Aretha Franklin was only 24 years old when she signed with Atlantic Records in November 1966, but she had already been making records for much of her life, first as a child gospel singer, then as a pop singer of only modest success.
Born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, Aretha Franklin was raised in Detroit. Her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, was the charismatic pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church, which he turned into a large and thriving institution. From an early age, Aretha sang at her father’s behest during services at New Bethel. Her first recordings turned up on an album called Spirituals, recorded at the church when she was only 14. Although she was firmly rooted in gospel, Franklin also drew from such blues and jazz legends as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn as she developed her singing style. On the male side, she was inspired by Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke (both with and without the Soul Stirrers). From the emerging world of youthful doo-wop groups and early soul, Aretha enjoyed the likes of LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Little Willie John, the Falcons (featuring Wilson Pickett) and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
Franklin spent six years at Columbia Records, where she was signed to the label in 1960 by John Hammond, the label’s legendary producer and talent scout, who’d heard a demo she cut in New York. Hammond produced Franklin’s most satisfying Columbia sides, but overall the nine albums she cut for the label failed to fully tap her capabilities. Jerry Wexler was waiting in the wings to sign Franklin when her contract with Columbia expired. With her switch to Atlantic in 1966, Franklin proceeded to revolutionize soul music with some of the genre’s greatest recordings. (1968 Aretha Franklin concert poster from a performance in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.)
Although Franklin initially lacked a strong sense of artistic direction, Wexler had a strategy: “My attitude was simply to get some great songs, some great players, put Aretha back on piano and let the lady wail.” To accomplish his goal, Wexler took Franklin to Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Atlantic had recorded numerous soul hits. The session, with Franklin playing piano and singing, took place on January 24, 1967. The first song recorded that day was “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” Franklin and the house band then went to work on “Do Right Woman.” The resulting record was a two-sided smash and I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You became her debut album for Atlantic that year, reaching Number Two on the Billboard album chart. After the release of her second album for Atlantic, Aretha Arrives (also in 1967), Franklin's third album, Aretha: Lady Soul, was released in 1968. It featured some of her biggest hits – "Chain of Fools" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" among them – setting the stage for Franklin to become the "Queen of Soul."
On June 28, 1968, Aretha Franklin graced the cover of Time Magazine and her star would continue to grow through the following decades. Franklin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, the first female inductee, and she is among the artists featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's soul collection, located in the Museum's main exhibit hall. Visit today!
WATCH: Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox perform "Chain of Fools" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert