Aretha Franklin, justifiably hailed as the Queen of Soul and one of the greatest singers of any music genre, died Thursday at her home in Detroit, her publicist confirmed to the Associated Press. She was 76.
Publicist Gwendolyn Quinn told the AP through a family statement that Franklin’s cause of death was advanced pancreatic cancer. “In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart,” the family said. “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”
The statement continued, “We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”
From her gospel beginnings in the early ’50s to her 2014 cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” Franklin wowed audiences with the power of her incomparably intense and instantly recognizable mezzo-soprano and rollicking piano. One of the most successful musicians of all time, she placed 73 titles on Billboard’s Hot 100 and scored 100 entries on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, including 17 pop Top 10s and 21 R&B number one singles — an achievement that has made her the second most-charted female artist in U.S. history.
Yet Franklin’s mark on the world goes far beyond her astronomical sales and 18 Grammys. Hits like “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “Think” — all recorded during the peak of her late ‘60s popularity — brought together personal and sociological themes with a piercing authority that made her both a crucial influence on the civil rights movement and an inspiration to women the world over. “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope,” wrote President Barack Obama in response to her 2015 Kennedy Center Honors performance of “Natural Woman,” which justly made him cry. “American history wells up when Aretha sings.”
Born March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tenn., Franklin was the middle daughter of Barbara Siggers, a gospel singer who died when Aretha was only 9, and C.L. Franklin, a traveling preacher who settled down to become the socially progressive minister of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church. This was where 14-year-old Aretha recorded her first album, 1956’s Songs of Faith. By the time she was 15, Franklin already had given birth to two sons. Still, after touring with her father’s close friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she longed to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke and transition from gospel to secular pop. Franklin signed to Columbia Records in 1960; that same year, she scored her first R&B Top 10 hit with “Today I Sing the Blues.”
By mid-decade, Franklin racked up several strong entries on the R&B singles and album charts, but failed to achieve even one major pop crossover during her six years at Columbia. Her gospel roots were downplayed during this period in favor of standards and light jazz, but everything changed for Franklin once she signed to Atlantic Records in early 1967. Her first single for the label, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” was both her first Top 10 pop hit and first R&B number one. Its follow-up, her definitive rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which was significantly revamped to come from a fed-up woman’s perspective, topped both charts. Before the year was up, she also scored with “Baby I Love You,” “Natural Woman,” and “Chain of Fools.”
More than just a hugely talented musician, Franklin became an icon of black pride in the late-’60s while winning the heart of the American mainstream without a trace of compromise. And even while racism raged through much of the country, her work with Jerry Wexler — a white, Jewish journalist-turned-producer — proved that artists could come together to create something truly transcendent. The sheer force of her emotion combined with the precision of her vocal technique meant that Franklin could reach nearly everyone: In the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, Time put her on its cover in June 1968; she was the first African-American woman to appear there.
“I might be just 26, but I’m an old woman in disguise — 26 goin’ on 65,” she told the magazine shortly before ending her first marriage to Ted White. “Trying to grow up is hurting, you know. You make mistakes. You try to learn from them, and when you don’t it hurts even more. And I’ve been hurt — hurt bad.”
The hits kept on coming through the rest of the ‘60s – including “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Ain’t No Way,” “The House That Jack Built,” as well as her inimitable interpretations of “I Say a Little Prayer” and “The Weight.” As she entered the ‘70s, Franklin traded her bouffant and gowns for an Afro and dashikis as her music drew deeper from her gospel roots, even while covering early Elton John (“Border Song”) and late Simon & Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”). Her own songwriting chops sharpened on such hits as “Call Me,” “Day Dreaming,” and “Rock Steady.”
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But soon after 1972’s Amazing Grace, a live double LP that remains the biggest album of her career and also the best-selling gospel set of all time, the pop hits dried up, and even her major R&B victories became less frequent. The soul of the ‘60s had morphed into the funk and disco of the ‘70s, and despite such shining achievements as her 1976 collaboration with Curtis Mayfield on Sparkle and its R&B smash “Something He Can Feel,” Franklin closed the decade with shrinking sales and diminishing artistic returns.
Her career turned around in 1980, when she signed to Clive Davis’ Arista Records, performed for Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Albert Hall, and gave a breakout performance playing a wailing waitress alongside Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers, one of the largest grossing movie musicals of all time. In 1982, Jump to It — a co-production between Franklin and the era’s hottest rising R&B star, Luther Vandross — became her 10th R&B chart-topper; its club-ready title track returned her to dance floors and Top 40.
But even this was a warm-up for 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who, an emphatically youthful platinum smash that yielded four hits, including “Freeway of Love” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” a feminist roof-raiser with Eurythmics. While updating the fiery vibe of Franklin’s heyday, Zoomin’ positioned the diva in that sweet spot between classic and contemporary.
By this point, Franklin had divorced her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, whom she married in 1978; moved from California back to Detroit to assist her father who was shot during a burglary in his home; and stopped flying (Franklin’s infrequent tours after 1983 were conducted by bus). Nevertheless, her second hit streak lingered through much of the ‘80s with help from George Michael (‘87’s pop chart-topper “I Knew You Were Waiting [For Me]”), Elton John (“Through the Storm”), and her honorary niece Whitney Houston (“It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be”). Following the 1988 death of sister Carolyn, who’d co-written Franklin’s 1973 ballad “Angel,” and the late ’89 death of brother Cecil, her longtime manager, Franklin quit smoking to save her voice, but downshifted her career. As she confided in a 1995 Ebony cover story that appeared halfway through a seven-year gap between albums, The Queen slept until noon, watched her soaps, and cooked for friends and family. “I can wear some chitlins out,” she confessed.
But in 1998, Franklin once again entered the ring. She earned her first accolades in years when subbing on the Grammys for Luciano Pavarotti; she sang “Nessun Dorma,” the Puccini aria he’d re-popularized. This primed the public and media alike for “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” which Lauryn Hill wrote and produced for the legend between quitting the Fugees and releasing The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. This gold single framed Franklin with fragrant strings and thorny beats, while the album of the same name similarly matched her with hip-hop kingpins like Jermaine Dupri and Puff Daddy.
Although most subsequent records — like 2011’s self-released Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love — slipped out quieter than mounting rumors of ill health, 2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics reunited the legend with her public. In 2015, she blocked Amazing Grace, a documentary featuring footage from a 1972 concert shot by Tootsie’s Sydney Pollack. An authorized Franklin biopic has been in development for years, and earlier this year it was confirmed that MGM had acquired the rights to the film. Straight Outta Compton producer Scott Bernstein is currently attached to the project starring Jennifer Hudson. Following a tribute to the Queen of Soul at his annual pre-Grammys bash in January 2018, Clive Davis announced that Hudson was Franklin’s choice to portray her on the big screen. Hudson’s performances of “Think” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” that night demonstrated she is clearly up for the challenge, but she has her work cut out for her: Even more than R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Franklin has always stood for truth.
“I sing to the realists; people who accept it like it is,” Franklin explained in 1990 on the Grammy Legends Show. “I express problems — there are tears when it’s sad and smiles when it’s happy. It seems simple to me, but to some, I guess, feeling takes courage.”