She was from Motown but was not a Motown artist. Despite growing up with the likes of Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and The Temptations, Aretha was not a Motown artist. Her father The Rev. Cleveland Franklin was a nationally known minister whose recorded sermons were big sellers. As such, he had strong connections in the music business. Rather than sign with (at the time) a small startup like Berry Gordy’s Motown label, Cleveland had her go with Columbia Records which was the biggest label in the industry and home to such stars as Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mathis.
How the church made her a great singer. It’s common knowledge that most of the great R&B singers started singing in the church. By the age of 12, Aretha was already on the road singing for her father’s traveling church services. Aside from her God-given gift, here’s what made her great. Gospel singing is meant to imitate the preacher who uses a wide range of vocal techniques to connect, communicate and create rapport with the audience. Like a skillful minister preaching a sermon, church singers change volume, intonation, phrasing, and vibrato. They ad lib lyrics (like a preacher might rephrase a Bible verse) and vary their emotional intensity according to what each song (message) or their reading of the audience’s emotional climate seemed to need. The goal of the gospel singer was to move your mind, soul and body at a primal level. The best ones did this instinctively and effortlessly.
No other genre of music this side of hip-hop (born out of gospel call-and-response) has this kind of environment. While Aretha was a prodigy, she had a great training ground.
She was not successful early in her career. Ironically, her giftedness was initially an obstacle to her success. Because she was so willing and capable of singing anything, Columbia couldn’t figure out how to market her. Moreover, while having Aretha make records of mostly standards and cabaret blues material, the venerable, old label missed how Motown was creating an entirely new youth-oriented market. After eight albums between 1960-1966 that won praise from the critics but generated few sales, Aretha left Columbia for Atlantic Records in 1967 where she would become The Queen of Soul.
She was model the for Whitney Houston’s career. In 1980, the music world was being taken over by the Minneapolis Sound, punky new wave, house, world beat, and hip-hop. While Atlantic thought her best days were behind her – and the charts said as much – Clive Davis had his own vision for Aretha and signed her to his Arista Records. That vision was to give her songs that had a familiar old school sound that appealed to her older fans while harnessing her vocal energy into the contemporary beat-driven songs to attract newer and younger listeners. Her magical moment in the 1980 The Blues Brothers movie singing an uptempo version of Think was the spark that lit that fire.
Basically, this was the same template Clive used successfully to launch Whitney Houston to stardom: catchy, new radio-friendly tunes with a timeless sound and a hit song in a hit movie.
She released Let It Be before The Beatles. When Paul McCartney wrote Let It Be, he sent a demo to Aretha in hopes she’d record it. She did and her version came out two months before the Beatles released their version as a single in January 1970. She also recorded versions of The Long and Winding Road, Fool on the Hill (unreleased until a 2007 outtakes compilation) and Eleanor Rigby, where she changed the lyrics to sing it in first person – “I’m Eleanor Rigby”.
[Bonus track] She had a hit record at age 72. Her 2014 album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics entered Billboard’s R&B chart at #3.