Aretha Franklin, whose rich gospel voice took her from her preacher dad’s church choir to the top of the charts and center stage at three presidential inaugurations, died Thursday. She was 76.
The Queen of Soul, who had been suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer, passed away at 9:50 a.m. at her home in Detroit, her publicist said.
Franklin was one of the most celebrated women in American music history, winning fans across several generations with legendary hits such as “Respect,” “Freeway of Love” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” garnering 18 Grammys and 26 additional nominations along the way.
“Music changes,” she once said. “And I’m gonna change right along with it.”
The larger-than-life R&B star, born in Memphis in 1942, was considered a child prodigy. She started out singing in her father’s Baptist church in Detroit, where she moved with her family at around the age of 12.
She learned to play piano at a young age, and credited that, along with her songwriting and arranging talents, as an important part of her music-making.
“If I’m writing and I’m producing and singing, too, you get more of me that way, rather than having four or five different people working on one song,” Franklin told The Detroit News in 2003.
Already a mom of two boys by age 16, Franklin dropped out of high school and struck out for New York City before she reached 20. She was soon signed by Columbia Records and released her first album, “Aretha,” in 1961.
Soon, the hits just kept on coming.
Asked whether she felt in the 1960s that she was changing the landscape of pop music, Franklin said in a 2004 interview, “Somewhat, certainly with ‘Respect,’ that was a battle cry for freedom, and many people of many ethnicities took pride in that word. It was meaningful to all of us.”
But some of her most important work occurred outside the recording studio — for the civil-rights movement.
Franklin became a well-known figure of black empowerment and was a confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, who first gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at her father’s church.
She was also always ready to help his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“Almost every time we needed money, there were two people we could always count on: Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte,” said Andrew Young, a close friend of King’s and executive director of his civil-rights organization.
“They would get together and have a concert, and that would put us back on our feet.
“Her songs were songs of the movement. R-E-S-P-E-C-T . . . That’s basically what we wanted. The movement was about respect,” Young said.
In 1968, Franklin sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral and “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Democratic National Convention.
Her interest in social-justice movements continued to her final days, said the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“To have someone like that that involved and interested … was a statement,” Sharpton said.
“It gave all the credibility in the world. Others had celebrity, but she had gravity and respect.”
Franklin also performed at the presidential inaugurations of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
“Being the ‘Queen’ is not all about singing, and being a diva is not all about singing,’’ said Franklin, well-known for her extravagant furs and other personal excesses.
“It has much to do with your service to people. And your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions, as well.”
After leaving an abusive marriage to her first husband, she returned to her church roots and delivered the best-selling gospel album of all time, “Amazing Grace,” in 1972.
The late Marvin Gaye, whose song “Wholy Holy” Franklin covered on the record, considered it her finest.
“If you ask true lovers of soul what’s my best record, the answer is usually ‘What’s Going On.’ And if you ask true lovers of gospel what’s the best record, the answer is ‘Amazing Grace’ … ‘Amazing Grace’ is Aretha’s singular masterpiece,” Gaye told Franklin biographer David Ritz.
Franklin preferred to travel by bus following the death of Otis Redding — who wrote and first recorded “Respect” — in a 1967 plane crash and a tumultuous flight to Detroit in 1982 that left her with a fear of flying. She said the bus was a more comfortable option.
“You can pull over, go to Red Lobster,” she said. “You can’t pull over at 35,000 feet.”
But over the years, Franklin, who went on to have two more sons, struggled to retain her stature at the top of the charts.
In 1980, she agreed to a make cameo appearance in the John Belushi-Dan Aykroyd flick “The Blues Brothers” — and was soon on the radar of a whole new young audience.
Franklin recorded the wildly popular “Freeway of Love” in 1985, and two years later, became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But her over-the-top life — during which she battled obesity, the bottle and smoking, suffered through two failed marriages and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010 — took its toll.
Franklin announced in 2017 that she was retiring from touring.
Her health began seriously failing a few years ago, and by Monday, a source close to her told TMZ she had days to live. The once hefty belter was down to 86 pounds.
Franklin’s last public performance was in New York City in November, at an Elton John AIDS Foundation event. A few months after that, it was announced that Jennifer Hudson would be portraying Franklin in a new biopic — with the younger singer-actress handpicked by the ailing star herself.
Abdul “Duke” Fakir, an original member of the Detroit soul group the Four Tops, said Monday that he last spoke to Franklin by phone a week ago.
“She was telling me she rides around the city every now and then — she talks about how beautiful it is again,” Fakir said. “We were reminiscing about how blessed we were. Only a couple two of us are around from that era. We were just kind of reminiscing about the good times we had.
“She talked about this great, big special she was going to have in New York, with all her great friends performing. It made me feel good as well — she was still hoping and wishing and dreaming, as we do in this business.”
Franklin’s death was met with messages of condolence from industry giants and other leaders on Thursday.
“For more than six decades since, every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine. Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience,” former President Obama and his wife, Michelle, said in a statement.
“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.
“She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human,” they continued. “And sometimes, she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.”