“It is with deep and profound sadness that we announce the passing of Aretha Louise Franklin, the Queen of Soul,” the iconic singer’s publicist said in a statement. “Franklin…passed away on Thursday morning, August 16 at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit, MI, surrounded by family and loved ones. 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.”
According to her representatives, Franklin had been battling pancreatic cancer for some time, and earlier this year announced her retirement from the road. “This is it,” she wrote in a statement back in February. “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. That wouldn’t be good either.”
Born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 25, 1942, Aretha moved to Detroit around the age of five with the rest of her family, where her father C. L. Franklin took over the pastorship of the New Bethel Baptist Church. Aretha began her singing career in her father’s church, and at the age of 14 hit the road performing gospel songs before eventually inking a record deal with J.V.B. Records and releasing a debut album titled Songs Of Faith in 1956.
After she turned 18, Aretha decided to change her focus from gospel to secular music and signed a new contract with one of the biggest labels out there, Columbia Records in 1960. Over the next six years, she rolled out eight solo albums to positive reception, but middling sales. It was only after she left Columbia and linked up with the visionary producer Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records in 1967 that her career really took off.
Over the next four years with Atlantic, Franklin, working with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section down at Fame Studios in Alabama, ripped off a string of some of the most iconic albums of all time, beginning with I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You, Aretha Arrives, Lady Soul, and Aretha Now, all of which entered the top-five on the charts. It was during this period where she recorded some of her greatest singles like “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” “Chain Of Fools,” “Think,” “The House That Jack Built,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” — which Paul Simon cites as his favorite take — and of course, her signature song “Respect.”
Aretha’s voice was a staggering force of nature, capable of lifting songs to heights the writers themselves could hardly ever imagine. Listen to her take on The Band’s “The Weight,” or “Jumping Jack Flash,” by the Rolling Stones, or “Rolling In The Deep,” by Adele, or “Love The One You’re With” by Stephen Stills, or “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles and marvel at her preternatural ability to re-interpret these era-defining hits and make them completely her own. She was also an underrated pianist, whose command of the ivories was absolute and devastating.
Aretha remained on Atlantic, recording a series of stunning studio and live albums — her 1972 recording Amazing Grace is one of the most passionate, jaw-dropping live records ever released — before inking a deal with Clive Davis’s Arista Records in 1980. Over the next several decades, Aretha continued to work at a staggering clip, and in 1986 enjoyed a creative renaissance with the release of the albums Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and Aretha, which bred the hits “Freeway Of Love,” and the duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” with George Michael, which along with “Respect” remains her only two, No. 1 overall hits. In In October 2014, she became the first woman ever to log 100 songs on Billboard‘s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart.
Throughout her life, Aretha traveled the world playing for regular folks and royalty, including Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1980, and presidents, most famously singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony in 2009. She also was a heavily involved in the civil rights movement and delivered a poignant rendition of the song “Precious Lord” at the funeral for Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.
In 2015, Aretha appeared at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC to honor her friend Carol King, who wrote one of her signature songs “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.” Wearing one of the most opulent fur coats you’ve ever seen, Aretha appeared from the wings and sat down behind the grand piano placed on the stage and pounded out those immortal opening notes. She opened her mouth and began to sing with all the force and grace that made her a superstar so many decades earlier. Near the end, she rose from her seat and began belting out the final chorus with everything she had. The crowd rose to their feet and applauded unabated while she continued to pour her soul out, seemingly fueled by the love and admiration showered on her by the rapt attendees. Up in the box, both King and President Obama were wiping actual tears from their eyes. It was, simply put, one of the most incredible displays of musical passion ever captured on tape.
After that performance, Obama summed up the power of Aretha probably better than any one else has either before or since. “American history wells up when Aretha sings” he said. “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”.
Aretha Franklin is survived by her four children Ted White Jr., Kecalf Cunningham, and Edward and Clarence Franklin. Our thoughts and condolences go out to her family.
Aretha Franklin was a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music.