Aretha Franklin, whose exceptionally expressive singing about joy and pain and faith and liberation earned the Detroit diva a permanent and undisputed title — the “Queen of Soul” — died Thursday at her home in Detroit. She was 76.
Her representative Gwendolyn Quinn confirmed the death to the Associated Press and said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
One of the most celebrated and influential singers in the history of American vernacular song, Franklin reserved her place on music’s Mount Rushmore in the late 1960s and early 1970s by exploring the secular sweet spot between sultry rhythm-and-blues and the explosive gospel music she’d grown up singing in her father’s Baptist church.
The result was potent and wildly popular, with defining soul anthems that turned Franklin into a symbol of black pride and women’s liberation.
Her calling card: “Respect,” the Otis Redding hit that became a crossover smash in 1967 after Franklin tweaked it just so (a “sock it to me” here, some sisterly vocal support there), transforming the tune into a fervent feminist anthem.
“Whenever women heard the record, it was like a tidal wave of sororal unity,” the song’s producer, Jerry Wexler, said two decades after Franklin first declared, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”
Twenty of her singles topped Billboard’s R&B chart and more than 50 reached the R&B Top 10 over a six-decade recording career during which she earned volumes of praise for her innovative and emotive vocal performances, even when the material didn’t quite measure up to her talents.
A graceful mezzo-soprano stylist, Franklin had remarkable range, power and command, along with the innate ability to burrow into a lyric until she’d found the exact coordinates of its emotional core.
“She just bared her soul, she exposed herself, she did everything but get on the floor and scream and cry,” singer Natalie Cole told VH1. “She just had that special something that people respond to.”
“I don’t know anybody that can sing a song like Aretha Franklin,” Ray Charles once declared. “Nobody. Period.”
She was at once a brilliant technician and a master emoter, a devastating combination that was unleashed on hits ranging from the swaggering “Chain of Fools” and the cooing “Baby, I Love You” to the pleading “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and the fiery, finger-wagging, “Freedom!”-chanting “Think,” another of Franklin’s feminist anthems that gave unprecedented voice to black women in particular.
In Franklin’s music, the politics were mostly personal, even when she sang about being “Young, Gifted and Black.” But through the profundity and ubiquity of her songs, she became the multi-octave voice of the civil rights movement, performing at rallies staged by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a family friend — and, later, at King’s funeral.
As one measure of her influence, comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory observed of Franklin’s radio presence: “You’d hear Aretha three or four times an hour. You’d only hear King on the news.”
She sang gospel truths that resonated across age groups, but it was grown-up music, reflecting an adult sense of self-awareness and sexual maturity and full of hard realities to which she seemed to relate.
“If a song’s about something I’ve experienced or that could’ve happened to me, it’s good,” she told biographer Mark Bego. “But if it’s alien to me, I couldn’t lend anything to it. … I look for something meaningful. When I go into the studio, I put everything into it. Even the kitchen sink.”
In 1968, at the apogee of her career when she was in her mid-20s and recording soul classic after soul classic on Atlantic Records, Franklin explained: “Soul to me is a feeling, a lot of depth and being able to bring to the surface that which is happening inside, to make the picture clear. Many people can have soul. It’s just the emotion and the way it affects people.”
Long before she abruptly and mysteriously canceled a half-year’s worth of performances and appearances in November 2010 (doctor’s orders were cited, but no details about her ailments were offered), Franklin’s health had been a source of concern, mostly because of the considerable weight she was carrying.
When she resurfaced in 2011 for a brief concert tour, just months after announcing that she was undergoing an unspecified surgical procedure, Franklin told AARP magazine that she’d shed 85 pounds. She attributed the change to diet and exercise but steadfastly denied that she’d had gastric-bypass surgery — and also that she’d had pancreatic cancer. Franklin did not divulge additional details.
If she was concerned with body image before the weight loss, it didn’t show. Sometimes, she’d wear tube tops and leotards onstage, as if to flaunt her girth. In her later years, she favored strapless gowns and was known to slap her backside during her infrequent concerts.
She was more prim and proper in 2009, when she sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, although she did turn heads by wearing a custom-made church-lady hat that featured a giant, angled bow ringed with Swarovski crystals. (Franklin had a favorite milliner and even a preferred furrier. She also traveled with a valet who would carry the singer’s designer purse on- and offstage at her concerts.)
