At age 70, Aretha Franklin remains one of America's most iconic singers, a distinction that earned her the nickname "The Queen of Soul."
Like many of her peers, Franklin got her start singing in church and working in the gospel arena while teaching herself piano. When she signed with Columbia Records in 1960, she was encouraged to go the crossover route, first in a jazzier direction, and later as a singer of torch ballads in the style of Billie Holiday. But it wasn't until she joined Atlantic Records in 1966 that she realized her full pop potential.
Recording in the legendary FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, she produced one hit after another during the latter part of the '60s and early '70s, beginning with the searing ballad "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)." That was followed by "Respect," a fiery tune written by the late, great Otis Redding. It defined her independent persona, but it was by no means her only hit that year. She followed that song with several more tracks with which she's been forever identified -- "Baby I Love You," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Chain of Fools," "Think," and "Call Me." While Motown held sway in terms of being America's foremost R&B label, Aretha helped establish Atlantic in that realm as well, spearheading the company's race to the top of the charts.
Aretha continued her successful streak into the mid-'70s, releasing a live album recorded at the Fillmore West and the highly acclaimed Young, Gifted & Black album, which spawned two top-ten hits, "Daydreamin'" and "Rocksteady." Two more singles continued the trend -- "Angel" and "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" -- but as the decade rolled on, she faced increased competition from a growing number of young African-American singers, Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack, and Donna Summer among them.
Still, her visibility never waned, helped considerably by her key role in the film The Blues Brothers along with Ray Charles and James Brown. Meanwhile, Franklin left Atlantic and signed with record mogul Clive Davis' newly created Arista Records label, a move that revitalized her career with the release of the albums Who's Zoomin' Who? and the crossover hits "Freeway of Love," "Jimmy Lee," a stirring cover of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (featuring an assist from Keith Richards), and "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me" (a duet with George Michael).
She later reprised her role as Matt "Guitar" Murphy's wife in the Blues Brothers remake, Blues Brothers 2000, which spotlighted her singing "Respect." Despite the fact that Franklin's hits seemed to wane as the century came to a close, her prestigious position in the musical hierarchy became ever brighter. She sang at two presidential inaugurations (Bill Clinton's in 1993 and Barack Obama's in 2009), received White House honors in 2005, and won the MusiCares "Person of the Year" award for the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2008.
Yet her personal life has been plagued with difficulties. Health problems and surgery forced the delay of several live dates in 2010. In September 2010, her son Edward was attacked and severely beaten by three people at a gas station in northwest Detroit. This past New Year's Day she announced her engagement only to declare it was on hiatus three weeks later. Then just last month, her goddaughter Whitney Houston, the daughter of her dear friend, singer Cissy Houston, was found dead at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
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Fortunately this American icon soldiers on, and she remains as incredible as ever.
Now if only someone would assist her with her fashion sense...