Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, Has Died
A canny ability to blend soaring gospel and soul-deep R&B, city attitude with country values, gritty feminism and stark emotion transformed Franklin into a towering figure in popular music. "No one can copy her," Jerry Wexler, Franklin's legacy-defining Atlantic Records producer, memorably argued. "She's all alone in her greatness."
Still, Aretha Franklin's life was not without its twists and turns.
Originally from Memphis, she moved to Detroit in 1946 when her father C.L. Franklin took over as pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church. Aretha was 3. By the time she was 6, her parents had separated; Franklin's mother died before she was 10. Not long after, Aretha performed publicly for the first time. She began her musical life, and her professional career, in gospel – following her father's career path with 1956's Songs of Faith.
It seemed almost preordained. C.L. Franklin, after all, had become known as the "million dollar voice" while touring as a celebrity speaker on the gospel circuit. Franklin joined her dad's traveling gospel revue at 14. "His delivery was very dynamic," Aretha told Rolling Stone in 2014. "If he had chosen to be a singer, he would've been a great one."
Aretha had her own dreams. The elder Franklin's home often welcomed a broad variety of African-American leaders and celebrities – including Sam Cooke, a crossover artist who encouraged Aretha to consider a shift to popular music. Unfortunately, that initially led to a series of embarrassing stumbles with Columbia Records. Franklin struggled to establish her own identity with a label that wanted to fashion her into a lounge singer.
She seemed destined for obscurity while still a teen. In fact, the obviously ill-fitting "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" was her biggest pre-Atlantic Records hit, and it reached only No. 37. Columbia never knew what to do with Franklin, eventually losing as much as $90,000 on some half dozen albums. Then Atlantic stepped in, pairing her with producer Jerry Wexler, and all of the embryonic talent buried on those sleepy Columbia sides came bursting forth for the future Queen of Soul.
"She was my personal project," Wexler later told the Detroit Free Press. "I had heard her voice on her records on Columbia and it really demonstrated her brilliance, but they were not commercially feasible in my opinion – and in the opinion of the buying public – because at Columbia, they tried to make her everything from Edith Piaf to Judy Garland to Peggy Lee."
Listen to Aretha Franklin Perform 'Chain of Fools'
Wexler began by taking Franklin back to her Southern roots, recording at F.A.M.E. studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. History tells us that everything finally fell into place, but it didn't happen immediately. Though surrounded by cream-of-the-crop sidemen, Franklin was still having a hard time finding her own sound. It took something completely organic to break the logjam.
"It just wasn't coming off – and finally someone said, 'Aretha, why don't you sit down and play [piano]?'" Franklin told NPR in 1999. "And I did, and it just happened. It all just happened. We arrived, and we arrived very quickly."
Atlantic allowed Franklin to remain at the piano, where she could accentuate an always-present gospel tinge. "When Aretha is anchored at the keyboard, it's a stronger and more organic overall performance," Wexler said in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. "She becomes her own rhythm section and all power flows from her." Newly confident, she began writing more of her own material, and invited her sisters in as back up singers.
Aretha Franklin, as we know her, had arrived. She broke through on the pop charts with 1967's gold-selling No. 2 smash I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, fitting in perfectly with Atlantic's roster of grittier, more rough-hewn R&B stars. They were, in many ways, the antithesis of the slick urbanity found on her hometown Motown Records. “Coming to Muscle Shoals," Franklin later mused, "was the turning point in my career.”
Eight more albums reached the Billboard Top 20 through 1976, before she endured a brief commercial downturn. Franklin also roared up the charts with 14 Top 10 singles over the same span. They included a pair of No. 2 hits in "Chain of Fools" (1967) and "Spanish Harlem" (1971), and other instant empowerment anthems like "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and "Think," released in 1967 and '68 respectively. Her defining moment remained 1967's "Respect," a smash No. 1 single which eventually took on a much broader cultural context. Her take transformed Otis Redding's original song into something entirely new.
