Music lovers around the world agree the faith of Aretha Franklin and her gospel music roots greatly influenced her songs. In fact, her gospel chords, rhythm changes and soulful delivery are constant in her big hits, both secular and religious.
Aretha’s introduction to gospel music stems from her upbringing. The following are some of the highlights of her beginnings in the genre.
March 25, 1942 – Aretha was born into a musical family. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was nationally known as a dynamic preacher and singer with scores of albums, radio broadcasts and public appearances to his credit. Also, he served as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan. Aretha’s mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was an accomplished pianist and vocalist.
Late 1940s to early 1950s – Aretha’s talent was apparent very early in her life. By the age of 10, she had learned to play the piano by ear and was both singing and playing in her father’s church. According to Wikipedia, she debuted as a church soloist in 1954 with “Jesus Be A Fence Around Me.”
Her world was furthered influenced by her interaction with leading African American gospel artists of the era. Due to her father’s fame, she met luminaries such as Clara Ward, Albertina Walker, Inez Walker and James Cleveland, a musician at Bethel Baptist during her father’s tenure. Also, she was friendly with Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, who both started their careers as gospel singers.
Mid 1950s to 1960s – In addition to accompanying her father as a pianist and soloist on tours throughout the country, Aretha released her first gospel album, “Songs of Faith,” in 1956. Two years later, she toured the nation with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as he advocated for civil rights for Black Americans.
Aretha wasn’t the only teen touring with her father. She often encountered her lifelong friends, Mavis Staples, who with her sisters accompanied her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and Annette May Thomas, who played and sang for her father, Brother Joe May.
Aretha’s crossover into secular music came in the 1960s and she cemented her place as Queen of Soul with the 1967 release of “I’ve Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).”
1970s to present – In a legendary return to gospel, Aretha recorded “Amazing Grace” in 1972 with the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir in Los Angeles. The disc, which sold more than 2 million copies and earned Aretha a Grammy award in 1973, is the highest-selling live gospel album of all time.
Other gospel albums by Aretha include “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,” which was recorded at her late father’s church and released in 1987; and “Gospel Greats,” issued in 1999.
Gospel music was usually in Aretha’s repertoire when she performed before live audiences including her most recent concert in Los Angeles in 2015. Her most enduring gospel recordings such as “Precious Lord,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Mary Don’t You Weep” are still available on popular digital platforms.