From Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00
From Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

10 facts about the incomparable Aretha Franklin

In honour of Aretha Franklin’s birthday on 25 March and the upcoming release of National Geographic’s (DStv channel 181) Genius: Aretha, here are 10 facts about the Queen of Soul

Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin was born on 25 March, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. While that’s not officially recognised as Aretha Franklin Day (her home city of Detroit, Michigan, where she was raised from the age of 2, celebrates that holiday on 16 February), National Geographic (DStv channel 181) is giving us an early Aretha gift.

The channel has announced the premiere date of Genius: Aretha, the third in National Geographic’s Genius series of docu-dramas (following their stories about Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso), which will air for the first time in South Africa on Wednesday, 30 June at 21:00.

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The series, which features breath-taking, note-perfect performances of Aretha’s key hits – like I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You), Chain of Fools, Don’t Play That Song, Save Me, I Knew You Were Waiting For Me, Freeway of Love, and Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves – by lead actress Cynthia Erivo, will explore Aretha’s life and that special focus, determination, inspiration and the gift for interpretation that earned her the title of Genius, along with placing her life in its social context of growing up in a black family in the US during the mid-1900s, and her key position within the civil rights movement.

While details about the series are still under wraps, it has now weathered its COVID-19-embattled production disruptions and is ready for air come June.

“Aretha Franklin’s voice was just one part of the incredible legacy she left behind, adding to her civil rights advocacy and her true musical genius, and so much more. National Geographic’s commitment to going deeper, pushing boundaries and going further is embodied in this definitive and awe-inspiring series, which we are thrilled to be bringing to viewers and fans across the continent this June,” says Evert van der Veer, Vice President, Media Networks, The Walt Disney Company Africa.

In the meantime, you can get a sneak peek preview of Cynthia Erivo’s cover performance of Aretha’s hit Chain of Fools. And here are 10 facts about Aretha that will be explored more in-depth during the show.

10 Facts about the Queen of Soul

  1. Little Aretha learnt to play the piano by ear and recorded some of her earliest tracks at her father’s church at the age of 14. Aretha's mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was a wonderful pianist. And renowned jazz and gospel pianists like Art Tatum and Reverend James Cleveland gave the budding artist a strong informal education when they were frequent visitors to the Franklin family home thanks to her influential father, Preacher C.L. Franklin.
  2. Aretha Franklin died on 16 August, 2018, at the age of 76, following a long battle with pancreatic cancer. With a career spanning 6 decades, 38 studio albums and 6 live albums, and 75 million records sold, Aretha more than earned the title of the “Queen of Soul” – which was given to her, along with a crown and everything, at the Regal Theatre in Chicago in 1967.
  3. As well as being the crowned Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin reigns as the queen of R&B with no less than 44 Grammy nominations, 18 Grammy awards, 5 recordings in the Grammy Hall of Fame, a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award (1994) and a Grammy Legend Award (1991). Over the course of her career, Aretha placed 73 songs on Billboard's Hot 100 and still leads all female artists for most weeks in the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs top 10 (333 weeks!) and most appearances on the chart overall (96, with 4 credited as double-sided singles, making for an even 100 charted songs).
  4. She was the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (RRHOF) is a museum and hall of fame located in Cleveland, Ohio, United States, on the shore of Lake Erie. The museum documents the history of rock music and honours hall of fame inductees who can range from performers to producers and engineers.
  5. She performed at the inaugurations of three American presidents. Aretha first performed on the eve of Jimmy Carter's 1977 inauguration. She returned to Washington to take part in a 2-hour concert on the night of Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. And who could forget her performance at the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, where she sang My Country, Tis of Thee.
  6. Aretha used her own money to fund social and civil rights activism. In addition to being a socially conscious artist in public, she also worked behind the scenes to support the Civil Rights Movement. “When Dr. King was alive, several times she helped us make payroll,” Aretha’s long-time friend, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, told the Detroit Free Press in 2018. “On 1 occasion, we took an 11-city tour with her as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte. They put gas in the vans. She did 11 concerts for free, and hosted us at her home and did a fundraiser for my campaign. Aretha regularly shared her points of view from the stage for challenged people, to register to vote, to stand up for decency.”
  7. In addition to lifting people up through her songs and performances, Aretha also supported charities and non-profits like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the Special Olympics, Feeding America, The Rainforest Foundation, and the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes.
  8. Her hit song R.E.S.P.E.C.T. was about people respecting each other. She told Vogue in an interview, “It's important for people. Not just me or the Civil Rights Movement or women, it's important to people. As people, we deserve respect from one another.” She also explained to The New York Times that the phrase “give me my propers” was street slang for mutual respect.
  9. Aretha Franklin carried her purse everywhere, even onstage. A 2016 story in The New Yorker, by David Remnick explained that even early in her career, Franklin made a point of being paid upfront, in cash, before performances (imagine what prompted that decision). Keeping her handbag on her or within eyeshot was a security measure. “It's the era she grew up in,” television host and author Tavis Smiley told Remnick. “She saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off… and she wouldn’t have it.” For her, it was a sign of respect.
  10. On top of her earthly accolades, in 2010 Aretha had an asteroid named after her by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) – “249516 Aretha”. This symbolic gesture was to recognise and encapsulate her otherworldly talent.

The cast of Genius: Aretha includes actress and singer Cynthia Erivo (Harriet Tubman in Harriet, and winner of the 2017 for Best Musical Theatre Album award for her lead performance as Celie in The Color Purple) as Aretha Franklin. Cynthia will be performing many songs from Aretha’s rich catalogue, recorded live during her performances on set.

Courtney B. Vance (The People V O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) as Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin. Malcolm Barrett (Timeless, Preacher) as Ted White, Aretha’s first husband and business manager; David Cross (Mr. Show, Arrested Development) as legendary music producer Jerry Wexler, who guided Aretha as she developed into a confident singer and commercial success; Patrice Covington (The Color Purple, Ain’t Misbehavin’) and Rebecca Naomi Jones (Oklahoma!, The Big Sick) as Aretha’s sisters Erma and Carolyn Franklin, respectively, her frequent background singers, who supported and collaborated with their famous sibling. Steven Norfleet (Watchmen, Dynasty) as her older brother, Cecil Franklin, who stepped in as Aretha’s manager following her divorce from Ted White.

Veteran actress Pauletta Washington (Beloved, She’s Gotta Have It) as Aretha’s nurturing and loving paternal grandmother, Rachel. Omar J. Dorsey (Queen Sugar) as James Cleveland; Marque Richardson (Dear White People) as King Curtis, Kimberly Hébert Gregory (Vice Principals) as Ruth Bowen; and introducing Shaian Jordan as young Aretha Franklin, aka Little Re.

Watch Genius: Aretha S1 from Wednesday, 30 June on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00 

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