"The call for respect went from a request to a demand," Wexler says in Respect. "And then, given the civil rights and feminist fervor that was building in the '60s, respect — especially as Aretha articulated it, with such force — took on a new meaning. 'Respect' started off as a soul song and wound up as a kind of national anthem. It virtually defined American culture at that moment in history."
Franklin married twice; she was mother of four sons, having first became pregnant as a child in the '50s. She was later engaged to longtime companion Willie Wilkerson, but they never wed. Her father C.L. died after being shot twice in his Detroit home, but not before lingering for years in a coma. She also endured her share of subsequent career peaks and valleys – beginning in the late '70s, when La Diva stalled at a paltry No. 143.
Listen to Aretha Franklin Perform 'Respect'
She simply retooled for the new decade, adding a sleek modern style that produced five Top 40 comeback albums between 1981-86 – including 1985's No. 13 hit Who's Zoomin' Who?, her first-ever platinum release. She scored a second chart-topping single with "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," a 1987 duet with George Michael.
Though the times (and sounds) were very different, Franklin said her working relationship with Arista label head Clive Davis recalled the Atlantic era's artistic freedoms.
"At Arista, it was similar and I appreciated, certainly, the arrangement that Clive presented to me – and that was where we both had an equal amount of control," Franklin told Billboard in 2010. "I very, very much appreciate the brilliance of Clive Davis. He was certainly — he is certainly — one of the last great record men out there."
Her output began to slow into the '90s, and Franklin eventually left Arista following 1998's gold-selling A Rose Is Still a Rose. But she remained active on the concert circuit, then later started her own label when it took her years to find a home for 2011's A Woman Falling Out of Love. Her final studio effort, 2014's Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, was a reunion with Clive Davis that featured new renditions of songs associated with everyone from Etta James ("At Last") to Adele ("Rolling in the Deep").
Davis said little had changed. "The wonder of Aretha is she can do any song," he told Rolling Stone in 2014. "And with very, very few exceptions, two takes is as close to the maximum as she does."
More recently, rumors of failing health intensified as photographs revealed a dramatic weight loss. Franklin brushed them off, even as she was forced to cancel a pair of 2016 performances at New York City's Radio City Music Hall on doctor's orders. She missed several summer dates in 2013. The first rumors of pancreatic cancer date back in 2011.
Along the way, she'd only admit to having undergone a "number of procedures," without going into specifics. So, questions lingered. "I'm doing well generally," Franklin told Us Weekly in 2017. "All tests have come back good I've lost a lot of weight due to side effects of medicine. It affects your weight."
Listen to Aretha Franklin's Duet With George Michael
That same year found Franklin announcing her retirement, though a final archival album later appeared. A Brand New Me featured Atlantic-era vocals accompanied by new arrangements from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. She also said she planned to open a nightclub.
"I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from and where it is now," Franklin told hometown TV station WDIV in 2017. "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."
Career-achievement honors began rolling in too, as Detroit named a street after Franklin and a commemorative plaque was placed at her childhood home in Memphis. She earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005; she became the youngest at that time to receive a Kennedy Center Honor. Meanwhile, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, an unauthorized biography by her former ghostwriter David Ritz, drew a fiery rebuke – and the threat of a lawsuit.
Franklin's penchant for charitable giving was locally legendary, if often unpublicized elsewhere. She was a generous donor at Detroit-area churches and food banks, as well as national organizations like Easterseals and Save the Children. She'd always been that way: Even as a child at Northern High School, Franklin was known for purchasing lunches for less fortunate classmates.
She continued to send several $10,000 checks each year to her late father's former church, New Bethel's current pastor told the Detroit News in 2018. Franklin also hosted an annual gospel concert there, as well as free Thanksgiving and Christmas events.
Health issues continued to dog her. Franklin canceled two 2018 concerts in New Jersey, again on doctor's orders. Her most recent performance dated back to November 2017 at a private Elton John AIDS Foundation event in New York City. Franklin's last public concert was a few months before at the Mann Center in Philadelphia.