Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, dies at 76

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Aretha Franklin performing in recent years
Aretha Franklin performs onstage at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Commemorates Its 25th Year And Honors Founder Sir Elton John During New York Fall Gala at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on November 7, 2017 in New York City. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Aretha Franklin, the singer who helped define the sound of soul and influenced countless artists across genres, has died of pancreatic cancer at age 76. She was in her home, surrounded by family and friends, having received hospice care in recent days.

A pioneering vocalist and powerful pianist rightly dubbed "the Queen of Soul," Franklin was raised singing gospel and parlayed that experience into a iconic crossover career in popular music. Not only did Franklin's voice raise the bar for pop and soul singers to follow, she embodied a powerful model of an African-American female artist forthrightly addressing her experiences and demanding — in her signature song — "Respect."

"Thanks to her example, woman vocalists of all races were allowed a freedom, a chance at uninhibited transcendence," wrote gospel producer Anthony Heilbut in 2012. "Her greatest power of example was within her own community. She introduced forms of self-representation that profoundly changed the way that black women lived in the world."

Franklin's long and remarkably successful career, charting a total of 77 hits on Billboard's Hot 100, peaked in the late '60s at Atlantic Records, where she collaborated with producer Jerry Wexler and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to create classic recordings including "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman," "Chain of Fools," and "Think."

She enjoyed a second commercial heyday in the mid-1980s, with the pop-savvy Who's Zoomin' Who? becoming her first platinum album. Even into her final years, Franklin continued to chart hits: her 2014 cover of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" made her the first woman to notch 100 entries on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis on March 25, 1942 to singer/pianist Barbara Franklin and preacher C.L. Franklin. Her parents separated in 1948, and her mother died in 1952. C.L. Franklin had become a nationally-known religious figure, and when his daughter Aretha was 14, he began managing her as an aspiring professional singer. She initially sang gospel, but hoped to follow her idol Sam Cooke into popular music.

Her first secular album, in 1961, produced a Hot 100 hit: "Won't Be Long." As a Columbia artist, she gained recognition as an up-and-coming star and began to book lucrative live appearances, but her early '60s pop recordings didn't embrace the gospel power that would distinguish Franklin's later work.

That changed when she jumped to Atlantic in 1966. Recording at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, she and Wexler quickly landed on a searing new sound; with the chart-topping success of her cover of Otis Redding's "Respect" in 1967, she was recognized as a bona fide musical icon who lent inspiration to both the Civil Rights and women's rights movements. By the end of the '60s, she was widely known by her lifelong honorific "Queen of Soul."

In Jonathan Gould's biography of Redding, he explained how Franklin transformed "Respect."

Aretha had been refining her arrangement of the tune for many months, working with her sisters, Erma and Carolyn, who sang backup on the track, and by the time she was ready to record it, she had bent the song to her will. [...] The real twist came in the third verse, where Aretha changed everything by leaving the pronouns alone, promising, just as Otis did, "I'm about to give you all my money," before adding, "And all I'm asking in return, honey/ Is to give me my propers when I get home."

By the mid-1970s, Franklin's commercial success was waning; after Wexler's departure and a series of unsuccessful albums, she left Atlantic at decade's end. Even as her presence on the charts waned, her cultural status continued to grow, with appearances like her unforgettable cameo in 1980's The Blues Brothers solidifying her legend.

Alongside fellow R&B veteran Tina Turner, Franklin found a receptive audience for her zeitgeist-grabbing mid-1980s work — including hit singles "Freeway of Love" and the George Michael duet "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me." While she could produce unremarkable songs and albums, throughout Franklin's career it seemed another resurgence like 1993's dance hit "A Deeper Love" was always just around the corner.

By the end of her life, Franklin had earned virtually every honor available to an American musician, from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (1987) to a Super Bowl National Anthem performance (2006) to singing at a presidential inauguration — in 2009, when she went viral for both her stirring rendition of "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and her stylish grey hat.

"American history wells up when Aretha sings," said President Barack Obama, who was visibly moved by Franklin's 2015 performance at the Kennedy Center Honors. "Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope."

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