A musical legend, Aretha Franklin has been called to her final rest…
Text by Dawoud Kringle
The news of Aretha Franklin’s passing came as no shock. It was common knowledge she had been gravely ill for a long time. Just days before her passing, news of her severe illness made international news. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to hear of the passing of this giant without sadness.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born March 25, 1942 in Memphis, TN to Barbara and Clarence Franklin. Her father was an itinerant preacher who was known as the man with the “million-dollar voice” and delivered sermons in various churches across the country. His celebrity status led to his home being visited by various celebrities, including Clara Ward, James Cleveland, Albertina Walker, Inez Andrews, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke). Her mother, an accomplished pianist and singer, died of a heart attack on March 7, 1952, before her tenth birthday. Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson was among several women who helped raise Franklin and her siblings. During this time, Aretha learned to play piano by ear.
Franklin began singing at an early age. When she was 12, her father began managing her, and brought her on the road with him during his “gospel caravan” tours, where she performed in various churches. He helped her secure her first recording deal with J.V.B. Records. Her first album, Songs of Faith, was released in 1956.
After turning 18, Franklin told her father that she wanted to move to New York and do popular music. Her father agreed, and helped to produce a two-song demo that led to her signing with Columbia Records in 1960. Franklin’s first Columbia single, “Today I Sing the Blues”, was issued in September 1960 and later reached the top ten of the Hot Rhythm & Blues Sellers chart. Columbia released Franklin’s first secular album, Aretha: With The Ray Bryant Combo in January 1961. The single “Won’t Be Long” charted the Billboard Hot 100, and peaked at number 7 on the R&B chart.
In November 1966, Franklin signed to Atlantic Records. In January 1967, she recorded the song, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” The song became her first top-ten pop single. The song’s b-side, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, reached the R&B top 40, peaking at number 37. In April, Atlantic issued her version of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” It went to number one on both the R&B and pop charts.
In 1967, “Baby I Love You” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” became top-ten singles. In 1968, she issued two albums Lady Soul and Aretha Now,which included hit singles “Chain of Fools”, “Ain’t No Way”, “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”
In 1968, she sang at the funeral of longtime friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By the early 1970s, Franklin recorded top-ten singles “Spanish Harlem”, “Rock Steady” and “Day Dreaming” and the albums Spirit in the Dark, Young, Gifted and Black, and the gospel album, Amazing Grace. In 1971, Franklin became the first R&B performer to headline Fillmore West, releasing the live album Aretha Live at Fillmore West later that year. Franklin’s success continued with “Until You Come Back to Me” and “I’m in Love.” In 1976, Franklin worked with Curtis Mayfield on the soundtrack to the film Sparkle with. The album yielded Franklin’s final top 40 hit of the decade, “Something He Can Feel.”
In 1980, Franklin left Atlantic Records, and signed with Arista Records. Her first Arista album, Aretha (1980), featured “United Together” and her cover of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose”. The same year gave a command performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall in front of Queen Elizabeth. Franklin also made an acclaimed guest role as a waitress in the 1980 comedy musical The Blues Brothers. The 1981 album Love All the Hurt Away included a duet with George Benson, and a cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin”. In 1985, Who’s Zoomin’ Who, with the singles the hits “Freeway of Love”, the title track, and “Another Night”, became her first certified platinum album with Arista. The following year’s Aretha album nearly matched this success with the hit singles “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Jimmy Lee” and her duet with George Michael “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me.” She provided vocals to the theme songs of the TV shows A Different World and Together. In 1987, she issued her third gospel album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. In 1998, Franklin’s song “A Rose Is Still a Rose”, which was produced by Lauryn Hill, reached the Top 40. She offered an acclaimed performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the 1998 Grammy Awards.
Franklin performed The Star-Spangled Banner with Aaron Neville and Dr. John for Super Bowl XL, held in her hometown of Detroit in February 2006. She performed “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony. In 2010, Franklin accepted an honorary degree from Yale University. In 2011, Franklin released Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love under her own label Aretha’s Records (having left Arista in 2004).
In 2014, Franklin was signed under RCA Records, (a sister label to Columbia via Sony Music Entertainment, who controlled the Arista catalog). An album was planned with producers Babyface and Danger Mouse. On September 29, 2014, Franklin performed to a standing ovation, with Cissy Houston as backup, a compilation of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” on the Late Show with David Letterman. The album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics was released in October 2014. In December 2015, Franklin gave an acclaimed performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors during the section for honoree Carole King, who co-wrote the song. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were in attendance, and were visibly moved to tears during the performance. On Thanksgiving Day 2016, she performed the national anthem before the game between the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions. Accompanying herself on piano, her improvisations filled rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” lasted more than four minutes.
