NEW YORK -- Aretha Franklin, the undisputed "Queen of Soul" who sang with matchless style on such classics as "Think," "I Say a Little Prayer" and her signature song, "Respect," and stood as a cultural icon around the globe, has died from pancreatic cancer. She was 76.
Publicist Gwendolyn Quinn said through a family statement that Franklin died Thursday at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit.
Franklin was a professional singer and pianist by her late teens and a superstar by her mid-20s. Her gifts, natural and acquired, included a multioctave mezzo-soprano, gospel passion and training worthy of a preacher's daughter. She had sophisticated and eccentric tastes and the courage to channel private pain into liberating song.
She recorded hundreds of tracks and had dozens of hits over the span of a half century, including 20 that reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. But her reputation was defined by an extraordinary run of top 10 smashes in the late 1960s, from "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," to "Chain of Fools" to her unstoppable call for "Respect."
Franklin won 18 Grammy awards. In 1987, she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Succeeding generations of R&B singers, among them Natalie Cole, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys, openly emulated her. When Rolling Stone magazine put Franklin at the top of its 2010 list of the "100 Greatest Singers of All Time," Mary J. Blige paid tribute:
"Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing."
Fellow singers admired her, and political and civic leaders treated her as a peer. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a longtime friend, and she sang at the dedication of King's memorial in 2011. She performed at the inaugurations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and at the funeral for civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Clinton gave Franklin the National Medal of Arts. President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2005.
Franklin's best-known appearance with a president was in January 2009, when she sang "My Country 'tis of Thee" at Barack Obama's inauguration. She wore a gray felt hat with a huge, Swarovski rhinestone-bordered bow that became an Internet sensation and even had its own website.
Franklin did not read music, but she was a consummate American singer, connecting everywhere. In an interview with The New York Times in 2007, she said her father had told her that she "would sing for kings and queens."
"Fortunately I've had the good fortune to do so," she added. "And presidents."
Franklin endured celebrity and personal troubles dating back to childhood. Her best known producer, Jerry Wexler, nicknamed her "Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows."
Despite growing up in Detroit, and having Smokey Robinson as a childhood friend, Franklin never recorded for Motown Records; stints with Columbia and Arista were sandwiched around her prime years with Atlantic Records. But it was at Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father was pastor, that Franklin learned the gospel fundamentals that would make her a soul institution.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis on March 25, 1942. Her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was a gospel singer and pianist. Her parents separated when Aretha was 6, leaving her in her father's care. Her mother died four years later after a heart attack.
C.L. Franklin's career as a pastor led the family from Memphis to Buffalo, N.Y., and then to Detroit, where he joined the New Bethel Baptist Church in 1946.
Aretha's sisters, Erma and Carolyn, also sang and wrote songs. The sisters also provided backup vocals for Franklin on songs like "Respect." From 1968 until his death in 1989, her brother Cecil was her manager.
At 12, Franklin joined her father on tour.
But Franklin became pregnant, dropped out of high school and had a child two months before her 13th birthday. Soon after that she had a second child by a different father. Those sons, Clarence and Edward Franklin, survive her, along with two others, Ted White Jr. and KeCalf Franklin, her son with Ken Cunningham, a boyfriend during the 1970s, and four grandchildren.
In the late 1950s, Franklin decided to build a career in secular music. Leaving her children with family in Detroit, she moved to New York City. John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who had championed Billie Holiday, signed the 18-year-old Franklin in 1960.
Hammond saw Franklin as a jazz singer tinged with blues and gospel. He recorded her with pianist Ray Bryant's small groups in 1960 and 1961 for her first studio album, Aretha, which sent two singles to the R&B Top 10: "Today I Sing the Blues" and "Won't Be Long."
Her next album, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, featured jazz standards and used big-band orchestrations; it gave her a Top 40 pop single in 1961 with "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody."
Her later Columbia albums were scattershot, veering in and out of jazz, pop and R&B. Franklin met and married White in 1961 and made him her manager; he shares credit on some of the songs Franklin wrote in the 1960s, including "Dr. Feelgood." In 1964 they had a son, Ted White Jr., who would lead his mother's band decades later. She divorced White, after a turbulent marriage, in 1969.
White later said his strategy was for Franklin to switch styles from album to album, to reach a variety of audiences, but the results -- a Dinah Washington tribute, jazz standards with strings, remakes of recent pop and soul hits -- left radio stations and audiences confused. When her Columbia contract expired in 1966, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records, which specialized in rhythm and blues.
"But the years at Columbia also taught her several important things," critic Russell Gersten later wrote. "She worked hard at controlling and modulating her phrasing, giving her a discipline that most other soul singers lacked. She also developed a versatility with mainstream music that gave her later albums a breadth that was lacking on Motown LPs from the same period.
"Most important, she learned what she didn't like: to do what she was told to do."
At Atlantic, Wexler teamed her with veteran R&B musicians from FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, and the result was a tougher, soulful sound, with call-and-response vocals and Franklin's gospel-style piano, which anchored "I Say a Little Prayer," "Natural Woman" and others.
Of Franklin's dozens of hits, none was linked more firmly to her than the funky, horn-led march "Respect" and its spelled out demand for "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."
Franklin had decided she wanted to "embellish" the R&B song written by Otis Redding, whose version had been a modest hit in 1965.
"When she walked into the studio, it was already worked out in her head," Wexler wrote in Rolling Stone in 2004. "Otis came up to my office right before 'Respect' was released, and I played him the tape. He said, 'She done took my song.' He said it benignly and ruefully. He knew the identity of the song was slipping away from him to her."
In a 2004 interview with the St. Petersburg Times in Florida, Franklin was asked whether she sensed in the '60s that she was helping change popular music.
"Somewhat, certainly with 'Respect,' that was a battle cry for freedom and many people of many ethnicities took pride in that word," she answered. "It was meaningful to all of us."
"Respect" surged to No. 1 and would bring Franklin her first two Grammy Awards, for best R&B recording and best solo female R&B performance.
But amid the success, Franklin's personal life was in upheaval. She fought with her husband and manager, White, who had roughed her up in public, a 1968 Time magazine cover story noted. She also went through a period of heavy drinking before getting sober in the 1970s.
Franklin changed labels in 1980, to Arista. There, her albums mingled remakes of 1960s and '70s hits -- "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Everyday People," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," "What a Fool Believes" -- with contemporary songs.
Franklin had her last No. 1 pop hit with "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," a duet with George Michael from her 1986 album, Aretha.
Information for this article was contributed by Mesfin Fekadu and Hillel Italie of The Associated Press; and by Jon Pareles of The New York Times.
Aretha Franklin sings at the Apollo Theater in New York in June of 1971. “She worked hard at controlling and modulating her phrasing, giving her a discipline that most other soul singers lacked,” critic Russell Gersten wrote.
Aretha Franklin performs at the inaugural gala for President Bill Clinton on Jan. 19, 1993.
Then President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, listen as Aretha Franklin sings at the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on Oct. 16, 2011.
Then President George W. Bush awards Aretha Franklin the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in November 2005.
Aretha Franklin joins James Brown in a duet in January 1987 for a Home Box Office show taped at the Taboo nightclub in Detroit, her adopted hometown.
A Section on 08/17/2018
Print Headline: Franklin, the 'Queen of Soul,' dies at age 76