One of the greatest voices of all time, she was an icon, an inspiration and a pop diva second to none

  • 22 Sep - 28 Sep, 2018
  • Mag The Weekly
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To the very last, she was the Queen. On August 16, the family of Aretha Franklin announced that the 76-year-old music icon had died from pancreatic cancer at her Detroit area home. “We are not able to express the pain in our heart,” their statement read. “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family.” The world grieved with them. In Detroit – the city that nurtured Franklin’s phenomenal talent from the time she was a 12-year-old soloist at New Bethel Baptist Church – the marquee of the legendary Fox Theatre spelled out the word that will forever be her legacy: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. She more than earned her “propers,” as that immortal hit goes, along with the awe, raves and devotion of millions. And to her final bow she remained fiercely private and unshakable in her faith.

Franklin had been ailing for nearly a decade but never discussed her cancer publicly. “She was diagnosed years ago,” says David Ritz, author of her biography Respect and ghostwriter of her earlier memoir. While not given to humility, when it came to her voice she gave full credit to the divine. Blessed with a mezzo-soprano of ferocious power, Franklin was crowned the Queen of Soul while still in her 20s (the title was bestowed on her by a Chicago deejay in 1967).

Franklin held her title, unchallenged, for five decades, selling 75 million albums and winning 18 Grammys. She was the first woman to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the youngest artist to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, in 1994. She performed at the White House and for the Pope, became a civil rights champion and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. When Otis Redding heard Franklin’s 1967 version of Respect, which he’d recorded two years earlier, he conceded, “Ain’t no longer my song. From now on, it belongs to her.”

It was just one of many hits, from I Say a Little Prayer to Rolling in the Deep, that Franklin reinvented with her infusion of soul, but she was also a genius songwriter and pianist in her own right. Her journey – from segregation-era black churches to superstardom – paralleled a nation’s progress. “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,” President Obama told The New Yorker in 2016.

Franklin relished that power. She retired from performing only last year and even then floated the idea of headlining at her own Detroit night club. “I’m not going anywhere,” she told People in 2016. “I’ll be like Perry Como – I’ll be somewhere on a couch laying down with a microphone still singing.” The daughter of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, a Baptist preacher and powerful voice in the black church (his recorded sermons were sold across the country), and Barbara Siggers, a pianist and vocalist, Franklin was born to music. Still, she once remarked that if she hadn’t found her calling as a singer, she might have been a ballerina or a nurse. But her father recognised her talent early: In 1956, the 14-year-old released her debut album Songs of Faith. She began singing secular music several years later, but only with his blessing.

She struggled in the early ‘60s – labels tried to fashion her as a jazz performer – but music mogul Jerry Wexler signed her to Atlantic Records, and her career took off. Respect became her first chart-topper, scoring her two Grammys. Over the years she had more than 70 hits in the Billboard Hot 100, many of them classics, including Think (1968) – she reprised it as a knockout cameo in the 1980 his movie The Blues Brothers – Spirit in the Dark (1970) and Freeway of Love (1985). As a voice for liberation she brought unique fervor to anthems such as Young, Gifted and Black (1972). In later years, Franklin even added the aria “Nessun Dorma” to her repertory, singing it as if Puccini had composed the ballad for her. According to Elton John, she was simply “the greatest singer of all time.”

Was she also an immortal diva? Yes, she once said, if the word was defined as “trying to give the audience the best.” She did: Grandly costumed and hitting a dizzying array of notes, she outshone younger performers on VHI’s Divas Live specials. And she expected her due: According to the Associated Press, she was displeased when Beyonce referred to Tina Turner and not her as “the Queen.” She wasn’t easily impressed by rising stars. Once asked about Taylor Swift, she answered that she liked her clothes.

For all her fame, Franklin was guarded. It was well known that she had a phobia of flying and insisted on being paid in cash before every show, but she stonewalled questions she judged invasive. Her personal life, in fact, was roiled by troubles and challenges: By age 25, she was the mother of three sons, the first two born by the time she was 15. (She never revealed who fathered her first children, Clarence, 62, and Edward, 61). According to David Ritz, she struggled at one time with alcoholism and compulsive eating (often overweight, she lost 85 pounds in 2011). Her two marriages – to her manager Ted White, who was abusive, and The Wire’s Glynn Turman – ended in divorce.

Reports of Franklin’s cancer surfaced in 2010, but she refused to address them. At a concert at Radio City Music Hall in 2014, she admitted to the audience that doctors had indeed given her dire news but said she’d recovered – and told the experts, “You burn the midnight oil, you read books, but you really don’t know much about me. You see, I come from a praying family.”

Pray they did, along with countless others, when that awesome voice was finally stilled. Fans and loved ones paid tribute to Franklin at an August 31 funeral in Detroit, but her music will be with them always. “Being a singer is a natural gift,” she once said. “It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me. I’m happy with that.” •