The “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin, has died at the age of 76, according to her representative.
The cultural icon, known for her signature song “Respect” and others, including “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer”, passed away on Thursday at 9:50am local time from advanced pancreatic cancer, publicist Gwendolyn Quinn told the Associated Press.
“In one of the darkest moment of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart,” Franklin’s family said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family,” the statement added.
Franklin was the high school dropout whose voice graced Martin Luther King Jr’s memorial service, serenaded three presidents and whose voice was deemed so precious that it was declared a natural resource in the US state of Michigan.
She won 18 Grammys and had some 25 gold records in her decades-long career that started when she was just 14 years old.
Franklin was born in the US city of Memphis, Tennessee, to gospel singer parents Clarence and Barbara on March 25, 1942. She was one of five siblings.
Clarence, a reverend, was largely responsible for raising her after separating from Franklin’s mother in 1948 and relocating the family to the city of Detroit, Michigan.
Four years later, her mother died of a heart attack on March 7, 1952, fewer than three weeks before Franklin’s tenth birthday.
But tragedy would not derail her, and by 1954 Franklin had made her debut singing appearance aged 14 at her father’s place of worship, the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
The performance would mark the beginning of a career which would go on to stretch across seven decades and see her gain both domestic and international acclaim, including becoming the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Notable hits included “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “I Say A Little Prayer”.
The plaudits of her work weren’t only from within the music industry, however, and in 2005 Franklin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-US President George W Bush.
She was connected to several holders of the US’s highest political office, having performed at an inauguration gala for Jimmy Carter in 1977 and both Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s first inaugurations in 1993 and 2009 respectively.
With Obama, in particular, Franklin shared a special bond. Her performance at a concert in Washington, DC, in November 2015 famously prompted America’s first black president to shed a tear, some seven years after Obama, then a senator, recited part of a Franklin song at a Labor Day event in her home city of Detroit.
He was, perhaps, her highest profile fan but was only one of many to be moved by her rare, four-octave ranging, voice.
Franklin’s talent brought her into contact with a number of other international figures as well, most notably in 2015 when she performed for Pope Francis during his September visit to the US.
Years in the limelight had dimmed her capacity to be overawed though, it appeared. Prior to the concert, Franklin told the New York Times she wouldn’t be fazed by performing for the head of the Catholic Church.
“I wouldn’t say anyone makes me nervous – just a tiny butterfly here and there,” she said.
A force of nature
Her effect on others, however, could be quite the opposite.
On occasions, she would resemble something akin to a force of nature to those who found themselves on the wrong side of musical royalty.
In his controversial 2014 biography of Franklin, “Respect”, noted writer David Ritz alleged the Queen of Soul was notorious on the entertainment circuit for cancelling concerts at the last minute, showing up late for performances and belittling contemporaries in the industry, as well as starting feuds with members of her own family.
Franklin denounced Ritz’s portrayal as false, suggesting the biographer had produced a “vindictive” book because the pair fell out during while working together on her official autobiography 15 years before.
Amid the allegations and denials, however, the esteem in which the generations of artists who followed Franklin held her was without doubt.
From Beyonce to Mary J. Blige and Amy Winehouse to Florence Welch, her work informed and inspired in particular a number of female musicians performing across different genres and decades.
She was, as Rolling Stone Magazine said in 2008 when it named her the greatest singer of all time, the “reason why women want to sing”.
In more recent years, Franklin battled against prolonged periods of ill-health, prompting her to announce a plan for retirement in early 2017.
Her final appearance came in November at a charity gala in New York City, organised by fellow singer Elton John, where she closed the event with a rendition of classics including “I Say a Little Prayer” and “Freeway”.
Amid decades of stardom, Franklin was conspicuously tight-lipped about her personal life. She was married and divorced twice but said little publicly about either relationship.
Forays into politics and other aspects of public life were also rare. But her seminal cover of Otis Redding’s hit, “Respect”, served as something of a rallying cry for the civil and women’s rights movements throughout the late 1960s and beyond.
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me,” she sang.
People across the United States and throughout the rest of the world, enraptured by her talent, listened and demanded the same.
Franklin is survived by her four sons, Clarence, Edward, Ted and Kecalf.