Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, is Dead at 76

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul and one of the greatest singers in all music, is dead at 76. After being diagnosed and treated for pancreatic cancer in 2010, she had had sporadic health issues, which grew so severe that she officially retired in 2017. Franklin died today surrounded by family and friends in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan.

The gifted singer, interpreter, musician, and songwriter was an inspiration to the world's other best singers and performers, hailed by contemporaries like Otis Redding and Ray Charles and serving as a model to generations of younger singers.

Her famous take on Redding's "Respect" made an empowered anthem out of his domestic complaint, launching Aretha's stardom. After hearing it, Redding is reported to have said, "This girl has taken this song from me. Ain't no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her."

Giving a similar nod to Franklin, Ray Charles has said that her earlier recording of "That Lucky Old Sun" inspired his own better-known version.

Aretha grew up playing gospel piano and singing in her father's New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Reverend C.L. Franklin was a star minister, a nationally prominent gospel leader whose circle included Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Nat King Cole, and Martin Luther King Jr. Sometimes called "the man with the million dollar voice," C.L. Franklin's sermons were recorded, widely released, and played on radio shows across the country.

Aretha Franklin - "Precious Lord," recorded in 1956 at her father's New Bethel Baptist Church when she was 14

Aretha Franklin's first album was an all-gospel album recorded live at New Bethel when she was just 14 years old. By 18, she was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond, the producer and talent scout that recorded Bessie Smith and discovered Billie Holiday, among many others.

However, as her six-year contract at Columbia wore on, Franklin's talents were not put to their best use, with her early records featuring an overly clean, pop-centered repertoire. But after moving to Atlantic Records and recording at Muscle Shoals in 1967, she was empowered to be as soulful and passionate as she could over the Alabama studio's then-young and now-iconic house band.

The title track and lead single from her Atlantic debut, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, was written especially for Franklin and was the her first top R&B hit. The second single, "Respect," catapulted her to high fame. But the album also includes powerful versions of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke classics, as well as a handful of incredible songs co-written by Franklin, including "Dr. Feelgood" and "Baby, Baby, Baby" (penned with her sister and backup singer Carolyn).

Aretha Franklin - "Baby, Baby, Baby"

From that moment forward, Franklin would be known and loved all around the world. She had 10 Top 10 hits from 1967 to 1968, 17 over the course of her career, and would eventually win 18 Grammy awards and sell more than 75 million records. "I Say a Little Prayer," "Chain of Fools," and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," are just some of her indelible hits from that era.

As David Remnick wrote in the New Yorker, Martin Luther King had once "confided to C. L. Franklin, 'Frank, I will never live to see forty.' At Dr. King’s funeral, in April, 1968, Aretha was asked to sing Thomas Dorsey’s 'Precious Lord.' She was now a central voice in both the black community, eclipsing her father, and in the musical world. She had crossed over."

Between such public tragedy and acclaim, Aretha's personal life at the time was unraveling. Her marriage to Ted White, who was demanding and abusive by many accounts, and also served as her manager, was nearing an end. She drank often and had begun to cancel shows and miss recording sessions. In 1969, she abruptly cancelled a planned tour and disappeared back to her father's church.

In what would mark a pattern for much of the rest of her life, she would soon return to the music world and public attention, only once she was ready and without addressing her absence. But the early '70s were as creative a period for her as the late '60s.

By 1972's Young, Gifted, and Black, Aretha's sound had expanded along with the rest of contemporary soul music to include wider genres and influences. It won her that year's Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

She also recorded two live albums in that era that showed the two sides of her musical personality. Aretha Live at Fillmore West had her backed by a band that included drummer Bernard Purdie and Billy Preston on organ, running through her hits along with Beatles covers and other rock gems. You can watch all three shows that went into the live album online, including a performance of Aretha playing a Rhodes while singing "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

With Amazing Grace, Franklin returned to the church, leading the Southern California Community Choir in a heavy-hitting collection of live gospel. It was Aretha's personal highest-selling album and the highest-selling gospel album of all time.

A documentary about the making of Amazing Grace, shot by Sydney Pollack with Franklin's permission, has long been shelved. First, because Pollack shot it in such a way that, at the time, it was nearly impossible to match the audio to the visual images. Then, after digital technology had improved enough to complete the movie, Franklin blocked its release in U.S. District courts, arguing that it appropriates her image and likeness.

Aretha Franklin - "Day Dreaming" on Soul Train, 1973

While the '80s may not have reached her earlier artistic peaks, Franklin continued to have commercial success, including 1985's platinum-selling Who's Zoomin' Who? and a number-one duet with George Michael, "I Knew You Were Waiting For Me."

Though of course best known for her singing, Franklin is less acknowledged for her songwriting, though "Think," "Call Me," "Ain't No Way," "Day Dreaming," and the aforementioned "Baby, Baby, Baby" are just some of the songs written by Aretha, either alone or with Ted White or sister Carolyn. Her piano-playing was also as deeply rooted in gospel feel as her voice.

"You could call my piano my trademark, or one of my trademarks," Franklin once told Rolling Stone.

In Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, David Katz's salacious, unauthorized biography of Aretha (more on that below), her brother and post-White manager Cecil Franklin explains why she should have been named as a producer on all of her Atlantic albums, but was never credited as such until Amazing Grace.

"Everyone knew that she was the key element in putting those records together. But if you look at the albums you keep seeing the names of Jerry Wexler, Tommy Dowd, and Arif Mardin as producers," Cecil said. "But Aretha had the big vision for how the songs should sound. Aretha had the arrangements—both instrumental and vocal—in her head. She provided the harmonies, she provided the grooves, she had the musical vibe that made her records distinct."

After being invited by Bill Clinton to sing at his 1992 inauguration, Aretha began a new era in which she often performed for and was honored by presidents, solidifying her role as a national treasure. She'd eventually be awarded the National Medal of the Arts by Clinton, was given the Presidential Medal of Honor by George W. Bush, and performed at many key moments in the Barack Obama presidency.

Maintaining a presence on the national scene was increasingly important, as Franklin could not tour internationally. In 1984, Aretha had developed an intense fear of flying and she refused to travel by any means but bus. Some of her friends and family attributed this to her inability to let someone else be in control. During the whole latter half of her career, her private life was erratic, according to many accounts, and she exhibited controlling behavior in more ways than one.

Katz included examples of this—like sidelining her sister's recording career, throwing tantrums when other female stars were signed to her record labels, and fighting with her family—in his 1995 biography. Katz had helped write an earlier autobiography of Aretha's, in which she refused to include any detail approaching such controversy. After the new book came out, she denied much of Katz's reporting.

Aretha performing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors, 2015

But, decked in mink and carrying a pearled handbag—often filled with the cash she demanded to be paid up-front for her performances—she continued to be a presence on stages across North America and television sets across the world, an embodiment of talent and diva-ness. Her last album, A Brand New Me, combined archival vocal recordings and arrangements from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was released in November 2017.

As Billy Preston told Katz in Respect, "She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked up country ever produced."

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