Aretha Franklin was born into a musical family, as she sang at New Bethel Baptist, the Detroit-based church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin.
Although she was a recorded singer by the age of 14 through her father’s church, Aretha’s crossover into secular music came in the late 1950’s, shortly after she dropped out of high school to care for her baby.
During this time period, Aretha Franklin spent a lot of time listening to the radio and being influenced by her idol, Dinah Washington.
At the end of the 1950s, Aretha decided to try her luck as a professional singer and left Detroit for New York City, with the blessings of her father.
“The transition from Gospel to Blues was very nice,” Aretha recalled in a 2001 biography “The Queen of Soul.” “I was encouraged by my father to do what I liked to do.”
Aretha sent a demo into Columbia Records, which found its way to the legendary John Hammond, who had already discovered artists like Billie Holiday, Charlie Christian and Count Basie.
“A guy called Curtis Lewis brought in a demo disc of some tunes of his,” said John Hammond in article published on NPR in December of 2010, that was recorded 40 years earlier.
“And there was one tune called ‘Today I Sing the Blues,’ and it was Aretha. And I listened and I said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve heard since Billie Holiday. Who is she?’ He said ‘she’s some girl out in Detroit.’ It took me about two months to track her down. I did two albums with Aretha. The first album is the one I’m proud of.”
Aretha signed a six-year contract with Columbia in 1959 and over the course of the deal, she released 10 albums and two greatest hits packages.
During her years on Columbia, Aretha recorded a variety of styles of music, including gospel, show tunes, jazz, pop and R&B material, with some success, scoring two R&B Top Ten singles in 1961.
She was on the road quite a bit, where she performed in various cities around the country at small jazz clubs, opening for artists like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus.
These performances helped Aretha earn the title of Best Female Vocalist of 1961, by the International Jazz Critics Association.
In 1961, at the age of 19, Aretha met her future husband and manager, Ted White.
1963, Unforgettable, her most notable work for Columbia was released, which was a tribute record to Dinah Washington, who died in a car accident earlier in the year.
The pivotal moment in Aretha’s career came during a performance in a Philadelphia bar in 1966.
Aretha was singing at the Cadillac Club, when Atlantic Records co-owner/executive Jerry Wexler walker in and heard her singing, on her final date.
“I heard her long before I signed her,” Jerry Wexler said in the book “The Queen of Soul.” “I heard a record on the Chess label called ‘Precious Lord’ that she made at her father’s church. That was the record that made a big impact on me. Then, of course, all during her tenure at Columbia, I tracked her.”
According to her husband at the time, Ted White, when Aretha’s contract ran out, she signed a million dollar deal with Atlantic and received a $30,000 signing bonus.
“We initiated the contract with Atlantic,” Ted White said. “We signed as the first black female million dollar recording artist in the history of the world. ”
The deal with Atlantic started with turmoil between Ted White and musicians at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Aretha was sent to record, since Atlantic was experiencing success with the sounds coming out of Rick Hall’s Fame Studios.
The first attempt at recording Aretha came amongst the racial tension of the mid-sixties in the deep South, something that didn’t sit well with Ted White or Aretha.
After the first session at Fame Studios, which produced “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You),” a trumpet player named Ken Laxton was accused of making passes at Aretha.
The issue heated up later in the evening during a night of drinking with Ted White, when Laxton allegedly started using racial epitaphs.
A nasty fight occurred at the Downtowner Motel and Inn in Florence, with rumors of shots fired, although no one has confirmed the gunplay reports.
Both Ted White and Aretha Franklin refused to finish the session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which forced Jerry Wexler and Atlantic to eventually fly the studio musicians to New York, to finish the song “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man.”
After moving the musicians to New York to finish the sessions, the hits began rolling in for Aretha Franklin, Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records.
In 1967–68, Aretha Franklin released six Top 10 hit singles, five of which were certified platinum.
During the same time period, Aretha released three Top 10 albums.
In 1967 alone, Aretha earned $750,000, according to the June 1968 issue of Billboard magazine.
What did Aretha invest her money in that year?
“I buy about 20 pounds of chitterlings every two weeks,” Aretha said in 1967.
Aretha Franklin went on to produce 18 albums with Jerry Wexler over the course of their nine-year association.
strong>RareSoul WaxFact: Aretha recorded her hit song “Respect” on Valentines Day in 1967, at Atlantic’s studio in New York. The song was recorded by Tom Dowd, who also engineered the original version by Otis Redding.