There’s a lot more gospel in classic rock and soul than the histories sometimes show. Ray Charles, Otis Redding, James Brown: they all had plenty of holy roller in their acts.

But no one had the feeling more than Aretha. No one was so righteous. She made the link between gospel and pop utterly undeniable, as, in fact, she made everything she sang undeniable.


Hear Aretha’s Greatest Performances


Aretha Franklin, daughter of the well-known Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, grew up in Detroit singing in church with her sisters Erma and Carolyn. As an 18-year-old, she signed with Columbia Records, where legendary producer John Hammond heard a star in the making.

But it wasn’t until Aretha took control of her own career, around 1967, that she began to earn her first-name-only status and her undisputed title as the Queen of Soul. Recording in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and then in New York City, Aretha released her first big hit, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” in early 1967. She followed that with her first No. 1, her version of Redding’s “Respect.” In his hands, the song was a man’s plea to his woman after some time on the road. By turning the tables, Aretha made the song a lasting anthem of self-worth, transcending the ordinary life of a working musician to demand recognition for all women, and all people of color.

Redding was thrilled with his song’s transformation, telling producer Jerry Wexler that it was no longer his. It “started off as a soul song and wound up as a kind of national anthem,” as Wexler told Aretha’s biographer. “We saw it as something earthier” than Redding did, said Carolyn Franklin, who sang backup, “a woman having no problem discussing her needs. It turned out that it was interpreted in many different ways — having to do with sexual or racial politics. Far as I’m concerned, all those interpretations are correct because everyone needs respect on every level.”

In a long, lustrous career bedazzled by honors such as a Grammy award for Lifetime Achievement and the distinction of being the first woman inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Aretha Franklin leaves behind one particular legacy above all the others: she gave countless listeners an undeniable sense of their own self-worth.