Aretha Franklin, reportedly gravely ill at the age of 76, is an icon of strength and power for her feminist/civil-rights anthem “Respect.” She has won 18 Grammys, sold more than 75 million records, and was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone named her the greatest singer of all time.
Her fame was never guaranteed. She began singing gospel in the Detroit church of her famed pastor father C.L Franklin and signed at an early age to Columbia Records, which tried to market her as a jazz singer in the vein of Billie Holiday, to little acclaim.
There, with a backing band of unusually funky white musicians, she recorded the soul-baring single “I’ve Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” in 1967.
“Coming to Muscle Shoals was the turning point in my career,” the singer said in a documentary about the studio.
The song’s raw opening lines—”You’re no good / heartbreaker / You’re a liar and you’re a cheat / And I don’t know why / I let you do you these things to me”—could have been ripped from her own tumultuous life, which included two pregnancies at a very young age and an allegedly abusive marriage.
When the song was finished, Franklin’s husband Ted White got into a brawl with the manager of the studio, and Aretha quickly returned to New York. But on the strength of “Never Loved a Man,” her new sound took shape. With the backing of the Muscle Shoals musicians, she quickly recorded with a string of hits that laid the groundwork for her career, including “Do Right Woman,” “Dr. Feelgood,” and—most of all—”Respect.”