Franklin, recording in New York in 1969
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

Aretha Franklin, the iconic R&B singer and songwriter known for decades simply as “the Queen of Soul,” has died. Franklin was admitted into hospice care on August 13, amid reports that she was “seriously ill” with pancreatic cancer. She retired from touring in February 2017, and was forced to cancel a pair of scheduled live performances earlier this year. She died at home in Detroit at 9:50 a.m. ET “surrounded by family and loved ones,” according to a statement from her family shared with NBC News. They go on to say, “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 our matriarch and the rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.” She was 76.

Like many black artists before and after her, Aretha Franklin learned to sing in church. She was born in Memphis in 1942, but by age 2 her family had settled in Detroit; there, her father, C.L. Franklin, became the minister at the famed New Bethel Baptist Church, where his daughter showed great promise at an early age. In his biography, Smokey Robinson recalls seeing Aretha sing when she was 4 years old, saying she seemed to “[come] from a distant musical planet where children are born with their gifts fully formed.”

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Throughout Franklin’s childhood, New Bethel played host to gospel legends like Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, and Clara Ward, and the young singer observed and absorbed their style. She would grow up to take the raw, penitent need and unbridled joy of gospel singing and apply it to secular songs about love and heartbreak, the hallmark of the then-emerging soul genre. As producer Jerry Wexler described her 1970 song “Spirit In The Dark,” “It’s Aretha conducting church right in the middle of a smoky nightclub. It’s everything to everyone.”

When Aretha was in her teens, her father began managing her career on the gospel circuit, which led to a contract first with a small Detroit label and then Columbia Records, for whom she recorded nine gospel and R&B albums before moving to Atlantic Records in 1967. That’s when she sat down for the famous January 1967 recording session in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she recorded her first of many No. 1 R&B hits, “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).” In April 1967, she released her iconic cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which shot to the top of both the Billboard R&B and pop charts. Aretha had arrived.

She scored two more top 10 hits, “Baby I Love You” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” before the year was out, and then in 1968 she released two albums, Lady Soul and Aretha Now, which contained the iconic hits “Chain Of Fools,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Think,” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”

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She hit the R&B Top 10 33 times between 1967 and 1974, but by the mid-’70s her commercial prospects as a recording artist began to fade. She continued to perform to sold-out audiences, however, and in 1980 she made her film debut with a supporting role opposite Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s comedy musical comedy The Blues Brothers.

In the 1980s, Franklin scored her first platinum record with 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, which she said was the result of her desire to have a “younger sound,” and topped the charts in the U.K. and U.S. with her 1987 duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).”

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She continued to perform live and record both secular and gospel albums up to her retirement in 2017, and occasionally popped up on the charts through the early 2010s with songs like 1993’s “A Deeper Love,” 1998’s “A Rose Is Still A Rose” (produced by Lauryn Hill), and a 2014 cover of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep,” her 100th song to appear on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts.

Franklin was also a strong supporter of the civil rights movement, which adopted “Respect” as an unofficial anthem. She first met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through her father, and did everything she could to help him and his cause throughout his short life: She performed at many civil rights events and fundraisers, and in 1967 embarked on the Stars For Freedom tour with Dr. King, Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez, and Sidney Poitier; the booklet passed out to attendees described Franklin as “a new chef in the kitchen... following in the tradition of her great predecessors and... cooking up a batch of goodies that is unique in the field of Rhythm and Blues.”

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She sang “Precious Lord” at Dr. King’s funeral, 40 years before she sang “My Country ’Tis Of Thee” at the inauguration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama.

In the early ’70s, Franklin embraced the Black Power movement, frequently donning African garb for photo shoots, and in 1970 she expressed her support for jailed activist Angela Davis in Jet magazine, offering to post Davis’ bond “whether it’s $100,000 or $250,000,” and saying, “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free.” These themes are explored on her Grammy-winning 1972 album Young, Gifted And Black, anchored by a stirring cover of the Nina Simone song.

Franklin collected trophy cases’ worth of accolades in her lifetime: She was the first woman inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, in 1987, was nominated for 44 Grammys and won 18 (plus three special awards), won the Kennedy Center honors in 1994, the National Arts Medal in 1999, and the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2005, among dozens of other honors.

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Her voice was declared a Michigan natural resource in 1985, and truly, another voice like hers may never appear again. As her late contemporary Billy Preston put it in an interview:

She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a place or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fucking singer this fucked-up country ever produced.

Generations of artists, from Chaka Khan to Janelle Monáe, carry on her legacy, and all Americans—indeed, all human beings everywhere—owe her a debt for enriching our lives with her activism and talent.

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[via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Nation, Rolling Stone, Time]

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