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20 People Who Changed Black Music: Ray Charles & Aretha Franklin, the Standard Bearers

Aretha Franklin is the undisputed Queen of Soul, but opera fans were bowled over when Franklin, a last-minute substitute for tenor Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy awards, raised the roof singing the Puccini aria, "Nessun Dorma"

Die-hard Franklin fans, however, knew that Franklin's powerful voice could take on opera. Franklin herself has never been one to shy away from trying different musical genres.

With roots solidly planted in gospel, Franklin also made a name for herself in pop, jazz and R&B. When she signed with Columbia Records in the early 1960s, she even had a Top 40 single with "Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody." Franklin has always been willing to experiment with different musical genres.

It came naturally, of course. There was always music in the Franklin household. Franklin sang at the Detroit church of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and made her first recordings as a gospel artist at age 14.

"As the daughter of C.L. Franklin, there was always someone stopping by their house, like Dinah Washington, who was a member of Rev. Franklin's church; James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson," said Mark Anthony Neal, of a professor of black pop culture at Duke University.

That exposure to different musical forms opened a world of possibilities for Franklin.

She spent the early to mid-1960s with Columbia, enjoying modest success. Some music critics have said the label suppressed Franklin's true soulful style, letting it peek out only occasionally in such songs as "Lee Cross" and "Soulville."

Undisputedly, Franklin hit her stride when she signed with Atlantic and began recording with the Muscle Shoals Sound rhythm section. Her first single, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, showed off that deep, gritty, soulful sound which became Franklin's trademark. She continued to record with the Muscle Shoals musicians, although many of the sessions were actually recorded in New York.

In the late '60s, Frankin ran off a string of 10 Top Ten hits in an 18-month period between early 1967 and late 1968 and a steady stream of hits after that. Her eclectic tastes in music, covering songs from the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Sam Cooke and the Drifters, along with original songs and a sprinkling of gospel and blues, made Franklin a huge crossover hit.

At the same time that Franklin was making her mark across genres, Ray Charles was making a similar mark.Charles, who lost his sight to glaucoma by the age of six, studied composition and learned to play a number of instruments at the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind. Both his parents had died by his early teens, and Charles earned his keep as a musician before moving to Seattle in 1947, where his career really took off.

That early exposure to music, just as it had for Franklin, helped prepare him for much broader exposure than that experienced by many of his contemporaries.

Crossover was possible for both Franklin and Charles, Neal said, because both had something beyond singing going for them.

"They grew up in a musical environment where there wasn't a distinction to be made with music," Neal told BlackAmericaWeb.com. "For them, it was just music."

"I was born with music inside me," Charles said in his autobiography, "Brother Ray." "That's the only explanation I know of ... Music was one of my parts like my blood. It was a force already with me when I arrived on the scene. It was a necessity for me, like food or water."

In addition, Neal said, "in the case of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, they were, in fact, musicians. In order for Ray Charles to get jobs, he had to play everything, and, in Aretha Franklin's case, she was also a gifted pianist. They were gifted musicians."

Charles was also gifted in the art of imitation.

In "Q, The Autobiography of Quincy Jones," Charles described his early years as a musician after his mother died.

"I toured the South with a couple of different bands, but those were hard times," Charles wrote. "I was living off biscuits and soup. I had a friend named Gosady McKee who played guitar, and one day in '47, I told Gosady to pull out a map of the United States and I told him, ‘Point to the farthest city on that map from here.' His finger came down on Seattle, Washington, and that's how I came there. I came by bus. Alone.

"I hit town hustling, I got a gig playing at a black joint called the Rocking Chair and at another black joint called the Black and Tan Club. I had a group called the Maxim Trio; I used to sing like Nat King Cole and Charles Brown in those days -- it was the only way to get paid."

Charles' first R&B hit was "Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand," in 1951. Like Franklin, critics have said Charles' early recordings - with their imitative stylings - were nowhere near the powerful stuff he put out in the ‘50s while signed with Atlantic Records.

Some would argue that those were Charles' best years, although he found greater creative freedom and control after leaving Atlantic at the end of the ‘50s for ABC Records.

Charles' work during the ABC years ran the gamut from the hard-driving gritty "Unchain My Heart" and "Hit the Road Jack" to the melodic "I Can't Stop Loving You" on his breakthrough county and western album.

While many have taken Charles and Franklin to task for moving away from soul, their work in pop and R&B have made them legendary. Charles was a popular draw on tour, performing even after hip replacement surgery in 2003 and continued to tour until illness forced him to cancel an appearance in March 2004. He died on June 10, 2004.

Before his death, Charles signed off on the selection of Jamie Foxx to play him in the blockbuster biopic "Ray," which won Foxx an Academy Award for best actor. Charles himself won a dozen Grammy Awards, three NAACP Image Awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was named honorary life chairman of the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. In 1979, Charles' rendition of "Georgia On My Mind" was approved as the official state song of Georgia. In 2004, his Los Angeles recording studios were designated an official city historic landmark.

The 17-time, Grammy-winning Franklin is slowed down only by her refusal to fly, which limits the numbers of concerts she can perform each year. The first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the recipient of the Recording Academy's Living Legend Award, Franklin can fill a room at will.

In fact, Franklin will be on tour this summer and will host a three-night gospel revival June 14-16 at Greater Emmanuel Institutional Church of God in Christ in Detroit. It is the third straight year that Franklin has hosted such a revival in Detroit. Franklin is also working on both a musical and a film based on her autobiography, "Aretha Franklin: From These Roots."

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