Aretha Franklin, whose legendary voice inaugurated her enduring reign as the Queen of Soul, has died at 76, Franklin’s longtime publicist Gwendolyn Quinn confirms in a statement on Thursday (Aug. 16). The icon had been battling pancreatic cancer.
“It is with deep and profound sadness that we announce the passing of Aretha Louise Franklin, the Queen of Soul,” the statement reads. “Franklin, 76 years old, passed away on Thursday morning, August 16 at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit, MI, surrounded by family and loved ones. Franklin’s official cause of death was due to advance pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s Oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, MI.”
“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 statement continues. “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.”
Funeral arrangements for Franklin will be announced in the coming days.
During a career spanning six decades, Franklin’s soaring, gospel-nurtured mezzo-soprano became the benchmark by which soulful singing is still measured. Equally at home singing jazz, blues and classical, the versatile 18-time Grammy Award winner influenced a host of next-generation artists ranging from Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill to Beyoncé, Fantasia and Kelly Clarkson.
Known for her career-defining covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — Franklin was also a talented songwriter and musician. Her songwriting catalog includes such classics as “Think,” “Daydreaming,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Dr. Feelgood” and “Rock Steady.” And as a musician accompanying herself on the piano, Franklin helped shape such timeless tracks as the aforementioned “Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Chain of Fools.”
As Elton John noted to Billboard in 2003, “She is the greatest soul singer ever — and one of the most underrated pianists.” Added former label boss Clive Davis in a 2015 interview, “Aretha belongs to all-time hits that still resonate.”
At the core of Franklin’s wellspring of talent was something she never lost touch with: her gospel roots. Born March 25, 1942, in Memphis and raised primarily in Detroit, Aretha Louise Franklin was the third of four children born to Barbara and Rev. C.L. Franklin. A singer as well, the senior Franklin was a renowned minister at the Motor City’s New Bethel Baptist Church. In that role, he welcomed to his home such early influences on his daughter as gospel artists Albertina Walker and her group the Caravans, Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward.
Growing up, Franklin and sisters Carolyn and Erma sang together in the New Bethel choir. By her teens, Franklin was touring as an opening act on her father’s gospel show, an experience that introduced her to stars in both the gospel and secular worlds, including Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers. Her father’s recorded sermons for Checker Records resulted in a 14-year-old Franklin releasing her first album, Songs of Faith, for Checker’s JVB gospel division. She later toured the gospel circuit, mentored by one of the genre’s icons, the Rev. James Cleveland.
Heading to New York at 18 in pursuit of a secular career, Franklin caught the attention of legendary Columbia talent scout John Hammond. Between 1960 and 1966, she recorded nine albums for the label, singing everything from R&B, jazz and pop to Broadway tunes and standards. Franklin scored several top 10s on the R&B charts, beginning with “Today I Sing the Blues,” “Won’t Be Long” and “Operation Heartbreak.” She even cracked the Hot 100 with “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.”
Franklin, however, didn’t find her true calling until she signed with Atlantic Records. Then home to Ruth Brown, Ray Charles and others, the label — co-founded and headed by Ahmet Ertegun — specialized in what today is called “grown folks’ music.”
“It was the sound of good-time Saturday night, uptown,” Jerry Wexler recalled to Billboard in 2003. The Atlantic executive signed Franklin to the label in 1966. “Whether in New Orleans or Mississippi in a juke joint, it was a sound that came from black people originally that we echoed successfully. We aimed it strictly at black adults. It never occurred to us that Caucasians would start digging this music, too.”
Wexler’s initial plan was to take Franklin to Memphis and let Jim Stewart’s Stax team produce her first project. But Stewart passed. Then Wexler rerouted the pair’s itinerary — and Franklin’s history-making career took flight. The pair instead traveled to Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Paired with soul-pioneering musicians like Chips Moman, Charles Chalmers and Dewey “Spooner” Oldham, Franklin laid down the stellar “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” The title track from what would be her pivotal Atlantic debut album — later finished in New York — signaled the perfect cohesion of her down-home gospel fervor with emotional, gut-wrenching R&B.
“We put her in an R&B context with … Southern good old boys who’d backed up the Staples, Willie Nelson and others,” recounted Wexler. “From that first note, the musicians knew they were dealing with someone whose musical language they understood.”
“I Never …” skyrocketed to No. 1 on the R&B charts and No. 9 on the pop charts. Another album track, the Moman and Dan Penn co-written “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man,” climbed to No. 4 on the R&B charts. But it was Franklin’s stand-up-and-shout reworking of Redding’s “Respect” that pushed her to the top of both the R&B and pop tallies.
Said Wexler of the song, which helped drive the civil rights movement and Franklin’s lifelong involvement in racial and social issues. “She made a global anthem out of it. It was also feminist rights; a feminist stance with sexual overtones.”
