Aretha Franklin, 76, the powerhouse vocalist who brought gospel transcendence and grace to the pop charts, and spelled out a not-to-be-denied demand for "Respect" while scoring a string of 1960s hits that earned her the never-relinquished title Queen of Soul, died Thursday morning at her home in Detroit.
Family members began reporting that Ms. Franklin was "gravely ill" on Sunday. She died from pancreatic cancer.
In a career that stretched over 60 years — she recorded her first live gospel album at age 14 — Ms. Franklin set herself apart from even the most gifted of her competitors with a commanding vocal presence that took equal delight in earthy pleasures and spiritual ecstasy.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Ms. Franklin's string of hits included "Think," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Young, Gifted & Black," "Freeway of Love," "The House That Jack Built," and, of course, "Respect," the universal and enduring 2½-minute anthem of empowerment and dignity, written and originally recorded by her contemporary Otis Redding. ("I just lost my song," Redding is reported to have said to producer Jerry Wexler upon hearing Ms. Franklin's version. "That girl took it away from me.")
Rightly recognized as a national treasure in her lifetime, Ms. Franklin won 14 Grammy awards, was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was named the greatest singer of the rock era by Rolling Stone in 2010.
George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. And she stole the show—or rather, her bejeweled bowed hat did—when she sang "My Country 'Tis of Thee" at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration in 2009.
"Aretha helped define the American experience," Obama tweeted on Thursday. "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. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace."
"Instead of being an end of an era, it's the beginning of a new era. She'd already done what she's had to do. It's time for the world to produce – how can you compete with Aretha Franklin?" said Kenny Gamble, originator of the Sound of Philadelphia. He remembered seeing her play clubs like Pep's Showbar at Broad and South Streets and North Philly's Cadillac Club in the 1960s when "it was not fashionable to be a rhythm and blues artist," Gamble said. "They didn't treat you too well, but if you endure [like Ms. Franklin], your talent will come through."
She covered "A Brand New Me," written by Gamble, Jerry Butler, and Theresa Bell, released on an album of the same name with the Royal Philharmonic last year, as well as the O'Jays' "Christmas Just Ain't Christmas Without the One You Love."
"Having Aretha Franklin do one of your songs? That's the ultimate," Gamble said.
Aretha Louise Franklin will be forever associated with Detroit, where she had lived for most of her life since was 6. But the daughter of Baptist minister Clarence LeVaughn "C.L." Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, and her family moved to Buffalo when she was 2 before settling in Michigan.
Raised by her father and grandmother after her parents split up when she was 6 (her mother, Barbara, died four years later), she was identified as a prodigious talent early on, singing at her father's 4,500-parishioners-strong New Bethel Baptist Church and studying with the composer and arranger James Cleveland. She also absorbed the influence of her father's frequent companion, the Philadelphia gospel great Clara Ward of the Ward Singers.
She decided she wanted to be a singer after hearing Ward sing "Peace in the Valley" at a funeral for her aunt, but after her 1956 debut, Songs of Faith, was well-received, her precocious career as a gospel singer was derailed for a time when she gave birth to two sons while a teenager.
With her father's blessing, she followed his parishioners like Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington into a secular music career. "Sam Cooke would come to the house, so polite, so gentle," she told Gerri Hershey in 1987's soul-music history, Nowhere to Run. "And so handsome. Wow. As much as anybody, Sam made me want to sing. … Sam was very encouraging. He would just say, 'Sing, girl,' and believe me, that was enough."
At 18, she was signed to Columbia Records by the legendary producer John Hammond. And although Ms. Franklin had some early commercial breakthroughs — her biggest hit was with a version of the Al Jolson hit "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" — her years at Columbia were mostly marked by the label's confusion on whether to record the enormously talented singer doing show tunes or jazz or pop songs. "They know and they know that I know," she told Ebony in 1964, "that they haven't given me the same big buildup that they gave, say, Robert Goulet or Barbra Streisand."
In 1967, Wexler, the Atlantic Records producer who had worked with Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett, got a phone call from Louise Bishop, then a DJ at WDAS in Philadelphia (and later a Pennsylvania state representative for the 192nd District in West Philadelphia). She told him: "Aretha Franklin is ready. Her Columbia contract is up, and she digs Atlantic."
