Aretha Franklin, who spent just about every one of her 76 years busting boundaries, smashing glass ceilings and proving people wrong, has passed away at her home in Detroit. She was an unmatched vocal talent, as perfect a singer as her country ever produced, and she took soul music to its creative and commercial zenith with hits like “Son of a Preacher Man,” “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” and, of course, “Respect.”
She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, collecting 18 Grammys over the course of a 60-year career. Until last year, Franklin was the most charted female artist in Billboard history.
But it’s easy to become awarded. It’s harder to become a legend, and Franklin did it with uncommon grace. She sang with such gobsmacking beauty that Michigan declared her voice to be a natural resource. In 2016, the New Yorker‘s David Remnick memorably wrote that “what distinguishes her is not merely the breadth of her catalogue or the cataract force of her vocal instrument. It’s her musical intelligence, her way of singing behind the beat, of spraying a wash of notes over a single word or syllable, of constructing, moment by moment, the emotional power of a three-minute song. ‘Respect’ is as precise an artifact as a Ming vase.”
Franklin got her start in church, the daughter of a pastor in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father traveled the country, preaching, and Franklin went with him, playing the piano and singing. After a 10-year foray into pop music, she went to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to reconnect with the gospel sound she’d cut her teeth on. This resulted in “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You),” the first of many number one hits that cumulated in the title that would stick her whole life: “The Queen of Soul.”
“Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll – the way hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and hope,” President Barack Obama would say of her in 2015. (You can see the former president wiping away tears during her performance at the 1:28 mark below).
But Franklin herself was ever modest. “Being a singer is a natural gift,” she once said. “It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.”