Noted Atlantic chief Ertegun in a Billboard tribute to Franklin said, “Nobody was prepared for the incredible sessions that Jerry, [producer/arranger] Arif Mardin and [producer/engineer] Tommy Dowd collaborated on with Aretha. They made the most historical and celebrated African-American blues music ever heard. Jerry understood her special talent and was able to create the context in which she flourished. Aretha has in her all the joy, sadness and feeling of the music that has become the world’s most popular music, African-American pop music.”
In addition to Wexler, Mardin and Dowd, Franklin collaborated with such artists and producers as Eric Clapton, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield and Quincy Jones during her 13-year tenure with Atlantic. Her prolific output included a string of memorable albums: Aretha Arrives, Aretha: Lady Soul, Aretha Franklin: Soul ’69, Spirit in the Dark, the seminal Aretha Live at Fillmore West and the original Sparkle soundtrack. But it was another live recording that found her hitting new heights — and reclaiming her gospel ties: 1972’s Amazing Grace. The double-album, double-platinum set is still her biggest seller to date. Recorded at Rev. Cleveland’s Los Angeles church, the album integrated standards (“Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and the title track) and contemporary songs (Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy”).
Faced with flagging sales at the end of the ‘70s, Franklin simultaneously jump-started her career and attracted a new generation of fans with her appearance in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers. That same year, veteran industry executive Clive Davis signed her to Arista.
Davis paired Franklin with fellow R&B singer Luther Vandross, who wrote and produced her No. 1 comeback hit “Jump to It.” Davis also steered her into collaborations with Narada Michael Walden, Mary J. Blige. Lauryn Hill and the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart. This was all part of Davis’ challenge, as he explained, to “not just choose songs that would showcase her voice but also show that she can interpret contemporary music, be on the radio and still continue to affect millions. She finds meanings in lyrics the composers didn’t even know they had. She chills you, heats you, affects your soul … it’s exhilarating.”
In addition to hit singles “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” Franklin recorded a series of star-power duets, including “Love All the Hurt Away” with George Benson, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” with the Eurythmics,” ”Through the Storm” with Elton John and “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” with Whitney Houston. After a lackluster period in the early ‘90s, Franklin didn’t resurface with a new album until 1998, the R&B top 10 A Rose is Still a Rose. Its title track, a top 5 R&B hit, was written and produced by Lauryn Hill. The set’s other producers included Jermaine Dupri and Sean “P.Diddy” Combs.
Five years would elapse before Franklin released another album, 2003’s So Damn Happy. The Arista set, under the guidance of then-label chief Antonio “L.A.” Reid, featured the singer teaming with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Blige and songwriter icon Burt Bacharach.
Franklin has since been the focus of two Rhino/Atlantic retrospectives released in 2007: Rare & Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul and Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Franklin Live in Philly, 1972. That same year, J Records issued the compilation Jewels in the Crown: All-Star Duets With the Queen. Featuring several of the aforementioned duets, the set also paired Franklin with contemporary young guns John Legend and Fantasia. Franklin added the holiday album This Christmas to her repertoire in 2009. Her most recent album was 2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics which included a cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.”
Franklin charted 73 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, the most of any female artist and ninth-most of all artists. During the Nielsen Music era, she sold 8.9 million albums. In addition to 18 Grammys, she was a recipient of the Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award and Grammy Legend Award. The Hollywood Walk of Fame honoree became the first female inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 followed by subsequent inductions into the famed Apollo Theater’s hall of fame and the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame. A Kennedy Center honoree in 1994, Franklin was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
In later years, Franklin primarily shifted her focus to concerts and special appearances. She won critical acclaim for her vocal versatility when she stepped in for opera star Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards to sing the aria “Nessun Dorma.” In addition to singing at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King and the inaugurations of President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama (the hat she wore is housed at the Smithsonian Museum), she sang for Pope Francis during his 2015 visit to the U.S., proving she could still tear the house down, Franklin drew tears from President Obama and a standing ovation for her rousing performance of “A Natural Woman” in tribute to the song’s co-writer and 2015 Kennedy Center honoree Carole King.
Between reported plans for a Broadway musical and a long-gestating biopic based on her life—the latter with most recent proposed lead Jennifer Hudson — Franklin filed suit in 2011 and again in 2015 to stop the screening of Amazing Grace. The documentary features performance footage shot by the late director Sydney Pollack as Franklin recorded her same-titled 1972 album in front of a church congregation. Reps for Franklin and documentary producer Alan Elliott went back to court in March 2016 to seek a preliminary injunction as both sides attempted to work out a settlement.
Dealing with health issues in recent years, Franklin denied she was suffering from rumored pancreatic cancer when she underwent surgery in 2010 for an undisclosed illness. The mother of four sons, Franklin was married twice: to her former manager Ted White and actor Glynn Turman.