Aretha Franklin Dies at 76

Pancreatic cancer claims a soul icon—who should also be remembered for her jazz work

Aretha Franklin image 1

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, an internationally renowned vocalist who was known as “The Queen of Soul” but also explored jazz and Tin Pan Alley standards among other genres during her nearly 60-year career, died at 9:50 a.m. on August 16 at her home in Detroit, Mich., after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 76 years old.

Her death was confirmed in a statement released August 16 by her family, which read in part, “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family.”

Franklin had one of the most storied and successful popular music careers in the post-World War II era. Among her accomplishments, she was the most frequently charted artist in the history of the Billboard music chart, with 112 hit singles, 17 of them in the pop top 10, and 20 No. 1 R&B singles. She also won 18 Grammy Awards, was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and in 1994, at 52, became the youngest person ever to receive a Kennedy Center Honor.

However, she remained best known for her first No. 1 pop hit, 1967’s “Respect,” which became both her signature song and an anthem of the civil rights and feminist movements in the United States. Other classic recordings included “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think” and “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” as well as albums like 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, 1968’s Lady Soul, and 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who.

Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tenn., at her parents’ home at 406 Lucy Avenue. Her mother, Barbara, was a singer and pianist; her father, Reverend Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin was a Baptist minister. After a brief stay in Buffalo, N.Y., the family moved to Detroit when Aretha was five years old, although her parents separated the following year, with her mother returning to Buffalo before passing away in 1952.

The famed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson became a surrogate mother to young Aretha, helping to take care of her and her three siblings. During her childhood, her father also gained celebrity status with his fiery sermon style, becoming an in-demand visiting preacher and a national radio personality. Aretha became prominent at Rev. Franklin’s church as a solo gospel singer and pianist; she later joined him on his sermon tours. She dropped out of high school in her sophomore year to sign a recording contract with Detroit’s J.V.B. Records and continue touring with her father (who became her manager). At 16, she joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on one of his speaking tours.

Idolizing Sam Cooke, the gospel-turned-soul singer whom she had met on the preaching circuit, Franklin decided to emulate his crossover success in popular music. Legendary talent scout John Hammond signed her to Columbia Records in 1960. Her first album, 1961’s Aretha, paired her with jazz pianist Ray Bryant and his band, and won her that year’s “Rising Star Vocalist” award from DownBeatmagazine.

Eight more albums followed for Columbia from 1961 to 1966. The recordings found her undertaking a mix of pop, jazz, and R&B songs that ranged from standards like “Over the Rainbow” and “Exactly Like You” to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and the repertoire of Dinah Washington, to whom Franklin paid tribute on the 1964 LP Unforgettable.

She was a modest success, with a few songs making the R&B and jazz charts, although her gospel-based vocal style was often at odds with the attenuated pop-based material she was given at Columbia. In late 1966, she left the label and signed to Atlantic Records, which proved to be the turning point in her career. Atlantic sent her to record at the acclaimed soul-music FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where she began what would become I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You. The title track and “Respect” were released as singles, and they made Franklin an international superstar.

Her success continued unabated, with several more hits in 1967 and 1968; she sang at Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral in April 1968, and two months later appeared on the cover of Time magazine. By the end of the decade she had gained the nickname “Queen of Soul.” She maintained her stardom into the 1970s, with top-10 singles including “Rock Steady” and the acclaimed live album Aretha Live at the Fillmore West. However, her record sales began to slump in the latter part of the decade.

Franklin made a comeback in 1985 with the platinum-selling Arista album Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, including the hits “Freeway of Love” and the title track. By that time, Franklin had assumed iconic cultural status in America, a regular concert sellout, although hit records became fewer and farther between; her last top-40 hit was the Lauryn Hill-penned “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” in 1998. She gained popular attention, however, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Superbowl XL in 2006, and “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the 2009 presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.

Long after she had become a popular success, Franklin continued to maintain a foothold in the jazz world; she appeared occasionally at the galas surrounding the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, and at the 2016 International Jazz Day concert at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Franklin had long struggled with poor health, having surgery to remove a tumor in 2010 and canceling several shows and tours in the following years due to ongoing medical treatments that she chose to keep private. Her final performance was in November 2017, when she appeared at an Elton John AIDS Foundation event in New York. Earlier this year, Franklin announced that she would cease touring to focus on her health.

Franklin is survived by a half-sister, Carl Jennings Kelley, and four sons: Clarence Franklin, Edward Franklin, Ted White Jr., and Kecalf Cunningham. She was predeceased by two sisters, Carolyn and Erma Franklin, a brother, Cecil Franklin, and a half-brother, Vaughn Franklin.