The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, has died of advanced pancreatic cancer at the age of 76. The singer's publicist has confirmed this news to the Associated Press today.
Earlier this week, reports surfaced that Franklin was “seriously ill” and surrounded by family in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Twitter soon became flooded with well wishes and prayers for the artist, from people like Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chance the Rapper.
Franklin’s voice was undeniably one of the world’s best, topping Rolling Stone’s list of greatest singers of all time. With instant classics like “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools” and “I Say A Little Prayer,” Franklin's fearless vocals inspired generations of R&B and soul artists, and influenced countless musicians across genres around the world.
Signed to J.V.B. Records at the age of 14, Franklin got an early start in the music industry thanks to her father, who managed her and drove her to various churches to perform. Four years later, she would sign to Columbia Records. As her career began to take off, she credited her father, who died in 1984, for keeping her grounded. In her first Canadian TV interview ever in 1998, with CBC’s Laurie Brown, she said: “He gave me balance [...] I’m not a star, I’m the lady next door.”
In 1961, Franklin scored her first international hit with her rendition of the Jean Schwartz song, “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Franklin’s version is a piano-and-guitar-driven, swinging number that highlights her effortless, powerful pipes as she stretches notes into emotional gut punches. Just re-watching her incredible performance on the Steve Allen Show in 1964 is guaranteed to give you chills.
Later in the ‘60s, as Franklin moved on to Atlantic Records, she worked with musicians of Muscle Shoals, recording songs like “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect,” the latter of which became a number 1 hit on the R&B and pop charts, solidifying Franklin as one of the biggest stars in music. “Respect,” off of her seminal 1968 album Lady Soul, also put Franklin front and centre of the civil rights and feminist movements as the song transformed into an anthem for activists everywhere with its commanding refrain "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me." Looking back, Franklin told Elle, "It was the right song at the right time."
Over the years, she would continue to move around labels — she would even create her own label, Aretha’s Records, to release her 2011 album, Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love — but her voice would remain the same powerful instrument that has immediate, worldwide recognition. Her final and forty-second studio album was 2017's A Brand New Me, which reworked old vocals with new arrangements.
In 2010, she underwent an operation that many have suspected to be for pancreatic cancer; the following year, she was hospitalized for an unspecified surgery. Last year, Franklin cancelled a number of festival performances, including a postponed Toronto Jazz Festival appearance that would ultimately get cancelled this past April.
Despite the health challenges she faced between 2010 and 2017, Franklin continued performing and making public appearances, including showing love for the reality series American Idol and surprising audiences (and bringing President Barack Obama to tears) during the 38th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.
President Obama once said, of Franklin: “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope.”
That beauty is unwavering, confident and, most of all, timeless. Franklin's transcendent force lives on in her music, long after this last note.