May the letters of the alphabet spell out the story of a preacher’s daughter who sang sanctified rhythm and blues like none other and became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
A: “Amazing Grace.” Franklin grew up deep in the church, which was the concept of this 1972 return to her gospel roots. The album acknowledges the three greatest musical influences of Franklin’s life: Clara Ward, whose rendition of “Peace In the Valley” at a funeral made an 8-year-old Aretha want to become a singer; her over-the-top contralto singing model Mahalia Jackson; and Franklin’s piano adviser, the great James Cleveland.
B: Baptist by birth. Franklin grew up the demur daughter of electrifying Baptist minister C.L. Franklin, “the man with the million-dollar voice,” known across the country for recordings of his sermons. Perhaps tired of her husband’s womanizing ways but unable to penetrate his wall of power and control, Franklin’s mother, Barbara, left the family when Franklin was 6 and died four years later, in 1952.
C: Cooke, Sam. Franklin’s friend, idol and a major crush. Like Sam, Aretha would cross over from gospel to pop at the risk of alienating churchgoers.
D: Detroit. Chicago was the capital of gospel music, but the Franklin family made the Motor City a contender. A 14-year-old Aretha debuted with “Gospel Sounds of Aretha Franklin” on Detroit-based JVB Records, which was also her father’s label.
E: Erma, Cecil, Aretha, Carolyn. The four children of C.L. and Barbara Franklin. Erma recorded the original version of “Piece Of My Heart,” a hit for Janis Joplin, and Carolyn wrote “Ain’t No Way,” which
soared with one of Aretha’s greatest vocal achievements. C.L. also had a daughter in 1940 with a teenage congregation member. Barbara had a kid in a liaison before she married Franklin’s father. Franklin herself had two children out of wedlock before she turned 18. In total, she has four sons.
F: Fear of flying. The Otis Redding tragedy and her own plane scare put Franklin’s airplane anxiety in the red. She does not like to fly, which has put a crimp in her touring schedule.
G: Gunshot. The cause of C.L. Franklin’s death in 1984. Shot during a home invasion in 1979, he spent the last five years of his life in a coma.
H: Hammond, John. The man who signed Billie Holiday to Columbia (and, later, Bob Dylan) saw Franklin as the next great pop/jazz voice. Hammond signed her in 1960, but her Columbia period, where she seemed posed as a young, black Judy Garland, registered disappointing sales. The real Franklin had yet to be recorded.
I: ”I Never Loved a Man (the Way That I Loved You).” Imagine what it was like to be in Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., in January 1967, on the first day of recording. Aretha sat down at the piano and played the chords of this song, which became her first of many hits on Atlantic. Producer Jerry Wexler put it all on the line by signing Franklin for $25,000 – a huge sum for a failure at Columbia – but he knew if he got her with the right musicians, in the right studio, it would click. In the next two years, Franklin and company produced four classic albums (“I Never Loved a Man” and “Aretha Arrives” in 1967 and “Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now” in 1968) – one of the greatest creative spurts in music history.
J: January 21, 1987. Franklin becomes the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Nineteen years earlier she was the first African American woman on the cover of Time magazine.
K: King Curtis. As evidenced by the recently reissued “Live at the Fillmore West” CD, the soul queen had found her greatest backing band with Bernard Purdie on drums, Billy Preston on organ and King Curtis on sax. At the end of the show, Franklin says she hoped to be “doing our thing” with Curtis and band for years to come, but the Fort Worth native would be dead five months later, murdered in front of his Manhattan apartment by a drug addict.
L: Lawsuit. In December 2000, Franklin sued the supermarket tabloid The Star for $50 million, claiming the story “Aretha Franklin Drinking Herself Into Grave” was a complete fabrication. The suit was eventually settled, with details undisclosed.
M: Muscle Shoals. This is where Aretha found the magic, but after Franklin’s husband/manager Ted White got in a fistfight with studio owner Rick Hall (White didn’t like the way the notoriously blunt Hall talked to the singer), the rest of her classic “Muscle Shoals” albums were actually recorded in New York, with the Alabama musicians flown in.
N: Nineteen. The age of the girl in a Steely Dan song who’d never heard of the Queen of Soul. “That’s ‘Retha Franklin!”
O: October 25, 2002. Franklin’s $1.6 million, 12-bedroom house in the Detroit suburbs (one of four she owns in the area) burned to the ground. Arson was suspected, and a furious Franklin went to the media to denounce charges from prosecutors that she was not cooperating with the investigation. Franklin’s son Edward was briefly a suspect, but after a full investigation prosecutors declined to charge him.
P: ”Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Gospel standard Franklin sang at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968 and four years later at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral.
Q: Queen of Soul. No question. No debate.
R: ”Respect.” Franklin’s first pop No. 1 single in 1967. Otis Redding, who wrote the tune, reportedly told producer Wexler, “I just lost my song. That girl took it away from me.” Franklin’s spelling out of the title and the syncopated “sock it to me” chant were innovative touches that took the song to a new place, and an enriched meaning as a declaration of female empowerment.
S: Substitution: Pavarotti lost his voice with a head cold before the 1998 Grammy Awards, so Aretha was called in, less than an hour before the show to sing “Nessun Dorma,” Luciano’s signature aria. She was Lady Opera that night, bringing the crowd to its feet.
U: ”Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” This version of a Stevie Wonder song hit No. 3 on the pop charts in 1973, leading to a long drought on the charts. It would take 12 years for Franklin to hit the Top 10 again, with ”Who’s Zoomin’ Who” in 1985.
V: Vandross, Luther. Helped get Franklin’s career back on track by writing and producing the acclaimed LPs “Jump To It” in ’82 and and “Get It Right” in ’83 for her new label, Arista.
W: Weight issues. In defense of overweight Heart singer Ann Wilson a few years back, Chris Cornell noted that his two favorite female singers were Wilson and the equally corpulent Aretha Franklin, but that nobody made cruel fun of the soul queen like they do Wilson. That’s changed, as Franklin’s weight becomes a big yucking matter for radio talkers like Howard Stern and Jim Rome whenever she appears on TV. She’s Aretha Franklin, people; show some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
X: X, Malcolm. Franklin’s version of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” was a highlight of the “Malcolm X” soundtrack.
Y: ”Young and the Restless.” The soap-addicted singer’s favorite daytime obsession, along with “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
Z: Zenith. There’s never been a Grammy save like in March 1998, when Luciano Pavarotti, suffering from a head cold, had to cancel his performance of “Nessun Dorma” half an hour before he was to go on. Producers, who’d heard her sing the tune two nights earlier, knocked on Franklin’s dressing room door and asked if she could fill in. Now, there are opera greats who would’ve taken a pass; after all, the Puccini aria is Pavarotti’s signature tune. But an unintimidated Franklin nailed the song, blowing the doors off the theater. It was a performance bordering on miraculous, the crowning achievement in a career of a much-adored vocal icon who still had something to prove.