From 1967 to 1979, Aretha Franklin recorded her greatest albums for the Atlantic label. These records were rooted in the gospel of her childhood, to which she added rhythm & blues to redefine the shape of modern soul music.

For many people, the first name is enough. Miles. Otis. Elvis. Ella. And of course, Aretha. Even if her heyday was far behind her, right up to the end of her life on August 16, 2018, Aretha Franklin was classed as one of the greats, a legend whose music was unbeatable. She was the embodiment of soul music and her voice had become part of the history of a country and its struggles. Her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin, was a close relative of Martin Luther King. Forty years later, she performed My Country, ‘Tis of Thee at President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony. What an incredible journey, and most importantly, what an incredible icon.

That wonderful period of time when Aretha Franklin was at the peak of her career took place from the late sixties to the late seventies. She spent a decade with one record label - Atlantic. However, when she signed her contract with Ahmet Ertegun’s team in 1967 she was hardly an inexperienced singer, and neither was she a dreamy little girl as she was already a mother to three children and had been since the age of 12. Between 1960 and 1966, Aretha Franklin was discovered by John Hammond and recorded for Columbia Records. However, the producer couldn’t reiterate the same commercial success with Reverend Franklin’s daughter as he had had with Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan. Although he clearly had a knack for finding talent, he wanted to make her a jazz or a pop singer and disregarded the gospel that was in her DNA and into which she was born, the gospel that echoed in her beloved father’s church where she sang from a very young age. Just like one of her idols, Sam Cooke, who was also born into the Church, Aretha’s first album Aretha With the Ray Bryant Combo opted for a secular repertoire. She released eight more albums with Columbia, some of them rather jazzy, others more pop, others more of her instinctual rhythm’n’blues. Nothing to be ashamed about, of course, but also nothing to push the vocal potential of this young girl from Memphis to new heights or to the top of the charts. Hammond threw in the towel and years later he acknowledged that he had not been fully aware of the extent of Aretha Franklin’s gospel roots and failed to tap into their potential.

Aretha Franklin "Respect" (Olympia 1971 - Paris) | Archive INA

Ina Music Live / Ina Musique Live

Of course, one man understood everything – Jerry Wexler. At 50 years of age, the Bronx producer had already recorded Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, The Drifters, LaVern Baker, Chuck Willis and Wilson Pickett. He knew that gospel and soul would be the young woman’s salvation. When he signed her up with Atlantic, he wasted no time and sent her straight back down South to Muscle Shoals where she recorded in Rick Hall’s legendary FAME studios amongst other greats like pianist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Chips Moman and drummer Roger Hawkins. When she recorded the song I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) on January 24, 1967, Wexler knew the gamble had already paid off. He blended the singer’s gospel influence with rhythm’n’blues, the blues and soul of her era. On the album of the same name (but recorded in New York City in Atlantic studios, where the entire Muscle Shoals crew was moved), she added other masterpieces such as her cover of Respect that Otis Redding had written two years earlier. Her version was so popular that it became an anthem for feminism and inextricably linked to the fight for civil rights. The star was eager for more hits and wrote in her autobiography that she was aware of Wexler’s potential but most importantly that he was totally in sync with the label’s philosophy, which she felt was to embody the essence of soul music. That feeling of being welcomed home down South, like coming back home to her father’s church, was the key to the success of their partnership. And every word, every sentence really does come from Aretha’s heart.

The following year in Aretha Arrives, she pushed the boat out and even listened to her white contemporaries, covering The Rolling Stones (Satisfaction), Question Mark and the Mysterians (96 Tears) and Willie Nelson (Night Life). But it was in 1968 when she released the albums Lady Soul and Aretha Now, that her fame really took off. These two albums were packed with hits such as Chain of Fools, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (co-written by the New York Brill Building’s iconic duo, Gerry Goffin and Carole King), Ain’t No Way, Think and I Say a Little Prayer. In the June 28, 1968 edition of Time Magazine, Aretha was recognised as an international star who sang all over the world, most notably at the Olympia Theatre in Paris on May 7, 1968, and released the aptly named live recording Aretha in Paris five months later.

AMAZING GRACE - Official Trailer - Aretha Franklin Concert Film


She went on to release four more albums during this successful period with Atlantic, including the highly underestimated Soul ’69 (1969) which featured renowned jazzmen such as Kenny Burrell, Joe Zawinul, Ron Carter, Grady Tate, Pepper Adams and David Newman. Next was her 17th album, Spirit in the Dark (1970) recorded in Florida, for which Aretha Franklin was able to write five songs herself (a first!) alongside some very well chosen covers (B.B. King, Dr. John, Jimmy Reed, Goffin & King). Behind her is the powerful Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section as well as big names such as guitarists Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers, Cornell Dupree and Eddie Hinton and pianist Jim Dickinson. This was enough to secure the throne for the queen of soul, rhythm’n’blues and modern gospel. Whether she sang the blues or something more adventurous, her voice was always a powerful guiding force that never failed her. Aretha could even recite the instruction manual for an electric drill and it would still be just as good! Two years later, she impressed the world with the sheer variety on her album Young, Gifted and Black (1972). Soul ballads are blended with gospel sequences, rock inflections are combined with serious lyrics, this is where we really see the extent of Aretha’s musical ability. And going back once more to her origins, the fabulous Amazing Grace (1972) followed five months later, a double album recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. A 100% live gospel triumph in which her voice is simply sublime.

In 1976, Jerry Wexler’s departure from Atlantic coincided with a decline in success for Aretha’s recordings. The singer went on to release a handful of albums for the label, including the superb soundtrack for the film Sparkle (directed by Sam O’Steen and starring Irene Cara) written and produced by Curtis Mayfield, some more anecdotal ones Sweet Passion (1977), Almighty Fire (1978) and Aretha’s last album for Atlantic, the very disco La Diva (1979), produced by Van McCoy. It is precisely this emergence of disco that pushes the queen towards the exit. A queen who has left enough influential masterpieces behind her that she will never be forgotten. And above all, a queen with whom thousands of African-American women can identify in a country where problems of segregation and racism are still very much alive.