Aretha Franklin: a life of heartbreak, heroism and hope

The queen of soul’s fraught personal life informed songs that will endure in the hearts of people all over the world

In January 1967, Aretha Franklin, 24 years old and newly signed to Atlantic Records, left Detroit, her home city, for the small town of Muscle Shoals in Alabama. She had gone there to record at the remote Fame Studio at her producer Jerry Wexler’s insistence. “These cats are really greasy,” he told her. “You’re going to love it.”

She found, perhaps to her surprise that the “greasy cats” in question, the same musicians who had played on hits by Percy Sledge (When a Man Loves a Woman) and Wilson Pickett (Mustang Sally), were in fact, white. Initially, her shyness was matched by their reticence. Then she sat down at the piano as if lost in thought, and as songwriter Dan Penn later recalled, played “this unknown chord” that commanded everyone’s attention.

Related: Heroine, agony aunt, wise woman: Aretha’s soundtrack to my life

She went on to sing for presidents, her voice distilling the aspirations of the Obama era in particular

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Author: Sean O’Hagan

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