Aretha Franklin, the queen of soul, has died at the age of 76 after it was reported a couple of days of back that her health was deteriorating. Franklin, the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, died in her Detroit home, where family and friends had gathered during her final days, on August 16, Thursday.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25, 1942 to C.L. Franklin, a prominent Baptist preacher, and Barbara Siggers Franklin, the singer grew up singing gospel in her father’s church and went on to become one of America’s biggest divas. She has influenced many generations of singers with her chart-topping numbers in the 1960s and 1970s including ‘Respect’ in 1967, ‘Natural Woman’ in 1968 and I Say a Little Prayer’ 1968. Some of her other hits include 'Day Dreaming' of 1972, 'Jump to It' from 1982, and 'A Rose Is Still A Rose' from 1998. A 1986 duet with George Michael, "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," hit number one in several countries. She had dozens of Top 40 singles, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
From pop diva Mariah Carey and the late Whitney Houston — whose mother was a backup singer for Franklin — to Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige and Amy Winehouse, many musical icons have been inspired by Franklin's singing style and her bell-clear voice with its four octaves. "You know a force from heaven. You know something that God made. And Aretha is a gift from God," Rolling Stone said of Franklin in its list of greatest singers of all time.
Her first recording, Spirituals, came out on a local label in 1956 when she was just 14 years old and in 1960 she signed on with Columbia Records and released her first album 'The Great Aretha Franklin'. That brought her several R&B hits, and one which broke into Billboard's top 40 in 1961, 'Rock-A-Bye Your Baby (With A Dixie Melody).'
However, it wasn't until she moved to Atlantic Records in 1967 and began a collaboration with legendary producer Jerry Wexler — that would result in 14 albums together — that Franklin's career would skyrocket. 'Respect' soared to number one in 1967, topping the charts for weeks and being adopted as the anthem of the civil rights and the women's equality movements. Winning her the accolade 'Queen of Soul' it brought her the first Grammy Award; Rolling Stone ranked it number five on its list of the Greatest Songs of All Time.
She went on to win 18 Grammy awards in total, including one for lifetime achievement and sang at the inaugurations of two presidents — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. In 2005, Franklin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest award for an American civilian — by then-president George W Bush.
"If a song's about something I've experienced or that could've happened to me, it's good. But if it's alien to me, I couldn't lend anything to it. Because that's what soul is about — just living and having to get along," she told Time magazine in a 1968 cover story on her explosion into the mainstream.
By the mid-1970s her style got lost in the disco explosion, but by the 1980s a revival of interest in old-style R&B brought her back into favor — as did a cameo performance in the film 'The Blues Brothers' where she sang 'Think' which she followed up with hits like 'Freeway of Love' and, with the Eurythmics, 'Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves.'
Her personal life was a struggle, however. As an unmarried teenager, Franklin gave birth to a son at 13 and another two years later. She had two more sons and was married and divorced twice. She had lifelong battles with her weight and with alcoholism. Her father was shot in a robbery in 1979 and spent five years in a coma before dying at the age of 69 in 1984. However, none of this dimmed her status as music royalty.
In 1968 she sang her heart out at the funeral of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. She also sang at the October 2011 dedication of the King memorial in Washington, stirring the crowd with a rendition of the gospel anthem 'Precious Lord.' She performed at the inaugurations of two US presidents, delivering a stirring rendition of 'My Country 'Tis of Thee' at the January 2009 ceremony for Barack Obama, the first African-American president, while wearing a widely remarked grey hat with a big bow.
In 2010, she suffered serious health problems but continued to perform until late last year, singing last in November 2017 for the Elton John AIDS Foundation in New York. That same year, Detroit named a street after her.
"She has taken on many roles — the devout gospel singer, the sensual R&B siren, the pop crossover phenom, Lady Soul — and dominated them all," Rock and Roll Hall of Fame said in its biography. Franklin reached the top of the pop charts in 1987 with "I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)," a duet with George Michael. She was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1994.
Standing outside the Motown Museum in Detroit on Monday, Linda Laura-Culbreath told AFP that Franklin had influenced a generation of women who were empowered by her songs. "We all were blessed with pure talent," said the 53-year-old musician, who was visiting from Milwaukee. "She made sure that women, in general, knew that they were not under a man, that they were supposed to walk next to them."
(With inputs from AFP)