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ARETHA FRANKLIN,
1942-2018

Aretha Franklin, the gospel singer trained in her father’s church who came to define American soul music and held court as one of pop music’s greatest vocalists, died Thursday, 8/16, of advanced pancreatic cancer. She was 76.

 
Dubbed the Queen of Soul in the late 1960s, Franklin died in her hometown of Detroit surrounded by family members who had been at her bedside for several days. Stevie Wonder, Rev. Jesse Jackson and her ex-husband Glynn Turman visited Franklin on Tuesday at her Detroit home, The New York Times reported. She had been diagnosed with cancer in 2010.

A powerful singer with unmatched range whose recorded performances overflowed with conviction, Franklin carved a unique career path. She toured as a gospel artist as a teenager, sang jazz on her earliest records, recorded the pop songs of Sam Cooke, Burt Bacharach & Hal David and Leiber & Stoller, and embraced music that cemented African-American identity in the Civil Rights era and beyond. She returned to gospel, adapted to post-disco R&B and, in one of her most famous television appearances, sang opera. She had more chart hits between 1955 and 2012 than any other female artist.    

Her influence is obvious in nearly every female singer who ventured into pop music after learning to sing in the church, most notably Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys. Many of the musicians who revered her—Annie Lennox, George Michael, Keith Richards, etc.—would eventually have hit records with her.

Rolling Stone put her at #1 on its 2010 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list. 

Known for her interpretations of other writers’ material—Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” Chips Moman and Dan Penn’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and, most significantly, Otis Redding’s “Respect”—Franklin had unprecedented success on sales and radio charts from the 1960s into the mid-1980s.

She had 20 R&B #1s, 77 singles on the Top 100 and 17 pop Top 10s and has sold more than 75m albums worldwide. Franklin received 18 Grammy Awards plus a Lifetime Achievement Award and was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, her father C.L. Franklin was a popular preacher, which led to multiple gospel greats—Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, James Cleveland—visiting the Franklin home. She learned to play the piano by ear and sing as a pre-teen; when she was 14, she joined her father on his gospel caravans.

Inspired by Cooke, a family friend who had left gospel to record secular music, Franklin signed a deal with John Hammond and Columbia Records and released her first single in 1960, “Today I Sing the Blues.” Hammond envisioned Franklin as the next Dinah Washington/Sarah Vaughan, having her record standards, show tunes and the occasional R&B tune; Downbeat, the jazz publication, named her the Most Promising Female Vocalist in 1961. Columbia issued 10 albums by Franklin, a few of which went Top 10 R&B, but none made a significant impact.

Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler signed Franklin to Atlantic in 1966 and immediately struck gold with their first release, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. It started a string of 10 Top 30 albums, six of which went to #1 R&B, between 1967 and 1974. During that time she had 24 Top 20 singles. Every year between 1968 and 1975, Franklin won the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

Her signature song, “Respect,” was recorded in February 1967 and released on her debut album. It went to #1 on the pop and R&B charts and became an anthem for the black power and feminist movements. Wexler told Rolling Stone her interpretation was “an appeal for dignity.”

Franklin left Atlantic in 1980—the year her riveting appearance in The Blues Brothers reminded audiences of her awe-inspiring vocal powers— to join Clive DavisArista Records. Her dry spell on the charts, which started in 1977, continued until her platinum-seller Who’s Zoomin’ Who? hit #13 in 1985, driven by the singles  “Freeway of Love” and “Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves” with Eurythmics. Davis pronounced her name "Arether," to the amusement of Arista staffers, who found the iconic artist extremely gracious and down to earth.

Franklin recorded steadily through 1991 and intermittently over the last three decades. Her last album, her 41st, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics for RCA, hit #13 in in 2014. Davis executive produced the set.

The Recording Academy honored Franklin in 1991 with the Legend Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994 and as the MusiCares Person of the Year in 2008. She received 44 Grammy nominations and collected 18 gramophones during the course of her career. "Her distinctive sound, unforgettable recordings and giving spirit will continue to be celebrated worldwide," Academy chief Neil Portnow stated.    

At the time of her MusiCares honor, Oprah Winfrey said, “No one has done more to define the meaning of soul music than Aretha Franklin. Her music has been a soundtrack for our lives, a source of comfort and rejoicing.”  In 1994, she became the youngest person up to that point ever to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. President George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest award for an American civilian—in 2005.

Franklin last performed in November 2017 for the Elton John AIDS Foundation in New York; her last concert was in in August 2017 at Philadelphia’s Mann Center.

Three of her most famous performances occurred within the last 20 years. In 1998, Franklin stepped in for ailing Luciano Pavarotti to sing “Nessun Dorma” on the Grammy Awards; in 2009, she sang “My Country Tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s first presidential inauguration; and in 2015, she brought down the house at the Kennedy Center singing “Natural Woman” to honor Carole King

“You can hear Aretha’s influence across the landscape of American music, no matter the genre,” Obama told The New Yorker in 2016. “What other artist had that kind of impact? Dylan. Maybe Stevie, Ray Charles. The Beatles and The Stones—but, of course, they’re imports. The jazz giants like [Louis] Armstrong. But it’s a short list. And if I’m stranded on a desert island, and have 10 records to take, I know she’s in the collection. For she’ll remind me of my humanity. What’s essential in all of us. And she just sounds so damn good.”


In the beginning: With John Hammond, 1961

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