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The Queen is Dead; Aretha Franklin dies at 76

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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The Queen is dead. But rest assured her music will live long — and probably forever.

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, died on Thursday, Aug. 16, at the age of 76 after a long period of declining health, including pancreatic cancer.

Sources say Franklin, who was raised in Detroit and resided in Bloomfield Hills for decades, was in hospice care at one of her homes in the Detroit area at the time of her death, and that she was surrounded by family and friends. Her weight had fallen to less than 100 pounds. Her condition has been critical since late July.

She was visited during the week by longtime friends Stevie Wonder and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, as well as actor Glynn Turman, her ex-husband. Beyonce and Jay-Z dedicated their concert Monday night at Ford Field to the ailing Franklin, while Michael McDonald, Franklin's duet partner on the 1992 single "Ever Changing Times," performed two songs in her honor Wednesday night, Aug. 15, at Sound Board in the Motor City Casino Hotel and asked fans to "please keep her in your thoughts and in your prayers."

In a statement Franklin's family said that, “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.

“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.”

On Thursday fans gathered at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, leaving flowers and other tributes, while electronic billboards bearing the legend "Respect" honored Franklin around the city, including at Comerica Park, the Fox Theatre and Little Caesars Arena. The marquee outside of Kid Rock's Made in Detroit restaurant at the latter bore the message: "Sending lots of love & prayers for Aretha Franklin. All my respect."

Her death ends a six-plus decade recording career during which she commanded nothing less than R-E-S-P-E-CT — and received it in abundance. Equipped with force-of-nature pipes and a repertoire of iconic songs — "Respect," "Chain of Fools," "Think," her masterful rendition of Carole King's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and so many others — Franklin was one of the top singers of all time. Rolling Stone magazine, in fact, named her the greatest vocalist of all time. She was also an accomplished pianist and songwriter.

Franklin won 18 Grammy Awards along with a Grammy Legend Award and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987, and also had membership in the UK Music Hall of Fame and the GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame. She received a Kennedy Center Honor and Presidential Medal of Freedom along with honorary doctorate degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and others.

News of Franklin's condition became public late Sunday night, Aug. 12, with a media vigil held throughout the day Monday as fans and musical colleagues posted their wishes online. A prayer vigil was held early Wednesday morning at New Bethel Baptist Church, where Franklin was raised and her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was pastor.

Fellow Detroit singer Bob Seger said in a statement Thursday, "What an other worldly talent. Legendary. Right up there with the greatest singers ever. She will be greatly missed. Irreplaceable."

Clive Davis, the music executive who signed Franklin to his Arista Records label during the 80s and executive produced many of her albums, said, "I’m absolutely devastated by Aretha’s passing. She was truly one of a kind. She was more than the Queen of Soul. She was a national treasure to be cherished by every generation throughout the world. Apart from our long professional relationship, Aretha was my friend. Her loss is deeply profound and my heart is full of sadness."

Davis is also spearheading a tribute concert for Franklin that will take place during November at New York's Madison Square Garden.

The Temptations' Otis Williams said in a statement that, "Aretha Franklin is bar none, one of the greatest of all time. Aretha and I came up at the same time in Detroit. I’ve watched her grow and used to listen to her on her father’s (Reverend CL Franklin) radio show every Sunday. It was like all of Detroit used to shut down just to hear her sing... My prayers go out to her family."

"The Queen of Soul says it all," singer Lenny Kravitz, who performed and developed a friendship with Franklin, said on Monday. "The greatest, the greatest, the greatest, the greatest. She was just a sweet woman. She felt like one of my aunts. And she was funny. I remember in rehearsal she would constantly be telling jokes and stories that would have some incredibly funny punch line, or she'd pull a picture out of her purse that was so funny. Just a beautiful lady."

Born in Memphis, Franklin also lived in Buffalo, N.Y., before her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, moved the family to Detroit to take the pulpit at New Bethel Baptist Church, downtown. Franklin's parents divorced when she was 6 years old, and she remained with her father, who became a nationally recognized pastor and sermonist. She was schooled as a singer by family friends such as Clara Ward, James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson, among many others.

"I enjoyed Clara Ward so much that I decided that's what I wanted to do," Franklin said during a 2017 interview. "And there were so many others. We used to have gospel programs at our church after the regular Sunday morning service. In the evening we would have national gospel singers come to the church, and Sam Cooke was one of them and my dad invited him over and he brought the Soul Stirrers with him, and that became a regular part of our thing."

Franklin released a gospel album, "Songs of Faith," in 1956 before signing with Columbia Records during the early '60s to sing primarily jazz. Though she was in Detroit, Franklin never signed with Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown empire.

"My dad did go to see Berry to see about me being an artist on Motown," Franklin recalled. "But at the time his records were being leased to United Artists and he didn't have international distribution, and that's what dad wanted for me. So that's why we went to Columbia."

Franklin's greatest success, however, was with Atlantic Records from 1967-80, and particularly during the early part of that run when she produced her best-known material — with songs such as "Respect" and "Think" becoming Civil Rights movement anthems as well as pop hits. Franklin credited much of that success to her original Atlantic producer, the late Jerry Wexler, who insisted she play piano as well as sing in her sessions. "That made the difference," she says. "I support myself musically in a completely different way than other pianists, and Jerry knew that."

Franklin's was a career filled with highlights, from 28 Billboard Hot 100 hits, as well as 20 No. 1 singles on the R&B charts and collaborations with Ray Charles, George Benson, George Michael and others. She was a vanguard in fashion and female empowerment, a cited influence by scores of singers and especially diva acolytes such as Beyonce, Adele, Mariah Carey, Celine Dione, Alicia Keys and many more, and in her final release, "Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics" in 2014 she put her stamp on some of their songs. Franklin's performances at Super Bowl XL in 2006 and at President Barack Obama's first inauguration in 2009 reached legendary status, as did her rendition of Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma" as a last-minute replacement for Luciano Pavarotti during the 1998 Grammy Awards.

Notoriously private and press-shy, Franklin was married twice and had four children, and she helped promote the fledgling careers of her grandchildren in recent years. She was also the subject of occasional local controversies over unpaid bills and taxes, as well as a 2003 arson at one of her Bloomfield Hills homes.

Franklin last performed Nov. 7 at an Elton John AIDS Foundation benefit in New York, while her final Detroit concert was June 8, 2017, for the inaugural Detroit Music Weekend festival, capped with the renaming of a street in her honor in the downtown entertainment district. She was afraid to fly — a fear which kept her away from her Rock Hall induction — and had largely retired from live work. In recent years her declining health caused her to cancel more shows than she actually performed.

During the Detroit show, Franklin cryptically asked the audience to "keep me in your prayers." But she also had plans, including more recording, a film biography starring Jennifer Hudson and commercial ventures in Detroit, such as a restaurant and performing venue. Mostly, Franklin said, she hoped to leave a legacy beyond the music.

"I hope somewhere between the music and the humanitarian," she explained. "That was one reason that I was so appreciative of the (Presidential) Medal because it spoke to my service to humanity and the community. The Queen accomplishes more than just singing, you know."

Funeral arranagements for Franklin are pending.

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