Aretha Franklin, The 'Queen Of Soul,' Dies At 76

Aug 16, 2018
Originally published on August 16, 2018 6:54 pm

Updated at 12:10 p.m. ET

Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul," died Thursday in her home city of Detroit after battling pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type. 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.

"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," Franklin's family wrote 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.

"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."

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 brought Franklin to the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, though Franklin eventually recorded most of her first Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, in New York with backing musicians from Muscle Shoals.

In any case, 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 & Roll Hall of Fame. She performed until she couldn't anymore — because being the Queen of Soul was second nature to her.

Additional reporting by NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Let's take a moment now to pay respects to the Queen of Soul. Aretha Franklin died today at 76. She had a type of pancreatic cancer. In her lifetime, she sold more than 75 million records and took soul to a whole new level. NPR's Ted Robbins has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: No one's life can be condensed to one word. But Aretha Franklin - she came close when she sang this...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T - find out what it means to me - R-E-S-P-E-C-T - take care TCB.

ROBBINS: "Respect" - the song was written by the great Otis Redding. In his version, a man is pleading and offering his woman anything she wants in exchange for her respect.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

OTIS REDDING: (Singing) Hey, little girl, you're so sweeter than honey. And I'm about to just give you all my money.

ROBBINS: Aretha Franklin flipped the perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESPECT")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Ooh, your kisses, sweeter than honey, and guess what - so is my money.

ROBBINS: She was 25 years old when "Respect" went to the top of the charts in 1967. She told NPR in 2004 that she'd been singing in church since she was a small child.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRANKLIN: Someone found a foot stool in the office and put it there on stage for me to stand on to sing because they didn't feel that I would be seen. I was so small.

ROBBINS: She was 14 when she recorded this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOUS LORD")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Father, father, father hear my cry, Lord, and, oh, hear my call.

ROBBINS: Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis. She grew up in Detroit where her father was the famous preacher C. L. Franklin. She told PBS "American Masters" that her father would coach her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN MASTERS")

FRANKLIN: He would give me different records to listen to and - to see if I could emulate them on the piano, different vocalists to listen to.

ROBBINS: Gospel vocalists, but Aretha listened to popular music, too, and met rhythm and blues artists as she toured with her father.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN MASTERS")

FRANKLIN: People like Fats Domino and Bobby Bland and many other artists that would be staying in the same hotel and that we would be staying in.

ROBBINS: And there was her Detroit neighborhood. It was filled with future Motown stars like Diana Ross, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN MASTERS")

SMOKEY ROBINSON: I've known Aretha since I was probably 8 years old. She grew up right around the corner from me.

ROBBINS: When Aretha was 18, she confided to her father that she longed to crossover from gospel to secular music. If that's what she wanted, he would help her. They made a demo, which led to a contract with Columbia Records. In 1961, the bluesy "Won't Be Long" reached the Billboard Hot 100.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WON'T BE LONG")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) My daddy told me when he said goodbye - yes, he did - I'll be back, baby. Baby, bye and bye.

ROBBINS: Then she moved to Atlantic Records. That's where she became the Queen of Soul. Just listen to some of the classics she released between the late 1960s and the mid-'70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAIN OF FOOLS")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Chain, chain, chain. Chain of fools.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) You better think, think about what you're trying to do to me, yeah, think, think. Let your mind go. Let yourself be free. Oh, freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO RIGHT WOMAN")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) If you want a do-right-all-day woman, you got to be a do-right-all-night man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE) A NATURAL WOMAN")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) 'Cause you make me feel, you make me feel, you make me feel like a natural woman.

ROBBINS: Aretha Franklin grew up in the civil rights era, and she was deeply involved in the movement. Her father was a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN MASTERS")

FRANKLIN: My dad brought him to Detroit and introduced him to the city of Detroit through the New Bethel Baptist Church.

ROBBINS: The late comedian and activist Dick Gregory told PBS the Franklins helped fund the movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN MASTERS")

DICK GREGORY: If Martin needed money, he could make one phone call to Reverend Franklin, and that money was there. Also Reverend Franklin could deliver his daughter over whatever record executives or managers would say.

ROBBINS: Aretha Franklin's songs helped the nation through the assassination of Dr. King, and they helped American soldiers in Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FRANKLIN: On occasion I hear that some of them helped them get through the service of the war, and I'm delighted by that.

ROBBINS: Franklin continued recording and had hits into the 1990s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A ROSE IS STILL A ROSE")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Because a rose is still a rose. Baby girl, you're still a flower.

ROBBINS: She performed with The Rolling Stones, and when tenor Luciano Pavarotti became ill, she filled in for him singing Puccini at the 1998 Grammy Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF 40TH ANNUAL GRAMMY AWARDS)

FRANKLIN: (Singing in Italian).

ROBBINS: As successful as she was, Aretha Franklin had a turbulent personal life. Her mother died before she was 10. Her father was shot in an attempted robbery and lingered in a coma for five years before he died. She had two children before age 17 and two more later during two marriages, which ended in divorce. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) My country, 'tis of thee. Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

ROBBINS: Aretha Franklin received just about every award a singer can get, from 18 Grammys to the Presidential Medal of Freedom to being the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She performed until she couldn't do anymore because, as she once said, being the Queen of Soul was second nature to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Forever - forever - and ever, you'll stay in my heart.

ROBBINS: Ted Robbins, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER")

FRANKLIN: (Singing) Forever and ever.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Reporter Allison Keyes contributed to that story Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.