Aretha Franklin dies at 76: Detroit star transformed American music
Aretha Franklin, whose impassioned, riveting voice made her a titan of American music, has died, her niece, Sabrina Owens, confirmed to the Free Press. She was 76.
She died at 9:50 a.m. surrounded by family at her home in Detroit.
A family statement released by her publicist Gwendolyn Quinn said “Franklin’s official cause of death was due to advance pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute” 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 Queen of Soul, as she was coronated in the 1960s, leaves a sprawling legacy of classic songs that includes “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby I Love You,” “Angel,” “Think,” “Rock Steady,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Freeway of Love,” along with a bestselling gospel catalog.
Her death follows several years of painstakingly concealed medical issues, which led to regular show cancellations and extended absences from the public eye.
Visibly feeble but still summoning magic from her voice, Franklin played her final Detroit show in June 2017, an emotion-packed concert for thousands at an outdoor festival downtown.
The Queen of Soul sang for presidents and royalty, and befriended high-profile leaders such as the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. Amid the global glitter and acclaim, she remained loyal to her home region, living in the Detroit area for decades, including the Bloomfield Hills house where she moved in the late 1980s.
“My roots are there. The church is there. My family is there,” she told the Free Press in 2011. “I like the camaraderie in Detroit, how we’ll rally behind something that’s really worthy and come to each other’s assistance.”
Franklin’s voice was a singular force, earning her a multitude of laurels through the decades, including 18 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and honorary doctorates from a host of institutions. In 1987, she became the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,and seven years later, at age 52, the youngest recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.
Franklin topped Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list, and her signature hit, “Respect,” ranked No. 4 on “Songs of the Century,” a 1999 project by the National Endowment for the Arts. She performed at the inaugurations of U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, garnering global attention at the latter for her big felt hat with its crystal-studded bow — a piece of wardrobe now in the Smithsonian Institution.
Franklin’s influence is vast and indelible. It’s most obviously heard in the myriad voices that followed her, from Mary J. Blige to Adele, and even male singers like Luther Vandross.
But just as important is Franklin’s broader social impact: She embodied American black culture, emphatically and without apology, and through sheer force of talent, thrust it onto the global stage.
Franklin revolutionized black music and the way it was absorbed and perceived, helping create a world where we take for granted that a Beyoncé can reign atop mainstream popular culture.
That deep, complicated humanity imbued her music with authenticity. Franklin’s singing, soaked in feeling and executed with virtuoso skill, moved seamlessly among styles: gospel, soul, pop, blues, R&B, jazz, even opera. She belted, purred, seduced, testified. Even as the propulsive power left her voice in later years, she remained as expressive as ever, and her live performances continued to earn critical acclaim.
“I must do what is real in me in all ways,” she told Ebony magazine in 1967, the year when a string of hit singles — “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools” — gave Franklin her first major crossover success.
Franklin’s early life
Born in Memphis on March 25, 1942, Franklin moved at age 4 to Detroit when her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, took over duties at New Bethel Baptist Church.
Turmoil set in early: Her mother left Detroit for Buffalo, N.Y., when Aretha was 6, and died four years later.
Still, Franklin grew up in an environment ideal for nurturing her skills. Her charismatic father was a preacher and singer with a national reputation, with sermons that became top-selling records and a gospel revue that toured the country. That brought important musical figures into the young singer’s orbit, including household guests such as James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King and Sam Cooke. Growing up on Detroit’s northwest side, she was a childhood friend of Smokey Robinson.
She became a singing prodigy at New Bethel, and her sisters, Carolyn and Erma, also honed their gospel skills. But it was Aretha who steadily emerged as the standout, and by age 14 she was accompanying her father on his gospel travels.
“I heard classical music from the beginning. It was always in our home,” she told the Free Press in 2011. “As a teenager I took more to the R&B, but I always loved classical.”
R&B music, frowned upon by many in the traditional gospel world, was also welcome in the house. The Rev. Franklin, progressive in politics and disposition, put up little resistance to the secular sounds exemplified by artists such as Cooke.
The young Aretha absorbed the emotional power of music in its many forms, whether in the throes of an ecstatic congregation or the intimacy of close listening.
“(My older sister) Erma was a big fan of ‘Be My Love’ by Mario Lanza,” she recalled. “How many times did we hear that in our house?! Sylvia Robinson, Smokey’s sister, used to visit Erma and play ‘Be My Love,’ pressing their ears against the speakers, just crying.
