The legendary Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, died on August 16, 2018 at her home in Detroit at the age of 76.
Franklin's 60-plus-year career was one of broken boundaries and broken records -she held the record for the most-charted female artist in Billboard history for nearly 40 years, with 73 titles in the Hot 100. Her first Hot 100 song, 'Won’t Be Long', debuted in 1961 when Franklin was just 18 years old. She also racked up 18 Grammy Awards over the course of her career, and in 1987, she was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
While Franklin was known for her work as a soul singer, her astonishing, powerful, intelligent voice can do almost anything.
"What distinguishes her is not merely the breadth of her catalogue or the cataract force of her vocal instrument," wrote David Remnick in the New Yorker in 2016; "it's her musical intelligence, her way of singing behind the beat, of spraying a wash of notes over a single word or syllable, of constructing, moment by moment, the emotional power of a three-minute song. 'Respect' is as precise an artifact as a Ming vase."
As the daughter of a preacher, Aretha began her singing career at a young age in the church. Her family relocated to Detroit from her birthplace of Memphis when Franklin was a small child so her father could take over the pastorship of the New Bethel Baptist Church, which would become the site of Franklin’s musical debut (and a center of the city's civil rights movement). After a few years of singing hymns at New Bethel, Franklin accompanied her father on a church tour, playing the piano while he preached. In 1956, Chess Records, which had been recording Rev. Franklin's sermons, released an album of Aretha singing nine gospel hymns - she was then only 14 years old.
Aretha's musical interests broaded as a teenager into the secular realm of pop and soul - in particular the work of another artist with roots in gospel, Sam Cooke. Franklin would profess to having a crush on Cooke, whom she would end up touring with in 1961, in the midst of her own path to crossover stardom. With encouragement from her father, who was also her manager, Franklin signed to Columbia Records in 1960 as an 18 year old, releasing eight albums between then and 1966.
It wasn't until 1967, at age 25, that Aretha Franklin would become a legend in the making. Declining to renew her Columbia contract, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records and visited the storied Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in an effort to get back to her gospel roots. There, backed by the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, she recorded what is arguably the most important song of her career, 'I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)'. It hit No. 1 on the R&B charts and peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 100, the first in a string of hits that would make Aretha one of the defining voices of the late 60s.
Franklin would go on to record and release a series of classics, including a cover of Otis Redding's 1965 song 'Respect' that Franklin would make her signature, followed by hits like '(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman', 'Chain of Fools', and 'Think', the last of which got a second life when Franklin re-recorded and performed it in the film The Blues Brothers in 1980.
Franklin left her longtime home at Atlantic in 1980 to sign with Clive Davis’s Arista Records, where she would remain for the next 23 years, releasing albums like 1985's Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, her first ever platinum-selling record, and 1998's A Rose Is Still a Rose, featuring the single of the same name (written and produced by Lauryn Hill) that would be Franklin's last significant singles chart success.
But by that time Franklin's standing as the Queen of Soul, a musical legend, and American music’s premiere diva was well established and immutable. Her status as a national icon was firmly cemented in 2015, when a viral video of her performing at the Kennedy Center Honors spread across the internet.
Performing 'Natural Woman' in tribute to the song’s co-writer Carole King, one of the night's honorees, Franklin held the audience captive as she twirled out of her mink coat in full diva mode. In the audience, King screamed her head off, Michelle Obama grooved in her seat, and then-President Obama, whose first inauguration Franklin performed at in 2009, was in tears. As Franklin brought the performance to its electrifying climax, ad-libbing heart-stopping vocal runs as only she could, the audience leaped to its feet, screaming and applauding in recognition of a legend at work. You can watch the video below:
"Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope,” said Obama of Franklin’s performance. "American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings 'A Natural Woman', she can move me to tears — the same way that Ray Charles's version of 'America the Beautiful' will always be in my view the most patriotic piece of music ever performed — because it captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence."
Aretha retired from concert performances in 2017 due to health concerns: "I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from, and where it is now. I’ll be pretty much satisfied, but I’m not going to go anywhere and just sit down and do nothing," she said when announcing her retirement.
She reportedly struggled with pancreatic cancer from 2011 onwards, but she always denied the diagnosis. She released her 42nd and final album 'A Brand New Me' in November 2017, less than a year before her death.