Aretha Franklin, whose unmatched singing voice helped her create timeless hits like “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” on her way to being rightfully crowned as the Queen of Soul, died Thursday morning in Detroit. She was 76.
Franklin experienced worldwide singing success for the better part of 60 years, releasing dozens of studio albums and ultimately becoming the first woman to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
She was known for her awesome four-octave vocal range that lifted her to the top of the charts with “Respect” in 1967 before enjoying a string of other songs landing in the top 10 spanning decades.
Franklin put on a number of signature performances over the years, including most notably at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 and in 2009 at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, who became the first African-American commander-in-chief.
Franklin also had a commitment to justice and equality that was instilled in her at a young age, the Rev. Jesse Jackson recalled to Vogue while celebrating her 74th birthday party in 2016.
“She always had a great sense of social justice,” Jackson said at the time. “When Dr. King took a position against the Vietnam War, and he was being attacked by the Democrats and the Republicans and many of the black churches, Aretha did a 10-city tour with him and Harry Belafonte in ’67 for free. We got on the stage in Houston—I was thinking about this when I was taking a shower earlier—and Dr. King was about to present her with some flowers, and someone put tear gas in the fans. It was that crazy. She stood with Dr. King when it mattered the most.”
Cathy Hughes, the media magnate and Founder and Chairperson of Urban One, Inc. who counted Franklin as a close friend, offered her condolences to and “prayers of grace and peace to the members of her family, her friends and colleagues” upon learning of the death.
“Aretha’s music commanded ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T,’ and that song not only became a rallying cry during the civil rights movement but also served as an anthem for women who still identify with its message, today,” Hughes said in part. “Her timeless classics also became historical markers in our personal journeys and our collective story as a community. She understood her progress was our progress, her success was our success, and when the door opened for her, it opened for us as well. Aretha was unapologetically black. She was committed to black music and black radio. She understood its role in her career and remained loyal to our company across the years.”
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis to a father who was a minister and gospel singer and a mother who was also a gospel singer. After moving to Detroit and singing in a church there with her father following her parents’ split, she went on to sign a record contract with Columbia Records in 1960 and release her debut album, “The Great Aretha Franklin,” when she was just 18.
While she was based out of Detroit, she perfected a sound that was much different from that of the soul music of the city’s Motown Records, which boasted a roster of singers that at one time included Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Isley Brothers, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Stevie Wonders and others.
Another distinction that she carved out for herself was how her fear off flying forced her to travel between concert venues in a tour bus while other artists preferred airplanes.
Her music achieved a number of nominations and awards, including one from the Grammys for her lifetime of achievement in 1994. In total, she collected 20 Grammy Awards and dozens of others.
Aside from her classic solo work, she collaborated with a number of other celebrated singers, including a memorable performance with Mariah Carey in 1998 and a duet with Motown legend Smokey Robinson in 1993.
Franklin announced just last year that she was stepping down from performing professionally.
“I must tell you, I am retiring this year,” she told Detroit TV station WDIV. “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.”
Franklin was married twice, including to actor Glynn Turman. She is survived by all four of her sons – Clarence, Edward, Ted White, Jr. and Kecalf Cunningham – and died while she was around an army of family and friends.