When Aretha Franklin belted out, “What you want, baby I’ve got it,” in her 1967 recording of Otis Redding’s song “Respect,” millions of listeners could not help but agree. She had it. With a voice unadorned yet undeniably powerful, she quickly rose up the Pop charts. For many listeners, it may have been the first time they had heard of Aretha Franklin. However, when the album on which “Respect” was included, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, was released on Atlantic Records, it was certainly not her first recording project. She was a veteran artist who had released more than ten studio albums prior to that point. Aretha had been a Gospel ingénue as a young child, recording her first album at the age of fourteen. When “Respect” was released in 1967, she was coming out of a five-year recording contract with Columbia Records where she had released a string albums that revolved around a jazz-pop style. But there was a new energy to her Atlantic debut, backed by the famous Muscle Shoals rhythm section, “The Swampers.” The recordings made more of her Gospel heritage, blending those roots with an R&B feel that resulted in the 1960s Soul sound that we have come to know. When “Respect” reached Number 1 on both the R&B and Pop charts, and Aretha garnered her first two Grammy Awards, it was clear the “Queen of Soul” had arrived.
Like many vocalists, Aretha’s first foray into music was through her church. She was raised in Detroit, where her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was the preacher for the thousand-member New Bethel Baptist Church. Black churches were not only centers of religious experience, they were also centers of social activity, giving a sense of community to a population affected by the upheaval of the Great Migration. The Great Migration changed the fabric of the nation, with millions of African-Americans moving to the North, seeking jobs and freedom. Vibrant black churches, like the New Bethel Baptist Church, flourished during the 1940s and 1950s in northern industrial cities. Aretha’s musical style had roots in this history. Her father was nicknamed “the man with the million-dollar voice.” He was a close friend with other pivotal, itinerant preachers, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and famous Gospel performers, including Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. Growing up, Aretha would often sing in church with her siblings, (her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, would eventually sing background vocals on albums throughout her career, including the famous “sock it to me” phrase on “Respect”). At eighteen years old, however, Aretha made a break from Gospel music. With the blessing of her father, and following the footsteps of Sam Cooke who had made a similar transition before her, she signed a record contract with Columbia to record secular popular music.
By 1967, the Civil Rights movement had cast a light on human rights issues, opening up a dialogue on women’s rights as well. Just a few years prior, in 1964, Congress had passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination not only on the basis of race, but also on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and/or gender. Women, and in particular minority women, had long been excluded from certain institutions of higher learning, from job opportunities, from equal pay, and even from fair and equal government representation. In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW), a grassroots group for women’s rights, was founded. There was a need for strong, feminine voices in a male-dominated society, voices that could redress the largely unspoken sexism of the time. Gospel, which as a musical genre had always elevated the female voice with singers like Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, provided a natural answer to the call. And Aretha, despite her move into the Pop arena, was in possession of a raw, riveting style. Her soulful blend of Gospel and R&B would prove to be just what some Americans needed to hear.
In this lesson, students will watch a 25-minute video, Aretha Franklin – ABC News Close Up (1968), as a pre-lesson activity. In class, students examine a timeline of landmark events that occurred during the women’s movement from 1961 to 1971. While watching multiple live performances of Aretha Franklin, including “Dr. Feelgood,” “Do Right Woman,” “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “Chain of Fools,” students will seek to identify Gospel influences and investigate whether issues related to women’s rights are reflected in the songs as well. The extension activity includes an insightful personal narrative that provides an account of sexism that existed during the Civil Rights era.