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The Queen of Soul is gone.
Aretha Franklin, the sensational songbird whose voice was sweeter than honey to millions, making her an inspirational American icon and one of the most admired vocalists of all time, died Thursday after battling advanced pancreatic cancer. She died surrounded by family and loved ones at her home in Detroit, her publicist said. She was 76.
“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. 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,” Franklin’s family said in a statement through publicist Gwendolyn Quinn. “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.”
Franklin died at 9:50 a.m. local time, with the official cause of death “due to advance pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type,” confirmed by Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, but raised in the Motor City, Franklin was firmly rooted in gospel but also excelled in the worlds of jazz, R&B and pop. She collected 20 Grammys — including a lifetime achievement award — covering a span of four decades; was the first woman enshrined into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in 1987); and, befitting a queen, was named No. 1 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.
She sold more than 75 million records worldwide, according to one estimate, and had 10 Top Ten hits in a roughly 18-month stretch beginning in early 1967. A tireless road warrior, Franklin also sold millions of concert tickets, almost always arriving to shows in her custom bus (she had a fear of flying).
Franklin’s signature song, the 1967 smash “Respect” for her first album for Atlantic Records, became a battle cry for the feminist and civil rights movements. Recorded two years earlier by Otis Redding from a man’s point of view, her righteous reworking pushed “Groovin’ ” by The Young Rascals from the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100.
“It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect,” Franklin wrote in her 1999 autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots. “It became the ‘respect’ women expected from men and men expected from women, the inherent right of all human beings.”
A list of her other musical gems seems to go on forever: the bopping “Think” (which she memorably performed in The Blues Brothers film); “Chain of Fools,” “Baby, I Love You,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” “Freeway of Love” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me),” her other No. 1 hit, performed with George Michael.
“You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God,” Mary J. Blige wrote for Rolling Stone in 2008. “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.”
Born on March 25, 1942, Franklin moved to Detroit with her family at age 4. She sang gospel songs with her sisters Carolyn and Erma in the New Bethel Baptist Church that was built and presided over by her father, the fiery Rev. C.L. Franklin (a renowned gospel vocalist in his own right). Visitors to the church included Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Martin Luther King Jr.
Known as “Ree” to those closest to her, Franklin recorded her first album at age 14, and shortly after her 18th birthday, she was signed by renowned Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond, who compared her with another singer he had discovered years earlier — Billie Holiday.
With Columbia attempting to reposition Franklin as a jazzy pop singer, she enjoyed only modest success through seven albums; she notched just one Top 40 single, an update of Al Jolson’s “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.” But make no mistake, she was remarkable: In 1964, Chicago radio deejay Pervis Spann ceremoniously placed a crown atop her head during a performance at Chicago’s Regal Theater and dubbed her “the new Queen of Soul.”
She switched in 1966 to Atlantic, where she shook up the musical world with the soul masterpiece I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, her Atlantic album debut. Produced by the great Jerry Wexler and recorded at the start at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the disc led off with “Respect.” On the track, Franklin grooves and plays piano as her sisters provide the backing vocals that include the “sock it to me” mantra.
“Every time Aretha began a song, the musicians would shake their heads in wonder,” Wexler wrote in the liner notes for the album, which also included the title track, the first single from the LP, and “Do Right Woman.”
“After each take was completed, they would rush from the studio into the control room to hear the playback. Producers, engineers and musicians alike were entranced by Aretha’s purity of tone, her tremendous feeling for inspired variation and her unparalleled dynamics.”
The soulstress won two Grammys for the song on the way to eight consecutive trophies for best female R&B vocal performance.
Franklin in 1967 released Aretha Arrives, which included “Baby, I Love You,” then followed less than a year later with Lady Soul, featuring “Chain of Fools” (which reached No. 2) and the Gerry Goffin and Carole King-penned “Natural Woman.”
In June 1968, she became the second African-American woman ever to adorn the cover of Time magazine (the first was tennis star Althea Gibson in 1957).
Between 1970 and ’72, Franklin released Spirit in the Dark, This Girl’s in Love With You, Live at Fillmore West, Young, Gifted and Black and Amazing Grace, one of the best-selling pure gospel albums of all time.
After recording the soundtrack album Sparkle (1976), Franklin left Atlantic for Clive Davis’ Arista Records, where she explored funk music and a more adult contemporary sound. Her 1982 album Jump to It, produced by Luther Vandross, went gold, and Who’s Zoomin’ Who? from 1985 contained the hits “Freeway of Love” and the spunky “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics).
The title track from 1998’s A Rose Is Still a Rose, written by Lauryn Hill, returned a rejuvenated Franklin to the pop charts. In 2011, she released her 40th studio album, A Woman Falling Out of Love, on her own Aretha Records. In 2014, Davis produced Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics for her.
Franklin, the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, performed “My Country Tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
Franklin underwent surgery in 2010 after a report said she had pancreatic cancer (she denied she was stricken then) and canceled six months of public appearances. Her last show came in September at The Pavilion in Highland Park, Illinois.
Her death on Aug. 16 comes 41 years after Elvis Presley’s.
She had four sons, one just after she turned 14 and another before she was 17. She had two husbands: Ted White, who replaced her father as her manager and she said abused her, and actor Glynn Turman. Both marriages ended in divorce.
Funeral arrangements are forthcoming.
Asked what is it about music that inspires her, Franklin once said: “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 all about.”
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