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Aretha Franklin Earned Respect and Favorable Mentions as an 18-Year-Old Gospel Singer

ARETHA FRANKLIN, 1967, Atlantic Records publicity
Courtesy Everett Collection

To celebrate Variety’s 115th anniversary, we went to the archives to see how some of Hollywood’s biggest stars first landed in the pages of our magazine. Read more from the archives here.

On Aug. 31, 1960, Variety reported on an all-day Gospel Music Festival at Madison Square Garden. The 10-hour show, which Variety dubbed a “religioso marathon,” entailed a lot of individual and group performances, and the story offered a long list of them. The first person mentioned: Aretha Franklin, who had been “plucked from the gospel world” at age 18 by record producer John Hammond. “Miss Franklin moved the audience on Sunday with a choir behind her,” said the story.

The MSG event, held Aug. 28, 1960, was the second annual gathering of Black church groups organized by Joe Bostic of station WLIB; it drew 10,000 audience members.

Other performers included Sister Margaret Simpson, Calvin White, the Drinkard Singers, Cross Jordan Singers, the Stars of Faith, Tabernacle Voices, Gospel All Stars, among many others. “The major lure was Mahalia Jackson,” the story continued, “who was presented with a plaque by WLIB as the lady who gave dignity to this field of music … Miss Jackson, of course, is one of the more prominent members of this craft, having appeared on television and in concerts throughout the country.”

The beauty and impact of gospel music were not widely covered in the mainstream media at that point, but Variety wanted to help spread the gospel, as it were.

“Gospel music is an important source material for the American scene,” the story said, citing such singers as Della Reese, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington who had their roots in gospel. Groundbreaking Hammond also recognized the commercial possibilities of the music.

“Gospel singing faces a larger future,” said the report. “Gospel singing has emerged in various forms of jazz and it’s the direct ancestor of rock ’n’ roll. The original state now seems to be coming into its own more strongly.”

The following year, Franklin was again in Variety. A 1961 story said Bill Grauer Prods. was expanding its music company with a seventh label, Battle, to specialized in gospel and spiritual albums. Among the first releases were “three sets by Rev. C.L. Franklin cut in his Detroit church and featuring his daughter Aretha Franklin, who has been clubdating in the N.Y. area of late.”

Variety covered her progress on the Columbia label followed by Atlantic-Atco, and reviewed her singles, always favorably. A 1967 review of the Atlantic album “Aretha Arrives” summed up, “Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough has been one of the big music biz stories of the past year.”

Another report said Atlantic-Atco that year had earned seven gold records, a company-best tally since the Recording Industry Assn. of America began handing them out. She accounted for three of the seven, honored for her singles “Respect” and “I Never Loved a Man,” plus the album “I Never Loved a Man.”

Disc jockey Pervis Spann is credited with giving her the nickname “Queen of Soul” in 1968. Since then, nobody has disputed that. How could they?