By Larry Starr, Christopher Waterman
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It was a much younger target group than ever before, a large audience that shared specific characteristics of group cultural identity. These were kids growing up in the 1950s, a period of relative economic stability and prosperity marked by a return to socially and politically conservative ways. This was also the first generation to grow up with television; this new mass medium proved a force of incalculable influence. The term “rock ’n’ roll ” was first used for commercial and generational purposes by disc jockey Alan Freed.
Franklin grew up with gospel music; her father was the pastor for a large Baptist congregation in Detroit. Franklin’s first recordings were as a gospel singer, at the age of 14, and she occasionally returned to recording gospel music in the midst of her career as a pop singer — most spectacularly with the live album Amazing Grace (1972), which was recorded in a church. Amazing Grace introduced legions of pop music fans to the power of gospel music. The album was a Top 10 bestseller and the most successful album of Franklin’s entire career; it sold over two million copies.
Franklin symbolized female empowerment not only in the sound of her records but also in the process of making them. By the time she recorded a tune called “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” in 1985, she was telling a story that had been true of her for a long time. In the 1960s female empowerment was something new and important in pop music. And neither its novelty nor its importance was lost on the rising generation of female singer-songwriters, such as Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, whose ascent to prominence began directly in the wake of Aretha Franklin’s conquest of the pop charts.