Aretha Franklin, the legendary singer with gospel roots who soared to the heights of music success, died Thursday after battling pancreatic cancer. She was 76.
Franklin had been in hospice care at her home in Detroit. In a statement to The Associated Press, her publicist Gwendolyn Quinn said the singer-songwriter died at 9:50 a.m.
“Franklin’s official cause of death was due to advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute,” the statement said.
In the days leading up to her death, family members and friends, including Stevie Wonder and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, kept vigil by her bedside.
Known as the “Queen of Soul,” Franklin’s chart-topping career spanned nearly six decades. She broke barriers, won 18 Grammy Awards and performed for three presidents.
She was born Aretha Louise Franklin in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25, 1942, and grew up in Detroit.
Her father, Rev. Clarence L. Franklin, served as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, who was a gifted pianist and vocalist, died just before Aretha’s tenth birthday.
Young Aretha spent a considerable amount of time in the church and began learning to play the piano by ear without knowing how to read music.
By age 14, she would join her father on the road, performing such gospel classics as Precious Lord Take My Hand when he delivered sermons at different churches, sometimes as far away as California and the South.
After she turned 18, Franklin broke the news to her dad that she wanted to sing secular music like the swoon-worthy, Sam Cooke. Franklin also drew inspiration from blues and jazz legends including Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn.
First Record Deal
Franklin’s dad gave his blessing and agreed to help manage her career. In 1960, she signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and released an album the following year.
She had limited success at the label, and in 1966, signed a new deal with Atlantic Records. It wouldn’t be long before she became an international sensation.
Under the guidance of Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler, Franklin’s career and stardom soared. In 1967, she released four number-one R&B hits – I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), Baby I Love You, Chain of Fools and a remake of Otis Redding’s Respect.
Years later, Franklin told Time magazine she knew she had something special when she was in the studio working on Respect.
“When we recorded Respect and Natural Woman in the studio, everyone—the musicians and singers—stood up,” she said. “My producer at the time, Jerry Wexler, a VP of Atlantic Records, said, ‘Let’s wait until tomorrow night this time. If we feel the same way tomorrow, if we’re still standing on air about it, we probably have a hit.’ He would still be walking on air to this day.”
Respect became her signature song, and an anthem for female empowerment and social justice.
Three Presidents and a King
In 1968, Franklin delivered a soul-stirring rendition of Precious Lord Take My Hand at the memorial for longtime family friend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On Thursday, the NAACP praised Franklin for her support during the civil rights movement.
“Her chart-topping hit Respect became the De facto anthem for a nation struggling to break free from the chains of racism, segregation and a staunch patriarchy,” the organization said in a statement. “Not only did she lend her voice to the struggle, but at times and in substantial ways, donated money to the Civil Rights Movement, supporting the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the NAACP and others.”
Franklin also counted U.S. presidents among her many admirers. She performed at three presidential inaugurations – those of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Her other achievements included receiving a Kennedy Center Honor in 1994. A decade later, she wiped away tears as President George W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2005.
Over the years, Franklin sold more than 75 million records worldwide.
In an interview with Essence magazine in 1973, she said music helped her connect with others. “It’s what I have to give; my way of saying, ‘Let’s find one another.’”
As musical tastes and genres evolved through the years, Franklin found a new generation of fans. After she signed with Arista records and was guided by Clive Davis, she scored hits with the singles Jump to It and Get It Right (both produced by Luther Vandross). She followed them up with the dance tracks, Freeway of Love and Who’s Zoomin’ Who.
In 1987, Franklin topped the charts again with I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me), a duet with George Michael.
Her other musical collaborators included Quincy Jones and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds.
For years, there had been reports that the music icon was in declining health, though the beloved and private artist never publicly disclosed the details regarding her condition. Franklin announced she was retiring from touring in 2017.
The singer was married and divorced twice. Her first marriage was to her manager Ted White in 1961, the second to actor Glynn Turman in 1978. She had four sons: Ted White Jr., Kecalf Cunningham, Clarence Franklin, and Edward Franklin.
The “Queen of Soul” is survived by her family, legions of artists inspired by her timeless work and generations of fans.