Aretha Franklin, who earned the undisputed title of the “Queen of Soul” for her expressive singing about joy and pain, died Aug. 16 at her home in Detroit. She was 76.

Her representative Gwendolyn Quinn confirmed the death to the Associated Press and said the cause was pancreatic cancer.

During her lifetime, Ms. Franklin became one of the most celebrated and influential singers in American history. She rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s by exploring the secular sweet spot between sultry rhythm-and-blues and the explosive gospel music she’d grown up singing in her father’s Baptist church.

A graceful mezzo-soprano stylist, Ms. Franklin had remarkable range, power and command, along with the innate ability to burrow into a lyric until she’d found the exact coordinates of its emotional core.

“I don’t know anybody that can sing a song like Aretha Franklin,” Ray Charles once declared. “Nobody. Period.”

Her defining soul anthems, such as “Respect,” turned Ms. Franklin into a symbol of black pride and women’s liberation.

"Respect," the Otis Redding hit that became a crossover smash in 1967 after Ms. Franklin tweaked it just so (a “sock it to me” here, some sisterly vocal support there), transforming the tune into a fervent feminist anthem.

“Whenever women heard the record, it was like a tidal wave of sororal unity,” the song’s producer, Jerry Wexler, said two decades after Ms. Franklin first declared, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”

Aretha Franklin opens at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on June 13, 1969. (Reuters)
Aretha Franklin opens at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on June 13, 1969. (Reuters)

Twenty of her singles topped Billboard’s R&B chart and more than 50 reached the R&B Top 10 over a six-decade recording career during which she earned volumes of praise for her innovative and emotive vocal performances, even when the material didn’t quite measure up to her talents.

Her hits included "Chain of Fools,” “Baby, I Love You,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and the fiery, finger-wagging, “Freedom!”-chanting "Think," another of Ms. Franklin’s feminist anthems that gave unprecedented voice to black women in particular.

Through the profundity and ubiquity of her songs, she became the multi-octave voice of the civil rights movement, performing at rallies staged by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a family friend — and, later, at King’s funeral.

As one measure of her influence, comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory observed of Ms. Franklin’s radio presence:

“You’d hear Aretha three or four times an hour. You’d only hear King on the news.”

She sang gospel truths that resonated across age groups, but it was grown-up music, reflecting an adult sense of self-awareness and sexual maturity and full of hard realities to which she seemed to relate.

“If a song’s about something I’ve experienced or that could’ve happened to me, it’s good,” she told biographer Mark Bego. “But if it’s alien to me, I couldn’t lend anything to it. . . . I look for something meaningful. When I go into the studio, I put everything into it. Even the kitchen sink.”

Early life and recording career

Ms. Franklin’s career could be divided neatly into two parts: the Atlantic Records years in the late 1960s and 1970s, and everything else, with some periods more fallow than others.

Before she became a soul-singing superstar, Aretha Louise Franklin was a young pop-jazz singer struggling to find her voice on Columbia Records.

Even before that, she was a precocious gospel singer who took solos at her father’s Detroit church, New Bethel Baptist, and occasionally toured with the charismatic minister.

Aretha Franklin. (AP)
Aretha Franklin. (AP)

She was born March 25, 1942, in Memphis but moved to Buffalo, then Detroit, at a young age when her father changed pulpits. A rock star among preachers, C.L. Franklin was known as “the man with the million-dollar voice.” His sermons, often delivered beneath a neon-blue crucifix, were broadcast on the radio and released on vinyl by Chess Records.

Aretha’s mother, Barbara Siggers, was called one of the top gospel singers in the country by Mahalia Jackson, a family friend and gospel great.

Siggers never pursued a career in music beyond performing in church, but Jackson encouraged Aretha to sing. So, too, did Clara Ward, another gospel legend who visited the Franklin home regularly.

The Franklins often had celebrity company (jazz pianist Art Tatum and singer Sam Cooke were frequent guests), and Aretha was becoming a minor sensation herself. But her childhood was rocky.

Her parents separated when she was 6, and her mother moved back to Buffalo — although Ms. Franklin, in her autobiography, “Aretha: From These Roots,” disputed the widely repeated story that she and her siblings had been abandoned.

“In no way, shape, form or fashion did our mother desert us,” she said, calling the story “an absolute lie.” They communicated by phone, and there were regular visits, too. “She was extremely responsible, loving and caring.”

When Ms. Franklin was 10, her mother died after a heart attack. “The pain of small children losing their mother defies description,” Ms. Franklin said in “From These Roots.”

Ms. Franklin continued to sing in church and signed a deal with Checker Records. In 1956, at the age of 14, she released her first album — a collection of hymns and spirituals recorded during services at New Bethel Baptist.

Her burgeoning career — she was also a gifted pianist — was placed on hold when Ms. Franklin twice became pregnant as a teenager and dropped out of school. She had two sons, Clarence and Edward, by the time she was 15.

