She was unequivocally the Queen of Soul and arguably the greatest vocalist in the history of American popular music. Aretha Franklin went from singing gospel songs in her father’s Detroit church to preaching “Respect” for women and African Americans to becoming the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Franklin, 76, died of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer at 9:50 a.m. Thursday at her home in Detroit, according to a statement from her family.
“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,” the statement said. “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.”
A powerhouse vocalist until the end, Franklin gave up touring only last year. While she canceled some concerts in 2017 on doctor’s orders, she did make a few appearances, including a final one at an outdoor festival in Detroit where she ended with an emotional plea to the hometown crowd: “Please keep me in your prayers.”
Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute, confirmed the official cause of death, according to the family statement. Reports of her illness sparked an outpouring of love on social media this week for the groundbreaking singer, who won 18 Grammys and countless accolades.
Last year, Franklin told Detroit TV station WDIV that she hoped to sing again in the studio but not on stage: “I will be recording, but this will be my last year in concert. This is it.
“I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from, and where it is now. I’ll be pretty much satisfied, but I’m not going to go anywhere and just sit down and do nothing. That wouldn’t be good either.”
Franklin’s most recent album, “A Brand New Me,” was released last November, and she performed that month at the Elton John AIDS Foundation gala.
Her last Minnesota performance was a grand one: In 2014, she sang to almost 10,000 fans at the Minnesota State Fair’s grandstand with fellow Detroit legends the Four Tops opening.
Wearing a bridal-looking white dress, she delivered some of her biggest tunes, including “Respect,” “Chain of Fools” and “Freeway of Love” along with a wide range of other hits such as Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and even Pharrell Williams’ more recent “Happy.”
Even though she was no longer at the height of her vocal prowess in recent years, there might be one or two or maybe three moments in concert when she would Aretha-ize a song. It often happened when she sat at the piano, noodled around on the keys and got inside a song, taking it to church, turning secular words into a sanctified celebration, declaration or benediction.
It happened at Mystic Lake Casino in 2011 with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” She did it with “Georgia on My Mind” at Mystic Lake in ’04 and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” at Northrop Auditorium in ’92.
In 2016, Franklin, who did not like flying, was scheduled to return to Minnesota for a concert at Treasure Island Casino in Red Wing but canceled for health reasons.
Born March 25, 1942, in Memphis, she moved around as a child before her itinerant pastor father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, settled in Detroit. Young Aretha taught herself how to play piano, began singing solos in church at age 10 and toured in a gospel caravan at 14.
At 18, she signed with Columbia Records, cutting standards, jazz, blues, doo-wop and eventually R&B. When Columbia didn’t renew her contract, Franklin signed with Atlantic in 1966 and her career took off with the release of the single “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” the title track of what became the first of many gold albums.
In 1967 and ’68, it seemed like every song she sang turned to gold: “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”
Her reign as the Queen of Soul continued into the 1970s, with more hits including “Spanish Harlem,” “Rock Steady” and “Day Dreaming.” She also cut a gospel album, “Amazing Grace,” that became a 2 million seller.
In 1980, Franklin switched to Arista Records, where executive Clive Davis guided her into a comeback following a memorable turn in the movie “The Blues Brothers.” He insisted on giving her a contemporary sound, which led to such hits as “Jump to It,” “Freeway of Love” and “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” a duet with George Michael.
She scored her last big hit, “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” in 1998. And she proved that adage musically as well that year, singing the aria “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammy Awards on short notice when the great opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti took ill. For years, Franklin’s regal performances continued. In 2009, she sang “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. In 2015, she offered “A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center ceremony honoring its songwriter, Carole King. And, in her hometown in 2016, she sat at a piano in a football stadium in a fur coat and Detroit Lions stocking cap, and delivered an unforgettable rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Lions-Vikings game on Thanksgiving.
That moment defined Aretha Franklin. Because when you listened to her, you marveled at her technique, immaculate phrasing, remarkable control and mastery of melisma. Even her humming was sexy. She was a singer completely and uncompromisingly connected to her emotions. For so many decades, she demonstrated an ability to endure pain and embrace pleasure; she proved vulnerable and resilient, and, ultimately, she expressed an uncommon confidence and strength.
Because when Aretha sang it, you knew it had been sung.
Staff writer Chris Riemenschneider and the Associated Press contributed to this report.