The Queen of Soul sang at MLK's funeral and Obama's inauguration. Here are some Aretha Franklin songs linked to American history.
A timeless voice, a unique talent, and a woman who has conquered the charts for six decades, won 18 Grammy awards, and become the greatest singer of all time, according to Rolling Stone magazine, Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul music. The singer was not only a witness, but also the main character of several important moments of American history in the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, she was invited to sing at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral in 1968, where she performed "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." She was very close to the activist, joining him on tour during the Civil Rights Movement in 1956, when Aretha was just 16 years old. It was a strong way for the singer to define her political engagement at a very young age.
But Aretha's life was not always full of success and joy. She was born on March 25, 1943 in Memphis, Tennessee, to a Baptist preacher father and a gospel singer mother. The couple separated when Aretha was six, and four years later, her mother died of a heart attack. Franklin already had two children by the time she was 14 years old, but that didn't stop her for pursuing her life's passion: music.
Born with a talent for music, she learned to play the piano by ear, and her singing voice was later developed at the church where her father preached, and so, in 1956, she recorded her first songs and debuted with the Songs of Faith album.
The Queen of Soul
In 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Aretha was chosen to sing the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and also became a symbol of black empowerment during the Civil Rights Movement.
Aretha earned herself the nickname of Queen of Soul, even though at first, her managers wanted her to follow in the footsteps of Billie Holiday and sing jazz. However, she felt closer to gospel and soul thanks to the mentorship of singer Mahalia Jackson.
In 1972, Aretha released "Amazing Grace," a best-selling gospel record that sold more than 2 million copies and marked a high point of black music in American history.
With the explosion of disco music in the seventies and pop in the eighties, Aretha's career struggled for a while, but her timeless voice still moved hearts and souls. In 1987, she became the first woman to be induced to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an award that recognized all her contributions to American music.
A voice that moves listeners to tears
In 2009, Aretha performed at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, but that was not the only time when the singer performed in front of the first African-American president of the United States. On a cold winter morning, the Queen of Soul sang "My Country 'Tis Of Thee" in front of 1.8 million people at The Mall in Washington, D.C.
The Obamas invited her several times to perform at the White House, but her most memorable performance was in 2015, when Obama was moved to tears by her interpretation of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" during a celebration at the Annual Kennedy Center Honors.
In an interview for The New Yorker, Obama said that “American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears—the same way that Ray Charles’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’ will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed—because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence.”
Aretha Franklin died at 76 on August 16, 2018, after an eight year battle with cancer. So, here we join the world and say a little prayer for you, Aretha.