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Affectionately dubbed ‘The Queen of Soul’, the domain of Aretha Franklin stretched far beyond the confines of music. Following in the footsteps of the early female pioneers of music, Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Dinah Washington, Franklin possessed a remarkable voice. However, it was the way that she combined music and politics that really marked her as one of the greatest of all time.

Franklin’s work was so impactful that in 1987 she made history again when she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The significance of this cannot be understated, as it opened the gates for many other female artists to be welcomed into the bastion of musical achievement.

It made perfect sense that it should be Aretha Franklin who became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Since the beginning of her career, she empowered the Black community, women and minorities through her music in a way that had never been done before. Whether it be her timeless undertaking of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ — which breathed new life into the track’s original meaning — or her various feats of activism, Franklin’s legacy is a glittering one, with her making the world a better place with her exploits. Not many musicians, not even some of the most successful, can claim such a feat. 

Before Franklin released her version of ‘Respect’ in 1967, she nor anyone in her orbit could likely foresee how successful it would be, with it quickly becoming a civil rights and feminist anthem. In her 1999 memoir, she looked back on how the hit captured the essence of an era characterised by social turmoil. She said: “It (reflected) the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect.” 

She also labelled ‘Respect’ as “one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement” before adding: “The song took on monumental significance.”

Although ‘Respect’ is universally hailed as Franklin’s definitive piece, she delivered a host of other timeless cuts such as ‘I Never Love a Man (The Way I Love You)’, ‘Respect’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, ‘Think’ and ‘I Say a Little Prayer’. Musically, her oeuvre is extensive, maintaining a high level of quality that only the greats do.

Capturing the spirit of the vocalist at her funeral in 2018, the Rev. Al Sharpton expressed: “Aretha never took orders from nobody but God. She stood for something, she never shamed us, she never disgraced us… she represented the best in our community, and she fought for our community until the end.”

Combining ability and integrity crystallised Franklin’s place in history, which earned her fans from across the board. No better was her broad reach demonstrated than on the night of her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Inducting Franklin into the Hall was The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, a longtime fan of the singer, who once even declared her the greatest vocalist of all time. Inducting her with a speech best described as rambling, he effused about Franklin, saying, “The dictionary has been used up, there’s no superlatives left, and there’s nothing to read anyway,” before bursting into a fit of somewhat unhinged laughter. 

He then concluded his brief speech by quipping, “What can I say about Aretha? You’re in baby. My turn next, maybe?” Although Richards’ point was heard loud and clear, he espoused a kind of typically male attitude Franklin had always railed against. Thankfully though, this was only the beginning. Since she burst the gates open, 50 women have made it into the Hall, and long may that number keep growing.  

Ironically, although Franklin’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was highly consequential, she couldn’t attend the ceremony herself. So, after Richards gave his concise speech, record producer Clive Davis and her brother Cecil inducted her by reading some words she had prepared. Although she wasn’t in attendance, making history clearly meant a lot to her. The start of her statement read: “To be the first woman inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a historical moment and indeed a milestone in my career…”

“I don’t think there’s anybody I have known who possesses an instrument like hers and who has such a thorough background in gospel, the blues and the essential black-music idiom,” Atlantic Records co-founder and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame mastermind Ahmet Ertegun later reflected. “She is blessed with an extraordinary combination of remarkable urban sophistication and deep blues feeling…The result is maybe the greatest singer of our time.”

After Franklin passed in 2018, the Rock Hall contemplated the significance of her position as their first female inductee. Their statement read: “The first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Aretha Franklin was an artist of passion, sophistication and command, whose recordings remain anthems that defined soul music. Long live the Queen.” 

Despite being unable to make it to her own induction, Aretha Franklin would be able to grace the stage for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame years later. Her performance came in October 2009 on the second night of the 25th anniversary shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. She played seven fan favourites, including ‘Respect’ and ‘Baby, I Love You’, and was also joined by Annie Lennox for ‘Chain of Fools’, and Lenny Kravitz for ‘Think’.

Making history is what Aretha Franklin did, and being the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was just one of many stellar accolades she deserved for a life spent pushing boundaries and using her talent for the greater good. With women now dominating the charts and culture, much of this can be attributed to the first woman to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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