Aretha Franklin, whose peerless singing and regal bearing earned her the name the Queen of Soul, died today (Thursday) at age 76. The second most prolific female winner in the history of the Grammy Awards underwent surgery in 2010, reportedly for pancreatic cancer, but then returned to action and made a number of public appearances in which the often obese diva seemed slimmed down and healthy. But by May 2013, unidentified health issues caused Franklin’s doctors to have her cancel tour dates.
- Aretha was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942 and began singing in church before recording her first gospel album at age 14.
- After 10 modestly successful albums, she shifted to R&B and became the Queen of Soul.
- Her six R&B chart-toppers included the 1967 pop number-one hit “Respect.” She hit the Top 20 on the pop chart two dozen times.
- Aretha won 18 Grammys over her career — plus two honorary Grammys — and was the first female solo artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- She performed at the presidential inaugurations of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
- Married and divorced twice, Franklin is survived by four sons.
Aretha Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee on March 25th, 1942, the daughter of a Baptist minister and a gospel singer. She lived in Buffalo, New York for a time as a child, but the family resettled in Detroit, where she began singing in her father’s church. She recorded her first gospel album at age 14. Although impeded by having two children in her teens, Franklin moved to New York and signed a contract with Columbia Records, where she recorded 10 albums with only modest success. It wasn’t until 1966, when she switched to Atlantic Records and became a secular R&B singer, that her mainstream career really took off.
Aretha first hit number-one on the pop chart in 1967 with “Respect,” a song that would become her signature tune. Over the next six years, she’d crack the Top 20 two dozen times, with songs as diverse as the sultry “Chain of Fools” and the powerful ballad “Natural Woman.” Between 1969 and 1975, Franklin won at least one Grammy each year, and was selected to perform at the 1977 inauguration of President Jimmy Carter. But by the end of the ‘70s, her career began flagging, and a divorce and the shooting death of her father wrought havoc on her personal life.
Franklin started the ’80s with a well-received performance in The Blues Brothers and parlayed her revitalized image into modern-sounding hits such as “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” and “Freeway of Love.” Two decades after her first chart-topper, she hit number-one for the second time with “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” a duet with George Michael. In 1987, she became the first solo female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She didn’t attend the ceremony, however, due to her intense fear of flying — a phobia that kept her off the road for much of her later life.
Franklin kept a lower profile for most of the ‘90s, which some attributed to health problems caused by obesity. In 1993, Franklin sang at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, and that year, an all-star cast celebrated her career in the Duets TV special. She published an autobiography, From These Roots, in 1999.
In 2002, Aretha was honored at VH1’s Divas Live concert with performances from Jill Scott, Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey. The disc included a guest spot from Mary J. Blige that earned Aretha her 18th and final Grammy. In 2005, she announced the launch of a label, Aretha Records. She and Aaron Neville sang the national anthem at the 2006 Super Bowl, and she performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Aretha released her final studio album, Woman Falling Out of Love, in 2011.
2010 was an especially difficult year for Franklin, who broke a couple of ribs in a fall at her suburban Detroit home, canceled all performances from mid-summer, then dealt with the still-unsolved (but non-fatal) shooting of her son Eddie at a Detroit gas station. In early November, with the rumor mill starting to buzz, she was ordered by doctors not to perform for six months, and the following month she underwent surgery, reportedly for pancreatic cancer. 2011 showed promise as she made a number of public appearances slimmed down and healthy-looking but in May 2013 Franklin once again cancelled multiple performances and underwent treatment for unspecified reasons.
In June 2017, Detroit renamed a portion of Madison Street Aretha Franklin Way. Jennifer Hudson will reportedly play her in an upcoming bio-pic.
Married and divorced twice, Franklin is survived by four sons.