Aretha Franklin is not only one of the giants of soul music, she is one of the giants of American pop. In a career spanning more than forty years, she continues to find ways to inspire and amaze.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born to parents Reverend CL Franklin, a Baptist preacher, and Barbara Siggers Franklin, a gospel singer. The third of four children, Franklin's early life was characterised by trouble and loss.
At the age of six, the young Aretha's parents separated and her mother left the family. Four years later her mother would die of a heart attack. The family moved to Buffalo, New York, and then to Detroit, Michigan, with the Reverend's preaching assignments. He eventually settled at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church and his renown as a preacher grew to national prominence.
Aretha was recognised as a talented musician at an early age. She was largely self-taught, despite her father offering to arrange piano lessons for her, and by her early teens she was seen as something of a child prodigy. A gifted pianist and with a voice that already contained the power that would become her trademark, Aretha travelled and performed with her father's gospel show and sang before his congregation in Detroit.
Her major influence early-on was her aunt Clara Ward who was a famous devotional singer. Aretha's first album, 'The Gospel Soul of Aretha Franklin', was recorded in 1956 when she was just 14.
At 15, Aretha gave birth to her first son Clarence and her second Edward followed two years later. She has never revealed the identity of either child's father by name and the two were brought up by Franklin's grandmother Rachel so she could pursue her music career.
When she returned to singing several years later she changed direction and pursued heroes like Dinah Washington into pop territory. She travelled to New York in 1960, found herself a manager, and began recording demo tapes. After approaches from several labels including Motown and RCA, Aretha signed to Columbia records releasing her first album for the company in late 1960.
Franklin did not find success with Columbia. In 1961, her single 'Rock-A-Bye Your Baby' made it to number 37 on the pop charts and she had a few top tens on the R&B charts but the jazz-influenced style she used failed to showcase the talent so evident in her gospel music.
She and manager Ted White, who she had married in 1961, decided a move was in order and she left Columbia in 1966 and was immediately signed by Atlantic.
Producer Jerry Wexler recognised where Franklin's strenggths lay and took her to record at the Florence Alabama Musical Emporium with musicians adept in soul, blues and gospel, including a guest spot for a young guitarist by the name of Eric Clapton. Aretha recorded the single 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)' which became a massive hit. The song spent seven weeks at number one on the R&B charts and reached the top ten on the Hot 100.
The public was ready for an album but the only thing missing was Aretha. After recording 'I Never Loved A Man', husband White had had a drunken row with one of the session musicians and he and Aretha had disappeared. Franklin popped up in New York some weeks later and she was soon back to work.
1967 and 1968 were the years that established and cemented Franklin's greatness with a string of hit singles that would become enduring classics. In 1967, the album 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)' was released. The first song on the album, 'Respect', a remake of an Otis Redding song, reached number one on both the R&B and pop charts and won Aretha her first two Grammy awards.
She had top tens with 'Baby I love You', 'Chain of Fools', and '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman'. Rolling Stone’s Album Guide has said 'I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You' would be remembered as 'the greatest single soul album of all time.'
In 1968, Franklin was enlisted to perform at the funeral of assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King, who was a good friend of her father's. Her rendition of 'Precious Lord' was later described by her producer at Atlantic Records, Jerry Wexler, as 'a holy blend of truth and unspeakable tragedy'. She also sang at the troubled 1968 Democratic Convention and at the 1972 funeral of gospel great Mahalia Jackson. In 1969 she divorced White. Their son, Ted, born in 1964, is the singer's musical director and guitarist in her touring band.
Between 1969 and 1976, Franklin had a relationship with her road manager Ken Cunningham. She gave birth to their son Kecalf on 28 March 1970.
Franklin's 1972 album 'Amazing Grace' became the best selling gospel album with over two million sales. Franklin's success continued into the mid 1970s winning eight consecutive Grammy awards for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance.
