After days of speculation, the sad news has finally been confirmed that Aretha Franklin has died.
It was reported earlier this week that the Queen of Soul was “gravely ill” in a Detroit hospital, with her friends and family saying their goodbyes. She was moved into hospice care at her house on Monday. Today, it’s been confirmed that Aretha Franklin has died aged 76.
Franklin’s health battles have been widely publicised over the last decade, although Franklin herself refused to be drawn into specifics. At the time of her death she was rumoured to be suffering from pancreatic cancer. Both her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, died from cancer.
She was first rumoured to have been diagnosed with cancer in 2010, but made a recovery. At the time, although Franklin refused to confirm the diagnosis, tributes poured in, and a tribute was aired as part of the 2011 Grammy Awards. By 2013 a noticeably thinner Franklin was back performing, and a year later she released the Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics album.
However, health problems continued to plague the Queen of Soul.
The rumours of a cancer diagnosis continued, however, and fears for Franklin’s health grew in 2016 when she cancelled all her remaining autumn and winter tour dates.
Specifics of her health were never revealed by Franklin, who has always tried to maintain her privacy, allowing hearsay and rumour to fill the void. The rumours around her health increased last year, as photos circulated showing a dramatic weight loss.
Then in 2017 Franklin was forced to deny rumours that she had died, after cancelling a string of performance dates, releasing a statement saying “I’m doing well generally, all tests have come back good. I’ve lost a lot of weight due to side effects of medicine, it affects your weight. Thanxxxx for your concern”.
She also announced on a Detroit TV show that 2017 would be her last year performing live shows, although she would continue to record. She hinted a new album was in the works that would feature collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Lionel Richie. No album was released, and it’s unclear whether Franklin recorded for a new album or not. She also announced she had plans to open a music bar in Detroit, but no such venue has opened.
Her last performance was at Elton John’s AIDS Foundation Party last year, but Franklin was taken ill, claiming she was “fighting exhaustion and dehydration”.
The Queen of Soul leaves behind a staggering legacy. She was one of the greatest vocalists ever, as well as being one of the biggest and most flamboyant divas of all time. Her music remains a source of inspiration today, and her impact upon the music industry is immeasurable.
She sold an estimated 75 million records, recorded 42 studio albums and 6 live albums, and 100 R&B charting singles. Her talent brought her international fame, and led her perform at three presidential inaugurations for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Franklin would win a staggering 18 Grammy Awards, including 11 Grammy Awards for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (the award was introduced in 1968 and Franklin won it eight times in a row). She was also the recipient of countless other accolades, and was the first female to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2008 Rolling Stone magazine named her the greatest singer of all time.
It’s a sad day in the history of popular music. Aretha Franklin’s legacy is almost unparalleled by a female in popular music history. A woman of incredible talent and strength, and a diva of epic proportions. Of all the singers influenced by her, and of those who will continue to be influenced by her, none will ever take the title the ‘Queen of Soul’.
Aretha Franklin: a career in brief
Aretha Franklin’s journey from the church to the pop charts was an inspiring, if challenging, journey. The daughter of the acclaimed Revered C.L. Franklin, she performed at her father’s church, the New Bethel Baptist Church, in Detroit. Franklin’s early years spent working on her craft in the church gave her a foundation for her future career, and locally she gained a reputation as a promising performer.
Yet, Franklin’s parents would separate when she young, the result of the Reverend Franklin’s rampant philandering. Her mother, Barbara, would die before Franklin turned 10.
With other family members stepping in to take after Franklin and her siblings, including future singers Erma and Carolyn, Franklin learnt to play piano and began fine-tuning her vocals.
In the meantime, Franklin fell pregnant aged just 12 with her first child Clarence, who was born in 1955. She fell pregnant at 14 with her son Edward. A young single mother, Franklin’s grandmother and sisters helped raise the children. Franklin would marry Ted White when she turned 19, but the relationship failed (in part due to domestic violence by White) and they divorced in 1969.
By 18 she had decided that like Sam Cooke, she wanted to sing pop rather than purely gospel. Her father agreed, and Franklin signed to Columbia Records in 1960. Instead of immediately turning to pop music, Columbia had Franklin record more jazz and easy listening numbers on her first few albums with the label. Produced by Clyde Otis, the albums showcased Franklin’s incredible vocal talent, but something wasn’t quite right and although the album sales were fairly decent, they weren’t huge. By the mid-sixties Columbia tried to push her to the R&B market, but it was clear that the label didn’t really know what to do with Franklin.
