Artist, arranger, pianist, songwriter, mother, civil rights activist, and owner of one of the finest voices to ever bless this planet, Aretha Franklin, has died. TMZ reported Monday that Franklin was down to 86 lbs., and had cancer. On Thursday, Franklin’s publicist Gwendolyn Quinn told the Associated Press she had died at 9:50 a.m:
“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.
The family added: “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.”
Franklin had canceled multiple shows in the decade leading up to her death, but rarely specified her ailment. She spoke of a “miraculous” recovery in 2013, but wouldn’t say from what. “I’m not one to go into my personal health things,” the characteristically reticent Franklin told the AP. Franklin leaves behind four children.
Aretha Franklin was the prototypical soul diva whose explicit incorporation of gospel into R&B and pop changed music forever. Franklin’s titanic singing brought melisma to the masses, and indelibly filled whatever musical space it entered. A pop-culture pioneer, she was a black woman solo artist who rose to prominence at a time when there were few such signed artists, and even fewer who could be called superstars. She was known as the Queen of Soul and will continue to be as long as there is music and ears to hear it with.
Franklin was a child prodigy whose celebrity preacher father, C.L. Franklin, would wake her to play for famous friends like Nat “King” Cole and Billy Eckstine during his late-night parties. Her voice soared as a matter of course, her arrangements were ingenious. Within a year of the release of Dionne Warwick’s rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” Franklin snatched the song, rearranged it, and delivered the definitive take on it.
Though heralded for her voice, and considered by many to be the best singer of all time (Rolling Stone ranked her at No. 1 on its 2010 Greatest Singers of All Time list), the other stunning elements of her musicianship were not as subject to mainstream adulation. It’s amazing that someone could be both the Queen of Soul and an underdog, and indeed, Aretha Franklin was amazing, and her life was a portfolio of multitudes. Franklin’s peer Smokey Robinson told David Ritz (co-author of Franklin’s 1999 memoir Aretha Franklin: From These Roots, and sole author of 2015's much juicer, unauthorized bio Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, which Franklin denounced) this of Franklin’s innate gift, which was evident in her childhood:
I heard her singing along with Sarah [Vaughn] in a way that scared me. Sarah’s riffs are the most complex of any singer, yet Aretha shadowed them like it was the most natural thing in the world.
The other thing that knocked us out about Aretha was her piano playing. There was a grand piano in the Franklin living room, and we all liked to mess around. We’d pick out little melodies with one finger. But when Aretha sat down, even as a seven-year-old, she started playing chords—big chords. Later I’d recognize them as complex church chords, the kind used to accompany the preacher and the solo singer. At the time, though, all I could do was view Aretha as a wonder child. Mind you, this was Detroit, where musical talent ran strong and free. Everyone was singing and harmonizing; everyone was playing piano and guitar. Aretha came out of this world, but she also came out of another far-off magical world none of us really understood. She came from a distant musical planet where children are born with their gifts fully formed.
Franklin’s brother Cecil Franklin, who died in 1989, rhapsodized his sister’s “infallible” ear to Ritz:
Aretha heard a song once and played it back immediately, note for note. If it was an instrumental, she duplicated it perfectly. If it was a vocal, she duplicated it just as perfectly. She got all the inflections right, voice and keyboard. Her ear was infallible. We always knew that she possessed a different kind of talent. That’s the talent they call genius. You can’t learn it. You just have it.
Despite her pedigree, gift, connections, and gorgeous mezzo-soprano that seamlessly flowed from sublime to gritty and back, Franklin was no overnight success. She released a series of 10 lovely (but rarely stirring) albums on Columbia from 1961 to 1967. None were commercially successful, and hits were few and far between. It wasn’t until she signed to Atlantic in 1967 that Franklin’s career skyrocketed—it took 11 albums for the world to come around on Aretha Franklin’s genius, which is as much proof as anything of the power of persistence. I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, produced by the legendary Jerry Wexler (the man who literally coined the phrase “rhythm and blues”), contained Franklin’s first two Top 10 hits, the title track and a song that would go on to become one of her signatures, “Respect,” a cover of an Otis Redding song that through her own arrangement, Franklin spun into a gold record.
“Respect” was Franklin’s first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Lyrically, it was ostensibly about domestic equality—a demand for the receipt of one’s propers from her mate—but became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Franklin played benefits for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. At times she gave up paid gigs to sing for King, and was said to be his favorite singer. She performed at his funeral.
Franklin’s ensuing accomplishments are too long to list. Eighteen Grammys. Seventy-five million records sold. Seventy-three entries on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Her astonishing 1972 album Amazing Grace—the pinnacle of her long-form artistry—went double platinum and remains the best-selling live gospel album of all time. Her hit-making career spanned four decades and several styles—please do not sleep on her Luther Vandross-assisted post-disco grooves like “Jump To It,” “Get It Right,” and “Love Me Right.”
Almost 20 years after hitting No. 1 with “Respect,” she finally returned to the chart summit with the George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” during her commercially fertile ‘80s synthy period. This made Franklin the rare woman over 40 to hit No. 1 on that chart—“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” ascended to the top a little less than a month after her 45th birthday.
Aretha Franklin had a purse for every occasion that was always by her side, and the aptitude to cut a lesser artist down in just a few words. Her feuds and beefs were legendary, sometimes involved fax machines, and were generally instigated by her, according to reports. Her skin was thin for someone so obviously superior to 99.9 percent of her peers, but greatness and insecurity aren’t mutually exclusive—in fact, they can fuel each other reciprocally. Like I said: multitudes.
Though her recording career slowed to a crawl during the last two decades of her life, Franklin toured consistently and wowed audiences in her wake. She announced in 2017 that she was retiring from making music. Through it all, her legacy as queen remained untainted. To Ritz, musician Billy Preston summarized Franklin’s enduring appeal:
I don’t care what they say about Aretha. She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane 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 fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.
“She was the best,” is something people say when important people leave us. But Aretha Franklin was truly the best, as much as any mortal could ever claim to be. And she knew it. The queen is dead, long live the queen. Never forget how lucky we were to have gotten to enjoy her gifts, to occupy the same planet that she did at the same time.
Here is a perfect song of hers; it is one of several: