One of the most influential singers of all time, the great Aretha Franklin, is gravely ill with close friends and family keeping a bedside vigil at the singer’s Detroit home.
Franklin underwent cancer surgery in 2014 and has been in poor health ever since. As news that the 76-year-old’s condition had deteriorated became public this week, messages of goodwill flooded in from around the world.
Franklin is often referred to as the “Queen of Soul”, an apt moniker for such a dominant musical force. A 20-time Grammy winner, Franklin was the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her list of hits includes: I Say A Little Prayer, (You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman, Respect, Think, Freeway of Love, Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves and I Knew You Were Waiting For Me.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942 to a Baptist preacher and a gospel singer, Franklin showed early musical promise, her prodigious talent shining through when she sang in church.
But she grew up fast. Franklin was ten when her mother died and just a few years later became a mother herself (reports vary as to whether she was 12 or 14 when she had her first son). A second child followed soon after, but motherhood didn’t stop Franklin building a career.
By the late 1950s she was an established figure in the music industry, but it wasn’t until 1967, when Respect went to Number 1, that she really hit the big time. The song became a soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement and Franklin became one of the campaign’s most prominent female faces.
She sang Precious Lord at the funeral of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in April 1968 and a few months later appeared on the cover of Time magazine (one of the first black women to do so).
In 1972 she returned to her gospel roots and released Amazing Grace, which sold two million records. With the emergence of disco later that decade, Franklin’s career slowed but never dimmed. A cameo in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers singing Think introduced her to a new generation of fans, as did later collaborations with George Michael and Eurythmics, with whom she recorded Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, a song which became an anthem for the women’s movement.
Why has Franklin’s voice provided such inspiration to so many? In her prime the strength of Franklin’s voice was unparalleled: rich and deep and rousing, yet able to convey emotion and nuance. A masterful technician, Franklin had power and range (and control over it) as well as melismatic prowess – she’s often credited with bringing melisma into popular music. She influenced generations of singers including Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Adele and has been ranked the greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
Franklin is, without a doubt, the real deal. In a telling interview a few years back, she was asked about the music industry’s use of auto-tune. “What is auto tune? I don’t even know what that is,” was her incredulous response. When the interviewer explained what the new technology did she spluttered: “Ridiculous!”