Saturday, August 18, 2018

Aretha Franklin, The Legendary Queen of Soul, Dies at 76

Aretha Franklin, one of the most celebrated and influential singers of the 20th century, died Thursday at her home in Detroit from advanced pancreatic cancer. She was 76.

Franklin has been the standard-bearer for female vocalists for five decades. Superstar vocal powerhouses—from Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey to BeyoncĂ©, Jennifer Hudson and Adele—are all indebted to the Queen of Soul. She created the blueprint for the larger-than-life vocal diva in contemporary music. Her influence is massive, extending across genres with legions of vocalists citing her as a major influence and inspiration.

The vocal legend was also incredibly versatile; she was at home singing in a number of different styles, including R&B, jazz, blues, gospel, pop, dance, show tunes and even classical.

Franklin’s powerful gospel-soaked vocals lit up classics such as “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “(To Be)Young, Gifted and Black.”

She scored 20 number one hits on Billboard’s R&B singles chart, and 17 of her songs made the top 10 on Billboard’s pop charts. She sold more than 75 million records worldwide. And she has won 18 Grammys and was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Additionally, Franklin and her music have had a huge cultural impact. Songs like “Respect,” “Think” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” made Franklin a feminist and civil rights icon. “Respect” became an anthem for both movements. It spoke directly to these causes in a way that no other medium could. “Think” has been embraced by women as a feminist anthem due its themes of freedom and respect.  And many view “A Natural Woman” as a stirring celebration of womanhood.

Franklin was also a talented songwriter and had a hand in the writing of some of her best-known tracks. She wrote “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady” on her own and co-wrote “Think” and “Dr. Feelgood (Love is a Serious Business)” with Ted White.

Like many great soul singers, Franklin’s music career began in the church. Her father, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, was the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. When she was very young, she sang with her two sisters, Erma and Carolyn, at New Bethel. The gifted young vocalist was performing solos by the time she was 10. In addition to singing, Franklin was an accomplished pianist, who taught herself how to play by learning the songs she heard on the radio.

Her father would often record his sermons, and these recordings were released on Chess Record’s Checkers label. Due to these recordings, the pastor’s fame grew and he would make appearances at churches around the country.  He brought his talented young daughter Aretha along on these church tours to provide piano accompaniment to his sermons and when he sang gospel songs.

At 14, Franklin recorded an album of hymns on the J.V.B. gospel label. After she turned 18, she decided to take her music in a secular direction. This decision was inspired by her musical idol Sam Cooke, who was a gospel singer before he switched to recording popular music.  She sent a two-song demo to Columbia Records, which resulted in her getting signed to the label in 1960. Franklin landed three top ten hits on the R&B charts with Columbia: “Today I Sing the Blues” (#10), “Won’t Be Long (#7) and “Operation Heartbreak” (#6). She was still in her teens when she recorded these tracks.

When Franklin’s contract with Columbia Records ended in 1966, she signed to Atlantic Records, which she had been eyeing for some time. Her association with Atlantic resulted in some of the greatest soul recordings of all time. She released a slew of classics during her 13-year tenure with the label, which helped bring soul music to an even wider audience. Franklin was crowned the undisputed “Queen of Soul” during this period.

She left Atlantic in 1979 and signed with Clive Davis’ Arista Records the following year. Franklin enjoyed more chart success with Arista with big hits like “Jump to It" and the Grammy-winning “Freeway of Love.” And she participated in some memorable duets with people like Dionne Warwick, Smokey Robinson, Elton John, Mariah Carey, George Michael, James Brown, Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.

Franklin was the embodiment of soul music and one of the most gifted vocalists of modern music. She leaves behind a phenomenal musical legacy. Her music has inspired, moved and brought joy to millions and will continue to do so in the years to come.

"(To Be) Young, Gifted and Black"

Aretha performing “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" on  The Merv Griffin Show in 1967

Aretha performing Inez and Charlie Foxx's classic "Mockingbird" with pianist Ray Johnson in 1965

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