No doubt disappointed with her 6 years at Columbia, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in 1966. The label had a track record of producing top black artists, such as The Drifters, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave. She was sent by Jerry Wexler to record in Muscle Shoals in Alabama at the FAME studios to record ‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)’. This combination gritty southern-Memphis soul and the gospel-trained voice of Franklin proved to be irresistible. Atlantic had given Franklin what Columbia could not: a unique sound.
The I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You album would become one of Franklin’s best, aided by the title track and a cover of the Otis Redding song ‘Respect’. Barely distinguishable from the original version, Franklin’s ‘Respect’ would become a classic, perhaps the classic soul hit. Her sisters provided backing vocals, and Franklin’s vocal is just flawless.
The song was originally about a man demanding submission from his wife, but in the hands of Franklin it became a song about a woman spurned, demanding respect her man in a fierce fashion. In the hands of Franklin, the song’s message was completely reversed, becoming a song of female empowerment and one of the early anthems of the feminist movement.
According to biographer Mark Ribowsky, Redding wasn’t best pleased by Franklin’s cover, no doubt because her version was not only superior but it also sold more. Yet, in time, Redding came to accept that it was no longer his song. At the Monterey Pop Festival, Redding introduced the song by cheekily saying that “this next song is a song that a girl took away from me”.
With a unique style and sound, Franklin went on to record some of the most commercially and critically acclaimed songs of her career, including ‘(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman’, ‘Think’, ‘Chain of Fools’, ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Rock Steady’ and ‘Ain’t No Way’. She won her first two Grammys, and her albums sold in their thousands.
After success in the early seventies with her Spirit in the Dark, Young, Gifted & Black and Amazing Grace albums, Franklin’s career began to stall with the recording of the Hey Now Hey album, co-produced by Quincy Jones and Franklin herself. The album spawned one hit, the beautiful ‘Angel’ written by her sister Carolyn, as well as covers of ‘That’s The Way I Feel about Cha’ and ‘Moody’s Mood’. But it was the first to miss the Top 25 on the albums charts, her first since her debut album with Atlantic.
Franklin’s personal life suffered around this time as well, as her second marriage to Glynn Turman ended, and they divorced.
Franklin would remain with Atlantic until 1979, but her albums sold less and were less exciting as they once were. She still had hits and decent records, including a cover of the Stevie Wonder song ‘Until You Come Back to Me’, as well the album Sparkle by Curtis Mayfield. But, by the end of her tenure with Atlantic, her albums were bombing: Sweet Passion, Almighty Fire and La Diva sank without a trace. Franklin remained an in demand performer however, and appeared at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration.
Disappointed with her diminishing sales and chart presence, Franklin signed with Clive Davis and his newly formed Arista Records in 1980. Her first album, simply titled Aretha, was a return to commercial, if not critical, success. It featured a cover of Otis Redding’s ‘I Can’t Turn You Lose’, and a top 3 R&B hit with ‘United Together’. Davis, a shrewd record man with an ear for pop records, positioned the Queen of Soul away from the grittier soul she’d been recording at Atlantic, and directed her to a more commercial, pop sound. The gamble seemed to work.
In 1980 she also enjoyed a revived interest in her career thanks to her appearance in The Blues Brothers, where she played the long-suffering wife of Matt “Guitar” Murphy. Her performance of ‘Think’ set in a soul food café was one of the highlights of the film.
A year later she released a duet with George Benson, before Davis paired her up with a new producer, the up-and-coming star Luther Vandross. Vandross gave Franklin the first major hit in years with ‘Jump to It’, and followed up the success with ‘Get It Right’. Both great songs, although Franklin was annoyed by Vandross’s vocal direction. To her, she was the Queen of Soul who didn’t need Vandross to tell her how to sing; to Vandross, ever the perfectionist, Franklin needed some advice.
After the moderate success recording with Vandross, Franklin turned to younger producers Preston Glass and Narada Michael Walden to produce her Who’s Zoomin’ Who album. An album perfect for the eighties, it would be Franklin’s biggest selling album ever, the first to reach Platinum status. The song ‘Freeway of Love’ would also net her another Grammy Award.
Around this time Franklin developed an aversion to flying after an incident on a flight. As a result, her performances became restricted to areas she could drive to, ruling out any international tours.
Franklin would follow this with another album called Aretha, which was less well received, but nonetheless yielded the international hit ‘I Knew You Were Waiting for Me’, a duet with the late George Michael. The Queen of Soul was now firmly in the pop camp, but as long as sales were good, Franklin didn’t seem to care.