Franklin’s career could be divided neatly into two parts: the Atlantic Records years in the late 1960s and 1970s, and everything else, with some periods more fallow than others.
Before she became a soul-singing superstar, Aretha Louise Franklin was a young pop-jazz singer struggling to find her voice on Columbia Records.
Even before that, she was a precocious gospel singer who took solos at her father’s Detroit church, New Bethel Baptist, and occasionally toured with the charismatic minister.
She was born March 25, 1942, in Memphis but moved to Buffalo, then Detroit, at a young age when her father changed pulpits. A rock star among preachers, C.L. Franklin was known as “the man with the million-dollar voice.” His sermons, often delivered beneath a neon-blue crucifix, were broadcast on the radio and released on vinyl by Chess Records.
Aretha’s mother, Barbara Siggers, was called one of the top gospel singers in the country by Mahalia Jackson, a family friend and gospel great.
Siggers never pursued a career in music beyond performing in church, but Jackson encouraged Aretha to sing. So, too, did Clara Ward, another gospel legend who visited the Franklin home regularly.
The Franklins often had celebrity company (jazz pianist Art Tatum and singer Sam Cooke were frequent guests), and Aretha was becoming a minor sensation herself. But her childhood was rocky.
Her parents separated when she was 6, and her mother moved back to Buffalo — although Franklin, in her autobiography, “Aretha: From These Roots,” disputed the widely repeated story that she and her siblings had been abandoned.
“In no way, shape, form or fashion did our mother desert us,” she said, calling the story “an absolute lie.” They communicated by phone, and there were regular visits, too. “She was extremely responsible, loving and caring.”
Still, according to biographers, family friends always swore that the upheaval deeply affected Franklin, who had been a confident and outgoing child but became introverted and insecure after her mother moved away.
Then, when Franklin was 10, her mother died after a heart attack. “The pain of small children losing their mother defies description,” Franklin said in “From These Roots.” Jackson, the gospel singer and family friend, would say that “after her mama died, the whole family wanted for love.”
Franklin continued to sing in church and signed a deal with Checker Records. In 1956, at age 14, she released her first album — a collection of hymns and spirituals recorded during services at New Bethel Baptist.
Her burgeoning career — she was also a gifted pianist — was placed on hold when Franklin twice became pregnant as a teenager and dropped out of school. She had two sons, Clarence and Edward, by the time she was 15. (The father — or fathers — has never been identified, leading to wild speculation.)
When Franklin returned to music, she shifted her attention to secular songs, with her father’s blessings — and guidance.
Her father advised his daughter against signing a contract with the local start-up that would eventually come to produce the sound of young America. And so Motown, which was scooping up talent all around the neighborhood, with everybody from Diana Ross to Smokey Robinson, missed out on Aretha Franklin.
“The studio was only a few blocks from where my dad’s home was, where we lived,” Franklin told The Washington Post in 2008. But “it was still a fledgling label. And my father wanted me to go to Columbia Records because of the national and international distribution he knew they had.”
Still just a teenager, she signed with Columbia in 1960 after the famed talent scout John Hammond became convinced he’d found the greatest voice since Billie Holiday.
Franklin spent six years at the label and recorded a series of jazz and pop albums that produced some minor hits but never really caught on.
Some of Franklin’s associates blamed her confrontational husband-manager, Ted White, whom she’d married in 1961. Hammond lamented that “Columbia was a white company who misunderstood her genius.”
Still, Franklin told The Post in 2008 that her Columbia years were “wonderful” and boasted that her early 1960s recordings won some critical acclaim. “Artistically, it was great music,” she said. “But it wasn’t commercial.”
When Jerry Wexler came calling on behalf of Atlantic Records in 1966, everything changed.
“He provided the vehicle to allow me to perform and express myself,” Franklin told the Wall Street Journal. In his autobiography, “Rhythm and the Blues,” Wexler said: “I had no lofty notions of correcting Columbia’s mistakes. My idea was to make good tracks, use the best players, put Aretha back on piano and let the lady wail.”
For her first Atlantic session, Franklin traveled to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to record a smoldering blues ballad with an all-white group of studio musicians known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The song, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” written for Franklin by Ronnie Shannon, detailed a woman’s devotion to a no-good man.
The session wasn’t without drama, as White got into a fistfight with one of the musicians before a B-side could be cut. But Franklin had already knocked it cold.
