This story appears in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine. Hear more about Aretha Franklin and the secret of musical genius in our podcast, Overheard at National Geographic.
Cynthia Erivo portrays the Queen of Soul in an eight-part television series that premieres at 9 p.m. ET Sunday, March 21, on Nat Geo. It’s available on Hulu the next day.
Wearing a crisp white shirt and a black bouffant curled in a flip, Aretha Franklin seemed pensive but confident as she walked into the legendary FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in January 1967.
Franklin, just 24 years old, proceeded to take control with exceptional poise. She had not yet become a musical and cultural icon. She had not yet become Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul.
That day, she was largely unknown and a mystery. The studio musicians were not sure what to think. The creative tension was as thick as the cigarette smoke. It’s hard to imagine now, but Franklin was desperate for a hit.
She had spent the previous six years recording a restrained kind of jazz at Columbia Records, without huge success. Now, at Atlantic Records, producer Jerry Wexler wanted to bring out the “church” in Franklin. Musicians from FAME Studios had created a southern rhythm and blues sound that had produced a string of hits, including Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and Percy Sledge’s classic “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Surrounded by a bunch of musicians who were unsure what kind of music they would make with her—Wexler had described them as a “rhythm section of Alabama white boys who took a left turn at the blues”—Franklin wasn’t interested in small talk. She called them Mister So-and-So, and they called her Miss Franklin.
Then the preacher’s daughter, raised in Detroit, Michigan, sat down at the piano. Musicologists later would explain that although Franklin did not read music and had no formal training, the piano was where she would summon her genius. The power of her voice was extraordinary on its own, a velvet force that seemed to reflect an ancient wisdom. Combined with her piano playing, it was glorious.
Without singing a word, she hit a chord on the piano. Then she straightened her back. Eyed the room. Touched up her frosted lipstick with her mouth. Every man in the room took notice.
When she began to sing, she hit a “hell knows no fury like a woman scorned” note that threatened to peel the paneling.
Her voice exploded with raw emotion. Producers would describe what erupted from Franklin that day in Muscle Shoals as otherworldly.
She pounded the piano as if the keys marked a thin line between love and hate. Then she hit a low note and took it to church.
That recording of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” would catapult Franklin to fame.
The men in the band would say they’d never seen or heard any singer like her. The power of her voice, the strength of her storytelling, and the way she was able to channel that intangible thing called soul—brilliant.
“I can tell you what I saw,” Spooner Oldham, a legendary organist and songwriter, told me in an interview. Oldham, a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, has seen some outstanding acts. He’s played with Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and many more icons of music. But that first recording session with Franklin was something else, he said.
“It was not talked about or planned. She just started playing. I knew I was working with someone special,” Oldham said. “Her voice was hard to describe. It covered so much territory. It was angelic. Soulful. Upbeat. Downbeat. If you start naming adjectives, you would name it all. She was one of a kind. I thought she was a musical genius right then.”
During that session Franklin, backed by the renowned Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, recorded the first of many million-selling records. “They finished the track, and everybody in the room knew it was a hit record,” Rodney Hall, son of FAME Studios co-founder Rick Hall, told me.
The source of some of the pain Franklin sang so passionately about would become clear by what happened next. The recording session ground to a halt as all hell broke loose in the studio.
Franklin’s husband-manager, Ted White, accused a trumpet player of flirting with his wife and demanded that the musician be fired. Rodney Hall later recalled his father telling him that the night ended with Rick Hall and White trying to throw each other off a balcony of the hotel where Franklin was staying.
The messy scene was a window into Franklin’s private world. She would channel her pain and infuse soul into songs that would become universal, crossing musical genres and spanning time, generations, and cultures. That night in Alabama would set her on a course to drive popular music for decades and take the sound of soul to new heights. Her voice would become the revolutionary sound of women, African Americans, and others demanding to be recognized.
Just days after leaving Muscle Shoals, Franklin would record another hit, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” in a studio in New York City. A week later, she recorded “Respect,” which would become an anthem not only for Franklin’s power in the music industry but also for women’s rights at a volatile time.
