[artist id="7622"]Aretha Franklin's[/artist] rousing performance of Samuel F. Smith's "My Country 'Tis of Thee" in front of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. — celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States — was an extraordinary moment (and she certainly was wearing an extraordinary hat). But it was also one of many, many milestones in her long and illustrious career.
Franklin, 66, is universally recognized as the greatest female soul singer in history. She has won 21 Grammys and has had a long string of hits stretching back to the mid-1960s, including such classics as "Respect," "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," "Chain of Fools," "Rock Steady" and many others. In 1987 she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 1993 she performed at the inaugural gala for President Bill Clinton. But today marked the first performance at an actual inauguration.
She grew up in Detroit, singing in the church of her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin (a close friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King's), and was signed to Columbia Records in the early '60s by famed record producer John Hammond, who called her "the greatest voice since Billie Holiday." Yet her Columbia career was commercially unsuccessful, as the label attempted to craft her into a mainstream entertainer.
Franklin didn't become a star until she was snatched up by Atlantic Records in 1967 and scored her first hit with "I Never Loved a Man." Over much of the next decade, Franklin was a staple of the Atlantic Records roster and played a pivotal role in incorporating gospel vocal styles into pop music, paving the way for countless future superstars, including Natalie Cole, [artist id="1158"]Whitney Houston[/artist] and [artist id="976"]Mariah Carey[/artist].
In the '80s, Franklin recorded hit duets with James Brown, Whitney Houston, Keith Richards and George Michael, whose "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" was a #1 single. She has also worked with Carole King and [artist id="1466645"]Diddy[/artist], and in 1998 scored a hit with the [artist id="150232"]Lauryn Hill[/artist]-helmed "A Rose Is Still a Rose."
In addition to being a consummate singer and gifted performer, Franklin was also a vocal civil-rights activist in the '60s. She performed in support of Martin Luther King Jr., and later sang at his funeral.
On Monday night in Washington, D.C., Franklin performed at a free concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Songs she sang at the event included "Old Landmark," "Precious Memories," "Chain of Fools" and an encore of "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Singing alongside her was the Let Freedom Ring Choir, which was composed of Georgetown University students, faculty and staff.
Watch "Be the Change: Live From the Inaugural" online now, and come back Thursday for the full performances from Kanye West, Kid Rock and Fall Out Boy. Stick with us for wall-to-wall coverage of the inauguration and of the scenes in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Kenya.