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Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the daughter of Barbara (née) Siggers and Clarence LaVaughn Franklin. Her father, who went by the nickname, “C. L.”, was an itinerant preacher originally from Shelby, Mississippi, while her mother was an accomplished piano player and vocalist. Alongside Aretha, her parents had three other children while both C. L. and Barbara had children from outside their marriage. The family relocated to Buffalo, New York when Aretha was two. Prior to her fifth birthday, C. L. Franklin permanently relocated the family to Detroit, Michigan where he founded the Baptist church, New Bethel. Franklin’s parents had a troubled marriage due to stories of C. L. Franklin’s philandering and in 1948, they separated, with Barbara relocating back to Buffalo with her son, Vaughn, from a previous affair.
Contrary to popular notion, Franklin’s mother didn’t abandon her children and Aretha would recall seeing her mother in Buffalo during summertime while Barbara also frequently visited her children in Detroit. Franklin’s mother died on March 7, 1952, prior to Franklin’s tenth birthday. Several women, including Franklin’s grandmother Rachel, and Mahalia Jackson took turns helping with the children at the Franklin home. During this time, Franklin learned how to play piano by ear. Franklin’s father’s emotionally-driven sermons resulted in him being known as the man with the “million-dollar voice” and earning over thousands of dollars for sermons in various churches across the country. Franklin’s celebrity led to his home being visited by various celebrities including gospel musicians Clara Ward, James Cleveland and early Caravans members Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
Just after her mother’s death, Aretha began singing solos at New Bethel, debuting with the hymn, “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me”. Four years later, when Aretha was 14, her father began managing her, bringing her on the road with him during his so-called “gospel caravan” tours for her to perform in various churches. He helped his daughter get signed to her first recording deal with J.V.B. Records, where her first album, Songs of Faith, was issued in 1956. Two singles were released to gospel radio stations including “Never Grow Old” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. Franklin sometimes traveled with the Caravans and The Soul Stirrers during this time and developed a crush on Sam Cooke, who was then singing with the Soul Stirrers prior to his secular career.
After turning 18, Aretha confided to her father that she aspired to follow Sam Cooke to record pop music. Serving as her manager, C. L. agreed to the move and helped to produce a two-song demo that soon was brought to the attention of Columbia Records, who agreed to sign her in 1960. Franklin was signed as a “five-percent artist”. During this period, Franklin would be coached by choreographer Cholly Atkins to prepare for her pop performances. Before signing with Columbia, Sam Cooke tried to persuade Aretha’s father to have his label, RCA sign Aretha. He had also been persuaded by local record label owner Berry Gordy to sign Aretha and her elder sister Erma to his Tamla label. Aretha’s father felt the label wasn’t established enough yet. Aretha’s first Columbia single, “Today I Sing the Blues”, was issued in September 1960 and later reached the top ten of the Hot Rhythm & Blues Sellers chart.
In January 1961, Columbia issued Aretha’s debut album, Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo. The album featured her first single to chart the Billboard Hot 100, “Won’t Be Long”, which also peaked at number 7 on the R&B chart. Mostly produced by Clyde Otis, Franklin’s Columbia recordings saw her recording in diverse genres such as standards, vocal jazz, blues, doo-wop and rhythm and blues. Before the year was out, Franklin scored her first top 40 single with her rendition of the standard, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”, which also included the R&B hit, “Operation Heartbreak”, on its b-side. “Rock-a-Bye” became her first international hit, reaching the top 40 in Australia and Canada. By the end of 1961, Franklin was named as a “new-star female vocalist” in Down Beat magazine. In 1962, Columbia issued two more albums, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin and The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin, the latter of which charted number 69 on the Billboard Pop LPs chart.
By 1964, Franklin began recording more pop music, reaching the top ten on the R&B chart with the ballad, “Runnin’ Out of Fools” in early 1965. She had two R&B charted singles in 1965 and 1966 with the songs “One Step Ahead” and “Cry Like a Baby” while also reaching the Easy Listening charts with the ballads “You Made Me Love You” and “(No, No) I’m Losing You”. By the mid-1960s, Aretha was netting $100,000 from countless performances in nightclubs and theaters. Also during that period, Franklin appeared on rock and roll shows such as Hollywood A Go-Go and Shindig!. However, it was argued that Franklin’s potential was neglected at the label. Columbia executive John H. Hammond later said he felt Columbia didn’t understand Aretha’s early gospel background and failed to bring that aspect out further during her Columbia period.