“Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, the eruptive singer who reigned atop the pop and R&B charts in the late ’60s and early ’70s with a succession of albums and singles of unparalleled power and emotional depth, has died. She was 76.
Franklin was suffering from pancreatic cancer, and had earlier undergone surgery in December 2010. Her longtime publicist Gwendolyn Quinn reported Franklin died Thursday morning at her home in Detroit.
“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,” Quinn said in a statement. “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”
She was the most lionized and lauded female R&B vocalist of her era. Winner of 18 Grammy Awards, and a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement honoree in 1994, she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. She was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts and the Kennedy Center Honors.
Bearing a prodigious talent born in the church, Franklin was still a child when she was tapped for stardom. She attracted awed attention in the gospel world before entering the pop sphere at the age of 18 under producer and label exec John Hammond’s wing at Columbia Records. The expressive, uncommonly forceful voice was there, but the hits were scarce.
It was at Atlantic Records that “Lady Soul” truly arrived. In 1967, Franklin’s profound debut single for the label, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” a No. 10 pop hit, was succeeded by her scorching, career-defining No. 1 cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
Those songs and succeeding hits melded a deep gospel feel with R&B instrumentation and worldly themes, elaborating on the groundbreaking work of pioneering soul men Ray Charles, James Brown and Franklin’s friend and idol Sam Cooke, who had similarly crossed over from sacred music to secular stardom.
Franklin’s 12-year stint at Atlantic yielded a dozen top-10 pop singles — the biggest hits of her half-century career, which encompassed 80 pop chart singles — and 20 No. 1 R&B singles. They established her as the nonpareil female soul singer of her generation, often imitated but never equaled.
As “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll” put it succinctly, “From 1967 to 1970 she was the preeminent black musician in pop music.” Already a legend, she moved to Arista Records for a run of lesser hits from 1980-2003. Her last chart single, “Put You Up on Game” (a duet with “American Idol” champ Fantasia), was released in 2007.
Born in Memphis, Franklin was the third of four children; her sisters Erma (who originated Janis Joplin’s signature hit “Piece of My Heart”) and Carolyn (who often backed and sometimes wrote for her sibling) would also enjoy R&B careers. She was the daughter of C.L. Franklin, who served as pastor of a prominent Detroit ministry, the New Bethel Baptist Church, from the late ’40s.
As a youngster, Aretha accompanied her father on his evangelical tours, and came to gospel singing through such family friends as Clara Ward (with whom her father had a long-term romantic relationship), Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams. These gospel elders became important maternal figures for Franklin after her parents split when she was 6 years old, and early musical role models as well.
A primarily self-taught and gifted pianist, Franklin was already a well-traveled veteran of the gospel road at 14 when she issued her first album, “Songs of Faith,” on Chess Records’ JVB subsidiary, which also released her father’s sermons on LPs.
She was a vulnerable teen when she began attracting the attentions of men, some of them much older. She became pregnant with her first child at age 12 and with her second at 15. As David Remnick noted in a 2016 New Yorker profile, Franklin “saw a great deal of life, including the libertine atmosphere surrounding the gospel-music scene. By the time she recorded [her] first songs, she was pregnant with her second child. She left school and went on the road for, more or less, the rest of her life.”
Seeing possibilities for Franklin as a commercial pop artist, Cooke urged her to sign with RCA Records, which released his post-gospel R&B hits. However, in 1960 she inked a deal with Columbia. Hammond — who had discovered Billie Holiday and Count Basie — primarily envisioned her as a jazz-styled vocalist.
Franklin’s five years at Columbia were frustrating ones, marked by unfocused production work and repertoire unsuited to her gospel-based style. She recorded her 1961 debut album with jazz pianist Ray Bryant’s combo. Her first top-40 single — her only one for the label — was a version of Al Jolson’s 1918 hit “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.” She essayed soupy ballads and Tin Pan Alley antiquities, and covered songs by Holiday, Dinah Washington and Dionne Warwick. Nothing clicked.
In late 1966, Franklin was signed to Atlantic by Jerry Wexler, producer of many of the label’s R&B smashes, who divined her potential as a straight-up soul singer. In the late exec’s words, “I took her to church, sat her down at the piano and let her be herself.”
An abortive session at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., produced the breakthrough single “I Never Loved a Man.” A subsequent New York date with saxophonist King Curtis resulted in “Respect.” Both topped the national R&B charts and broke through on the pop side; the latter number garnered Franklin her first two Grammys. Her fame was almost instantly assured: In June 1968, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine, a rare feat for a pop music performer of any race or gender.
Aretha Franklin will be remembered by her fans worldwide for her deeply emotional soul tracks and rich voice.