RIP: Aretha Franklin

Posted August 16, 2018 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Revered Queen of Soul dies, eighteen Grammy award winner, at the age of 76

arethafranklin-picIt is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of Aretha Franklin, considered to be one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century and rallied by millions as the Queen of Soul. With over eighteen Grammys, having sold over 75 million records worldwide and becoming the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Franklin died at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit. She was surrounded by family and friends.

The “official cause of death was due to an advanced pancreatic cancer,” which was confirmed by Franklin’s doctor, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, read portions of a family statement prepared by her longtime publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn.

Born Aretha Louise Franklin in Memphis, Tennessee to the esteemed Rev. C.L. Franklin and Barbara Franklin, Franklin moved to Buffalo with her family at the age of two as her father took on a new job assignment as a pastor. They eventually relocated to Detroit during an era when thousands of African-Americans began migrating north seeking financial security in the developing steel mill and automotive industries. Franklin called Detroit her home and remained there most of her adult life.

In Detroit, Franklin’s father C.L. took on the job assignment as pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church. Under his leadership, the church grew substantially, becoming one of the most influential churches in black America. Her father also bore the status of a religious superstar, selling loads of vinyl records with his booming sermons and demanding thousands in honorariums for his preaching engagements. It was during these early years that Aretha began to hone on her musical abilities and become sharper on the piano, aided with instruction from musical director and eventual gospel star James Cleveland. With the death of their mother in 1952 and an in-demand C.L. Franklin locked into full-time ministry, Aretha along with sisters Erma and Carolyn were raised by a number of women which included Franklin’s grandmother and gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. By the time Aretha became a teenager, she toured regularly with her father, almost serving as an opening act for him on his traveling itinerary across the country. With C.L. as her manager, Aretha earned her first record deal with J.V.B. Records in 1956 with Songs of Faith, a collection full of hymns and gospel songs. Franklin was only fourteen at the time of the recording.

Her early influences were steeped in the riches of gospel music, something she never refrained from speaking about. “I was influenced by the great [gospel singer] Clara Ward,” Franklin told Billboard in 2016. “She was one of my mentors, and I would see her at our church. She and Mahalia [Jackson], who was a family friend as well. They were different kinds of singers. But I guess I enjoyed Clara so much that I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

Eventually, Franklin set her affections on singing jazz and crossover music, weaning away from her gospel roots. It was a move that she claimed was inspired by her dear friend and first crush Sam Cooke, a former lead singer for the Soul Stirrers who detoured to soul while becoming a pop star. “After hearing Sam [on “You Send Me”], I wondered if I could sing secular and be as ­successful as he had been. I talked to my dad about it, and he said if that was what I wanted to do, by all means, he would support me,” she told Billboard.

While idolizing the legacies of Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, Franklin was signed to Columbia Records and given a slate of songs patterned after her jazz and adult pop favorites. 1960’s “Today I Sing the Blues” would become her first single, netting her a Top Ten hit on Billboard’s Hot Rhythm & Blues Sellers chart. She managed to pull off a Top 40 hit with “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” (#37 pop) in 1961. After a few more singles releases and several albums, Franklin’s success eventually plateaued, mostly due to the fact that her voice and style neglected for the most part her gospel influences. With a handful of producers like John Hammond, Robert Mersey, Clyde Otis and Richard Wess depending on an arsenal of already established catalog hits, Franklin hardly entertained the notion of penning original compositions.

In 1966, Atlantic Records signed Franklin and decided to incorporate their soul and R&B prowess with her stylings. The decision was made by producer Jerry Wexler to travel south to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for the initial recording sessions on her Atlantic debut LP. Although the January 1967 sessions were interrupted due to an altercation led by then-husband and manager Ted White with band personnel, two tracks were thankfully completed there: “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” They were released together with “I Never Loved a Man” serving as the A-side. And Franklin’s career experienced a major rebound, with the A-side zooming to number one R&B and number nine pop. Its flipside also fared well, climbing to number 37 R&B.


Aretha Franklin's "Respect" on 45 rpm.

Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” on 45 rpm.

Avoiding future trips to Muscle Shoals, Atlantic flew Franklin and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to their studios in New York City to complete the full album of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which was certified gold and yielded the stunning cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” That song was released as Franklin’s second single from the album, soaring to number 9 pop and would eventually become Franklin’s most requested song. A masterpiece in itself, Franklin’s version – dipped in saucy female backing vocals, the memorable “sock it to me” phrasing and gutsy ad-libs (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me…take care, T-C-B”) – would become a rallying cry for both the civil rights and women’s liberation movements.

In his autobiography Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music, Jerry Wexler wrote: “For Otis, respect had the traditional connotation, the more abstract meaning of esteem. “The fervor in Aretha’s voice demanded that respect; and more respect also involved sexual attention of the highest order. What else would ‘Sock it to me’ mean?”

