Aretha Franklin, the trailblazing singer known as the “Queen of Soul” for a string of hits including “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” died Thursday morning from pancreatic cancer at her home in Detroit. She was 76.
Franklin’s remarkable career, which spans soul, R&B, gospel, pop and even opera, was filled with impressive feats and groundbreaking firsts. She has received 18 Grammy Awards, was honored by the Kennedy Center and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian medal. She was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and the only solo singer to perform at the swearing-in ceremony for President Barack Obama in 2009. The Michigan legislature named her a “natural resource.”
“She isn’t just one of the best singers in popular music, she’s one of the best singers, period,” said rock historian James Henke, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s former vice president of curatorial affairs.
In fact, all her success and all her awards were hard to fathom — until you heard her sing. Franklin’s voice wasn’t just powerful and expressive, but also nimble, with a wide range — a once-in-a-lifetime combination of talent and technique.
“You know a force from heaven,” singer Mary J. Blige wrote in her tribute to Franklin in Rolling Stone in 2010. “You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.”
She was born Aretha Louise Franklin on March 25, 1942, in Memphis to the Rev. C.L. Franklin and gospel singer Barbara Siggers Franklin, who died when her daughter was 10 years old. Music was always a part of Aretha Franklin’s life, starting from the days when she would sing at the Detroit church of her father, then pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church and a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Franklin was only 14 when she released her first album, “The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin,” shortly after she gave birth to her son, Clarence. After she gave birth to her son, Edward, when she was 16, she began touring with her father regularly.
At 18, she signed her first recording contract with Columbia Records, who saw her as a pop star in the making, though things didn’t quite click. It wasn’t until six years later — in 1966, when Franklin signed with Atlantic Records and producer Jerry Wexler wanted her to develop her soulful side — that she showed the makings of The Queen, starting with her first Atlantic single, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Love You).”
Franklin’s Atlantic debut was a stunning change of direction, hailed by many as the best soul album ever. She put her own indelible stamp on Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” co-wrote the memorable “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)” and “Baby, Baby, Baby,” and introduced the world to “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.”
That album also marked her arrival as a powerful voice for the civil rights movement, though she had been a part of it for years — from the moment she saw King on TV. “I was a very young girl — in my teens — but I understood what he was trying to do and I believed in that,” Franklin told Newsday in 2007. “For myself, it was a way of making a very small contribution to a very big, big happening.”
Franklin said the success of “Respect,” both as a song and as a rallying cry, wasn’t through her creation. “It came out during the civil rights movement and the movement picked that up as a mantra, as did the nation for different reasons,” she said. “Everybody wants respect. ‘Respect’ came into its own prominence and took on a life of its own.”
Her career also took on a life of its own. Though her commercial peak was certainly in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when singles such as “Chain of Fools,” “Think” and “Spanish Harlem” were fixtures at the top of the charts, Franklin would remind people of her pop powers often. In the late ‘70s, as she steered clear of disco music that didn’t interest her and dealing with the shooting of her father that left him in a coma, Franklin’s career stalled, though it was coaxed back to life with help from Luther Vandross.
In the 1980s, she returned with a string of hits from her “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” album — including “Freeway of Love” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” — as well as her No. 1 duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).”
In 1998, she stunned the world by filling in for an ill Luciano Pavarotti at the Grammys by singing “Nessun Dorma” as a tribute to Pavarotti with only 20 minutes notice and handling the challenging Puccini aria flawlessly.
In recent years, Franklin even embraced hip-hop rhythms, teaming up with Lauryn Hill for “A Rose Is Still a Rose” in the ‘90s and Blige on “So Damn Happy” in 2003. In 2014, she gave songs by contemporary artists like Adele and Alicia Keys the “Aretha treatment” on her album “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.”
As anyone who has sweated through one of her concerts due to her no-air-conditioning policy can attest, Franklin conducted herself like a legend in every sense of the word. She even made fun of that behavior in a recent Snickers ad campaign called “Diva.”
However, in Franklin’s world, everyone was also treated with respect, as she addressed everyone as “Mister” and “Miss,” resulting in her being addressed as “Miss Franklin” herself.
Not that many would consider disrespecting the “Queen of Soul” in any case, especially as she collected honorary degrees from Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities and the Berklee College of Music. Anyone who would dare try, need only watch her “Divas” performance in 1998, where she dominated an all-star version of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” featuring the biggest stars of the day, including Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Gloria Estefan and Carole King.
When she performed that song as the Kennedy Center honored King in 2015, she brought the house down as she dropped her fur coat to the floor and then brought many, including Obama, to tears with her powerful voice.
In recent years, either by accident or by design, Franklin’s cellphone had no message — only the sound of her clearing her throat. It’s a tribute to her impressive, distinctive voice that even that sound is identifiable as hers and will never be duplicated.
“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,” her family — including sons Clarence, Edward and KeCalf Franklin and Ted White Jr., and her grandchildren — said in a statement. “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.”
Funeral arrangements have not been announced.