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In her autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots, Aretha Franklin mused on a term coined by one of her boyfriends: “The Age of Aretha.” “I loved that phrase,” she wrote. “People were growing up to my music, getting married, having babies, defining their youth, and making memories that would last a lifetime.”
If anyone deserved their own era, it was Franklin. Her voice is so deeply embedded in our culture that the mere mention of her name elicits a profound sense of love, strength, independence, and history. She didn’t just sing songs, she sang battle cries — the type of music that grabbed you by the shoulders and shook you to life, propelled you to the dance floor, consoled your broken heart, and radicalized your mind. And that’s never been more clear than it was following the Queen of Soul’s death on Aug. 16 at her home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, at the age of 76 from advanced pancreatic cancer.
This week, EW pays tribute to the life and legacy of this once-in-a-generation artist with an extended look back from writer Barry Walters, along with a rundown of her best songs and pivotal performances, an essay on the importance of her best-selling gospel album Amazing Grace, her 1980s resurgence, and salutes from friends and former collaborators. As Spooner Oldham — who played piano, organ, and keyboard on some of Franklin’s greatest hits (“Respect” and “Think,” among others) — tells EW, “She had such command of that voice and piano. The three albums I played on, she never said, ‘Play this’ or ‘Do that.’ It was never a lot of work. I don’t know what homework she did beforehand. I just know she sang songs once or twice and was done.”
“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.”
It’s courage that led Franklin’s music to immortality, a powerfully transformative artist shifting the cultural trajectory, shaping the way we hear, feel, and think about songs and life today. Franklin may be gone, but her music isn’t. The Age of Aretha lives on.
For more on Aretha Franklin, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday.