The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, passed away in her Detroit home Thursday morning at age 76. Her publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn, confirmed that the cause of death was advanced neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer.
Franklin’s voice is so iconic that even those who don’t care for her style of music can identify her songs. From her first gospel album at age 14 to her final performance in June of 2017, her career spanned six decades and several genres and has influenced countless artists.
The Early Years
Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 25, 1942, but moved with her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, to Detroit at age five. He became the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, and it was there that young Aretha discovered both her natural talent and her love for music.
Rev. Franklin encouraged her to sing and helped her record her first gospel album when she was 14. He told her that she would sing for kings and queens – and she has – presidents, too.
The Birth of a Career
She toured with her dad’s gospel caravan. She signed a deal with Columbia Records, but saw her best success after leaving Columbia for Atlantic. Her 1967 album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I love You, went gold, with “Respect” leading the album as her first number one single. Otis Redding may have done the song first, but it’s all Aretha’s now. In 1968, a 26-year-old Aretha Franklin was on the cover of Time Magazine, her voice hailed as the sound of soul.
Franklin landed 77 songs in the top 100 charts and 18 Grammys – out of 44 nominations. She won the Legend Award in 1991, the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, and MusiCares Person of the Year in 2008. Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, just a year after the first inductees in 1986. Rolling Stone named her the Greatest Singer of All Time.
A Civil Rights Legacy
Beyond even the message of her music, Aretha Franklin was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and her father were friends, and Aretha toured along with Harry Belafonte, Andrew Young, Sidney Poitier, and Jesse Jackson to help fund King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. After King’s assassination, Franklin strove to help keep the movement going. She later told Ebony that she always had “a great admiration for him and his sense of decency and the justice that he wanted.” She called him “just a plain old good man,” and said that you can’t help but admire that.
The world took to Twitter to honor the Queen of Soul, from other performers and celebrities to politicians, business leaders, and regular, common folk. Former Beatle, Paul McCartney, even upgraded her title – which Franklin was always fond of – from Queen of Soul to the Queen of our souls.
Democratic Senator Kamala Harris called Franklin’s songs “the soundtrack of my childhood.” Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King, talked about the blessing of living in a world with Aretha Franklin, both for her singing voice and her voice in the Civil Rights Movement. Director Ava DuVernay said she was “peerless,” and Bette Midler called her “the greatest voice in American popular music.”
Both the former president and the current one paid homage. The Obamas said in a statement:
“In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade ― our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”
Trump joined the multitudes paying tribute via Twitter, calling her a great woman whose voice was a gift from God: