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Aretha Franklin, the most influential and celebrated R&B singer of her time, has died, at 76, after a long struggle with cancer. But her reign as the Queen of Soul? That’s forever.
Over the past 62 years, Franklin built an astonishing legacy that set the highest standard in soul music. She earned the title Queen of Soul with a staggering run of instant classics — including “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I Never Loved a Man” and “Think” — when she signed with Atlantic Records in the 1960s. Her crown was never tarnished or threatened.
Surrounded by family and friends, Franklin died Thursday in Detroit. She had surgery for pancreatic cancer in late 2010 and had canceled numerous engagements due to illness since then. Thin but vocally fit, she last performed in November, at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala in New York.
Born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, Franklin sang gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was pastor. After a brief stint with Columbia Records, she signed with Atlantic, in 1967, and her career exploded. In later years she scored hits with “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” “Jump to It,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” “Freeway of Love,” “Something He Can Feel,” a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” with George Michael. She ultimately accrued 112 charted singles on Billboard and won 18 Grammys.
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Even when Franklin tackled tame pop songs, her voice, bursting with passion, emotion and raw power, elevated the material. Otis Redding, James Brown, Ray Charles and other icons of the era could not match her range and prowess over pop, soul, jazz, rock and gospel. Her singing was about force, finesse and fearlessness.
At the 1998 Grammys, when an ailing Luciano Pavarotti pulled out of singing “Nessun Dorma” at the last minute, Franklin performed the difficult aria with 20 minutes’ notice and no change in key to adjust to her voice. She pulled it off to breathtaking effect. She was neither a tenor nor an opera singer, but she was a vocal leviathan.
When she performed at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, her rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” brought President Barack Obama to tears. In a 2016 New Yorker piece, Obama told writer David Remnick, “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock & roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings.”
Franklin sang “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at Obama’s 2009 inauguration. It wasn’t her first high-profile appearance. She sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968. In 1977 she was chosen to sing “God Bless America” at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration gala and, in 1993, performed “I Dreamed a Dream” at the inauguration ball for President Bill Clinton. She also had the honor of performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 2006 Super Bowl. Around the globe, she was the toast of world leaders, celebrities and artistic giants.
Among the most lauded artists in pop music, Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts. Although Franklin dropped out of high school in her sophomore year, she was granted an honorary degree from Harvard in 2014. She also held honorary doctorates in music from Princeton, Yale, Brown, the Berklee College of Music, the University of Michigan and the New England Conservatory of Music.
That made her Dr. Franklin, although she preferred — actually insisted — to be addressed at all times as Ms. Franklin, never Aretha. Most of her fans would consider Your Highness an equally appropriate salutation. Long live the Queen.