The world has lost a true icon. One of music’s all-time most important voices, Aretha Franklin, died on Thursday at the age of 76.
The Queen of Soul passed away at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit, according to her longtime publicist Gwendolyn Quinn. Her official cause of death was due to advance pancreatic cancer.
“It is with deep and profound sadness that we announce the passing of Aretha Louise Franklin, the Queen of Soul,” Quinn said in a statement. “Franklin, 76 years old, passed away on Thursday morning, August 16 at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit, MI, surrounded by family and loved ones. Franklin’s official cause of death was due to advance pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s Oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, MI. In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart. We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds.”
The statement continues, “We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.”
Her death comes three days after sources close to Franklin revealed that she was “gravely ill.” The singer had struggled with her health for years, but kept matters private. In February 2017, she announced that she would stop touring, but continued to book concerts. Her final public performance was in November at Elton John’s annual AIDS Foundation gala in New York.
During a career spanning six decades, Franklin’s soaring, gospel-nurtured mezzo-soprano became the benchmark by which soulful singing is still measured. Equally at home singing jazz, blues and classical, the versatile 18-time Grammy Award winner influenced a host of next-generation artists ranging from Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill to Beyoncé, Fantasia and Mariah Carey.
Known for her career-defining covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — Franklin was also a talented songwriter and musician. Her songwriting catalog includes such classics as “Think,” “Daydreaming,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Dr. Feelgood” and “Rock Steady.” And as a musician accompanying herself on the piano, Franklin helped shape such timeless tracks as the aforementioned “Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Chain of Fools.”
Born March 25, 1942, in Memphis and raised primarily in Detroit, Aretha Louise Franklin was the third of four children born to Barbara and Rev. C.L. Franklin. A singer as well, the senior Franklin was a renowned minister at the Motor City’s New Bethel Baptist Church. In that role, he welcomed to his home such early influences on his daughter as gospel artists Albertina Walker and her group the Caravans, Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward.
Growing up, Franklin and sisters Carolyn and Erma sang together in the New Bethel choir. By her teens, Franklin was touring as an opening act on her father’s gospel show, an experience that introduced her to stars in both the gospel and secular worlds, including Sam Cooke and the Staple Singers. Her father’s recorded sermons for Checker Records resulted in a 14-year-old Franklin releasing her first album, Songs of Faith, for Checker’s JVB gospel division. She later toured the gospel circuit, mentored by one of the genre’s icons, the Rev. James Cleveland.
Heading to New York at 18 in pursuit of a secular career, Franklin caught the attention of legendary Columbia talent scout John Hammond. Between 1960 and 1966, she recorded nine albums for the label, however, didn’t find her true calling until she signed with Atlantic Records. Her prolific output included a string of memorable albums: Aretha Arrives, Aretha: Lady Soul, Aretha Franklin: Soul ’69, Spirit in the Dark, the seminal Aretha Live at Fillmore West and the original Sparkle soundtrack. But it was another live recording that found her hitting new heights — and reclaiming her gospel ties: 1972’s Amazing Grace. The double-platinum set is still her biggest seller to date.
Franklin charted 73 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, the most of any female artist and ninth-most of all artists. During the Nielsen Music era, she sold 8.9 million albums. In addition to 18 Grammys, she was a recipient of the Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award and Grammy Legend Award. The Hollywood Walk of Fame honoree became the first female inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 followed by subsequent inductions into the famed Apollo Theater’s hall of fame and the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame. A Kennedy Center honoree in 1994, Franklin was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.
In later years, Franklin primarily shifted her focus to concerts and special appearances. She won critical acclaim for her vocal versatility when she stepped in for opera star Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards to sing the aria “Nessun Dorma.” In addition to singing at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King and the inaugurations of President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama (the hat she wore is housed at the Smithsonian Museum), she sang for Pope Francis during his 2015 visit to the U.S., proving she could still tear the house down, Franklin drew tears from President Obama and a standing ovation for her rousing performance of “A Natural Woman” in tribute to the song’s co-writer and 2015 Kennedy Center honoree Carole King.
Aretha Franklin’s funeral will be held at Greater Grace Temple on Aug. 31 in her hometown of Detroit. The service will be limited to the Queen of Soul’s family and friends.
Public viewings will take place Aug. 28-29 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Franklin will be entombed at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit, along with her father Rev. C.L. Franklin; sisters Carolyn Franklin and Erma Franklin; brother Cecil Franklin; and nephew Thomas Garrett.