Profile: Aretha Franklin, singer

ARETHA Franklin may have slimmed down since she was upstaged by her hat at President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony in 2009, but the Queen of Soul is still a huge figure in the US music scene.

Just five months after she was forced to cancel a series of concerts as a result of a "mystery" illness, widely (but she claims wrongly) reported to be pancreatic cancer, the 69-year-old icon is releasing a new album - Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love - as part of a comeback which will also see her performing live at venues across the US.

Having shed 85lbs, she has taken to the chat show circuit, where she has been denying rumours she had a gastric band fitted and handing out advice to the one singer who gives her a run for her money in the millinery stakes. "Don't get up on the piano," she told Lady Gaga, referring to her tumble from a flaming instrument at a recent concert.

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Speaking of her album, the singer who turned Otis Redding's number Respect into a feminist anthem has a message for ordinary women too: "OK, ladies, take a good look at the photo of me on this album; this is how you're supposed to look when you're a woman falling out of love. Go out and have a ball."

It is apposite that the singer who, more than any other, has charted the progress of the civil rights movement, has also included her rendition of My Country, Tis Of Thee as a bonus track. At a time when Obama has been forced to publish his birth certificate to prove he was born in the US, the song she sang at his inauguration serves as a poignant reminder both of the optimism that accompanied his election and the extent to which race still divides America.

The daughter of Baptist minister, CL Franklin - who, with Martin Luther King, organised a freedom march in downtown Detroit in 1963 - Franklin was introduced to black activism at an early age. She sang at the funerals of King and Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to give up her seat for a white man sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. It was at Parks' funeral that Franklin first met Obama and she welcomed his election as president. But by the end of 2010, Obama's honeymoon period was over and Franklin's health was deteriorating.

Now, her health problem has been resolved, and she is in sparkling form. Giving her first national TV performance on The View last week, she sang her new single How Long I've Been Waiting and Respect. In an interview she revealed she had compiled a list of things to do before she dies, including singing on Broadway, visiting Egypt and taking tea with the Queen (although her fear of flying make the latter two unlikely).

The woman Rolling Stone magazine rated the greatest singer of all time also showed she still knows how to stoke controversy. She infuriated Oprah Winfrey by giving her first comeback interview to relative newcomer Wendy Williams and took a sideswipe at Halle Berry - who turned down the opportunity to play her in a forthcoming biopic - by questioning her lip-synching skills.

If anyone has earned the right to behave like a diva, though, it's Franklin. Born in a two-room house in Memphis, she had a chaotic childhood. Although CL Franklin was a much-respected preacher, who hung out with gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, his marriage to singer Barbara Siggers was a troubled one.

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When Franklin - the third of the couple's four children - was six, they split up. Her mother moved to Buffalo where she died of a heart attack four years later. By then Franklin, who was being raised by her grandmother in Detroit, had taught herself to play the piano. Soon, she was singing solo in her father's New Bethnal Baptist Church, and touring with a gospel caravan.

By the age of 14, however, Franklin was pregnant with her first son, Clarence. A second, Edward, followed two years later. The singer has never identified the father of these boys who, like her, were brought up by her grandmother.

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It wasn't long before she was dating family acquaintance Ted White who became her husband and manager. Inspired by singer Dinah Washington, Franklin at first focused on jazz-influenced pop music. It wasn't until she signed with Atlantic in 1967, that her Gospel roots were allowed to show and her rendition of Respect propelled her to international stardom.

By the end of the Sixties, Franklin's tempestuous marriage, which produced a third son, Ted jnr, was over. But she had notched up a string of hits, including Chain Of Fools, and been crowned the Queen Of Soul.

Her star faded in the Seventies but, in 1980, an appearance in The Blues Brothers film gave her career a shot in the arm and saw her sign with Arista Records. Soon she was on a creative roll, producing hits such as Who's Zooming Who? and dueting with Annie Lennox on Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves. Her personal life continued to be traumatic. After she and White separated, she was rumoured to be drinking heavily and was arrested for disorderly conduct. She went on to have a seven-year relationship with her road manager Ken Cunningham, which produced a son, Kecalf, before marrying actor Glynn Turman. Just after she and Turman divorced in 1984, there was further heartbreak when her father died. He had been in a coma since 1979 when he had been shot in his home by robbers.

Franklin's career has waxed and waned since then. High points have included her appearance at Bill Clinton's inauguration ceremony in 1993, low points the criticism she took for the quality of her voice at Obama's inauguration.

Whether she is picking up accolades (she has 18 competitive Grammys and two honorary ones) or being taken to task for her diva-esque behaviour, her national treasure status is undisputed. The new album which marks 50 years in show business and is released on Wednesday is already attracting a lot of interest. The biopic, which may now star Jennifer Hudson or Fantasia Barrino, will ensure future generations grasp the towering role she played in US culture. Physically Aretha Franklin is a shadow of her former self, but there seems little chance of her fading into insignificance.

Facts of Life

• At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Franklin - with just 30 minutes' notice - stepped in to sing Nessun Dorma for Luciano Pavarotti, right, who had taken ill. She was the toast of the ceremony.

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• Two of Franklin's sons have followed her lead. Ted jnr has played guitar in her backing band since the 80s, while Kecalf, a Christian hip-hop rapper, sings on her new album.

• Franklin was close friends with Cissy Houston, of The Sweet Inspirations, who sang on several of Franklin's songs. Cissy's daughter Whitney is Franklin's goddaughter, and sang the soprano whoop in the background of Franklin's Ain't No Way.

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• In 1987, Franklin became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

• The Luke Song hat with the enormous bow Franklin wore to Barack Obama's inauguration was donated to the Smithsonian Museum.