Remarkable Women: Aretha Franklin

Though I hope to accomplish many things with the Unsolicited Blog, one of the goals about which I am most passionate is the chance to bring to light so many remarkable women who have allowed women like me to exist in the world as we do. The women who have come before us have given us the opportunity to have careers, to access education, and to break boundaries that couldn’t even be reached before. I owe everything I am to the women who paved the way for me, and with these short posts I will attempt to shed a bit of light on their lives and achievements. I will cover a different remarkable woman in each post, including women from history, present day, and maybe even fictional women who have changed the way we think about the world.

The Unsolicited Blog’s inaugural remarkable woman, in light of recent events, can be none other than the great Aretha Franklin.

Even as a child, I knew Aretha was special. There was a life in her music that I didn’t know could be recorded. Still, if I close my eyes, my heart dances, intertwining with her voice and the rhythm, like old friends. Few other artists have achieved the kind of electricity that flows through a listener’s mind and body when they hear her unmatchable voice. There are no words to describe the loss of her physical body, but she will never die to the world. She lives on in her voice, the pieces of herself that she gave to us.

Aretha Franklin was born in 1942 to parents Reverend Clarence La Vaughan Franklin and gospel singer Barbara Siggers Franklin. After the untimely death of her mother when Franklin was only ten years old, she moved with her father and four siblings from Memphis to Detroit, where she grew up. As many soul singers do, Aretha got her start singing in church, to her father’s congregation.

Her first recordings were released in 1956, at the young age of 14. The album, Songs of Faith, featured performances from her own home church. That same year, Franklin gave birth to her first child, a son named Clarence. Within the next two years, Franklin would have another son, Edward, both taking her own name. Years later, she would bear two more sons.

Despite taking time off to raise her two boys, Aretha was signed to Columbia Records by 1960, releasing her album Aretha only a year later. With only moderate success under the Columbia name, Aretha partnered with then-husband and manager Ted White, to make the move over to Atlantic. After a rocky session recording “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, the single shot into the Top 10, and Franklin secured a place in the music world.

Following her first major hit, Franklin quickly became an icon of soul music, releasing a string of hits in the next two years which would cement her name in the minds of many as the rightful Queen of Soul. Her 1967 album I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) featured lasting hits including “Respect”, “Baby I Love You”, and “Chain of Fools”.

Though Aretha’s career never reached the same heights as it had done in the late sixties, she has remained a staple of pop culture through the decades, with new music releases, like her collaboration on “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” with pop singer George Michael, and iconic appearances such as her Blues Brothers cameo in 1980.

Her success not only earned her a prominent place in the world of music, but she also used her status to involve herself in world issues. She became a symbol of black empowerment in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and was asked to perform both for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral and for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Later appearances included her performance at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, and her performance on behalf of Luciano Pavarotti after he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

A remarkable woman in every sense of the word, Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. The same year, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Detroit. By 1994, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and Kennedy Center Honors. She founded her own record label less than a decade later, and was soon awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and became only the second woman ever to be inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame.

Just ten days ago, on August 16th, Aretha Franklin lost her battle to pancreatic cancer, surrounded by her family and friends. Thousands have honored her memory in recent days, and thousands more will come. But no words or tributes will carry the same amount of life as her own songs did and continue to do. Even after her death, we celebrate the life that she gave to so many.

10 Remarkable Things About Aretha Franklin:

  1. As I mentioned before, Franklin was the first woman to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s so great it’s worth saying twice.
  2. Franklin’s iconic recording of “Respect” in 1967 became an anthem for both the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960’s.
  3. Aretha Franklin had it written into her contracts in the 1960’s that she would never perform for a segregated audience.
  4. Though she performed first at the Clinton Inauguration in 1993, it was her performance at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 that made history. Franklin sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” to a crowd of 1.8 million people, and made her mark during the inauguration of our country’s first black president. She later said: “I was delighted and thrilled to be there. That was the most important thing, not so much the performance, but just to be there and to see this great man go into office—the promise of tomorrow coming to pass.”
  5. Aretha Franklin’s musical talents were largely self-taught. She learned independently to play piano, and grew up performing songs in her father’s church.
  6. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr gifted Aretha an award for excellence in 1967. Franklin’s music had become symbolic of black excellence and pride during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
  7. Franklin holds the record for the largest number of Top 40 singles of any female performer, at a whopping forty-five chart-making hits.
  8. In 1994, Franklin became the youngest ever recipient for the John F. Kennedy Center Honors.
  9. Aretha Franklin financially supported a number of black activists, most famously civil rights leader Angela Davis, who was arrested in 1970 and falsely named a “terrorist” by President Richard Nixon. Franklin announced that she was ready and willing to pay Davis’ $250, 000 bail, saying, “Black people will be free.”
  10. Aretha Franklin was a philanthropist in many ways, supporting organizations such as Feeding America, the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, the Special Olympics, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Research for this post comes from:
Photo from


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