Aretha Franklin, whose impassioned, riveting voice made her a titan of American music, has died. She was a recording artist, a performer, a civil rights activist, a freedom fighter, a friend of Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She died this morning, surrounded by family at her home in Detroit. Regarded as one of the greatest singers of all time, Aretha Franklin was suffering from 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. 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,” A family statement released by her publicist Gwendolyn Quinn said.
The Queen of Soul, as she was dubbed in the 1960s, leaves a sprawling legacy of classic songs that includes “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby I Love You,” “Angel,” “Think,” “Rock Steady,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Freeway of Love,” along with a bestselling gospel catalog.
Aretha Franklin had been in ill health since 2010, when she was diagnosed with a tumour but returned to intermittent live performance after undergoing surgery. Despite having announced her retirement from performing in 2017, she was due to headline two shows at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest this April but cancelled on doctor’s orders. Her last performance was at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City during Elton John’s 25th anniversary gala for the Elton John Aids Foundation on 7 November 2017.
Known as “the queen of soul”, Franklin sold more than 75m records in her lifetime and won 18 Grammy awards. She had 77 entries in the US Billboard Hot 100 and 20 No 1 singles on the R&B chart. Her last album was A Brand New Me, released in November 2017, which paired archival vocal recordings for Atlantic Records with new orchestral arrangements by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Her last original recording was Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics in 2014, which included her take on Adele’s Rolling in the Deep.
“American history wells up when Aretha sings,” former US president Barack Obama said of her performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. “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.”
The Queen of Soul sang for Presidents and Kings. Amid the global glitter and acclaim, she remained loyal to her home region, living in the Detroit area for decades, including the Bloomfield Hills house where she moved in the late 1980s.
“My roots are there. The church is there. My family is there,” she commented in 2011. “I like the camaraderie in Detroit, how we’ll rally behind something that’s really worthy and come to each other’s assistance.”
Aretha Franklin’s voice was a singular force, earning her a multitude of laurels through the decades, including 18 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and honorary doctorates from a host of institutions. In 1987, she became the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and seven years later, at age 52, the youngest recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.
The Queen of Soul was born on 25 March 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. The family moved to Buffalo, New York, when she was two years old, and settled in Detroit, Michigan two years later. It was in Detroit, shortly after her mother’s death, that the 10-year-old Franklin started singing solos at New Bethel church, where her father was a preacher whose political sermons led Martin Luther King to stay with the family when he visited Detroit.
It’s at that time that, her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin who just took over duties at New Bethel Baptist Church, began managing his daughter and included her in his “gospel caravan” church tours. He assisted Aretha Franklin in signing first to JVB Records, which released her debut, Songs of Faith, in 1956, then to Columbia to pursue a pop career. After a first flush of success in the early 1960s, Franklin signed to Atlantic in 1966, where she flourished with an extraordinary run of singles including her cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “I Say a Little Prayer”.
In 1972, she released the live album Amazing Grace, which showcased her gospel background.
While her success had dimmed by the mid-1970s, Aretha Franklin revitalised her career in the 1980s thanks, in part, to a series of astute collaborations. Now signed to Clive Davis’s Arista Records, she duetted with George Benson, George Michael and, on their 1985 single “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”, the British synth-pop duo Eurythmics.
Franklin continued to release albums and perform throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and received the Grammy award for lifetime achievement in 1994. In 2005, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2009, she performed My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’ at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
The Queen of Soul announced her retirement from performing in February 2017. Stepping back from performing was bittersweet, she said. “This is what I’ve done all of my life.” But, she added: “I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from and where it is now.”
She was working on an as-yet unreleased album featuring collaborations with artists including Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Lionel Richie, she told Billboard in June 2017. In January 2018, Aretha Franklin’s long-term collaborator Clive Davis confirmed that the singer Jennifer Hudson would portray Franklin in the upcoming biopic Queen of Soul. Franklin had described Hudson as one of her first choices for the MGM film.
The Queen of Soul’s musical influence is immeasurable. “The soulfulness comes from the gospel,” Beyoncé once said. “It comes from Aretha, who listened to all of that, who sang in the church.” She has been sampled by artists including Kanye West, Outkast and Alicia Keys.
For years Aretha Franklin talked about plans to tackle her flying phobia, but never followed through. It kept her grounded for the final 35 years of her life, plausibly costing her millions in touring revenue. She topped Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list, and her signature hit, “Respect,” ranked N° 4 on Songs of the Century, a 1999 project by the National Endowment for the Arts.
She is survived by her four sons.