Aretha Franklin: Farewell to the Queen of Soul

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Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin has died (Screenshots via YouTube)

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, has died of pancreatic cancer, 41 years to the day that the world lost the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley. She was 76.

In a career spanning 50 years, Franklin sold 75 million records, won 18 Grammy Awards and was the first female performer inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

She was born Aretha Louise Franklin on 25 March 1942 in a Memphis, Tennessee shack, which is still standing. Her father, C. L. Franklin, was an itinerant Baptist preacher, and her mother was an accomplished piano player and gospel vocalist.

When Franklin was five-years-old, her father took up a post with the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan, where he became known as the man with the "million-dollar voice". He earned thousands from his rousing sermons. Franklin inherited the best qualities of both her parents, learning to play the piano by ear at a very young age and astonishing parishioners when she sang gospel songs at her father's church.

Franklin had a limited education, dropping out of high school in Year Eight and going on the road with her father's travelling gospel caravan. She fell pregnant at 12 to a boy she had known at school and had the first of her four sons in January 1955. She had her second son a year later, her third in 1967 and her fourth in 1970. Franklin did not like to discuss her early pregnancies and successfully juggled family responsibilities with her singing career.

After meeting soul superstar Sam Cooke on tour, Franklin decided to swap gospel for secular soul and R&B — a move which her father and then manager supported. He helped her produce a two-song demo that resulted in a contract with Colombia Records in 1960.

Commercial success eluded Franklin until she swapped to Atlantic Records in 1966 and recorded 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)', which reached number one on the R&B charts and peaked at nine on the Billboard Hot 100.

The B-side, 'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man', reached the R&B top 40.

In 1967, Franklin recorded a frenetic cover of the Otis Redding song, 'Respect', which became her signature song. It hit number one on both the R&B and pop charts, hurtling Franklin into the stratosphere. It also became a feminist and civil rights anthem.

Franklin scored two more top ten hits in 1967: 'Baby I Love You' and '(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman'. She also released the soul classic 'Save Me'.

In 1968, Franklin continued pumping out the hits. Some of her more popular songs were 'Chain of Fools', 'Say A Little Prayer' and 'Think', which Franklin famously performed in the Blues Brothers movie in 1980, in which she did a cameo as a diner waitress.

Franklin continued her success throughout the '70s and '80s, producing hits such as 'Spanish Harlem' and 'Rock Steady'.

In 1985, Franklin embraced what she called a "younger style" and released the platinum album Who's Zoomin Who. The stand-out track was 'Freeway of Love'.

In the same year, she performed a duet called 'Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves' with Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics.

In 1987, Franklin scored an international number one with 'I Knew You Were Waiting for Me', a duet with George Michael.

Despite her phenomenal success, Franklin battled personal demons, including alcoholism, chain-smoking, obesity and depression. Her flamboyant wardrobe, including sweeping mink coats, made her unpopular with animal rights activists.

She was also unlucky in love. Her first marriage to Theodore Ted White in 1961 was marred by domestic violence and ended in divorce in 1969. Her second marriage, to actor Glynn Turman in 1978, also ended in divorce in 1984. Franklin then considered marrying long-time companion Willie Wilkerson, to whom she was engaged twice. Franklin called off the second engagement in 2012 for undisclosed reasons.

Franklin's health started to decline around 2010 when she had a tumour removed. She cancelled a series of concerts on doctor's orders, but her health continued to worsen. In August 2018, she was admitted to a hospice, where she died on 16 August, surrounded by family and close friends.

Her death prompted a flood of tributes.

Former U.S. President Barrack Obama said:

'In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade: our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.'

Barbra Streisand wrote:

'Not only was she a uniquely brilliant singer, but her commitment to civil rights made an indelible impact on the world.'

Paul McCartney said: 

'Let's all take a moment to give thanks to the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin, the queen of our souls, who inspired us for many, many years. She will be missed but the memory of her greatness as a musician and fine human being will live with us forever.'

Franklin herself famously said about her singing:

'Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I'm using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me. I'm happy with that.'

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