“I was quite young at the time, and I thought it was very funny that these girls were crying with their ears against the speaker. I didn’t do that with the artists I heard (then) — Frankie Lymon, the Clovers, LaVern Baker, Ray Charles. As an adult I began to perfectly understand it. When I heard someone knocking me out, I thought, ‘OK, so this is what that was about.’”
In 1960, at age 18, Franklin spurned a hometown offer from Berry Gordy’s fledgling Motown label and opted to sign with New York’s Columbia Records, where her demo tape had caught the ear of iconic talent scout John Hammond. A year later — shortly after Franklin married her manager, Ted White — her Columbia debut was released.
That record set the tone for her five-year, nine-album tenure at Columbia, where she was groomed as an interpreter of jazz and pop standards, presented as a chanteuse at the piano.
Franklin was quietly masterful at the keyboard. Throughout her career, it was a skill overshadowed by her voice — although she played piano on most of the work for which she’s now remembered.
The Columbia period proved fruitful but frustrating for the young singer, helping expand her talent while sticking a bridle on the gospel-honed voice behind it. Even as her critical reputation and live draw grew, she managed only a handful of minor hits.
“It’s a fast track to the top if you’ve really got it going on. But I like the way I came up in the industry,” she told the Free Press in 2014. “It wasn’t too fast. It wasn’t overnight, but (rather) little by little. And gradually I grew in the industry. I like that more than the overnight sensation, as one might put it. I was able to learn along the way and grow at a very, very nice pace. My pace, really. I wasn’t thrust into anything I wasn’t ready for.”
Real success blossomed in 1967, when the 24-year-old Franklin declined to renew her Columbia contract and signed with Atlantic Records, where executives Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler saw a chance to unleash the raw power of Franklin’s vocals. Her first Atlantic single — “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” — was cut at the burgeoning soul-music hotbed FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Within weeks it was Franklin’s first No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart, cracking the pop Top 10 as well. She was on her way to mainstream success.
As with so much of her coming work, the performance on “I Never Loved a Man” was fueled by a deep intensity but with an intimate, welcoming feel that helped Franklin connect with listeners across the board.
“She has never learned how to be pretentious enough to build a false image, and deeply identifies with people on all levels,” Ebony wrote that year, going on to quote Franklin:
“Everybody who’s living has problems and desires just as I do,” she told the magazine. “When the fellow on the corner has somethin’ botherin’ him, he feels the same way I do. When we cry, we all gonna cry tears, and when we laugh, we all have to smile.”
‘Respect’ and the ascension to fame
Franklin’s career quickly skyrocketed: With Wexler overseeing sessions and many of the Muscle Shoals players recruited to Atlantic’s New York studio, Franklin recorded a flurry of hits in the ensuing months, all of them enduring for decades as staples of her repertoire: “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools, “Ain’t No Way.” She was backed on many by sisters Carolyn and Erma, who enjoyed modest solo success of their own.
Franklin was no one’s puppet in the studio: Even in her earliest years, she was assertive during record sessions, crafting arrangements and dictating commands to seasoned musicians many decades her senior.
By ’68, Franklin was an iconic figure in the African-American community — “the Queen of Soul,” as she was christened by the black press. She was now inescapably important: Franklin’s status was seconded by mainstream America that summer when she graced the cover of Time magazine.
While Franklin was not often explicitly political in public, she embraced her anointed role just as the black pride movement was flowering. “Respect,” in particular, took on anthem-like stature, hailed as a bold feminist and civil-rights statement — though Franklin long insisted she had no grand designs when she recorded the Otis Redding tune about household relationships.
On Feb. 16, 1968 — declared “Aretha Franklin Day” by Detroit Mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh — she performed a celebratory hometown show for 12,000 at Cobo Arena. In attendance was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., two months before his assassination, and he took the stage to present Franklin with an award on behalf of his Southern Christian Leadership Council.
As would become typical of Franklin’s story, the outward success masked drama behind the scenes. The marriage to White, in particular, had become fraught, marked by domestic violence. By 1969, they were divorced. She would go on to wed actor Glynn Turman in 1978, a marriage that lasted six years.
The hits continued to pile up. By the end of the 1960s she had placed 28 songs in the R&B Top 40, a mix of original material and eclectic cover songs, including work by the Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”) and the Band (“The Weight”). The momentum carried into the following decade, with a string of hit records and a 1972 gospel album, “Amazing Grace,” that became one of the genre’s all-time best sellers.