More than 50 years after Franklin’s epic recording session in Muscle Shoals, and nearly three years after her death at age 76, her brilliance remains something of an enigma. Her long and successful reign as the Queen of Soul is undisputed. That she could sing the deepest of blues, the funkiest of funk, finger-popping pop, silky jazz, powerful rhythm and blues, soul-stirring gospel, and even dramatic opera with phenomenal ease is undisputed. That she was a musical genius unmatched in her range, power, and soul is undisputed.
Much as Albert Einstein pushed the boundaries of science and Pablo Picasso created a new art form, Franklin extended the sound of music to new depths, arranged it, expanded it, captured it, composed it, made it her own, and ruled over it for more than six decades.
(Explore the Queen of Soul's remarkable run on the Billboard charts.)
But what, exactly, was the root of Franklin’s artistry? Like other geniuses, she was a child prodigy, her gift recognized early and nurtured by her father. As with Picasso and Einstein, she had a dominant personality and a keen sense for detail. Franklin had an acute ear that allowed her to break down the melodic threads of a song and arrange them to her liking. She also had an intense ambition and drive to make hit records. Even as her health was failing in her later years, she wanted to get back into the studio and make music.
“Aretha’s genius was very, very natural to her,” music mogul Clive Davis told me. “She felt, embodied, and was able to perform music like no one else before her.”
Davis, who worked with Franklin for 38 years, said her genius lay in her ability to take songs deeper—sometimes deeper than the songwriters had intended. “She understood the essence of both language and melody and was able to take it to a place very few—if any—could,” he said.
“Aretha never had a music lesson,” said Brenda Corbett, a cousin who sang backup for Franklin for more than 50 years. “She knew exactly what she wanted. If it wasn’t right, she would let you know.”
Franklin’s phenomenal vocal range seemingly climbed as high as a mountaintop before plunging to painful depths. Some musicologists say her voice pushed four octaves. But it was the way she used her voice, such as when she jumped octaves on musical bridges, that revealed her immeasurable gift. That’s when anyone listening got goose bumps.
“Often genius is conceived in terms of a high score on an IQ test, a conception I tend to disfavor,” said Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis. “Other times genius will be defined as exceptional early talent in a particular domain,” he said. “And yet other times genius will be attributed to those who have left a pervasive and enduring impact.”
Child prodigies, experts say, often seem to be old souls, performing at levels far beyond their years. As children, they can seem chillingly advanced, awing others as they master complex sonatas or science and math equations.
In Franklin’s case, her musical talent was evident from the start.
She was born Aretha Louise Franklin on March 25, 1942, in South Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, the Reverend Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin, was a prominent Baptist preacher. Her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was a highly regarded gospel singer.
The family moved to Buffalo, New York, from Memphis and then to Detroit, where her father became pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church. When Aretha was six years old, her mother left the family. Aretha, her brother, and her two sisters were raised by their paternal grandmother—who lived in their home for a time—but Aretha longed for her mother, who died suddenly a few years later.
“It happened when I was 10,” Franklin said in Aretha: From These Roots, an autobiography she wrote with David Ritz. “Daddy called all of us—me, Erma, Carolyn and Cecil—into the kitchen. As he sat at the end of the sink, which resembled a sideboard, he said it plainly and solemnly. Our mother had suffered a fatal heart attack. I just stood there, stunned. I cannot describe the pain, nor will I try. Pain is sometimes a private matter, and the pain of small children losing their mother defies description.”
It was a childhood trauma, relatives say, from which she never really recovered—a sadness she carried for the rest of her life.
It’s also clear that Franklin was influenced by the talent of her father, a celebrated performer in his own right. C.L. Franklin was known well beyond Detroit, because recordings of his sermons were best sellers. His most famous sermon, “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” from 1953, is “arguably the most demanding sermon in the African-American Baptist tradition,” wrote Nick Salvatore, author of Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America.
Aretha was in her early teens when she joined her father on the gospel circuit. C.L. Franklin recognized his daughter’s brilliance, and showed her off as they traveled from church to church. He’d preach, and then she would sing.
Aretha made her first record at 14—according to some sources, about two years after she had given birth to her first child, Clarence, and the age at which she would have her second child, Eddie.
