Aretha Franklin, (born March 25, 1942, Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.—died August 16, 2018, Detroit, Michigan), American singer who defined the golden age of soul music of the 1960s.
With more than 20 No. 1 R&B hits, singles sales that have long since surpassed the $10 million mark, nearly 50 Top 40 hits and 18 Grammy awards to her name, Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” is easily reckoned as one of the greatest musical icons of all time. Though her passing today at age 76 leaves behind family, friends and a music world in mourning, it also bequeaths an inheritance of one of the finest catalogs in modern history and the chance to reflect on the life of the woman behind such songs as “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
It could be said of Aretha Franklin that music was woven into the fabric of her being. Not only was her birthplace — Memphis, Tennessee — one of the most important cities in the history of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, but her father, C. L., was a Baptist minister and gospel singer known nationwide as “The Man with the Million-Dollar Voice.” He moved the family to Detroit — another musical hotbed — in 1944. Aretha’s mother, Barbara, was a singer as well, although she left the family when Aretha was just six and died four years later, the first in a long string of heartaches that would run through her life.
Franklin performed with her father on his gospel programs in major cities throughout the country and was recognized as a vocal prodigy. Her central influence, Clara Ward of the renowned Ward Singers, was a family friend. Other gospel greats of the day—Albertina Walker and Jackie Verdell—helped shape young Franklin’s style. Her album The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin (1956) captures the electricity of her performances as a 14-year-old.
At age 18, with her father’s blessing, Franklin switched from sacred to secular music. She moved to New York City, where Columbia Records executive John Hammond, who had signed Count Basie and Billie Holiday, arranged her recording contract and supervised sessions highlighting her in a blues-jazz vein. From that first session, “Today I Sing the Blues” (1960) remains a classic. But, as her Detroit friends on the Motown label enjoyed hit after hit, Franklin struggled to achieve crossover success. Columbia placed her with a variety of producers who marketed her to both adults (“If Ever You Should Leave Me,” 1963) and teens (“Soulville,” 1964). Without targeting any particular genre, she sang everything from Broadway ballads to youth-oriented rhythm and blues. Critics recognized her talent, but the public remained lukewarm until 1966, when she switched to Atlantic Records, where producer Jerry Wexler allowed her to sculpt her own musical identity.
In 1966 Aretha signed with Atlantic Records. Working with producer Jerry Wexler and backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, she finally found the right chemistry to make magic happen, setting the passion of gospel into a framework of pop. In 1967 her I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You was released to great acclaim, with the title track giving Aretha her first Top 10 hit.
The albums Aretha Arrives (1967), Lady Soul (1968) and Aretha Now (1968) followed, bringing the world such legendary offerings as “Respect,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby, I Love You,” “Since You’ve Been Gone” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and earning Aretha several Grammy Awards, the cover of the June 1968 issue of Time magazine and her “Queen of Soul” nickname. Transcending her popularity as a singer, she also became a symbol of pride for black Americans at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and a symbol of strength for women as the feminist movement began to gain traction.
In the early 1970s she triumphed at the Fillmore West in San Francisco before an audience of flower children and on whirlwind tours of Europe and Latin America. Amazing Grace (1972), a live recording of her performance with a choir at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, is considered one of the great gospel albums of any era. She also began to branch out in the studio, working with legendary producers Curtis Mayfield and Quincy Jones, and continued her awards success with her eighth consecutive Grammy, for 1975’s “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” By the late 1970s disco cramped Franklin’s style and eroded her popularity. But in 1982, with help from singer-songwriter-producer Luther Vandross, she was back on top with a new label, Arista, and a new dance hit, “Jump to It,” followed by “Freeway of Love” (1985). A reluctant interviewee, Franklin kept her private life private, claiming that the popular perception associating her with the unhappiness of singers Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday was misinformed.
In 1987 Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In addition, she received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1994, a National Medal of Arts in 1999, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. While her album sales in the 1990s and 2000s failed to approach the numbers of previous decades, Franklin remained the Queen of Soul. In 2009 she electrified a crowd of more than one million with her performance of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, and her rendition of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” during the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in 2015 was no less breathtaking. The documentary Amazing Grace, which chronicles her recording of the 1972 album, premiered in 2018.
After releasing the duet album Jewels in the Crown in 2007, she left Arista to start Aretha Records, and following surgery in 2010 she released her debut on her new label, Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love (2011). Three years later, with her cover of the Adele song “Rolling in the Deep,” she became the first woman in history to have 100 songs in the R&B charts. In fitting tribute to her astronomical career, that same year asteroid 249516 was named “Aretha.”
Although Aretha had continued to record and tour until the end, performing publicly at everything from President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration to Super Bowl XL to the Late Show with David Letterman, during the 2010s she frequently canceled appearances due to health issues.
Franklin passed away from advanced form of pancreatic cancer. She is survived by her four sons. “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. 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,” the family said in a statement. “We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.