After striking gold, Atlantic issued two more albums the same year of 1967 with Aretha Arrives and Lady Soul. Two singles from those sessions landed in the Top 40 with Ronnie Shannon’s “Baby, I Love You” (#1 R&B) and the now-timeless performance of Carole King/Gerry Goffin’s “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel)” (#2 R&B). And from 1967 through 1971, a series of hits emerged, including “Ain’t No Way,” “Chain of Fools,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Think,” “See Saw,” “The House That Jack Built” and “Share Your Love With Me” among others. Her covers of popular hits were also charting, including “I Say a Little Prayer,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “Spanish Harlem” and a rousing gospel-stirred rendition of Simon & Garfunkle’s “Bridge over Troubled Water.”

With the 1970’s now calling for R&B to embrace funk and more sophisticated patterns in pop, Franklin’s songwriting blossomed and took center stage with songs like the rapturous “Call Me,” the groove-laden “Rock Steady” and the calypso-meets-Quiet Storm “Day Dreaming.” Two of the aforementioned were found on Franklin’s 1972 landmark album, Young, Gifted and Black, a set that was certified gold and won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. During this time, Franklin was convinced by Wexler to record a gospel album. Considered in advance by some to be a risky career plunge, the double LP Amazing Grace was recorded live in concert at a Los Angeles church in January of 1972 and reunited her with James Cleveland, who supervised many of the gospel arrangements and played piano during the sessions. The album astonished critics, and her fans hailed it as a triumph. It went double platinum, won a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance and currently holds the distinction of being the biggest selling album in her entire catalog. It also remains one of the greatest and most influential gospel albums of all time.

A documentary/concert film led by film director Sydney Pollack was also commissioned by Warner Bros. to be used as a double feature for Super Fly but was ruled out due to a few technical issues. Due to Franklin’s executive decision, it has not seen the light of day. With film director Alan Elliot finishing up the project, it was scheduled to play at a number of major film festivals including Telluride and Toronto Film Festival, but the screenings were halted at the last minute by Franklin who filed a complaint citing the right to the use of her name and likeness, among other things.

During the mid-‘70’s as disco became the hottest music craze, Franklin’s hit streak began to slow down. She managed to pull off Top 40 hits with “Angel” (#1 R&B), a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “I’m in Love” and an excellent take on Stevie Wonder’s “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” For the motion picture soundtrack of Sparkle, Franklin teamed up with Chicago soul legend and producer Curtis Mayfield, for which yielded “Something He Can Feel,” an eventual Top 10 smash hit for ‘90’s contemporary R&B En Vogue and Franklin’s last Top 40 of the ‘70’s.


After making a cameo appearance in the Dan Aykroyd/John Belushi-starring motion picture The Blues Brothers while singing “Think,” Franklin decided to depart Atlantic and signed with Clive Davis’s burgeoning record label Arista Records. It was a bit of a slow start for Franklin as she withered through the musical changes of the 1980’s, although some success was made with the pairing of George Benson on the AC ballad “Love All the Hurt Away” (#46 pop), but it wasn’t until she was teamed up with Luther Vandross that her golden streak was revived. Jump to It was certified gold, while its leading title cut went to number 24 pop and number one R&B. Another Vandross-powered album, Get It Right, was immediately followed and netting another number one R&B hit with its infectiously funky title track and a Top 10 R&B hit with “Every Girl (Wants My Guy).” The hits continued with Who’s Zoomin’ Who, Franklin’s 1985 album. It was recorded as Franklin coped with grief over the passing of her father, who lived in a coma for five years after suffering from gunshot wounds inherited during an unresolved home invasion. The album yielded four Top 40 smash hits with the Grammy-award-winning, Narada Michael Walden-produced “Freeway of Love” (#3 pop, #1 R&B), “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” (#7 pop), the Eurythmics-featured “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” (#18 pop) and “Another Night” (#22 pop).

Several more hit singles were scattered from Franklin deep into the late ‘80’s with “Jimmy Lee,” a soulful cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” a duet with Elton John on “Through the Storm” and the number one pop hit “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” an astonishing duet with UK superstar George Michael. With the blessing of Clive Davis, a second gospel album (One Lord One Faith One Baptism) was commissioned. Although it didn’t match anywhere near the sales success of Amazing Grace, the album – recorded live at her father’s church in Detroit – shot to number one on the Billboard Gospel Album charts.


Franklin remained in the net of Arista even as R&B morphed into urban trends that felt far removed from the mighty reverent soul that helped earn her the distinction of Lady Soul and Queen of Soul. “Deeper Love,” a house remix powered by Clivilles & Cole (C+C Music Factory) and used for the Sister Act 2 movie soundtrack, rocketed to number one on the dance charts, her third one following “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” Speaking on the surprise of Franklin pulling off a house mix and the major shift in musical change, Music & Media wrote:“What would good old Jerry Wexler think of this? The Queen of the Atlantic soul now offers her services to C&C’s dance hit factory. NOS/Hilversum DJ/producer Tom Blomberg is tontinually struck by Aretha’s incredible gospel-esque vocals. “That dance groove is still very acceptable for radio. Besides, it’s no longer 1967, technique has developed since then, so why wouldn’t she benefit from that?”

