Aretha Franklin, the ‘Queen of Soul’ dies at age 76

Listen 4:06

Updated 4:05 p.m.

Aretha Franklin, 76, has died. The Queen of Soul has been an icon of American music for a half-century, with a string of hits too long to list here, but we’ll try: “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Natural Woman,” “Respect,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “Freeway of Love.”

The 3 seconds it takes for #ArethaFranklin to oooooze out the words “Sittin around..” is as pure & creative & as honest as any singer I’ve ever seen when a performance goes beyond mere entertainment. THIS is what we need to get back to. where raw genius rises above marketing strategy & monetary reach & “likes” (because let’s face it, look at the Billboard singles/Spotify singles/ITunes singles—-could she even find space to develop this talent? Or just give up & get a reality show and pray this works out? Now figure out the legions of talent that we either dismissed or passed on today or even the mesmerizing talent we’ve been shown near this level that can’t even begin to thrive in this environment without some angle) for those not in the know & wanna know, with the exception of her yet to be seen Sidney Pollack documentary Amazing Grace (her best captured 2 hours 1972 in chu’ch, in her zone in south central Los Angeles—-w The Rolling Stones sitting IN THE DECON SECTION)—-this Performance at the #MontreuxJazzFestival in 71 is as good as it gets: as a singer, as a bandleader (midshow she calls an audible and the brass section just gives up playing & accepts they are just happy to have best seats in the house), as a piano player—-so underrated!—and the fact she has her ace band in tow too (#KingCurtis as MD & #BernardPurdie on drizzums)—-this is her most magical effortless skillful scientific talents on display. Long Live #QueenAretha.

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Legendary Atlantic record producer Tom Dowd said many times, “She cannot sing a bad note.”

Franklin had pancreatic cancer. She had battled undisclosed health issues in recent years, and in 2017 announced her retirement from touring. Publicist Gwendolyn Quinn told The Associated Press through a family statement that Franklin died Thursday at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit.

The family added: “In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”

The statement continued:

“We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”

The last time Aretha Franklin performed in Philadelphia was one of her last performances, anywhere. Almost exactly a year ago – in August 2017 – Franklin appeared at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts.

At that show, the normally heavy-set performer appeared shockingly thin and frail, but still with a commanding voice.

“You didn’t recognize her,” said Mann president Cathy Cahill. “She had lost so much weight, it was phenomenal. Between 2010 [her previous appearance] and 2017, it looked like two different women on our stage. That said, her voice was still in good form. She still commanded the stage and having the audience eat out of the palm of her hand.”

Franklin started performing on the road in 1956 when she was 14 years old. Her father would tour her through various churches in what he called a “gospel caravan.” That was the same year she recorded her first album, “Songs of Faith.”

She recorded hundreds of tracks and had dozens of hits over the span of a half-century, including 20 that reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. Her records sold millions of copies and the music industry couldn’t honor her enough. Franklin won 18 Grammy awards. In 1987, she became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It didn’t take her long to find Philadelphia. She performed at places like the Cadillac Club in North Philly, then moved up to bigger venues like the Uptown Theater on North Broad. Later she would play the Kimmel Center on South Broad.

In 2015, she sang “Amazing Grace” on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for Pope Francis, seen live by many millions around the world.

At the Mann concert last summer, she told the audience it would be her last. But it wasn’t. She performed at least two more times, the last was a benefit for the Elton John AIDS Foundation, in November 2017.

“I don’t think there’s ever been anybody like her,” said Kenny Gamble of Philadelphia International Records. “She was part of the whole social movement. She was the voice of the movement. When Martin Luther King had a rally, the first person they called was Aretha Franklin.”

Gamble co-wrote one of Franklin’s minor hits, “Brave New Me,” from her Grammy-winning album “Young, Gifted, and Black.” Hers was a cover of the song originally by Jerry Butler. Gamble called her the “epitome of an artist.”

“She sang her heart and soul out for people,” he said. “She made some people laugh, and some people cry. All you got to do is put that Aretha Franklin record on and you can feel her soul.”

Offstage, Franklin was a very private person, keeping close only to carefully selected people. One of them was Dyana Williams, a DJ on Philadelphia radio station WRNB, with whom she spoke frequently over the phone.

“Musically, she had a connection through Gamble, Huff, and Jerry Butler, and her performances at Pep’s and the Uptown and other venues. But, forever, she has a place in Philadelphian’s hearts,” said Williams, who spent most of Thursday morning fielding calls from listeners. “People are moved, they are claiming her as a family friend.”

Clive Davis, the music mogul who brought her to Arista Records and helped revive her career in the 1980s, said he was “devastated” by her death.

“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,” he said in a statement. “Apart from our long professional relationship, Aretha was my friend. Her loss is deeply profound and my heart is full of sadness.”

Fellow singers bowed to her eminence and political and civic leaders treated her as a peer.

Singer and producer Smokey Robinson grew up with Franklin in Detroit.

“This morning my longest friend in this world went home to be with our Father,” Robinson said. “I will miss her so much but I know she’s at peace.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a longtime friend, and she sang at the dedication of King’s memorial, in 2011. She performed at the inaugurations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and at the funeral for civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Clinton gave Franklin the National Medal of Arts. President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2005.

Franklin’s best-known appearance with a president was in January 2009, when she sang “My Country ’tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. She wore a gray felt hat with a huge, Swarovski rhinestone-bordered bow that became an internet sensation and even had its own website. In 2015, she brought Obama and others to tears with a triumphant performance of “Natural Woman” at a Kennedy Center tribute to the song’s co-writer, Carole King.

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

The Associated Press and Taylor Allen contributed to this report.

Listen to the ‘Fresh Air’ interview with Aretha Franklin from 1999 below:

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