Aretha Franklin, universally acclaimed as the “Queen of Soul” and one of America’s greatest singers in any style, died Thursday at her home in Detroit. She was 76.
The cause was advanced pancreatic cancer, her publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn, said.
In her indelible late-1960s hits, Franklin brought the righteous fervor of gospel music to secular songs that were about much more than romance. Hits like “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man,” “Think,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Chain of Fools” defined a modern female archetype: sensual and strong, long-suffering but ultimately indomitable, loving but not to be taken for granted.
When Franklin sang “Respect,” the Otis Redding song that became her signature, it was never just about how a woman wanted to be greeted by a spouse coming home from work. It was a demand for equality and freedom and a harbinger of feminism, carried by a voice that would accept nothing less.
Franklin had a grandly celebrated career. She placed more than 100 singles in the Billboard charts, including 17 Top 10 pop singles and 20 No. 1 R&B hits. She received 18 competitive Grammy Awards, along with a lifetime achievement award in 1994. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987, its second year. She sang at the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, at pre-inauguration concerts for Jimmy Carter in 1977 and Bill Clinton in 1993, and at both the Democratic National Convention and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral in 1968.
Succeeding generations of R&B singers, among them Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys, openly emulated her. When Rolling Stone magazine put Franklin at the top of its 2010 list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” Mary J. Blige paid tribute:
“Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.”
Franklin’s airborne, constantly improvisatory vocals had their roots in gospel. It was the music she grew up on in the Baptist churches where her father, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as C.L., preached. She began singing in the choir of her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, and soon became a star soloist.
Gospel shaped her quivering swoops, her pointed rasps, her galvanizing buildups and her percussive exhortations; it also shaped her piano playing and the call-and-response vocal arrangements she shared with her backup singers. Through her career in pop, soul and R&B, Franklin periodically recharged herself with gospel albums: “Amazing Grace” in 1972 and “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,” recorded at the New Bethel church, in 1987.
But gospel was only part of her vocabulary. The playfulness and harmonic sophistication of jazz, the ache and sensuality of the blues, the vehemence of rock and, later, the sustained emotionality of opera were all hers to command.
Franklin did not read music, but she was a consummate American singer, connecting everywhere. In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, she said her father had told her that she “would sing for kings and queens.”
“Fortunately I’ve had the good fortune to do so,” she added. “And presidents.”
For all the admiration Franklin earned, her commercial fortunes were uneven, as her recordings moved in and out of sync with the tastes of the pop market.
After her late-1960s soul breakthroughs and a string of pop hits in the early 1970s, the disco era sidelined her. But Franklin had a resurgence in the 1980s with her album “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” and its Grammy-winning single, “Freeway of Love,” and she followed through in the next decades as a kind of soul singer emeritus: an indomitable diva and a duet partner conferring authenticity on collaborators like George Michael and Annie Lennox. Her latter-day producers included stars like Luther Vandross and Lauryn Hill, who had grown up as her fans.
Mother Sang Gospel
Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25, 1942. Her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was a gospel singer and pianist. Her parents separated when Aretha was 6, leaving her in her father’s care. Her mother died four years later after a heart attack.
C.L. Franklin’s career as a pastor led the family from Memphis to Buffalo, New York, and then to Detroit, where he joined the New Bethel Baptist Church in 1946.
Aretha’s sisters, Erma and Carolyn, also sang and wrote songs. The sisters also provided backup vocals for Franklin on songs like “Respect.” From 1968 until his death in 1989, her brother Cecil was her manager.
At 12, Franklin joined her father on tour.
But Franklin became pregnant, dropped out of high school and had a child two months before her 13th birthday. She had a second child at 15 by a different father. She also had two sons, Ted White Jr. and Kecalf Cunningham (her son with Ken Cunningham, a boyfriend during the 1970s).
Complete information about survivors was not immediately available.
In the late 1950s, Franklin decided to build a career in secular music. Leaving her children with family in Detroit, she moved to New York City. John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who had championed Billie Holiday, signed the 18-year-old Franklin in 1960.
Hammond saw Franklin as a jazz singer tinged with blues and gospel. He recorded her with pianist Ray Bryant’s small groups in 1960 and 1961 for her first studio album, “Aretha,” which sent two singles to the R&B Top 10: “Today I Sing the Blues” and “Won’t Be Long.”
Her next album, “The Electrifying Aretha Franklin,” featured jazz standards and used big-band orchestrations; it gave her a Top 40 pop single in 1961 with “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.”
Her later Columbia albums were scattershot, veering in and out of jazz, pop and R&B. Franklin met and married Ted White in 1961 and made him her manager; he shares credit on some of the songs Franklin wrote in the 1960s, including “Dr. Feelgood.” In 1964 they had a son, Ted White Jr., who would lead his mother’s band decades later. (She divorced White, after a turbulent marriage, in 1969.)
White later said his strategy was for Franklin to switch styles from album to album, to reach a variety of audiences, but the results — a Dinah Washington tribute, jazz standards with strings, remakes of recent pop and soul hits — left radio stations and audiences confused. When her Columbia contract expired in 1966, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records, which specialized in rhythm and blues.
“Respect,” recorded on Valentine’s Day 1967 and released in April, was a bluesy demand for dignity, as well as an instruction to “give it it to me when you get home” and “take care of TCB.” (The letters stood for “taking care of business.”)
“Respect” surged to No. 1 and would bring Franklin her first two Grammy Awards, for best R&B recording and best solo female R&B performance.
But amid the success, Franklin’s personal life was in upheaval. She fought with her husband and manager, White, who had roughed her up in public, a 1968 Time magazine cover story noted, and whose musical decisions had grown increasingly counterproductive. Before their divorce in 1969, she dropped him as manager and eventually filed restraining orders against him. She also went through a period of heavy drinking before getting sober in the 1970s.
Franklin changed labels in 1980, to Arista. There, her albums mingled remakes of 1960s and ‘70s hits — “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Everyday People,” “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” “What a Fool Believes” — with contemporary songs.
Franklin had her last No. 1 pop hit with “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” a duet with George Michael from her 1986 album, “Aretha.”