From local gospel to global feminist icon: Aretha Franklin was always destined for stardom.

Early Days

With a famous minister and civil rights activist for a father, and accomplished piano player and vocalist for a mother, Aretha Franklin already had pretty big (and very talented!) shoes to fill. As it turns out, she would be the perfect combination of them both, going on to conquer the music industry and help to make the world a better place.

Aretha was already signed with Columbia Records as a secular music artist until her contract ended and she decided to move to Atlantic Records in 1966. This is where her career really began to flourish. First it was 1967’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)”, which shot to number 9 in the Billboard chart and number 1 in the R&B chart (despite the fight that broke out between others present at the recording session!). Franklin would then score two more top 10 hits with “Baby I Love You” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in the same year!

Sock It to Us!

It will come as no surprise to hear that Aretha’s signature-smash-hit song has been featured in our Drums Grade 4 syllabus. Yes, “Respect” was originally released by Otis Redding in 1965, but it was Miss Aretha Franklin who managed to make it a huge success two years later – and this was no ordinary success. Rolling Stone placed the song on their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list at number 5, just after Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Marvin Gaye! Aretha’s version has different lyrics and meaning to the Otis Redding version, which meant that it was (and continues to be!) a landmark tune for the feminist movement. It earned Franklin 2 Grammy Awards and a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame to go with that, so calling the song successful feels something of an understatement.

You may notice that the cover star of our grade 4 Drums book is not actually Aretha Franklin. This is because we thought it would be fitting to include the sensational drummer Bernard Purdie, known for the legendary “Purdie Shuffle”. For the non-drummers of the world, triplets against a half-time backbeat is what came to be known as the “Purdie Shuffle”, so we couldn’t turn down the opportunity to plaster this R&B, funk, soul fantastic drum-figure across the cover of our books. Bernard started working with Aretha as a musical director back in 1970, a position which he held for 5 years. He clearly enjoyed working with her as he said that “backing her was like floating in seventh heaven”. If we didn’t already wish we could work with Aretha Franklin then we do now!

Fun fact: Purdie is also credited on the James Brown album Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud! He really works with the best of the best.

Feminist Franklin

As you can imagine, being around her father who was an extremely prominent preacher figure, Aretha was both exposed and immersed into the struggle for civil rights and women’s rights. Throughout her career she frequently performed at protests, and provided money that sometimes even went towards covering payroll for civil rights groups.

At the age of 16, she went on tour with Martin Luther King and even sang at his funeral in 1968.

Aretha Franklin"Aretha Franklin" by austinmini1275 is licensed under CC0 1.0

More recently, Franklin declined the invitation to perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony, along with other huge stars, in a large-scale protest against the new president.

Legend Forever

Though she has sold an enormous 75 million records worldwide, it still feels impossible to sum up Franklin’s career and achievements in such a short article, but there is perhaps one phrase that comes close to it – “Queen of Soul”. We’d encourage everyone to get online and read more about her impressive story (if you don’t already know it!), and of course, turn up the volume and blast out her music to capture her true essence.

This Black History Month we'll be celebrating our black heroes in the music industry. Stay tuned for more this month, and be sure to check out last week's entry featuring the wonderful Stevie Wonder.