One 1960 concert poster from Chattanooga, Tennessee, advertises a sermon by C.L. Franklin with his 18-year-old daughter, Aretha, “a rising star in the gospel-music field.” According to Jason Hanley, a musicologist and vice president of education and visitor engagement at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, “The Reverend Franklin is actually the headliner there. Then his incredible daughter, this prodigy, Aretha Franklin, is performing the gospel message her father is talking about.”
Jeff Ramsey, a professor in the voice department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, said that the time Aretha Franklin spent in church choirs and on the gospel circuit helped polish her genius—that the circuit gave her a wisdom formed by the history, pain, and resilience of Black people in the United States. Her roots were gospel, and “what never changed was the sacredness of her voice,” Ramsey said.
In Ritz’s biography, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Franklin’s brother, Cecil, said that he and his sisters had musical talent but that Aretha “was born with it. Later on, musicologists can try to analyze how she came to it. They can say that she practiced harder than the rest of us or paid more attention to the music around her or was more motivated to learn. But I’m here to tell you that none of that is true. She didn’t practice. She didn’t pay any more attention to the music around her than Erma, Carolyn, or myself.”
He added that “we always knew that she possessed a different kind of talent. That’s the talent they call genius. You can’t learn it. You just have it.”
Genius can be nurtured in an environment that gives it room to grow. Geniuses often have huge personalities, enormous ambition, competitiveness, and an ability not to shrink around other talented people.
In Detroit, Aretha Franklin grew up in a city that would produce a litany of Motown stars: Diana Ross, “Little” Stevie Wonder, Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations. Even among all that talent, Aretha Franklin stood out. Robinson said he first saw a young Aretha when he was eight years old.
Robinson, who became friends with Cecil Franklin, described his first encounter with Aretha at the Franklin family home. “We’re walking around the house, and I hear music,” Robinson told the crowd at Franklin’s funeral. “The piano being played, and this voice, it sounds like a little girl singing. And I go and look in that room, and I see you, and you’re there and you’re singing.”
As a little girl, Aretha occasionally was pulled from sleeping to perform for stars who were visiting her famous father. In that parlor she met gospel singers Clara Ward and Mahalia Jackson, singer-songwriter Sam Cooke, composer and band leader Duke Ellington, jazz pianists Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, singers Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, and Billy Eckstine, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.
Franklin's genius was on full display on her debut R&B album when she remade “Respect,” written by legendary soul singer Otis Redding. His song was meant to be about a man demanding respect when he comes home. Franklin’s version was about a woman making that demand, and she spelled out each letter of the word “respect” in the lyrics.
Redding reluctantly would admit that Franklin made the song hers. During the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Redding told the crowd: “Now, there’s something we’d like to do for everybody. It’s a song a girl took away from me. A good friend of mine, this girl, she just took the song. But I’m still going to do it anyway.” Then he launched into an up-tempo version.
That year Franklin won her first Grammy Awards honor for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording and Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance by a woman for “Respect.” She would go on to win 17 more Grammys and receive 44 nominations for the award, presented by the Recording Academy to honor excellence in the recording arts and sciences.
Music fans got an unexpected glimpse of the stunning range of Franklin’s talent at the 1998 Grammy Awards ceremony in New York. Luciano Pavarotti, the world-renowned Italian tenor, was scheduled to perform “Nessun Dorma,” the great aria written by Giacomo Puccini. But Pavarotti called the set of the live broadcast and said he was sick.
Franklin had been scheduled to perform with the Blues Brothers—Dan Aykroyd, John Goodman, and Jim Belushi—on the Grammy show that night. But Ken Ehrlich, the show’s executive producer, remembered that Franklin had sung “Nessun Dorma” two nights earlier at a benefit for the Recording Academy. “I just ran up to her dressing room and asked her if she would do it,” Ehrlich later told Billboard.
What followed was one of the signature moments of Aretha Franklin’s career. Neither a tenor nor an opera singer, she performed the aria beautifully.
“She had to change keys because she had to use Pavarotti’s arrangement,” Ritz said. She listened to the orchestration for 20 minutes and figured how to change her voice to a key that wasn’t her first choice. She turned it into a soul song but honored the beauty of Puccini’s melodic gift.
