Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul and first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, died on Thursday. She was 76.
It’s been 50 years since TIME billed the 18-time Grammy winner as “The Sound of Soul” on the cover of the June 28, 1968, issue, when her album Aretha Now had just come out, her second that year. The main article’s headline “Lady Soul: Singing It Like It Is” was a riff on the album that had come out that January. And as TIME’s story detailed, Franklin’s music channeled her own pain, sorrow and resilience in a way that aligned with soul music’s past.
Franklin didn’t invent the genre of soul music, but she did help it reach a wider audience than ever before. Enslaved African-Americans wrote and sang soul to channel the pain and frustration of slavery and hope for liberation. “Soul is a way of life — but it is always the hard way. Its essence is ingrained in those who suffer and endure to laugh about it later,” TIME reported. The Blues genre grew out of these 19th century spirituals, and as African-Americans moved North in the early 20th century, the music began to reflect trials and tribulations of urban living—usually with jazz accompaniment. Rhythm & Blues emerged after World War II, and TIME wrote that “much if not most of what the white public knew as “rock ‘n’ roll during this period consisted of proxy performances of Negro R&B music by people like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley,” creating a “caustic resentment” among African-American musicians who felt that “white men cashed in” on their music.
Georgia native Ray Charles was critical to reclaiming the music as African-American made in the ’50s, and his brand of soul — a unique fusion of R&B, gospel, blues and jazz — was the first of its kind to be a hit in the white market. As the magazine saw it, Franklin’s popularity was further proof that soul had “arrived” and had become a permanent fixture in the pop genre, based on Americans grooving to it in the suburbs and Midwestern campuses.
Franklin was raised around this music. She was born in Memphis and grew up in Detroit—in the same neighborhood that Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and The Four Tops hailed from. Her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin recorded dozens of his own sermons and made $4,000 per appearance, according to TIME’s reporting back then. Because of his name, many acclaimed gospel singers would come by her house for jam sessions, and she told TIME she wanted to become a singer after watching renowned gospel artist Clara Ward perform at her aunt’s funeral. When she started touring, she got an opportunity to audition with a New York agent, and landed a deal with Columbia Records. It wasn’t her style of music, but she found her voice with the more R&B-oriented Atlantic Records. Franklin’s first album with Atlantic, I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You, which came out in March 1967, sold a million copies.
By June 1968, five of her singles were GOLD-certified and she had won two Grammys. Ray Charles called her “one of the greatest I’ve heard any time,” and Janis Joplin, called her “the best chick singer since Billie Holiday,” the magazine reported. To African Americans back then, soul going mainstream was even more significant because it was a sign of a growing acceptance of who they are.
But like her soul brothers and sisters who came before her, Franklin sang about a whole lot of pain. She was first traumatized at the age of 6 when her mother walked out on the family—and then her mother’s death four years later. In the 1968 cover story, TIME described how someone with an outsized personality onstage turned inward immediately when she was offstage. “I’ve been hurt—hurt bad,” she said.
Here’s how TIME described the way that heartache — and resilience — was woven into the lyrics:
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