Aretha Franklin, widely regarded as one of the greatest singers of soul and gospel music, has died at the age of 76. “The Queen of Soul” had a distinctive, powerful voice and won 18 Grammy Awards, with 8 straight wins of the R&B vocal performance category starting in 1968. The singer’s representative, Gwendolyn Quin, announced her death from pancreatic cancer.
In a seven-decade career, Franklin sold more than 75 million records worldwide. Her hit songs included “Respect,” outdoing the version by Otis Redding, and “I Say A Little Prayer,” beating Dionne Warwick’s take. The Goffin-King song “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” was another.
There were plenty of songs that were hers from the outset, such as Ronnie Shannon’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).” Franklin had more than 20 U.S. chart-topping songs. For a long time Franklin was the woman with the most songs to make the Billboard Top 100, with 73 different entries, until she was overtaken by Nicki Minaj in 2017.
Her albums included Lady Soul, Young, Gifted And Black and Amazing Grace. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee. She started singing gospel as a child, starring at a Detroit church, where her Baptist preacher father, C.L. Franklin, was the minister. Her first decade of work at Columbia Records only met mixed success as she moved between pop and gospel, but her fortunes changed in 1967 at Atlantic Records where she recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and producer Jerry Wexler. They took Otis Redding’s 1965 song “Respect,” speeded it up and turned it into an anthem for women.
“Being a singer is a natural gift,” Franklin once said. “It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.”
While her hits temporarily dried up in the era of progressive rock, punk and disco, she made her comeback after guest-starring in the movie The Blues Brothers. In the 1980s she had a big solo hit with a song she co-wrote, “Who’s Zooming Who?” This was the title track of her 33rd studio album, a record that also had the hit “Freeway of Love” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” with the British pop duo Eurythmics. This was followed by her duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).”
President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
She slowed down as ill-health took its toll. In 2010 she had abdominal surgery. Franklin recovered enough to show she still had that unforgettable voice, leaving President Barack Obama tearful when she sang at a Kennedy Center Honors ceremony.
In 2017, Franklin told a Detroit news station that she planned to give up touring after releasing a new album. She remained open to doing some selected shows as time allowed and said that otherwise she wanted to enjoy the company of her family and grandchildren.
Her last public performance was in November 2017.
Reports on August 13 said that the singer had lost weight and was “gravely unwell” with cancer.
Those wishing to remember Aretha should look for remastered versions of her studio albums such as I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, Lady Soul or the 1972 double live album Amazing Grace, with its ten-minute versions of “Amazing Grace” and “Never Grow Old.” There are dozens of compilations, with the four-CD box Queen of Soul especially good.