Franklin told me in a 2012 interview that “Nessun Dorma” was among her favorite songs. “There are too many” songs to name, she said, when asked about those she liked best. “Certainly among them would be ‘Respect,’ ‘Jump to It,’ ‘Natural Woman,’ ‘Rock Steady,’ and ‘Nessun Dorma,’ Pavarotti’s signature song.”
There was no hint of bravado in her voice.
In 1987 Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, blazing a trail for female Hall of Famers. Rolling Stone placed her at number one on its Greatest Singers of All Time list. In 2019 she won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.
Franklin gave countless iconic performances—including stepping on stage in a luxurious fur coat that fell off her shoulders and a canary yellow gown to sing “I Dreamed a Dream” at an inaugural event for President Bill Clinton in 1993. The song was a classic from the musical Les Misérables. She commanded the song and the stage. When she dropped her fur and then hit a high note, the crowd and the Clintons rose to their feet.
“Everyone in the audience was transfixed as the performance kept building,” Davis recalled at Franklin’s funeral. “Then the one and only Aretha, on her own, spontaneously changed the lyrics from ‘I dreamed a dream’ to ‘I have a dream,’ and that instinctive switch to the Martin Luther King mantra made the climax chillingly unforgettable to this day.”
She sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, where she wore a gray hat that has its own social media following and is listed among the assets in a civil dispute over her estate in Detroit.
“Aretha helped define the American experience,” Obama tweeted after her death. “In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade—our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.”
Franklin’s courage and legend extended beyond her music. She helped finance the civil rights movement, marched with King, and sang at a memorial service for the civil rights leader in 1968. She created music that became the soundtrack for revolutions: the civil rights and women’s movements, and protests against the Vietnam War.
In 1970 she offered to pay up to $250,000 to bail political activist Angela Davis out of jail. “Black people will be free,” Franklin told Jet magazine then. “I’ve been locked up” for disturbing the peace in Detroit, “and I know you got to disturb the peace when you can’t get no peace. Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a black woman and she wants freedom for black people. I have the money; I got it from black people—they’ve made me financially able to have it—and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Franklin sang the songs that became, for many of us, the background music of our childhoods. We danced to “Chain of Fools” in bell-bottoms in the 1970s. We learned to spell singing “Respect,” and demanded it. We grew our natural hair into Afros like Aretha’s. When we woke up, it was her song about young love that came to mind: “I Say a Little Prayer for You.”
You might be too young to have seen Franklin in her prime, but you probably have heard her music. Your mother and father most likely know it. You’ve heard it at the movies. And you’ve heard Aretha’s style of singing in artists such as Beyoncé, Ariana Grande, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston, and Adele.
At the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 16th American Music Masters Tribute, which honored Franklin in 2011, a suite of artists serenaded Franklin with her songs. Franklin wasn’t supposed to perform that night in Cleveland. But during a break in the show, she demanded a piano.
Aretha ascended to the stage with Ronald Isley, Cissy Houston, Jerry Butler, and Dennis Edwards to perform an encore.
“They launch into this incredible song,” the Hall of Fame’s Hanley recalled. “She is in charge. In that moment, the whole world shrunk down to her spotlight. We were all witnesses. That is when I personally realized why she is who she is.”
Biographer Ritz, who cowrote Franklin’s autobiography in 1999 and wrote his own book about the singer 15 years later, called her an engineer. He told me that part of Franklin’s genius lay in how she deconstructed others’ songs she had decided to cover: In the studio she’d take a song apart, infuse it with soul, then add her original groove. When she put the song back together again, she mastered it. “She does a big band version of a hit by Glen Campbell called ‘Gentle on My Mind,’ ” said Ritz. “It was a country song with jazz, groove, and big band, and she kills it.” Her intelligence, he said, was manifest “in the intensity of her emotional expression.” It was born of her personal pain, depression, and desire never to talk about her story or what hurt her.
In an early interview, a young Franklin smiles nervously as she sits at a piano. White, her husband, sits next to her. Her hair is pulled back, and her face is soft and innocent. She tells the camera in the voice of a girl: “I’m still trying to find out who and what I really am.”
In a 2012 interview with me, she answered every question but one. She bristled when I asked her to recall her earliest childhood memory.