Franklin released her final album A Brand New Me in November 2017 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The recording used archived recordings, and peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Top Classical Albums chart. Franklin’s final performance was on November 7, 2017, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. The performance was part of Elton John’s 25th anniversary gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Throughout her life, she’s struggled with many health issues, including weight problems, smoking, alcohol abuse, an surgery for a tumor in 2010, and other problems. On August 13, 2018, while under hospice care, Franklin was reported to be gravely ill at her home in Riverfront Towers, Detroit. Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, her ex-husband Glynn Turman, and others visited her on her deathbed.
After over a half century of music as legendary as her career, Franklin died of advanced pancreatic cancer on August 16, 2018, aged 76.
The honors Franklin received during her lifetime stagger the imagination. These include the first two of her Grammys, and being honored with a day named for her in February 1968, receiving the SCLC Drum Beat Award for Musicians (which was given to her by longtime friend Martin Luther King Jr. two months before his death), appearing on the cover of Time magazine in June 1968, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1979, having her voice declared a Michigan “natural resource” in 1985, becoming the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, receiving a Grammy Legend Award by The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1994, being a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1994, recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 1999, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, and inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2005. She became the second woman inducted to the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005, was the 2008 MusiCares Person of the Year, and performed at the Grammys a few days later. After news of Franklin’s surgery and recovery in February 2011, the Grammys ceremony paid tribute to her with a medley of her classics performed by Christina Aguilera, Florence Welch, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride, and Yolanda Adams. The same year she was ranked 19th among the Billboard Hot 100 All-Time top artists, and ranked first on the Rolling Stone list of Greatest Singers of All Time. In 2013, she was ranked first in Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Greatest Singers” list yet a second time. During her induction to the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012, Franklin was described as “the voice of the civil rights movement, the voice of black America” and a “symbol of black equality”. In 2014, NASA named Asteroid 249516 “Aretha” in her honor. On June 8, 2017, the City of Detroit honored Franklin’s legacy by renaming a portion of Madison Street, between Brush and Witherell Streets, “Aretha Franklin Way”.
Franklin received an honorary degree from Harvard University (2014), and honorary doctorates in music from Princeton University (2012), Yale University (2010), Brown University (2009), University of Pennsylvania (2007), Berklee College of Music (2006), New England Conservatory of Music (1997), and University of Michigan, 1987. In 1990, Franklin was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by Wayne State University, and an honorary Doctor of Law degree by Bethune–Cookman University in 1975.
Aretha Franklin’s legacy is so iconic it would be difficult to find anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by her music. As news of her death spanned the world, accolades poured in. A small sample:
“Aretha helped define the American experience. 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. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.” – Barak Obama
“Aretha Franklin QUEEN of Soul, voice of a generation, one of a kind, took no crap + she didn’t fly, she wore fur 2 an inauguration & dared someone 2 say something, she is now in the pantheon of Gods greats, in the bosom of family. She was my friend, condolences 2 her family & 2 us all.” – Whoopi Goldberg
“I am deeply saddened about the passing of the Queen of Soul and my sister in song, Aretha Franklin. Today the world has experienced a tremendous loss. Aretha was a rare treasure whose unmatched musical genius helped craft the soundtrack to the lives of so many. My sympathy, love, and prayers go out to her family, loved ones and fans across the globe.” – Patti LaBelle
“Let’s all take a moment to give thanks for the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of our souls, who inspired us all for many many years. She will be missed but the memory of her greatness as a musician and a fine human being will live with us forever. Love Paul.” – Paul McCartney
“Reflecting on the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin and what she meant to me, the world may never get another Aretha.” – Rev. Al Sharpton
“She is the icon of all icons. I don’t know anyone who she hasn’t inspired.” – Nikki Minaj
“Remember when she stepped in last minute for Pavarotti at the Grammys and just shook us all to our core and made us question the universe by singing Nessun Dorma?” – Shonda Rhimes
“What a life. What a legacy! So much love, respect and gratitude. R.I.P.” – Carole King
“It’s difficult to conceive of a world without her. Not only was she a uniquely brilliant singer, but her commitment to civil rights made an indelible impact on the world.” – Barbara Streisand
“Salute to the Queen. The greatest vocalist I’ve ever known.” – John Legend
“I can’t remember a day of my life without Aretha Franklin’s voice and music filling up my heart with so much joy and sadness. Absolutely heartbroken she’s gone, what a woman. Thank you for everything, the melodies and the movements” – Adele
On a personal note, I find it difficult to write this tribute. Her songs and performances evoke the most intense of emotions and personal memories. I could tell you personal anecdotes related to many of them. We have truly reached the end of an era. As the final notes echo into silence, we are left with an awe inspiring legacy – and the knowledge that our work as professional musicians is not finished. The Queen of Soul summed up her – and our – responsibility as musicians to all humanity thusly: “Being the queen is not all about singing. It has much more to do with your service to people. And your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well.”
Musicians for Musicians salutes the memory of this monumental woman.