Aretha Franklin, an Unparalleled Singer and American Icon, Dies at 76
The Queen of Soul, whose career spanned six decades, died on Thursday morning.
Aretha Franklin, one of the greatest singers of her generation and a towering figure in contemporary American music and history, died on Thursday at her home in Detroit, Michigan. She was 76. The news was confirmed by the Associated Press this morning. Franklin died of advance 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," Franklin's family said in a statement. "We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family."
Gifted with an astonishing range, always in perfect control of her talents, and revered as a formidable presence both on stage and off, Franklin was the Queen of Soul. She sold over 75 million records over a five-decade-long career, won 18 Grammy Awards, and became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2005, in recognition of her "helping to shape our Nation's artistic and cultural heritage," she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll—the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope," Barack Obama said of Franklin in 2016.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was the best-known pastor of his generation, a man whose tendency to rise from a straightforward reading of scripture to an impassioned crescendo had him dubbed "the man with the million-dollar voice." The Franklin family moved to Buffalo and then to Detroit, where Clarence would preach at the New Bethel Baptist Church. At home, in a room that housed a grand piano, the Franklins hosted everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Duke Ellington. It had a profound effect on Aretha. In a profile published in 2016, David Remnick wrote that she "was thoroughly absorbed in the church life of New Bethel and in the cultural life of her living room, which, at times, seemed to represent the epicenter and genealogy of African-American music."
Franklin's mother, Barbara Siggers, separated from Clarence in 1948, exhausted by his philandering (which included fathering a child with a 12-year-old girl). Barbara returned to Buffalo with her son, Vaughn, Aretha's half-brother. A number of women, including Mahalia Jackson, stepped in to help raise the Franklin children, but most of the responsibility fell on her paternal grandmother, Rachel. Aretha and her siblings—Carolyn, Erma, and Cecil—stayed in intermittent touch with Barbara. She died in 1952.
Aretha grew up fast. After singing solos at New Bethel, she joined her father as a pianist and singer on his touring "gospel caravan" and recorded her first songs—gospel tracks—at the age of 14. She'd had her second child by the age of 15. Despite the message in the music, the gospel world was often notoriously hedonistic and promiscuous. Stories from the scene at that time border on the scandalous. David Ritz, in his controversial biography Respect, had it that Franklin "found herself in the spiritually charged, sexually overcharged culture of Holy Ghost music-making where, night after night, the excitement reached fever pitch."
But much like her close friend (and crush) Sam Cooke, Franklin wanted to cross over into secular pop music, and she signed with Columbia in 1960. It started out slowly. She was unsure of what she wanted to be, and her first record, Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo, didn't take off as she'd hoped. In 1961, she married Ted White, a man somewhere between pimp and promoter (and probably more the former). He managed Franklin's affairs. Clarence disliked him, but there wasn't much he could do.
Franklin released a glut of records through the early-to-mid-1960s, but none of the steady, jazz-adjacent songs she was given could capture the fullness of her voice. She was commercially viable and financially stable, but a long way from superstardom. Only when she signed to Atlantic in 1967, working with producer Jerry Wexler and enjoying more creative control, did things start to pick up.
A few months later, on "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)," her first genuine hit, Franklin seemed like a new artist. Up next to 1966's "Mockingbird," her last single for Columbia, it was an explosion. Over the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who backed Franklin up in her first sessions at FAME studios in Alabama, she charged into blue notes, dominated the offbeat groove, and demonstrated a remarkable range, rising from a rich low-end to a powerful soprano. It hit the top of the R&B charts and became a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. That would only be the start.
I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, her 1967 debut, broke right through. On "Baby, Baby, Baby," she found her comfort zone, using her voice as a robust instrument, a percussive force, and a delicate object at its upper limits. "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" was a slow soul swing with a clear thesis: "A woman's only human / You should understand / She's not just a plaything." "Respect" took all the pleas of Otis Redding's original and turned them into full-lunged demands. Redding stopped playing the song entirely after he heard Franklin's version, and in her hands it became a rallying call for black liberation and the women's rights movement. It was her signature song.
The hits kept coming. "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," written for Franklin by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, opened as a straightforward ballad and rose to an ecstatic chorus like one of Clarence's sermons. "Chain of Fools," "I Say a Little Prayer for You," and "Think" all went into the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. She was almost universally lauded as the greatest singer in pop music.
Her relationship with White was toxic though. He was allegedly jealous, manipulative, and physically abusive (though Franklin was, until the end, reticent about those years and their relationship). They divorced in 1969. The split gave way to two of Franklin's more personal records in Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted and Black, both of which were blockbusters.
