Aretha Franklin, universally acclaimed as the “Queen of Soul” and one of the United States' greatest singers in any style, died on Thursday at her home in Detroit. She was 76.
The cause was advanced pancreatic cancer, her publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn, said.
In her indelible late-1960s hits, Ms. Franklin brought the righteous fervour of gospel music to secular songs that were about much more than romance. Hits such as Do Right Woman, Do Right Man, Think, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and Chain of Fools defined a modern female archetype: sensual and strong, long-suffering but ultimately indomitable, loving but not to be taken for granted.
When Ms. Franklin sang Respect, the Otis Redding song that became her signature, it was never just about how a woman wanted to be greeted by a spouse coming home from work. It was a demand for equality and freedom and a harbinger of feminism, carried by a voice that would accept nothing less.
Ms. Franklin had a grandly celebrated career. She placed more than 100 singles in the Billboard charts, including 17 top-10 pop singles and 20 No. 1 R&B hits. She received 18 competitive Grammy Awards, along with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987, its second year. She sang at the inauguration of U.S. president Barack Obama in 2009, at preinauguration concerts for former presidents Jimmy Carter in 1977 and Bill Clinton in 1993, and at both the Democratic National Convention and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968.
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 Ms. 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.”
Ms. Franklin’s airborne, constantly improvisatory vocals had their roots in gospel. It was the music she grew up on in the Baptist churches where her father, Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as C.L., preached. She began singing in the choir of her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, and soon became a star soloist.
Gospel shaped her quivering swoops, her pointed rasps, her galvanizing build-ups and her percussive exhortations; it also shaped her piano playing and the call-and-response vocal arrangements she shared with her backup singers. Through her career in pop, soul and R&B, Ms. Franklin periodically recharged herself with gospel albums: Amazing Grace in 1972 and One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, recorded at the New Bethel church, in 1987.
But gospel was only part of her vocabulary. The playfulness and harmonic sophistication of jazz, the ache and sensuality of the blues, the vehemence of rock and, later, the sustained emotionality of opera were all hers to command.
Ms. 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.”
For all the admiration Ms. Franklin earned, her commercial fortunes were uneven, as her recordings moved in and out of sync with the tastes of the pop market.
After her late-1960s soul breakthroughs and a string of pop hits in the early 1970s, the disco era sidelined her. But Ms. Franklin had a resurgence in the 1980s with her album Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and its Grammy-winning single, Freeway of Love, and she followed through in the next decades as a kind of soul singer emeritus: an indomitable diva and a duet partner conferring authenticity on collaborators such as George Michael and Annie Lennox.
Mother sang gospel
Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, Tenn., 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.
Mr. 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.
The Franklin household was filled with music. Mr. Franklin welcomed visiting gospel and secular musicians: jazz pianist Art Tatum, singer Dinah Washington and gospel figures such as the young Sam Cooke (before his turn to pop), Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland, who became his daughter’s mentors.
Future Motown artists such as Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross lived nearby. Ms. Franklin’s sisters, Erma and Carolyn, also sang and wrote songs, among them Piece of My Heart, a song Erma Franklin recorded before Janis Joplin did, and Carolyn Franklin’s Ain’t No Way, a hit for Ms. Franklin. The sisters also provided backup vocals for Ms. Franklin on songs such as Respect. From 1968 until his death in 1989, her brother Cecil was her manager.
Ms. Franklin started teaching herself to play the piano – there were two in the house – before she was 10, picking up songs from the radio and from Ms. Ward’s gospel records. Around the same time, she stood on a chair and sang her first solos in church. In David Ritz’s biography Respect, Cecil Franklin recalled that his sister could hear a song once and immediately sing and play it. “Her ear was infallible,” he said.
At 12, Ms. Franklin joined her father on tour.
But Ms. 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. She leaves those sons, Clarence and Eddie Franklin, along with her sons Ted White Jr. and KeCalf Franklin (whose father is Ken Cunningham, a boyfriend during the 1970s) and grandchildren.
In the late 1950s, Ms. Franklin decided to build a career in secular music. Leaving her children with family in Detroit, she moved to New York. John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who had championed Billie Holiday, signed the 18-year-old Ms. Franklin in 1960.
Mr. Hammond saw Ms. 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. Ms. Franklin met and married Ted White in 1961 and made him her manager; he shares credit on some of the songs Ms. 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 Mr. White, after a turbulent marriage, in 1969.)
Mr. White later said his strategy was for Ms. 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, Ms. Franklin signed with Atlantic Records, which specialized in rhythm and blues.
Respect, recorded on Valentine’s Day 1967 and released in April, was a bluesy demand for dignity, as well as an instruction to “give it to me when you get home” and “take care of TCB.” (The letters stood for “taking care of business.”)
Respect surged to No. 1 and would bring Ms. Franklin her first two Grammy Awards, for Best R&B Recording and Best Solo Female R&B Performance.
But amid the success, Ms. Franklin’s personal life was in upheaval. She fought with her husband and manager, Mr. White, who had roughed her up in public, a 1968 Time magazine cover story noted, and whose musical decisions had grown increasingly counterproductive. Before their divorce in 1969, she dropped him as manager and eventually filed restraining orders against him. She also went through a period of heavy drinking before getting sober in the 1970s.
Ms. 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.
Ms. 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.