Very few entertainers have won the universal acclaim given Aretha Franklin,whose standing as the "Queen of Soul" has remained uncontested since the mid-'60s.
The first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987, Franklin also holds the Recording Academy's Living Legend Award and a shelf-full of Grammys.
Her hits include both songs she introduced - like Baby I Love You, A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel), Chain of Fools, Jump to It, Freeway of Love and Who's Zoomin' Who -- to virtually reinvented revivals of Otis Redding's Respect, Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Paul McCartney's Eleanor Rigby.
The daughter of Rev. C.L. Franklin, (who was born on a Mississippi farm and became known as The Man with the Golden Voice), Aretha was born in Memphis, and raised in Buffalo, NY, and finally Detroit, where her evangelist father headed the New Bethel Baptist Church. Inspired by gospel singers including Clara Ward and Rev. James Crouch, she was singing at an early age, and at 13 recorded her first album, The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin, for Chess Records' subsidiary label, Checker. (Her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, also became professional singers; Erma having recorded the original version of the Janis Joplin signature tune, Piece of My Heart).
At eighteen, in 1960, Aretha was signed to Columbia Records by legendary talent scout John Hammond, whose discoveries ranged from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan.
While not uneventful, Franklin's tenure with Columbia was - by general consensus - misguided, as Hammond evidently envisioned her as a pop-jazz singer. She was certainly given every opportunity: what artists today would be allowed to record nine albums over six years' time without a significant hit? Hammond often backed her with eminent jazzmen, and (after a diet of pop standards, show tunes and the like) had her record a tribute to jazz-pop singer Dinah Washington.
In 1966, she was signed to Atlantic Records, where producer Jerry Wexler effectively took her back to church, sitting her at the piano at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, AL, to sing the astonishing I Ain't Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Loved You), a record that drew equally from gospel and soul music.
Following a lengthy stream of hits on both the pop and rhythm and blues charts, Franklin literally returned to her roots, recording Amazing Grace, a two-record live album of religious material, at Rev. James Cleveland's New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The 1962 release (subsequently released in an expanded, compact disc edition) reached the top ten on Billboard's pop albums chart, and has sold more than two million copies.
In 1980, she all but walked away with the film The Blues Brothers, with her show-stopping performance of her 1968 hit Think.
Franklin surprised even many of her most ardent fans when she performed - as a last-minute substitute for Luciano Pavarotti - a roof-raising Puccini's aria Nessun Dorma, at the 1998 Grammy awards.
Franklin's fear of air travel has kept her from touring extensively; one could only imagine how successful she'd have been were she to have performed to concert audiences as frequently as, say, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, or Tina Turner.