She returned to her gospel roots on 1972's Amazing Grace, a live record that's still her best-selling LP. Recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Amazing Grace was full of gospel standards—including "Precious Lord," which she'd sung at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral four years before—but it was a seamless fusion of the styles that Franklin had by then mastered. The Reverend James Cleveland's piano set the tone and The Southern California Community Choir supplied a rich backdrop, but Franklin was on another plane, using each bar as an opportunity to improvise, deploying her full range, collapsing the blues and rock 'n' roll into the gospel music she'd sung as an adolescent, fully realizing their shared roots. The album's high points—and it's packed with them—are still immediately powerful.
Things declined after that, albeit gently at first. Her next album, Hey Now Hey, was conceived as a return to jazz standards, and though she and producer Quincy Jones tried to pull some more energy out of sessions in the studio, the whole thing felt too tempered and self-conscious. She was back to something like her best—vocally, at least—on 1974's Let Me In Your Life, but things wouldn't last. Wexler left Atlantic in 1976, leaving Franklin without the input of a man who understood her talents better than anyone else in the industry. After three more albums, one of which was a misguided attempt at disco, Franklin left the label in 1979 and moved to Arista.
Franklin's personal life was upended in tragic circumstances as well. In June 1979, Clarence was shot by burglars at his Detroit home. He was in a coma at hospital for six months before returning to his house, where he required round-the-clock assistance. Aretha left Los Angeles to help with Clarence's care in 1982. He died two years later, in 1984, the same year that Franklin divorced her second husband, the actor Glynn Turman.
Aretha found success, however, at Arista. An unlikely appearance in John Landis's The Blues Brothers sparked something of a comeback, and she started to find her way back onto the charts. None of her early-80s records really captured the same magic as anything she produced during the peak Atlantic years, and two glossy Luther Vandross-produced albums in 1982 and 1983 didn't help, but 1985's Who's Zoomin Who? was enjoyably eclectic.
It was enough to put Franklin back at the top. In the middle of an era dominated by vocally formidable, gospel-influenced women, songs like "Sweet Bitter Love" reminded everyone that Franklin was still—always would be—the Queen of Soul. And having proved that she could win out in a new generation, she went back to her roots again on 1987's One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, a gospel album recorded at New Bethel. "A striking musical documentary of uninhibited rapture and sobering confessional intensity," David Fricke wrote of the record at Rolling Stone. "The sound of a woman at once reveling in the glory of her God-given talent and reflecting on a history of pain and uncertainty that earthly success couldn’t salve."
1991's uneven What You See Is What You Sweat flopped on the charts; Franklin stayed out of the studio for six years after that. And then, as ever, she bounced back. Strangely, it was tied to The Blues Brothers again—she reprised her role as Mrs. Murphy for Blues Brothers 2000. But her 1998 comeback, A Rose Is Still a Rose, was truly successful because of its deft play on contemporary trends. Sean Combs and Babyface were credited as producers on one song each, and Lauryn Hill masterminded the title track, a surprising neo-soul hit that brilliantly blended old and new. Franklin sounded quite at home in a new world.
Two weeks after releasing "A Rose Is Still a Rose," Franklin stepped in at the last minute to sing "Nessun Dorma" in place of Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammys. She was not flawless, because flawlessness was neither the point nor the root of Franklin's art. Her voice rose gracefully and then suddenly dropped as though it had a massive weight tied to it; she stayed slightly behind each bar, responding to the string section like she would a gospel choir. She found the pain inside a Puccini aria and brought it out with remarkable force, just as she had on "Mary, Don't You Weep."
Franklin continued to tour and release records, though her steadfast refusal to fly—owing to a mysterious incident in 1984—kept her in North America. She sang "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, then came back with Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love in 2011. In typically dominant fashion, she released a covers record, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, in 2014, remaking Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" with André 3000 producing, bringing Babyface back into the fold, and covering Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." Released as a single, that became her 100th entry on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts.
Franklin's health had been a concern for some time. She underwent surgery to remove a tumor in 2010, and, though it was a success, she was forced to cancel a number of shows in her last few years. She "retired" in 2017, saying that she wouldn't tour anymore but would still put out records. "I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from and where it is now," she said at the time.
After news broke of Franklin's death on Thursday morning, musicians inspired by her work paid tribute. "I’m sitting in prayer for the wonderful golden spirit Aretha Franklin," Diana Ross wrote.
"Salute to the Queen," John Legend wrote on Twitter. The greatest vocalist I've ever known."
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