top of page

Portrait Highlight - Aretha Franklin - American singer, actress, and civil rights activist

Aretha Louise Franklin (March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018) was an American singer, songwriter, actress, pianist, and civil rights activist.

Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, Clarence LaVaughn "C. L." Franklin, was a Baptist minister and circuit preacher while her mother Barbara (née Siggers) was an accomplished piano player and vocalist. When Aretha was two, the family relocated to Buffalo, New York, but by the time Aretha turned five, C. L. Franklin had permanently relocated the family to Detroit, where he took over the pastorship of the New Bethel Baptist Church. However, in 1948 her parents separated and sadly, in 1952 her mother died of a heart attack just before Franklin’s 10th birthday. Several women, including Aretha's grandmother, Rachel, and gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, took turns helping with the children at the Franklin home. During this time, Aretha learned how to play piano by ear and began singing gospel in her father’s church.

Aretha's father became know as the man with the “million-dollar voice” due to his emotionally charged sermons which were in such high demand in various churches across the country that he earned thousands of dollars each time he preached. His celebrity status led to his home being visited by various celebrities of the day; among them were gospel musicians Clara Ward, James Cleveland, and early Caravans members Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.

Her father began managing Franklin when she was still only 12 years old; bringing her on the road with him during his so-called "gospel caravan" tours for her to perform in various churches. He also helped her sign her first recording deal with J.V.B. Records. Recording equipment was installed inside New Bethel Baptist Church and nine tracks were recorded on which Franklin was featured on vocals and piano. As a young gospel singer, Franklin spent summers on the gospel circuit in Chicago and stayed with Mavis Staples' family. According to music producer Quincy Jones, while Franklin was still young, Dinah Washington let him know, “Aretha was the 'next one’”. At the age of 16, Franklin went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and she would ultimately sing at his funeral in 1968.

At the age of 18, she embarked on a secular-music career as a recording artist for Columbia Records. While Franklin's career did not immediately flourish, she found acclaim and commercial success after signing with Atlantic Records in 1966 and very soon Franklin was making $100,000 per year from countless performances in nightclubs and theatres. Her frenetic version of Otis Redding's 'Respect', released in April 1967, reached number one on both the R&B and pop charts. It became her signature song and was later hailed as a civil rights and feminist anthem.

1968 was a big year for Franklin; she not only issued the top-selling albums 'Lady Soul' and 'Aretha Now', which included some of her most popular hit singles, including 'Chain of Fools', 'Ain't No Way', 'Think' and 'I Say a Little Prayer', but also earned the first two of her Grammys, including the debut category for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. She was honoured with a day named for her and was greeted by longtime friend Martin Luther King Jr., who gave her the SCLC Drum Beat Award for Musicians two months before his death. In May Franklin toured outside the US for the first time, including an appearance at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, where she played to a near-hysterical audience who covered the stage with flower petals. By June she was on the cover of Time magazine.

By the end of the 1960s, thanks to WVON radio personality Pervis Spann, Aretha Franklin had come to be known as the “Queen of Soul”. At was also during this period that she appeared on rock-and-roll shows such as Hollywood A Go-Go and Shindig!.

Her success continued into the early 1970s, but by 1975 her albums and songs were no longer top sellers. She left Atlantic Records for Clive Davis' Arista Records in 1980 and that same year gave a command performance at London's Royal Albert Hall in front of Queen Elizabeth II and had an acclaimed guest role as a soul food restaurant proprietor and wife of Matt "Guitar" Murphy in the 1980 comedy musical The Blues Brothers.

Her third gospel album, 'One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism', which was recorded at her late father's New Bethel church, was released in 1987 followed by 'Through the Storm' in 1989. In 1995, she was selected to play Aunt Em in the Apollo Theater revival of The Wiz. Franklin's final top 40 single was 'A Rose Is Still a Rose' in 1998. The album of the same name was released after the single and sold over 500,000 copies, earning a gold album.

In the same year came international acclaim for her performance of 'Nessun dorma' at the Grammy Awards where she filled in at the last minute for her friend Luciano Pavarotti, who cancelled his appearance due to illness after the show had already begun. Over one billion people worldwide saw the performance, and she received an immediate standing ovation.

Throughout her life, Franklin was immersed and involved in the struggle for civil rights and women's rights. She provided money for civil rights groups, at times covering payroll, and performed at numerous benefits and protests. When Angela Davis was jailed in 1970, Franklin told Jet: “Angela Davis must go free ... 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”. Her songs ‘Respect’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ became anthems of these movements for social change. In a large-scale act of musical protest, Franklin and several other American icons declined to take part in performing at President Donald Trump's 2017 inauguration.

Franklin was also a strong supporter for Native American rights. She quietly and without fanfare supported Indigenous Peoples' struggles worldwide, and numerous movements that supported Native American and First Nation cultural rights.

Franklin died at her home on August 16, 2018, aged 76. Numerous celebrities in the entertainment industry and politicians paid tribute to Franklin, including former U.S. president Barack Obama who said she “helped define the American experience”. Civil rights activist and minister Al Sharpton called her a “civil rights and humanitarian icon”.

Franklin received numerous honours throughout her career. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1987, she became the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She also was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine ranked her number one on its list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” and number nine on its list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. The Pulitzer Prize jury in 2019 awarded Franklin a posthumous special citation “for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades”.

In 2020, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.


Aretha Franklin, coloured pencil on paper May 2020

Available as


bottom of page