Success on the R&B side continued in the ’70s even as the pop hits tapered off, though 1976’s “Sparkle” soundtrack produced one of Franklin’s abiding crossover classics, the Curtis Mayfield-penned “Something He Can Feel.” A scene-stealing appearance in the 1980 comedy “The Blues Brothers,” where Franklin performed as a waitress belting out “Think,” was a colorful introduction for a younger generation.
After several tries, the 1985 album “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” became the mainstream smash they sought, producing the hit “Freeway of Love” and placing Franklin in front of the MTV audience. A duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” topped the global charts two years later.
Franklin, who had spent much of the 1970s in Los Angeles, was now permanently resettled in metro Detroit, with several area properties including the Bloomfield Hills residence that would remain her primary home for the next three decades. Her reverend father had died in 1984 after a five-year coma; he’d been shot during an attempted robbery at his Detroit home.
The 1990s saw Franklin growing into the role of elder soul stateswoman, satisfied with her status as one of pop history’s greats and playing up the diva role that had become an integral facet of her persona. While the studio pace slowed — she released just five albums from 1998 through her death — her latter-day music was generally well received, with Grammy nominations for “A Rose Is Still a Rose” (1998) and “So Damn Happy” (2003).
“I’m comfortable in my own skin, and my six-inch heels,” she told the Free Press in 2011.
Though Franklin still performed regularly in the ’90s and ’00s, her touring work was hampered by her fear of flying, which had set in after a frightening small plane trip in the early ‘80s. She insisted on bus travel, trekking across the U.S. to play for adoring crowds at theaters and summer amphitheaters.
“I’ve definitely evolved to a greater maturity onstage, a savoir faire, I think,” she told the Free Press. “It’s just about relaxing more, really, and having fun with it. That comes with time, to evolve to that level and find that it’s really very simple … that it’s really about having fun and communicating with your audience.”
Franklin was long dogged by weight issues and struggled with alcohol abuse in the late 1960s. But the first glaring sign of health problems came in 2010, when she canceled six months of concert commitments while hospitalized for undisclosed reasons.
She reemerged the next summer visibly slimmer and seemingly healthy, returning with a glowing show at the Chicago Theatre: “Six months after the world was braced for the worst, Aretha Franklin gave it her best,” as the Free Press reported at the time.
“Her voice was velvety and potent as she rolled into her set, still finding new curves and corners in the notes of songs such as ‘Think,’ ‘Sparkle’ and ‘Baby I Love You,’ ” read the review.
Nevertheless, Franklin’s concert activity became hit-and-miss during her final years, and show cancellations became par for the course, often chalked up to unnamed health problems. She increasingly spoke of winding things down, performing fewer shows by the year, and in February 2017 finally raised the prospect of retirement, saying she was recording a final album.
Two missions loomed large during the final decade of Franklin’s life, and both were still in the works when she died: She was in ongoing talks to produce a biographical film about her life, frequently talking up potential lead actresses such as Jennifer Hudson, Halle Berry and Audra McDonald. And she was enchanted by the idea of opening a soul food restaurant in downtown Detroit.
Reclusive by nature, Franklin liked being at home and enjoying “the small things,” as she said in 2011 — polishing the silver, buying a tea set, washing and ironing. She was a reader drawn to biographies and an avid media consumer who looked forward to her daily newspapers.
“I enjoy the comfort of home very much,” she said. “I’m very domestic when I’m at home. I can stay in the house for the longest kind of time and not get out.”
From Obama to Pavarotti, always grand
It was always BIG with Aretha Franklin. The public situations skewed to the larger-than-life, the supersized, the majestic. She was an immense presence, physically and psychologically, and could take over rooms simply by sweeping into them.
She had a knack for finding herself at the center of grand moments, whether stealing the show at the Obama inaugural or filling in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti with an impromptu “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammys.
“She could get a U.S. president on the phone with two calls,” said Brian Pastoria, who co-engineered some of Franklin’s studio work.
Indeed, it was the little stuff that seemed to vex Franklin most. She struggled with personal finances, and was frequently forced into small-claims court by mom-and-pop operations around metro Detroit — limo services, caterers, contractors. Her home was often cluttered and unkempt, and while experts on creative genius might say that comes with the territory, it was enough to frustrate neighbors and leave visitors puzzled why she had so little help around her.
For years Franklin talked about plans to tackle her flying phobia, but never followed through. It kept her grounded for the final 35 years of her life, plausibly costing her millions in touring revenue.
