Far before Aretha Franklin first joined the Atlantic Records family in 1967, far before “Respect," her star soared.
Known among industry titans and peers as one of the foremost upcoming Gospel acts, it was her early dedication and care to the craft that destined her for greatness beyond the records, on a truly global level.
At a young age, Aretha advocated for Black liberation through action. Her early days touring alongside Harry Belafonte for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw her using more than just her voice to amplify a message of political and social change. Anecdotes from fellow activists place her in any number of situations aiding the Civil Rights Movement, from helping to organize fundraisers, to physically hosting changemakers in her home. Once on stage, Aretha took listeners to task a step further, confronting audiences with truths of the era concerning direct enactment of societal change. Still, offstage, she continued to advocate for the radical forces within the Civil Rights Movement, like Dr. Angela Davis.
Come 1967, her already-empowered essence was bursting at the seams with songs simply waiting to be heard by the rest of the world. After recording her chart-topping debut on Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL, she was off to the races. “Coming to Muscle Shoals was the turning point in [her] career,” she later recalled.
From this point forward, Aretha began cultivating a songbook of stories so powerful that they have been told, retold, and celebrated on an immeasurable scale — even to this very day.
The everlasting success of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You cannot be understated. With an undying hit like “Respect” now under Aretha’s belt, and a collaborative force like Jerry Wexler in her corner, she embodied an unstoppable musical prowess stars can only dream to one day possess. Still, she never wavered in her prioritizing of Black voices; albums like the 1972 Young, Gifted & Black specifically called listeners in to hear famed compositions, recontextualized under its Nina Simone-inspired title, and relived through Aretha’s own experiences. Now, 50 years later, Young, Gifted & Black stands as ever-pertinent commentary and a shimmering highlight in her discography.
With the music Aretha made during her time at Atlantic, she garnered immense praise from critics, the public, ever-committed fans — and a whopping 10 GRAMMY Awards. She laid the groundwork then for superstardom, and she remained steadfast in her hopes and dreams for Black liberation movements right up until her passing in 2018.
This Black History Month, Atlantic Records is celebrating the electrifying life and works of Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul.