After falling gravely ill earlier this month, Aretha Franklin has died. Franklin won 18 Grammys and had some 25 gold records during her long career.
Legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin died on Thursday in Detroit, US media reported. She was 76.
Her publicist confirmed the death to several US media outlets.
“Franklin’s official cause of death was due to advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute” in Detroit, her publicist said in a statement.
Ray Charles once remarked that soul, as a music genre, was more difficult to explain than electricity. Mahalia Jackson claimed that it began with the laments of people on the cotton fields. But Aretha Franklin insisted: “You don’t need to be an Afro-American in order to have it. It’s something creative, something that’s alive. It’s honesty.” She knew what soul means, having been its undisputed queen since the 1960s.
The young Aretha: gospel and blues
Born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, Franklin grew up in a church setting. Her father, Reverend Clarence Franklin, was a Baptist pastor, and her mother, Barbara Franklin, a famous gospel singer. Reverend Franklin’s sermons became well-known beyond Detroit, where Aretha Franklin grew up with her three siblings.
Her mother died when she was only 10 years old. When Franklin, who rarely gave interviews, talked about her childhood, she would focus on its positive aspects.
As she told US journalist Mark Bego, music could always be heard in the family’s home, and famous musicians would visit. They would eat together and talk, then one would start to play the piano, and spontaneously, all were making music together.
Unsurprisingly, Franklin started to sing and to play the piano at an early age, but her career as a gospel singer came to an abrupt end when she became pregnant. She had her first son at age 14, to be followed by her second son at age 16. She never talked about the circumstances or the fathers. These early challenges shaped the young woman’s character, and her music as well.
The career of Lady Soul
When she was 18 years old, Franklin left her two sons in the custody of her family and moved to New York. After signing a contract with producer John Hammond of Columbia Records, she produced 10 records in different musical styles, including blues, jazz, pop, musical songs, ballads and R&B. In 1966, she went to Atlantic Records, and worked in the following year with producer Jerry Wexler. It was the beginning of a creative explosion.
Wexler produced many of Franklin’s most successful songs, including “Respect,” written by Otis Redding. Sound technician Tom Dowd remembered how impressed he was when he first listened to the recording. In his view, “Respect” represented many areas of life and could be interpreted as referring to racial discrimination, political situations and relationships between men and women; basically everybody could identify with it. In the summer of 1967, it climbed to the top of the US charts and became an international hit.
“Respect” became an important song of the feminist movement, as well as the American civil rights movement. Franklin supported these movements and became a symbol of the struggle for equal rights for black people. She came to represent the new proud Afro-American woman of the late 1960s. She was well acquainted with Martin Luther King, who was also a close friend of her father. Franklin sang at his funeral in 1968.
Jerry Wexler, known as the “godfather of rhythm and blues,” and Franklin came to write music history. From February 1967 to February 1968, Franklin was represented in the Top 10 with six singles — and with three albums in the Top 10 LP charts. Five of the singles and two of the albums achieved gold status.
The 1970s: Return to gospel
On her albums, Franklin sang and played her own compositions and those of others. Often named best R&B artist at the Grammy Awards, she also became popular with Rock ‘n’ Roll audiences with her live album from Fillmore West in San Francisco. Franklin certainly was Young, Gifted and Black, the title of her most highly acclaimed 1970s album. The Black Power movement had forced her and the majority of people of color to examine themselves more closely, she felt — and although they hadn’t felt ashamed before, they now found a natural self-esteem.
Franklin’s success gave her the artistic freedom to tackle projects that promised only few financial gains. In 1972, she recorded a gospel album in the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. One of her producers, Arif Mardin, once recounted that some of the songs moved Franklin to such an extent that she had to sit down for a while. That magical atmosphere comes across on the recording of Amazing Grace, widely considered the best gospel album of all time. It achieved gold status and reached number seven in the charts, right next to the Rolling Stones and Jethro Tull.
Rocking through the 1980s
Following a downturn in her career from the mid-1970s onwards, Franklin’s switch to the label Arista catapulted her back to success. The turning point came with her performance in the cult film Blues Brothers in 1980. Her musical comeback came with the album Who’s Zoomin’ Who. Her highest-selling album, it reached platinum status. With its danceable 1980s sound, it was an expression of Franklin’s desire to do something that would also be appreciated by young people. The songs “Freeway of Love,” “Push” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” proved Franklin’s talent for rock.
Showered with praise, Franklin felt particularly honored by a decision of the state government of Michigan to consider her voice as a “natural resource.” Her duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” went to the top of international charts in 1987, 20 years after the release of “Respect.” In the same year, she became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
The 1990s: Excursions into the hip hop and opera worlds
Franklin acquired the reputation of being a diva for her legendary rows with other singers and refusing to give interviews. Suffering from an extreme fear of flying, Franklin only rarely left Detroit from the mid-1980s onwards. After 1983, she recorded all her albums in Detroit, where most of her television appearances also took place. Connected via satellite to the live performance of “We Are The World,” she sang together with Michael Jackson.
Franklin received numerous awards, including Grammys. She received the Kennedy Award for lifetime achievement from then-US President Bill Clinton in 1994. Unforgettable are also her excursions into the opera world. At the 40th Grammy Awards in 1998, she stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti, who had fallen ill, and sang the Puccini aria “Nessun dorma” — a performance that earned her a standing ovation. In that same year, she also produced a highly acclaimed hip hop album with Lauryn Hill, entitled A Rose is Still a Rose. It was highly praised by Rolling Stone, writing that Aretha’s true strength was her ability to produce the right atmosphere, an ability that would turn an artist into a legend.
The new millennium
Franklin’s contract with Arista ended in 2004, after which she announced the foundation of her own label. Her first and only album on that label was released in 2011. In the meantime, Franklin worked on several compilations and numerous performances, including at the inauguration of President Barack Obama on the steps of the Capitol in Washington in 2009. In 2010, Rolling Stone praised Franklin as “the best singer of all time.”
After 60 years in the music business, Franklin announced in 2017 that she would retire. She became seriously ill earlier this year, at age 76. Surrounded by her family, Aretha Franklin died on August 16, 2018 in Detroit.