Franklin was scrupulously private. Even in Detroit music circles, the ’Ree ’Ree rumor mill churned slowly; her personal life was shielded by a tight cadre of family members and friends. When writer Mark Bego set out to pen the first authorized Aretha Franklin biography, 1989’s “The Queen of Soul,” he was struck by the array of unknowns that still surrounded her — basic details about her two marriages and divorces, her upbringing, even her musical inspirations.
“I felt as if I had just encountered one of the great unsolved mysteries of the show-business world,” he wrote.
Franklin cautiously traipsed into some of those topics with her 1999 autobiography, “Aretha: From These Roots.” But she remained elusive enough that her handpicked co-author, David Ritz, was compelled to write his own uninhibited Franklin biography 15 years later.
That book provoked the singer’s wrath — the sort of eruption familiar to those in Aretha’s world. Franklin continually churned through support staff, hiring and firing lawyers, publicists and producers. She feuded with other female singers and knew how to hold a grudge, including a beef with Dionne Warwick that became public only when Franklin alerted the press out of the blue — five years after it happened.
But when it came to the music, few were more disciplined than Franklin. She was serious about her voice and exacting about her concert conditions: big on honey and hot tea before a show and insistent on rooms without air conditioning, aware it could dry out her throat.
Many who worked closely with her also glimpsed the humanity at the heart of the superstar singer who came up in the church.
“She (was) very compassionate,” the late Darryl Houston said in 2010. Houston was Franklin’s accompanying pianist for more than two decades. “When I was dealing with the sickness and eventual death of my father in Mississippi, she was very encouraging in thought and deed. I remember a few times I would get a call from a travel agent saying: ‘When do you want to go see your dad? Ms. Franklin has taken care of the ticket.’ “
Brian Pastoria was part of a studio team that worked with Franklin in the 1990s and 2000s, including recording sessions at her home.
“Before the vocal sessions, she’d be in the kitchen making chili. After recording a couple of hours, she’d say, ‘OK, time to eat!’ ” Pastoria recalled. “Even though she was the greatest of all time, the Muhammad Ali of vocals, it was still always her calling on the phone for business, not her lawyer. You’d hear, ‘Hi, honey, how are you!’ It was nice. It was real. You never felt like you were dealing with a major superstar.”
For all the public gowns, glitz and diva references — she was famously portrayed in a Snickers commercial as a crabby prima donna — Franklin was a homegirl at heart. She was a connoisseur of old school Southern soul food, proud of her knack with homemade dishes like fried chicken and ham with black-eyed peas.
“I think I rank with the best when it comes to the stove,” she told the Free Press in 1996.
That sort of organic realness coursed through her work.
“She paints a picture with a song,” said Houston. “Outside of being vocally astute, you can feel what she’s singing. You can tell when someone is just singing a song, and when the song is a part of their inner being. With Aretha, what leaves the heart reaches the heart.”
Franklin was a frequent visitor at New Bethel well into her final years, hosting gospel concerts and holiday celebrations at the church whose original site hosted the recording of her first album.
“I’ve known many of the most dynamic singers on the planet,” said Detroit poet and musician Jessica Care Moore. “There’s still no voice like Aretha Franklin. She embodied the idea of what soul music was and would become. She opens her mouth and everything stands still.”
As a young woman growing up in the city, Moore said, it was easy to be inspired by Franklin — an “honor and blessing” to be in the presence of a Detroit great.
“She absolutely is the sound of Detroit,” said Moore. “She lifted up the city and represented it in a global way.”
In November, Franklin sang in public for the last time, performing a nine-song set at an Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit in New York.
Franklin had made her final hometown appearance on June 10, 2017, headlining the Detroit Music Weekend festival for thousands gathered in the streets. Down the block two days earlier, tears had streamed down her face as she was honored by the city with the unveiling of Aretha Franklin Way, a ceremonial renaming of Madison Street.
On the festival stage that weekend, Franklin was backed by a setting sun and the nearby marquee of the Fox Theatre, her favorite local venue since she was a young girl. For nearly two hours, she performed a spirited, feisty set while clearly struggling through pain, at one point singing from a plush chair.
Franklin did it her way that night, foregoing many of her biggest hits for a deeper dive into her catalog and a stirring, 11-minute gospel workout of “Precious Memories.”
That voice — still captivating, but now comforting in its decades-long familiarity. A sound still melding urban vitality with the warmth of Southern soul. Still joy, pain, ecstasy, liberation. Still strength and femininity. And still offering, as it always will, the promise of transcendence.
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.