Aretha Franklin, revered throughout the entertainment world as the undisputed Queen of Soul, has died at her Detroit home at the age of 76.
“One of the darkest moments of our lives,” her family said in a statement released to The Associated Press by publicist Gwendolyn Quinn confirming her death from pancreatic cancer Thursday night (AEST).
“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,” her family said.
“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 ,” the family said, adding that funeral arrangements would be announced in coming days.
Taking to the stage at the Kennedy Center in December 2015, Franklin shone like the queen she was.
In a trailing gown beneath a full-length mink coat – diamonds at her ears, fingers and neck – the legend of soul blew kisses to the crowd, set her sparkly clutch atop the piano, and began playing the opening strains of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.
The A-list audience burst into applause. The night’s honoree, songwriter Carole King, clapped her hand to her mouth, electric with glee, while President Barack Obama wiped away a tear.
As the 1967 hit reached its crescendo, Franklin, then 73, rose from her seat, tossed her mink to the ground (showing every diva in the room how it’s done) and tipped her face skyward to belt out the notes as only she could.
A spotlight. Those soaring vocals. A crowd on its feet.
“She was truly one of a kind,” said Clive Davis, the music mogul who brought her to Arista Records and helped revive her career in the 1980s.
“She was more than the Queen of Soul. She was a national treasure to be cherished by every generation throughout the world,” he said, as fans, performers and presidents rushed to pay tribute.
Franklin’s death followed years of health battles.
“She has been ill for a long time,” said a friend of the artist on August 13. “She did not want people to know and she didn’t make it public.”
While the singer kept tight-lipped about her illness, in 2010 reports emerged that she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but the 18-time Grammy winner continued to perform, despite health challenges and an announcement in February 2017 that she’d no longer be making concert appearances.
And yet, off stage, there was drama – and hardship – aplenty in the life of the icon who influenced the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25, 1942, one of preacher Reverend C.L. Franklin’s five children, Franklin was 10 years old and grieving the death of her mother, gospel singer Barbara Siggers Franklin, when she made her debut singing a hymn at church.
Two years later, the music prodigy gave birth to her first son, Clarence, whose father was reportedly a schoolmate, and at 14, she was a mother again, to Edward, with two more sons (and two husbands) following later in life.
Franklin was also only 14 when she released her first album, 1956’s Songs of Faith. The young mum took to the road with her father/manager on his preaching tours, performing in the Deep South where segregation was still law.
“There were times that we were asked to go to the back of the restaurant,” Franklin, who performed at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral, recalled in a 1999 interview, “or we couldn’t use the bathrooms.”
At 18, Franklin crossed over to mainstream music, and by the close of the 1960s, the R&B queen’s crown was firmly in place, thanks to monster hits such as Respect and Say a Little Prayer.
According to Rolling Stone, who in 2008 put her at the top of their list of the 100 greatest singers of all time, her voice, her talent, carried a spark of the divine.
“You know a force from heaven,” Mary J. Blige wrote in an essay celebrating her idol for the magazine.
“When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.”