Aretha Franklin, whose impassioned, riveting voice made her a titan of American music, died of pancreatic cancer, her niece, Sabrina Owens confirmed. She was 76.
She died at 9:50 a.m. ET on Thursday, August 16, 2018 surrounded by family at her home in Detroit, Michigan.
A family statement released by her publicist Gwendolyn Quinn said “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.
The family added: “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.”
Franklin was one of the transcendent cultural figures of the 20th Century. Raised on an eclectic musical diet of gospel, R&B, classical and jazz, she blossomed out of her father’s Detroit church to become the most distinguished female black artist of all time, breaking boundaries while placing nearly 100 hits on Billboard’s R&B chart — 20 of them reaching No. 1.
The Queen of Soul, as she was coronated in the 1960s, leaves a sprawling legacy of classic songs that includes “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Baby I Love You,” “Angel,” “Think,” “Rock Steady,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Freeway of Love,” along with a bestselling gospel catalog.
Her death follows several years of painstakingly concealed medical issues, which led to regular show cancellations and extended absences from the public eye.
In March, Franklin canceled two concerts scheduled in New Jersey. According to a statement from her management team, she was following doctors’ orders to stay off the road and rest completely for two months, and that she was “extremely disappointed she cannot perform as she had expected and hoped to.”
Franklin’s most recent performance was on Nov. 2, 2017, for the Elton John AIDS Foundation in New York. The previous June, visibly feeble but still summoning magic from her voice, Franklin played her final hometown Detroit show, an emotion-packed concert for thousands at an outdoor festival downtown.
She ended the performance with a then-cryptic appeal to her the hometown crowd: “Please keep me in your prayers.”
The Queen of Soul sang for presidents and royalty, and befriended high-profile leaders such as the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. Amid the global glitter and acclaim, she remained loyal to her home region, living in the Detroit area for decades, including the Bloomfield Hills house where she moved in the late ‘80s.
“My roots are there. The church is there. My family is there,” she told the Detroit Free Press in 2011. “I like the camaraderie in Detroit, how we’ll rally behind something that’s really worthy and come to each other’s assistance.”
Franklin’s voice was a singular force, earning her a multitude of laurels through the decades, including 18 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and honorary doctorates from a host of institutions. In 1987, she became the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and seven years later, at age 52, the youngest recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.
Franklin topped Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list, and her signature hit, “Respect,” ranked No. 4 on “Songs of the Century,” a 1999 project by the National Endowment for the Arts. She performed at the inaugurations of U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, garnering global attention at the latter for her big fur hat with its crystal-studded bow — a piece of wardrobe now in the Smithsonian Institution.
Franklin’s influence is vast and indelible. It’s most obviously heard in the myriad voices that followed her, from Mary J. Blige to Adele, and even male singers like Luther Vandross.
But just as important is Franklin’s broader social impact: She embodied American black culture, emphatically and without apology, and through sheer force of talent, thrust it onto the global stage.
Franklin revolutionized black music and the way it was absorbed and perceived, helping create a world where we take for granted that a Beyoncé can reign atop mainstream popular culture.
Franklin was emotionally complex, a woman who relished her diva status but whose vulnerabilities and insecurities always seemed to lurk just beneath. Her public success masked a private life of turbulence and loss, making for an intriguing character driven by conflicting forces: Franklin was sassy but naturally shy, urbane but down-home, confident but reckless.
That deep, complicated humanity imbued her music with authenticity. Franklin’s singing, soaked in feeling and executed with virtuoso skill, moved seamlessly among styles: gospel, soul, pop, blues, R&B, jazz, even opera. She belted, purred, seduced, testified. Even as the propulsive power left her voice in later years, she remained as expressive as ever, and her live performances continued to earn critical acclaim.
“I must do what is real in me in all ways,” she told Ebony magazine in 1967, the year when a string of hit singles — “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “Chain of Fools” — gave Franklin her first major crossover success.
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