‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin dies at 76 of pancreatic cancer
Her bell-clear voice with its four octaves found its way into the styles of stars such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, through to Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige and Amy Winehouse
Raised on gospel, bathed in rhythm and blues and fluent in jazz and pop, Aretha Franklin came to be known as the “Queen of Soul” through seven decades of electrifying performances.
From her father’s church to the hallowed grounds of the US Capitol, Franklin sang for parishioners and presidents and left her mark on music fans everywhere.
Franklin died on Thursday in Detroit after succumbing to pancreatic cancer. Family and friends had gathered around her during her final days, her publicist told US media. She was 76.
Perhaps best known for the vocal power behind her feminist-tinged cover of Otis Redding’s Respect, Franklin was an inspiration for two generations of pop divas.
Her bell-clear voice with its four octaves found its way into the styles of stars such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston – whose mother, Cissy Houston, was a backup singer for Franklin – to Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige and Amy Winehouse.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25, 1942 to C.L. Franklin, a prominent Baptist preacher, and Barbara Siggers Franklin, Aretha Louise Franklin grew up singing gospel in her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
Her first recording – Spirituals – came out on a local label in 1956 when she was just 14 years old. She signed with Columbia records in 1960, releasing her first album “The Great Aretha Franklin”.
That brought her several R&B hits, and one which broke into Billboard’s top 40 in 1961, Rock-A-Bye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody).
But her career really took off after moving to Atlantic Records in 1966 and beginning a collaboration with legendary producer Jerry Wexler that would result in 14 albums together.
Respect soared to number one in 1967, topping the charts for weeks and being adopted as the anthem of the civil rights and the women’s equality movements.
Winning her the accolade “Queen of Soul” it brought her the first of 18 Grammy Awards; Rolling Stone ranked it number five on its list of the Greatest Songs of All Time.
In rapid succession came hits like Chain of Fools and the sensual ballad (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
“If a song’s about something I’ve experienced or that could’ve happened to me, it’s good. But if it’s alien to me, I couldn’t lend anything to it. Because that’s what soul is about – just living and having to get along,” she told Time magazine in a 1968 cover story on her explosion into the mainstream.
By the mid-1970s her style got lost in the disco explosion, but by the 1980s a revival of interest in old-style R&B brought her back into favour – as did a cameo performance in the film The Blues Brothers where she sang “Think”.
She followed that up with hits like Freeway of Love and, with the Eurythmics, Sisters are Doing it for Themselves.
Her personal life was a struggle, however. As an unmarried teenager, Franklin gave birth to a son at 13 and another two years later. She had two more sons and was married and divorced twice. She had lifelong battles with her weight and with alcoholism.
Her father was shot in a robbery in 1979 and spent five years in a coma before dying at the age of 69 in 1984. But nothing dimmed her status as music royalty. In 1968 she sang her heart out at the funeral of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jnr.
She also sang at the October 2011 dedication of the King memorial in Washington, stirring the crowd with a rendition of the gospel anthem “Precious Lord”, and performed at the inaugurations of three US presidents – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Her stirring rendition of My Country ’Tis of Thee at the January 2009 ceremony for Barack Obama, the first African-American president, saw her wearing a widely remarked grey hat with a big bow. And in 2015 she sang Amazing Grace before Pope Francis as he visited Philadelphia for the massive Festival of Families.
In 1987, Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“She has taken on many roles – the devout gospel singer, the sensual R&B siren, the pop crossover phenom, Lady Soul – and dominated them all,” the Hall said in its biography.
Franklin reached the top of the pop charts in 1987 with I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me), a duet with George Michael.
She was a recipient of the Kennedy Centre Honours in 1994 and in 2005, George W Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour.
Franklin continued to perform into the 2000s, holding court – and holding her own, vocals-wise – with in-their-prime pop divas.
She released an album of duets with Houston, Carey and Blige in 2007 and covered Adele, Barbara Streisand and Sinead O’Connor tunes for the 2014 album “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics”.
In her 70s, she was forced to cancel a series of concerts for health reasons and she announced her retirement from touring in 2017. In November 2017, she appeared very thin when singing at an anniversary gala for the Elton John Aids Foundation.
Franklin had been scheduled to make several performances this year despite announcing her retirement. Ill health, however, forced her to cancel a March 25 concert to mark her 76th birthday.
Announcing her retirement, Franklin said she had been blessed.
“I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from, and where it is now,” she said.
‘Salute to the Queen’: stars react to Aretha’s death
As news of the singer’s death spread, celebrities, critics and peers were quick to voice their admiration for the “Queen of Soul”.
Barbara Streisand: “It’s difficult to conceive of a world without her. Not only was she a uniquely brilliant singer, but her commitment to civil rights made an indelible impact on the world.”
Carole King: “What a life. What a legacy! So much love, respect and gratitude. R.I.P.”
Record producer Clive Davis: “I’m absolutely devastated by Aretha’s passing. She was truly one of a kind. She was more than the Queen of Soul. She was a national treasure to be cherished by every generation throughout the world. Apart from our long professional relationship, Aretha was my friend. Her loss is deeply profound and my heart is full of sadness.”
Elton John: “The loss of Aretha Franklin is a blow for everybody who loves real music: Music from the heart, the soul and the Church. Her voice was unique, her piano playing underrated — she was one of my favourite pianists.”
Lionel Richie: “Her voice; her presence; her style. No one did it better. Truly the Queen of Soul. I will miss you!”
Bill Clinton: “For more than 50 years, she stirred our souls. She was elegant, graceful, and utterly uncompromising in her artistry. Aretha’s first music school was the church and her performances were powered by what she learned there. I’ll always be grateful for her kindness and support, including her performances at both my inaugural celebrations, and for the chance to be there for what sadly turned out to be her final performance last November at a benefit supporting the fight against HIV/AIDS. She will forever be the Queen of Soul and so much more to all who knew her personally and through her music. Our hearts go out to her family and her countless fans.”
Paul McCartney: “Let’s all take a moment to give thanks for the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of our souls, who inspired us all for many, many years. She will be missed but the memory of her greatness as a musician and a fine human being will live with us forever.”
Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Lucky enough to have seen Aretha live exactly once ... Thank you for the music, we will be listening to you forever.”
Annie Lennox: “Aretha Franklin was simply peerless. She has reigned supreme, and will always be held in the highest firmament of stars as the most exceptional vocalist, performer and recording artist the world has ever been privileged to witness.”
John Legend: “Salute to the Queen. The greatest vocalist I’ve ever known.”
Hugh Jackman: “One of the highlights of my career was singing with #ArethaFranklin at The Tony Awards. It was an out of body experience for me. One of greatest singers of all time. You will be missed by all.”