With more than 20 No. 1 R&B hits, singles sales that have long since surpassed the $10 million mark, nearly 50 Top 40 hits and 18 Grammy awards to her name, Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul," is easily reckoned as one of the greatest musical icons of all time. Though her passing today at age 76 leaves behind family, friends and a music world in mourning, it also bequeaths an inheritance of one of the finest catalogs in modern history and the chance to reflect on the life of the woman behind such songs as “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Born on March 25, 1942, it could be said of Aretha Franklin that music was woven into the fabric of her being. Not only was her birthplace — Memphis, Tennessee — one of the most important cities in the history of blues and rock ‘n’ roll, but her father, C. L., was a Baptist minister and gospel singer known nationwide as “The Man with the Million-Dollar Voice.” He moved the family to Detroit — another musical hotbed — in 1944. Aretha’s mother, Barbara, was a singer as well, although she left the family when Aretha was just six and died four years later, the first in a long string of heartaches that would run through her life.
By the middle of the 1950s, Aretha had learned to play piano and, along with her sisters, was singing in her father’s church choir. She also toured the gospel circuit with C. L. during this time and became acquainted with the likes of Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson and Smokey Robinson, as well as civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, who were among her well-connected family’s many notable friends.
But soon life began to move quickly for Aretha. In 1956, at age 14, she gave birth to her first son, Clarence, and released her first album, a gospel recording called Songs of Faith. Two years later she gave birth to a second son, Edward, and after being courted by Sam Cooke to sign with RCA Records and Berry Gordy with his Motown label, in 1960 she signed to Columbia Records and moved to New York to begin her career.
Working with producer John Hammond, over the next five years Aretha would find moderate success, releasing nine albums and several R&B hits but only one Top 40 pop offering, 1961’s “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” That same year, she married a man named Ted White, with whom she would have her third son, Teddy Jr. But Aretha had yet to reach her full potential, and it would take a label move and a new producer to allow her to fully tap the wellspring of her talent and usher in the greatest period of her lengthy career.
In 1966 Aretha signed with Atlantic Records. Working with producer Jerry Wexler and backed by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, she finally found the right chemistry to make magic happen, setting the passion of gospel into a framework of pop. In 1967 her I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You was released to great acclaim, with the title track giving Aretha her first Top 10 hit.
The albums Aretha Arrives (1967), Lady Soul (1968) and Aretha Now (1968) followed, bringing the world such legendary offerings as “Respect,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby, I Love You,” “Since You’ve Been Gone” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and earning Aretha several Grammy Awards, the cover of the June 1968 issue of Time magazine and her “Queen of Soul” nickname. Transcending her popularity as a singer, she also became a symbol of pride for black Americans at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and a symbol of strength for women as the feminist movement began to gain traction.
Despite these triumphs, Aretha’s personal life was in disarray. In the late 1960s she was arrested twice, for disorderly conduct and reckless driving, and had developed an alcohol problem. Her marriage to Ted White, who had become abusive, also came to an end at this time. But Franklin persevered and carried her Midas touch into the 1970s, with hits like “Don’t Play That Song” and her reworking of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” giving Aretha more million-sellers than any woman in history. Additionally, her 1972 album, Amazing Grace, became the best-selling gospel album of all time.
She also began to branch out in the studio, working with legendary producers Curtis Mayfield and Quincy Jones, and continued her awards success with her eighth consecutive Grammy, for 1975’s “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” She gave birth to her fourth son, Kecalf, in 1970, and married her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, in 1978. They would divorce in 1984.
By the late 1970s, as the disco craze began to sweep the nation, Aretha’s star was beginning to fade. In an effort to stay relevant, in 1979 Aretha released the disco album La Diva. It was a commercial failure and the last album she would record for Atlantic Records. The shooting of her father during a home invasion further darkened that year. Several years later he would die from complications related to his injuries.
With the new decade came new beginnings for Aretha. In 1980 she signed a contract with Arista Records and also appeared in the popular film The Blues Brothers. A return to the top of the charts followed with the Luther Vandross–produced Jump to It (1982), whose title track gave Aretha her first Top 10 hit in more than five years. Now back in the spotlight, she parlayed her renewed popularity, working again with Vandross for 1982’s Get It Right and with Narada Michael Walden for 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who, which became her first platinum album and produced three hit singles, including the Grammy Award–winning “Freeway of Love.”
In recognition of her ongoing chart-topping and award-winning output, in 1987 Aretha Franklin became the first woman to earn induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She underlined the honor with the release of her No. 1 duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me).”
Though her popularity as a contemporary artist began to wane following her Hall of Fame induction, Aretha Franklin remained both active and successful. Her 1989 album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, received a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Album, and in 1994 she received both a Lifetime Achievement Grammy and Kennedy Center Honors. A lucrative three-album deal with Arista two years later would lead to the gold record A Rose Is Still a Rose, whose title track — produced by Fugees star Lauryn Hill — gave Aretha yet another Top 40 hit, while her much-anticipated autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots, was published in 1999.
The new millennium brought new projects, new honors and more accolades. Aretha’s 2003 album, So Damn Happy, produced two charting singles — giving her the distinction of having chart hits in five consecutive decades — and in 2005 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
After releasing the duet album Jewels in the Crown in 2007, she left Arista to start Aretha Records, and following surgery in 2010 she released her debut on her new label, Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love (2011). Three years later, with her cover of the Adele song “Rolling in the Deep,” she became the first woman in history to have 100 songs in the R&B charts. In fitting tribute to her astronomical career, that same year asteroid 249516 was named “Aretha.”
Although Aretha had continued to record and tour until the end, performing publicly at everything from President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration to Super Bowl XL to the Late Show with David Letterman, during the 2010s she frequently canceled appearances due to health issues.
Franklin passed away from advanced form of pancreatic cancer. She is survived by her four sons. “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 love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds,” the family said in a statement. “We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”