Playing piano as well as the addicted victim of love (“Don’t you never, never say we’re through!” she wailed), she struck gold: “I Never Loved a Man” became her first No. 1 R&B hit, cracked the Top 10 of the crossover pop chart and put the world on notice that a major talent had at last been unleashed.
“I was not an overnight sensation by any means,” she told Jet magazine.
If there was a major award to be won or honor to be received, chances are that Franklin got it: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor. In 1987, she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
She won 18 Grammy Awards for her recordings, many of them in a category created in 1968 seemingly to acknowledge her singular greatness: Best female R&B vocal, an award won by Franklin — and nobody but — the first eight times it was given.
Ever since, just about every powerhouse songstress worth her weight in sequins — from Mariah Carey and Jennifer Hudson to Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston — has been measured against Franklin.
Her muscular, melismatic style, in which she warped and bent single syllables by moving up and down the scale, has been perpetuated on “American Idol” by singers desperately seeking the emotional pitch of her most famous work.
When Rolling Stone ranked Franklin as the greatest singer of the rock-and-roll era, another of her acolytes, Mary J. Blige declared, “She is the reason why women want to sing.”
Franklin had plenty of success in her professional life, but her personal life was filled with turbulence. She and White divorced in 1969, in the midst of her historic run at Atlantic. Her second marriage, to actor Glynn Turman, also ended in divorce.
Her personal life occasionally seemed to unfold like a 12-bar blues — the dark and gloomy kind. In 1979, her father was shot in his home by a burglar; he was comatose for five years before dying in 1984. In September 2010, the second of her four sons, Eddie, was severely beaten at a gas station.
“I call her ‘the Lady of Mysterious Sorrow’ because that sadness seems to be her underlying condition,” Wexler told “60 Minutes” in 1989. “I say it’s mysterious because you can’t identify what may be causing it on any given day. It’s probably an accumulation of a lifetime of bad breaks, disappointments and just plain unpleasant experiences.”
Franklin may have brought some of those unpleasant experiences on herself, according to the co-author of her 1999 autobiography, David Ritz, who published an unvarnished (and unauthorized) biography of the singer in 2014. Ritz highlighted Franklin’s struggles with alcohol and depression and her highhanded, intimidating manner toward agents, musicians and even members of her family.
According to Ritz, Franklin was dismissive of other singers and occasionally blocked her sisters’ attempts at singing careers. When she recorded a gospel album with Mavis Staples, she reportedly had Staples’s voice turned low in the studio mix.
In another instance, Ritz wrote that Franklin considered suing the group Steely Dan over the 1980 song “Hey Nineteen,” with its reference to a teenager so young “she don’t remember the queen of soul.”
She was known to cancel concerts or recording sessions without notice and for years refused to travel by airplane, severely limiting her public performances. Yet, despite — or because of — her diva tendencies, Franklin remained an object of curiosity, if not outright adoration, and her devoted audience never abandoned her.
She continued to make new recordings and to appear at high-profile events, sometimes reaching beyond the soul songs made her a star to embrace other genres. Her 1972 live gospel album, “Amazing Grace,” was a best-seller, and she explored other idioms from disco to pop and even classical. At the 1998 Grammy Awards, Franklin performed “Nessun Dorma,” the Puccini aria, as a last-minute stand-in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti. Writing in The New York Times, music critic Jon Pareles said she gave a “gutsy, triumphal performance.”
Franklin’s relationship with Atlantic ended at the end of the 1970s, after a string of disappointing releases, which the Rolling Stone Album Guide later described as “bland, sometimes discofied albums in which she often sounded bored or exhausted.” She signed with Arista Records around the time of her showstopping turn in “The Blues Brothers,” the 1980 Hollywood musical in which she sang her classic “Think.”
Under the direction of Arista chief Clive Davis, Franklin’s career rebounded, with pop-rock hits including “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and “Freeway of Love.”
During the second half of her career, Franklin toured intermittently, hampered by a fear of flying that she developed in 1982 after a turbulent flight from Atlanta to Detroit.
Even as her hits slowed, Franklin was no museum piece in the latter stages of her career. She was a force of nature onstage and she won three Grammys in the new millennium — the final one in 2008, when she and Blige were awarded the Grammy for best gospel performance for “Never Gonna Break My Faith.”
Accurately, if immodestly, Franklin accepted the regal moniker “Queen of Soul.”
“It’s an acknowledgment of my art,” she once said. “It means I am excelling at my art and my first love. And I am most appreciative.”
Washington Post writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.
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