Wexler took Ms. Franklin to Muscle Shoals, Ala., where the by now fully mature 25-year-old singer successfully recorded only one song before a racially charged argument broke out between her then-husband and manager, Ted White, and Fame Recording studio owner Rick Hall that brought the session to an abbreviated halt.
But what a song it was. "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," an impassioned blues ballad, found Ms. Franklin's fiery gospel roots in full fruition, on a secular love song shot through with deep feeling and an unmistakable ache.
Wexler reconnected her with Muscle Shoals songwriters and session men Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham in New York to record the song's equally brilliant B side, the sensual feminist manifesto "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," and from there 'Retha was on her way. "When I went to Atlantic," she said in 1989, "they just sat me down at the piano and let me do my thing. The hits started coming."
Indeed they did. She landed in the pop Top Ten 10 times in 1967 and 1968, and she did so with songs of substance. Her revamped version of "Respect," with her sisters Carolyn and Erma helping out on re re's and sock-it-to-me's, was a song that demanded social and sexual reciprocity, and along with "Think" it became an anthem of black and female pride at the height of the civil rights movement.
Her run of success continued through the early 1970s. A particularly incandescent concert later released in 2008 as Oh Me Oh My: Aretha Live in Philly 1972 contains a monumentally soulful transformation of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
That same year, her double LP, Amazing Grace, returned to her gospel roots. It remains the biggest seller of her career, and scored a signature hit in 1974 with "Until You Come Back to Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)."
But as black music in the 1970s entered the disco era, Ms. Franklin became a less central figure on the pop scene. Like Elvis Presley and Ray Charles — among the few late-20th-century pop singers of Ms. Franklin's stature — she was comfortable singing music in all kinds of styles, from the grittiest rhythm and blues to the slickest pop.
And after the can't-miss Atlantic years, she made a lot of less-than-memorable music in the latter stages of her career. But while the glossy pop records she made with producers like Narada Michael Walden and Luther Vandross rarely produced results to rival her accomplishments with Wexler, she remained an inimitable vocal presence and a threat to tear the house down in concert.
In 1980, she played Matt "Guitar" Murphy's waitress wife in The Blues Brothers, dressing down Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, and tearing up "Think" in a performance that led to a record deal with Clive Davis at Arista. Synthesizer-flavored sounds turned her into an '80s pop star of sorts, first with Jump to It in 1982 and then Freeway of Love in 1986, which scored a hit with both the title song and the girl-power duet "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" with Eurythmics' Annie Lennox.
Ms. Franklin had lived in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, but after her father was shot during a robbery at his home in 1979, she moved back to Detroit to care for him. She remained there after he died in 1984, and around that time, she developed a fear of flying that limited her to touring by bus.
Still, she continued recording and performing, reminding anyone who might have forgotten of her regality. In 1989, she had a chart-topping duet with George Michael on a ballad called "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me." In 1998, she appeared with Mariah Carey, Gloria Estefan, Shania Twain, and Celine Dion in the first VH1 Divas Live, and turned in a performance that made her costars seem hopelessly inconsequential in comparison.
She was more than capable of the ridiculous as well as the sublime. She sang at WrestleMania events more than once, and received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1999 as well as many honorary degrees, including a doctor of music degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007.
She played Atlantic City frequently, including a 2003 performance at Convention Hall billed as a "semi-retirement" tour in which she delivered deeply felt versions of her hits as well as gospel standards. Known for struggling with her weight, she made fun of her girth: "I got the Slim Fast going," she said. "But I just ain't slimming that fast."
In 2010, she played a concert at the Mann Center on a bill with former Secretary of State (and part-time concert pianist) Condoleezza Rice, showing off her classical chops with "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot, the same aria she sang when she filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti at the Grammy awards in 1998. But a week after the 2010 Mann performance she fell and fractured ribs, and had to cancel two shows in Brooklyn.
In 2015, she sang "Amazing Grace" while headlining the Festival of Families concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway during Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia. In August 2017 she made her final public appearance in Philadelphia with a performance at the Mann Music Center, during which she paid tribute to Ward and recalled playing Philly venues like Pep's and the Cadillac Club when she was starting out.