Aretha Franklin, the legendary Queen of Soul, died on Thursday at her home in Detroit, the AP reports. While the details of her death have not yet been reported, Franklin was said to be “gravely ill” earlier this week. Franklin was 76 years old.
Franklin’s 60-plus-year career was one of broken boundaries and broken records. She held the record for the most-charted female artist in Billboard history for nearly 40 years, with 73 titles in the Hot 100. (Nicki Minaj surpassed the record last year.) Her first Hot 100 song, “Won’t Be Long,” debuted when Franklin was just 18 years old in 1961. She also racked up 18 Grammy Awards over the course of her career, and in 1987, she was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
And while Franklin is known for her work as a soul singer, her astonishing, powerful, intelligent voice — the voice that the state of Michigan declared to be a natural resource — can do almost anything. When Luciano Pavarotti bailed on his 1998 Grammys performance at the last minute, Franklin subbed in and sang “Nessun Dorma” for him. She had 20 minutes’ notice.
“What distinguishes her is not merely the breadth of her catalogue or the cataract force of her vocal instrument,” wrote David Remnick in the New Yorker in 2016; “it’s her musical intelligence, her way of singing behind the beat, of spraying a wash of notes over a single word or syllable, of constructing, moment by moment, the emotional power of a three-minute song. ‘Respect’ is as precise an artifact as a Ming vase.”
The daughter of a preacher, Franklin began her singing career in the church. Her family relocated to Detroit from her birthplace of Memphis when Franklin was a small child so her father could take over the pastorship of the New Bethel Baptist Church, which would become the site of Franklin’s musical debut (and a center of the city’s civil rights movement). After a few years of singing hymns at New Bethel, Franklin accompanied her father on a church tour, playing the piano while he preached. In 1956, Chess Records, which had been recording Rev. Franklin’s sermons, released an album of Aretha, then 14 years old, singing nine gospel hymns.
But the teenage Franklin’s musical interests expanded into the secular realm of pop and soul — in particular the work of another artist with roots in gospel, Sam Cooke. Franklin would profess to having a crush on Cooke, whom she would end up touring with in 1961, in the midst of her own path to crossover stardom. With encouragement from her father, who served as her manager, Franklin signed to Columbia records in 1960, when she was 18 years old, releasing eight albums between then and 1966.
But it wasn’t until 1967, a decade into a then-modest professional singing career, that a 25-year-old Aretha Franklin would become a legend in the making. Declining to renew her Columbia contract, Franklin signed with Atlantic Records and visited the storied Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in an effort to get back to her gospel roots. There, backed by the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, she recorded what is arguably the most important song of her career, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).”
Hitting No. 1 on the R&B charts and peaking at No. 9 on the Billboard 100, it was the first of a string of hits that would make Franklin one of the defining voices of the late ’60s.