Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” died Thursday in her home city of Detroit after battling pancreatic cancer. Her death was confirmed by her publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn. She was 76.
Franklin sold more than 75 million records during her life, making her one of the best-selling artists of all time. She took soul to a new level and inspired generations of singers who came after her.
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No one’s life can be condensed to one word — but Aretha Franklin came close when she sang one word: “respect.”
“Respect” was written by the great Otis Redding. In his version, a man is pleading, offering his woman anything she wants in exchange for her respect. He sang: “Hey little girl, you’re sweeter than honey / And I’m about to give you all of my money / But all I want you to do / Is just give it, give it / Respect when I come home …”
Aretha changed those lyrics to demand parity. “Oooh, your kisses,” she sang, “Sweeter than honey / And guess what? / So is my money …” In her hands, “Respect” became an empowering song — for black women and for all women. It was a No. 1 hit in 1967, and it became her signature song.
Franklin was 25 years old when “Respect” was released. But she had been singing since she was a small child in her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church.
“Someone found a footstool in the office and put it here on the stage, and they put it there for me to be seen because I was so small,” Franklin told NPR’s Morning Edition in 2004.
Aretha Franklin was born March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tenn. — but she was raised mostly in Detroit. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a famous preacher, and her childhood was steeped in both music and the burgeoning civil rights movement. Her family was close friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who often stayed at their home. Some of the most important gospel artists of the day came to visit regularly as well, including Clara Ward and the Famous Ward Singers, Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.
It was Franklin’s father who introduced her to the recording industry. Nicknamed “the man with the million-dollar voice,” C.L. Franklin was among the first Christian ministers to record his sermons (making dozens for the JVB and Chess labels) and to do radio broadcasts of his Sunday addresses; his 1953 sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” is part of the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
Franklin told PBS’s American Masters in 1988 that when she was a child, her father would coach her. “He would give me different records to listen to, to see if I could emulate them on the piano, different vocalists to listen to.” These were gospel artists like Ward and Jackson. But the young Aretha listened to popular music, too. And as she toured with her father she met R&B artists like Fats Domino and Bobby Bland.
There was also her Detroit neighborhood: It was filled with future Motown stars like Diana Ross, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson, who grew up right around the corner from her.
Franklin made her first album for JVB when she was just 14 years old. It was a collection of gospel songs that included “Precious Lord (Take My Hand).”
Four years later, she confided to her father that she longed to cross over from gospel to secular music. So C.L. Franklin helped her make a demo that led to a contract with Columbia Records, initially working with the legendary producer John Hammond. Decades later, Hammond told NPR that when he first heard her, his response was, “‘This is the best thing I’ve heard since Billie Holiday. Who is she?”
In 1961, the bluesy “Won’t Be Long,” from her first Columbia album, Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo, became Franklin’s first song to reach the Billboard Hot 100.
After making seven records for Columbia over a six-year span, she signed with Atlantic Records — and that’s where she became the “Queen of Soul.”
At first, Atlantic wanted her to record at the Stax studios in Memphis, but Stax did not want to pay for the sessions. Instead, Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler took Franklin to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama.
The Wexler/Franklin pairing proved magical. Franklin brought her own material to the label, and Wexler encouraged her to play piano in her recording sessions. And from 1967 to the mid-’70s, Franklin released a string of classics. The first was “I Never Loved A Man” — with her sisters as backup singers — followed by “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man,” “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Rock Steady” and “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).”
At the same time Franklin was turning out hits, she was also deeply involved in the civil rights movement. As she told American Masters, her father was a close friend of King’s. “My dad brought him to Detroit,” she recalled, “and introduced him to the city of Detroit through the New Bethel Baptist Church.”
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory told American Masters that the Franklins helped fund the movement, directly and through access to Aretha. “If Martin needed money,” he said, “he could make one phone call to Rev. Franklin, and that money was there — and also that Rev. Franklin could deliver his daughter, over what managers and record executives would say.” And Franklin and Harry Belafonte toured together to help raise money for the civil rights movement.
Franklin’s songs helped the nation through the assassination of King and through the Vietnam War. She told NPR in 2004 that veterans have told her how her songs sustained them. “On occasion,” she noted, “I hear that some of them helped them get through the service — and I’m delighted by that.”
In 1980, Franklin switched labels again — this time to Arista Records, where she began to work with producers like Luther Vandross and Narada Michael Walden. Her pairing with Walden resulted in a string of hits in 1985: “Freeway of Love,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and a duet with The Eurythmics’ Annie Lenox, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” produced by The Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart.
She played with the Rolling Stones, and when tenor Luciano Pavarotti became ill, she filled in for him at the 1998 Grammy Awards, singing the aria “Nessun Dorma” from the Puccini opera Turandot.
For all her professional success, Franklin had a turbulent personal life. Her mother died before Aretha was 10 years old. Her father was shot in an attempted robbery and lingered in a coma for five years before he died in 1984. She had two children before she was 17, and two more later during two marriages that both ended in divorce. She struggled with her weight and with smoking. Franklin continued performing, but she rarely toured because of a fear of flying.
Still, in 2009, she sang for the inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Aretha Franklin received just about every award a singer can get, including 18 Grammys (plus The Recording Academy’s Grammy Legend Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award), the Presidential Medal of Freedom and, in 1987, an induction as the first woman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She performed until she couldn’t anymore — because being the Queen of Soul was second nature to her.
– Ted Robbins I Anastasia Tsioulcas I NPR