Aretha Franklin appears at a news conference in 1973. (AP)
Aretha Franklin appears at a news conference in 1973. (AP)

Signing with Columbia records

When Ms. Franklin returned to music, she shifted her attention to secular songs, with her father’s blessings — and guidance. Her father advised his daughter against signing a contract with Motown, the local start-up in Detroit that would eventually come to produce the sound of young America.

“The studio was only a few blocks from where my dad’s home was, where we lived,” Ms. Franklin told The Washington Post in 2008. But “it was still a fledgling label. And my father wanted me to go to Columbia Records because of the national and international distribution he knew they had.”

Still just a teenager, she signed with Columbia in 1960 after the famed talent scout John Hammond became convinced he’d found the greatest voice since Billie Holiday. Ms. Franklin spent six years at the label and recorded a series of jazz and pop albums that produced some minor hits but never really caught on.

Singer Aretha Franklin poses with her Grammy Award for for best female R&B vocal performance for "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" in 1975 file photo, (AP)
Singer Aretha Franklin poses with her Grammy Award for for best female R&B vocal performance for "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" in 1975 file photo, (AP)

When Jerry Wexler came calling on behalf of Atlantic Records in 1966, everything changed.

“He provided the vehicle to allow me to perform and express myself,” Ms. Franklin told the Wall Street Journal. In his autobiography, “Rhythm and the Blues,” Wexler said: “I had no lofty notions of correcting Columbia’s mistakes. My idea was to make good tracks, use the best players, put Aretha back on piano and let the lady wail.”

For her first Atlantic session, Ms. Franklin traveled to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record a smoldering blues ballad with an all-white group of studio musicians known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The song, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” written for Ms. Franklin by Ronnie Shannon, detailed a woman’s devotion to a no-good man.

The session wasn’t without drama, as White got into a fistfight with one of the musicians before a B-side could be cut. But Ms. Franklin had already knocked it cold.

Playing piano as well as the addicted victim of love (“Don’t you never, never say we’re through!” she wailed), she struck gold: "I Never Loved a Man” became her first No. 1 R&B hit, cracked the Top 10 of the crossover pop chart and put the world on notice that a major talent had at last been unleashed.

“I was not an overnight sensation by any means,” she told Jet magazine.

Ms. Franklin’s relationship with Atlantic ended at the end of the 1970s. She signed with Arista Records around the time of her showstopping turn in “The Blues Brothers,” the 1980 Hollywood musical in which she sang her classic “Think.”

Under the direction of Arista chief Clive Davis, Ms. Franklin’s career rebounded, with pop-rock hits including “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and “Freeway of Love.”

During the second half of her career, Ms. Franklin toured intermittently, hampered by a fear of flying that she developed in 1982 after a turbulent flight from Atlanta to Detroit.

Even as her hits slowed, Ms. Franklin was no museum piece in the latter stages of her career. She was a force of nature onstage and she won three Grammys in the new millennium — the final one in 2008, when she and Mary J. Blige were awarded the Grammy for best gospel performance for “Never Gonna Break My Faith.”

In 2009, she sang "My Country ’Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration while wearing a custom-made church-lady hat that featured a giant, angled bow ringed with Swarovski crystals.

Aretha Franklin performs at the inauguration for President Barack Obama in 2009 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Ron Edmonds/AP)
Aretha Franklin performs at the inauguration for President Barack Obama in 2009 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Ron Edmonds/AP)

Personal life

Ms. Franklin had plenty of success in her professional life, but her personal life was filled with turbulence. She married and divorced her confrontational husband-manager, Ted White, in the midst of her historic run at Atlantic. Her second marriage, to actor Glynn Turman, also ended in divorce.

In 1979, her father was shot in his home by a burglar; he was comatose for five years before dying in 1984. In September 2010, the second of her four sons, Eddie, was severely beaten at a gas station.

“I call her ‘the Lady of Mysterious Sorrow’ because that sadness seems to be her underlying condition,” Wexler told “60 Minutes” in 1989. “I say it’s mysterious because you can’t identify what may be causing it on any given day. It’s probably an accumulation of a lifetime of bad breaks, disappointments and just plain unpleasant experiences.”

Accolades

If there was a major award to be won or honor to be received, chances are that Ms. Franklin got it: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor. In 1987, she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

On Nov. 9, 2005, President George W. Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to singer Aretha Franklin. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)
On Nov. 9, 2005, President George W. Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to singer Aretha Franklin. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

She won 18 Grammy Awards for her recordings, many of them in a category created in 1968 seemingly to acknowledge her singular greatness: Best female R&B vocal, an award won by Ms. Franklin — and nobody but — the first eight times it was given.

Ever since, just about every powerhouse songstress worth her weight in sequins — from Mariah Carey and Jennifer Hudson to Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston — has been measured against Ms. Franklin.

When Rolling Stone ranked Ms. Franklin as the greatest singer of the rock-and-roll era, Blige declared, “She is the reason why women want to sing.”

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