In 1998, Franklin stunned television audiences when she appeared in the place of her friend, Luciano Pavarotti ailing from a sore throat, during the 40th annual Grammy Awards. Instead of performing her hits, she performed “Nessun Dorma” from Giacomo Puccini’s aria “Turandot,” which was considered Pavarotti’s signature piece. She not only pulled it off, but received a minute-long standing ovation from the audience.

Franklin continued to rub elbows with a fleet of contemporary R&B producers, creating a string of successes. Babyface produced “Willing to Forgive” and “It Hurts Like Hell,” the latter featured on the Whitney Houston-anchored Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. Lauryn Hill wrote and produced the gold-certified single “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” a song that fell in line with the empowering feminist dialogue of “Respect.” A deliciously produced “Wonderful” from 2003’s So Damn Happy felt like Franklin had rediscovered her pop mojo. A duet with American Idol champ Fantasia (“Put You Up on Game”), located on an all-duets compilation done in her honor, blazed to number 41 R&B.

For years, the “Respect” singer has battled with a long share of health issues including obesity and battles of alcoholism and chainsmoking (eventually quitting in 1992). She underwent surgery for an undisclosed illness in 2010, denying the rumors that she was suffering from pancreatic cancer. On the defense, Franklin quickly shot down all the allegations in the media, even telling Jet magazine when asked about her health “I am not going to even deal with that.” After her surgery, which she coined “a success,” Franklin managed to curb some of the excess weight that had ravaged her figure during the ‘90’s and early 2000’s. She looked radiant, and returned to performing regularly despite impending health concern rumors.

In 2014, with Clive Davis leading the charge, Franklin dropped a covers’ album. It proved to be a smart move anchored by a rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” It supplied Franklin with a number one dance hit and a spot at number 47 on the R&B charts. A year later, she performed her timeless hit “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors on behalf of one of its honorees, songwriter Carole King. Her stunning performance, capped with her tossing her fur coat off, left King and the Obamas in tears. Franklin was an honoree of the same award in 1994 and has performed for a long list of American presidents. Her relationship with President Barack Obama may be considered the most important, as she performed “My Country Tis’ of Thee” at Obama’s inauguration in 2009, sung at a White House Christmas tree lighting ceremony during Obama’s first term and sung at the Martin Luther King Monument Memorial, alongside the Obamas and Vice President Joe Biden.


Other presidential honors included the National Medal of Arts awarded by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil award, which was awarded by President George W. Bush in 2005.

Last year, the 76-year-old icon announced her plans to retire, adding that she would perform at “some select things.” She also promised to record one more album, returning to the studio to collaborate with Stevie Wonder and George Benson on new music. Her final public appearance was in November 2017 at an Elton John AIDS Foundation fundraiser. After receiving orders from doctors to get proper rest, Franklin canceled a number of shows, including her gig at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this summer, and remained off the road. Her final album release would be the breathtaking compilation release of A Brand New Me, featuring reconstructed classic hits from the Atlantic catalog anchored by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Franklin’s passing comes three days after entertainment journalist Roger Friedman of Showbiz 411 originally reported that she was “gravely ill.” We reported on the matter, considering Friedman’s valued reputation and his sources. By Monday morning, it was confirmed by Detroit news station EDIV. “I am so saddened to report that the Queen of Soul and my good friend, Aretha Franklin, is gravely ill. I spoke with her family members this morning,” reporter Evrod Cassimy tweeted. He added: “She is resting and surrounded by close friends and family.”

In the final days of Franklin’s life, a number of luminaries, family members and close friends of Franklin had visited the bedside of Franklin, including Stevie Wonder and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Prayer vigils at New Bethel Baptist Church were also held on the eve of her passing. Clive Davis also announced a planned all-star musical tribute to Franklin to be held in New York City, a suggestion that Franklin also approved.

“I’m absolutely devastated by Aretha’s passing,” Davis said in a public statement. “She was truly one of a kind. She was more than the Queen of Soul. She was a national treasure to be cherished by every generation throughout the world. Apart from our long professional relationship, Aretha was my friend. Her loss is deeply profound and my heart is full of sadness.”

On the 60th birthday of Billboard’s Hot 100 held this year, Franklin was ranked number 7 on the Top 10 female artists of all time and number 22 on the Top 100 artists of all time.

“Respect” was ranked number 5 on Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Funeral arrangements for Franklin will be announced in the coming days.



Report: Aretha Franklin “Gravely ill” in Detroit Area Hospital

Bowing Out Gracefully: Al Jarreau, Anita Baker and Aretha Franklin Announces Retirements

Aretha Franklin Steals the Show at Kennedy Center Honors

Aretha Franklin Needs a Little Help During White House Performance…Literally

50 Aretha Franklin Songs You Better Have…Or Else


Aretha Franklin: Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics

Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul

Aretha Franklin: Rolling in the Deep

Aretha Franklin: This Christmas Aretha

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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