“Her whole life, she kept it very secret what was happening with her life, from the romantic to the personal,” Ritz said. “You couldn’t get any information out of her. She suppressed anger. She suppressed her confusion. The one vehicle she used to express it all was her music. Because it was suppressed, it was extravagantly expressed.”
The only times she released the pain seemed to be when she sang. And when the pain erupted, it was astronomical.
Ritz spent years with Aretha trying to tell her story. “Some of us go and pay the psychologist or psychiatrist and shut the door,” he said. “She does it by opening her mouth on stage. This is her psychotherapy. Her catharsis.”
In Atlanta, Georgia, National Geographic filmed the third season of Genius, a scripted series that in previous seasons focused on Einstein and Picasso. The eight-episode season stars Cynthia Erivo as Franklin.
Suzan-Lori Parks is showrunner and executive producer for Genius: Aretha. Parks, a Tony winner and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, sits on the sofa in a living room set that transports you back in time. It’s designed to replicate Franklin’s childhood home in Detroit and help reimagine the life of young Aretha. The sofa and two love seats are covered with protective plastic. Cigarette butts are scattered in ashtrays. A grand piano sits in the corner of the room. A staircase frames the living room.
It was in a living room like this that Franklin heard the great Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, and Clara Ward. At a piano like this, she would sit on the bench next to the inimitable James Cleveland, who taught her chords. In a kitchen like this, Big Mama, as she called her grandmother, and the cooks her father hired prepared southern soul food—fried corn, black-eyed peas, chicken and dumplings, greens, and sweet potato pies.
Parks was determined to capture Franklin’s genius for the “definitive series of the universally acclaimed Queen of Soul,” she said. She continued, “And while everyone who listens to Western popular music knows the sound of her voice, very few people know her story, know the pain she struggled through, know the difficulties of her childhood, know that her mother died at a young age, know she didn’t just burst onto the scene and find her sound.”
Franklin didn’t have it all figured out when she started singing, Parks said. She “dug down deep and made something beautiful out of her life that endures and lights the way for all of us.”
Geniuses create light for generations, Parks said. “Harriet Tubman was a genius. Einstein was a genius. Edison was a genius. Da Vinci was a genius. Bach was a genius. [John] Coltrane was a genius. Toni Morrison was a genius,” she said. “These are people who create not just things that are fashionable, but things that deeply endure.”
Across the studio Erivo is in hair and makeup, transforming into Aretha, summoning the genius and the diva. In 2016 Erivo felt as though she and Franklin sang together—if just for a moment. Erivo, dressed in a white lace gown, stood on stage at the Kennedy Center Honors, performing “The Impossible Dream.” Just as Erivo was about to hit a spiraling note, the camera cut to the audience. And there was Franklin, eyes closed, singing the words with her.
The moment was fleeting but powerful. Erivo told me she watches the video clip often. “I’m really glad I got to do something that she enjoyed,” Erivo said, “and that I was one of the voices that brought her some happiness.”
Erivo, who has won a Grammy, Emmy, and Tony for her Broadway performance in The Color Purple, met Franklin backstage after a show. Erivo was nominated for two Academy Awards in 2020—for Best Actress and Best Original Song—for playing the role of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the film Harriet.
Now she’s transforming into the Queen of Soul. “To be able to play an icon like Aretha, who is one of my idols, is kind of incredible,” said Erivo, who grew up in the United Kingdom, where she began listening to Franklin’s music as a child.
Erivo said she prepared for the role by reading, listening to music, and watching the soul-stirring documentary Amazing Grace, which was released after Franklin died and features her as she records a live album in 1972.
The film, shot over two nights at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the Watts section of Los Angeles, reveals a 29-year-old Franklin returning to her gospel roots. Directed by Sydney Pollack, it captures rare footage of Franklin in a transcendent performance. On the second night, Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones squeezed into the audience.
The film also captures Franklin’s father sitting next to Ward, who became a mentor to Franklin.
“I’ve watched it religiously. It gives you a great insight into who she was,” Erivo told me. “When she gets to the bridge of the song, something happens and she opens up completely. That is when you feel her heart.”
DeNeen L. Brown interviewed Aretha Franklin in 2012. Elias Williams photographed National Geographic magazine’s February 2020 feature about the slave ship Clotilda.