Obituary: Aretha Franklin, the ‘Queen of Soul’, dies at 76

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Image: Aretha Franklin

The powerhouse vocalist’s music became a soundtrack for both the civil rights and female-empowerment movements.

Aretha Franklin — the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and known as the “Queen of Soul” for powerful anthems like “Respect” and “Chain of Fools” — died Thursday morning at her home in Detroit. She was 76.

Franklin died of pancreatic cancer, the singer’s publicist said in a statement issued by the family.

“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,” the family said. “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family.”

Earlier this week, members of her family had told NBC affiliate WDIV-TV in Detroit that she was “gravely ill.” The station reported that Franklin had asked for prayers.

Born March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, to C.L. Franklin, the most prominent black Baptist preacher in America during the mid-20th century, and a gospel singer, Aretha Louise Franklin began performing in front of her father’s congregation at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, which she considered her hometown. She became a star on gospel caravan tours with her father, known as “The Million Dollar Voice,” who became her manager when she was 14.

Franklin released her first album, “Songs of Faith,” in 1956, scoring regional hits with two gospel songs and occasionally touring with The Soul Stirrers, whose star was Sam Cooke.

In 1960, Franklin followed Cooke into secular music, recording a handful of Top 10 hits on the R&B charts. It took seven years and a switch of labels, to Atlantic Records, however, for her career to fully blossom in 1967, beginning with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and was her first Top 10 pop single.

That April saw the release of “Respect,” a cover of an Otis Redding song with a feminist bent and an irresistible hook — the simple chorus of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” which Franklin added. It quickly rocketed to No. 1 on the pop charts. Rolling Stone magazine later declared it the fifth-greatest song of all time.
The song became a soundtrack for both the civil rights and female-empowerment movements, and no one was more surprised by its success than Franklin.

“I was stunned when it went to No. 1,” she told Elle magazine in April 2016. “And it stayed No. 1 for a couple weeks. It was the right song at the right time.”

“Respect” earned Franklin the first two of her 18 Grammy Awards, culminating in a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 1994. But the song was only the beginning of her success.

The following year, Franklin came out with two towering albums, “Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now,” introducing the timeless hits “Chain of Fools” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” More popular — and culturally significant — albums followed through the 1970s, highlighted by “Young, Gifted & Black,” winner of the 1972 Grammy for female R&B performance, and a return to her gospel roots, the double-platinum “Amazing Grace.”

Other Top 10 singles included “Spanish Harlem,” “Think” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” written by Carole King. Franklin performed it at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors in Washington before an audience that included King, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama — drawing a tear from the president and sheer elation from King.

“One of the three or four greatest nights of my life,” Franklin told The New Yorker of that performance, which went viral on YouTube.

Franklin’s live performances often had that effect. She was a supremely talented technical musician — a child prodigy on the piano, able to shift seamlessly from thunderous gospel chord progressions to propulsive R&B beats to bouncy jazz riffs.

Her voice was equally prodigious, a mezzo-soprano powerhouse that could gracefully handle gospel effusions and operatic bomb bursts — something all of America learned in 1998.

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