Yet, by the end of the eighties Franklin seemed to run out of ideas. Duets with Michael McDonald and James Brown flopped, and she even released the bizarrely titled What You See Is What You Sweat. She even tried a jazz album, but while it promised so much it delivered fairly little. She did release another gospel album to mixed reviews; the biggest takeaway was that Franklin, ever insecure around other female vocalists, had invited Mavis Staples to sing with her, only to mix her so low in the final mix that she was barely audible.
The nineties were a mixed period for Franklin. She was invited to perform at the pre-inauguration concert for Bill Clinton, and remained a firm favourite at the White House. She also scored a dance hit with ‘A Deeper Love’. But it was her 1999 album A Rose is Still a Rose that redeemed the Queen of Soul and restored her throne. The Lauryn Hill produced title track was excellent, and the rest of the album was equally strong – perhaps her strongest since Who’s Zoomin’ Who. Backed by some tasty neo-soul grooves and some decent songs, Franklin made another remarkable comeback. The album went gold, buoyed by her performance of ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the Grammy Awards, when she stepped in for a sick Pavarotti.
She followed up the success of that in 2003 with So Damn Happy, which featured the Grammy-winning track ‘Wonderful’, produced by LA Reid. Five years later she released This Christmas Aretha, featuring a collection of her favourite Christmas songs, including Donny Hathaway’s ‘This Christmas’.
In 2009 Franklin was invited to perform at the inauguration of Barack Obama, and she delivered a rousing rendition of ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’. Her hat, however, gained most attention and Franklin ended up donating it to the Smithsonian museum.
The inauguration took place on a crisp January day, and afterward Franklin complained the conditions weren’t great for singing so released her “preferred” version of the song. Four years later, when Beyoncé mimed at the second Obama inauguration, Franklin claimed “I just really cracked up. I thought it was really funny, but she did a beautiful job with the pre-record” before throwing some shade, saying “I wanted to give people the real thing and pre-recording never crossed my mind”.
A year later, Franklin was reportedly diagnosed with cancer, and although she denied she had the illness, she did confirm she had an operation. Franklin tried to make a comeback and released her first album on her own label, the mixed Aretha: A Woman Falling out of Love. The album was originally only released in Walmart, but suffered from poor production, with one song on the album skipping. After a costly reprint, the album would sell around 50,000 copies despite any major publicity.
In 2012 Franklin called off an engagement to her longtime friend William Wilkerson, although the two remained close.
As her health appeared to get better, and Franklin, who at one point appeared seriously overweight, appeared in public with a much slimmer frame. She was reunited in 2014 with Clive Davis, who signed her to RCA Records. She would go on to release Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics in 2014, an album of covers of Franklin’s supposedly favourite divas. Given Franklin’s insecurity around female singers, this album was a bit of a shock. The album suffered from poor production and use of auto tune (which Franklin herself denied), but some songs such as Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” and The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On” are enjoyable.
Since then, Franklin has made a few performances but cancelled many more, often citing unspecific health concerns. She did make an appearance at the Kennedy Centre Honours in 2015, paying tribute to Carole King who wrote ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’; Franklin’s appearance was arguably her last greatest performance, and it even brought President Obama to tears.
Franklin, who never again flew, attempted an ill-fated tour of the west coast. She drove from her home in Detroit to California, where did perform a few shows. She cancelled a planned show in Las Vegas citing travel exhaustion, and then cancelled dates planned in Florida and Oklahoma, saying that “I’m not prepared to drive as far west so soon again”.
After a spate of cancelled performances in 2016, Franklin announced last year that she would be retiring from performing, although she still had dates for 2018 which were subsequently cancelled. She also announced she was working with Stevie Wonder and others, including Lionel Richie, on an album which she slated for a September 2017 release, but a year later and no release date has been set. Her last performance came in November 2017 when she performed at the Elton John AIDS Foundation party.
Aretha Franklin’s legacy is almost unparalleled by a female in popular music history. A woman of incredible talent and strength, and a diva of epic proportions. Of all the singers influenced by her, and of those who will continue to be influenced by her, none will ever take the title the ‘Queen of Soul’.
She earned her place in American history as one of the greatest singers and performers. Not only did her music inspire, it also helped build metaphorical bridges in an American society divided along racial lines. She became an inspiration for people across the world, despite her often tumultuous and challenging life. Her music and legacy will continue to inspire, and we’ll continue to enjoy one of the most majestic voices ever.