Aretha Franklin once described soul as "being able to bring to the surface that which is happening inside ... to make people feel what you're feeling."
It's a gift Franklin first discovered in gospel music as a teen prodigy in the '50s, one she brought with her when she spectacularly crossed over to the secular side of music in the '60s, and one that continues to shape her best performances in the '90s.
Franklin is deservedly known as Lady Soul, though the true dimensions of her talents did not immediately emerge. She was a star on the evangelical circuit at 14, but when she moved to New York at age 18 she was temporarily derailed by Columbia Records. The label did title one of Franklin's early albums "Soul Sister," but saddled her with pop, jazz and show tunes and bland production teams.
By 1966, however, Franklin had noticed how Atlantic Records, a favorite from her youth, was developing a new, grittier style of rhythm and blues around artists like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding, a marked contrast to Motown's pop-sweetened urban sound. She signed with Atlantic in 1966, teamed up with producer Jerry Wexler and the Muscle Shoals studio band and quickly found her true instrument, a rough, rhythmically riven, emotionally unfettered voice that launched a thousand imitators, but only a few true peers.
In 1967, the 25-year-old singer redefined American music with a set of singles as crucial and influential as any in pop history: "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and "Do Right Woman -- Do Right Man," a cover of Redding's "Respect" reinvented as fiery feminist anthem, "Dr. Feelgood," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and "Chain of Fools."
The "Lady Soul" moniker adorned Franklin's second album for the label, and the coronation as Queen of Soul came not long after. By 1968, Time magazine had put Franklin on its cover with a story about "The Sound of Soul," finding in her the embodiment of this new music. Of course, the new music was built on some that was very old, not only the R&B of the '50s, but blues and gospel.
The latter, of course, was the crucial building block. Aretha was one of five daughters of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, pastor at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church and known as "The Man With the Million Dollar Voice" after more than 70 albums of sermons he recorded for Chess. It's not hard to hear where the daughter got some of her commanding presence and authority, or the qualities Franklin once described as "honesty and sincerity, a special talent to make things plain."
Through her father's ministry, Aretha Franklin got to host many of the giants of gospel's golden era, such as Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and the Rev. James Cleveland, who taught her how to play the piano in the emphatic and direct style she's never abandoned. Franklin also got to know some of the young singers who would first cross the bridge between sacred and secular music: Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls. Unlike many in the gospel community, C.L. Franklin did not ban secular music in his house and in fact encouraged Aretha to pursue a pop career, even paying for her first demos.
That Aretha Franklin never left the church is evident on her seminal 1972 album, "Amazing Grace," recorded with the Revs. Franklin and Cleveland, a full choir and an undiminished commitment to the Lord. Yet she sang as deeply about matters of the heart as she did about matters of the spirit, and no one has been more convincing, whether it be explicating sorrow, celebrating joy or reveling in the sensuality of love.
Since the mid-'70s, Franklin's career has proved uneven -- moments of brilliant, passionate artistry and others of bored, indifferent craftsmanship. While she has remained an intensely private person, Franklin is reportedly working on her autobiography with David Ritz, co-author of Marvin Gaye's "Divided Soul." It will be a story worth reading, of course, but much of it has long been available simply by listening to her recorded legacy.