Massive-selling classics like 'Think', 'I Say A Little Prayer', and 'Spanish Harlem' earned her the title 'The Queen of Soul' and her dominance of the genre was unquestioned.
By 1975, Franklin's sound was beginning to become eclipsed by disco and an emerging set of young black singers such as Chaka Khan and Donna Summer. Her sales slumped and though there was a brief respite with 1976's 'Sparkle', a string of failures in the late 1970s saw her contract with Atlantic lapse in 1979.
In 1978, Franklin married actor Glynn Turman though they would divorce six years later. At the same time as her decline in the music world, Aretha was saddled with a massive tax bill and then in 1979, her father was shot during a burglary at his home in Detroit. CL Franklin went into a coma from which he never emerged, dying in 1984.
Aretha's career was revived in 1980 with her cameo in the film 'The Blues Brothers', acting and singing 'Think' alongside comedians James Belushi and Dan Akroyd, and her signing to Arista Records. At Arista, Franklin enjoyed success with the single and album of the same name, 'Jump To It'. The album enjoyed a long run at number one on the R&B charts and was nominated for a Grammy.
In 1985, Aretha released another smash-hit album with the slick pop-sounding 'Who's Zoomin' Who?' featuring the single 'Freeway of Love' and a collaboration with rock band Eurythmics on 'Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves'. The album became Aretha's biggest-selling album ever.
Her 1986 album 'Aretha' also charted well with the George Michael duet 'I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)' hitting number one on the pop charts. Two years later, Franklin was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was awarded an honorary doctorate in musicology by the University of Detroit.
A number of gospel albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s failed to make any real impact, although 'A Deeper Love', a track she provided for the 1993 film 'Sister Act 2', was a hit. 1998 was something of a renaissance year with Franklin reprising her role in The Blues Brothers sequel 'Blues Brothers 2000'. The same year she released 'A Rose Is Still A Rose', an album which blended Hip Hop and Soul and which was very well received on both the pop and R&B charts.
In 2003, Franklin released her last album on Arista, 'So Damn Happy', and left the label to start her own company, Aretha's Records. In 2005, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and also became the second woman inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame.
The first album to be released since forming her Aretha's Records label was a duets compilation entitled 'Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets with the Queen', in 2007.
Then, in 2008, the singing legend released her first ever holiday-themed album entitled 'This Christmas, Aretha'.
At the 50th Annual Grammy Awards in 2008, Aretha was awarded her 18th Grammy.
She has continued to be recognised for her contribution to the music industry, and on 23 May 2010, she was given an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Yale University.
In November 2010, Franklin suffered from a pain in her side and had to cancel the rest of her tour to undergo surgery. Rumours that the singer was being treated for pancreatic cancer prevailed but speaking in 2011, Franklin denied this, stating that the surgery added years to her life.
Marking her 50th anniversary in the music industry, she released her 38th studio album called 'A Woman Falling Out Of Love' on 3 May 2011. It was produced using her own record label and peaked at number 54 on the Billboard charts.
She also returned to the stage to finish off the tour that she cancelled due to her health concerns. The singer also performed at her own 69th birthday celebrations. In September 2011, she released a duet with Tony Bennett called 'How Do You Keep the Music Playing'.
Recently, Franklin hit the headlines for her looks, rather than her music, as press speculation mounted over whether her recent weight loss was down to gastric band surgery, a claim which Aretha has vehemently denied.
In an interview with US show 'Access Hollywood', the star admitted to losing six stone, through diet and exercise.
She said: "A gastric band is too scary. That's something I would never ever do. I've lost 85 pounds but it was gradual, it wasn't all at once. When I look at pictures of myself I think: 'You were truly fat. You were too fat for words. This was not you - this was not your normal weight.'"
Aretha Franklin lives in Detroit and continues to tour and perform. On 3 January 2012, she announced that she is engaged to her long-term companion William 'Willie' Wilkerson with plans to marry in Miami in the summer. The pair met 27 years ago when the former firefighter asked the singer to autograph the cast on his broken leg.