How many times do you have to leave your purse in the dressing room and have it go missing before you say, 'I worked hard for this money—I'm going to put my purse right here where I can see it'?"
Aretha Franklin believed in equal pay.
In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, she commented on gender disparity. "If women are going to do the same job, why not give equal pay? Because that job is harder for a woman than a man sometimes," she said. "We deserve parity, and maybe even a little more. Especially if it's physically taxing, we should get a little more money, if you have enough heart to take it on."
Aretha Franklin used her money to fund social and civil rights activism.
In addition to being a socially conscious artist in public, Franklin she also worked behind the scenes to support the Civil Rights Movement. "When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll," Franklin's longtime friend, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, told the Detroit Free Press in 2018. "On one occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte … and they put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign … She has shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency."
Another family friend, the Reverend Jim Holley, echoed Jackson. "Whenever there was a tragedy with families, any civil rights family, she was always giving," Holley said. "She used her talent and what God gave her to basically move the race forward. A lot of people do the talking but they don't do the walking. She used her talent and her resources. She was that kind of person, a giving person."
Aretha Franklin offered to bail activist Angela Davis out of jail.
In 1970, communist activist and academic Angela Davis was arrested for allegedly purchasing guns used in a California courthouse shoot out. Franklin rushed to her defense and offered to pay Davis's bail. "Angela Davis must go free," Franklin told Jet. "Black people will be free. I've been locked up [for disturbing the peace in Detroit] and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can't get no peace. 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." Davis was eventually released (a local dairy farmer posted her $102,500 bail) and acquitted of all charges.
In The Blues Brothers, Aretha Franklin had wanted to sing "Respect" instead of "Think."
Aretha Franklin appeared in two non-documentary films, and both times she played a singing diner waitress, Mrs. Murphy. Director John Landis wrote the part specifically for Franklin, which she played in 1980's The Blues Brothers. In it, the script called for Franklin, as a sassy diner owner, to sing her song "Think" to her guitarist husband as a way to dissuade him from joining Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi's band.
Franklin had other ideas for her song number, though—she wanted to sing her biggest hit, "Respect," instead of "Think," a song she'd co-written and that had become her seventh Top 10 hit back in 1968. "We had written 'Think' into the script, with the dialogue leading into the song and the song actually furthering the plot of the film, so we didn't want to change it," Landis told The Hollywood Reporter. Franklin obliged but asked to change the piano part of the prerecorded track herself. "She sat down at the piano with the mic and, with her back to us, started playing and singing," Landis said. "Her piano playing actually made a difference. It was more soulful."
But, as usual, the Queen eventually got her way. In the 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000, she sang "Respect."
Aretha Franklin didn't like to perform with air conditioning on.
In 1998, for the first annual VH1 Divas Live telecast—which also featured Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, Carole King, and Shania Twain—Franklin refused to rehearse because the conditions were not right. "The reason she didn't rehearse was because she had requested that the air conditioning be turned off to protect her vocal cords," Divas director Michael Simon told The Hollywood Reporter. "I was in the control booth and there was near-hysteria. 'Why wasn't the air conditioning turned off?' Everybody kept asking but nobody had an answer. I'm guessing some house guy at the Beacon Theater whose job it was to turn on and off the air conditioning messed up. So there was no rehearsal for Aretha. And you could sort of tell during the program."
During her 2015 Kennedy Center Honors performance, Franklin famously wore a mink coat but dropped it mid-performance. "I wasn't sure about the air factor onstage, and air can mess with the voice from time to time," she told Vogue. "And I didn't want to have that problem that evening. It's been a long time since I've done Kennedy Center, and I wanted to have a peerless performance. Once I determined that the air was all right while I was singing, I said, 'Let's get out of this coat! I'm feeling it. Let's go!'"
NASA named an asteroid after Aretha Franklin.
Franklin racked up innumerable accolades throughout her life, including 18 Grammy Awards (out of 44 nominations, and a streak of eight Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance awards from 1968-1975). In 1987, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She sang at Dr. Martin Luther King's memorial service, and she performed "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" at Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. In 2005, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her civil rights work, and in April 2019 became the first woman to ever be awarded a Special Citation Pulitzer Prize. But perhaps the honor that best encapsulates her otherworldly talent came in 2014, when NASA named an asteroid after her.
You can finally see her famed concert film, Amazing Grace.
In 1972, at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in L.A.'s Watts neighborhood, Franklin recorded her double live album Amazing Grace, which would become her best-selling record and the best-selling gospel album of all time. Sydney Pollack (who was already an Oscar-nominated director at that point) directed the concert but failed to use clapperboards to sync images with audio; therefore the film couldn't be edited, and Pollack abandoned the project.
In an interview with Vulture, producer Alan Elliott said in 1990 he decided to purchase the footage and assemble it himself. To buy all of the footage, records, do the editing, and pay for insurance and lawyers, Elliott had to mortgage his home several times over the course of nearly 30 years. Franklin sued numerous times to prevent the movie from being screened, including in 2011 when Elliott showed it to friends and family and again just before its planned world premiere at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival.
"It isn't that I'm not happy about the film, because I love the film itself," Franklin told Detroit Free Press in 2015. "It's just that—well, legally I really should just not talk about it, because there are problems."
However, Franklin's Amazing Grace bassist Chuck Rainey told The New York Times that "she didn't like the film at all." According to the Times, "He thought her resistance derived from a feeling that the film wound up being more about style and celebrity than about the music or the worship—or even about Franklin."
Sabrina Owens, Franklin's niece and executor of the will, invited Elliott to Franklin's funeral. He returned a couple of weeks later and screened the film for Franklin's family. Finally, Owens and Elliott worked out a deal so the film could screen in public. In November 2018 the film premiered at DOC NYC, and in April 2019, Neon distributed it in NYC and L.A. theaters.
"It's the craziest story that I know of in show business," Elliott said.