The end of an era is at hand: America’s Queen of Soul, R&B vocalist Aretha Franklin, 76, died of pancreatic cancer Thursday morning at her Detroit home, her family around her.
“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,” Franklin’s family wrote in a statement to media. “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.”
She was possibly one of the most apolitical non-racist performers in the history of the American entertainment industry, and for the lion’s share of her career, her go-to musical gurus were her Jewish music producers, and the Jewish songwriters they relied on. A deeply spiritual Christian, Franklin’s primary musical background came from her gospel music and her childhood in the church, a source sharing much with roots reaching back into the Old Testament of the Jewish faith.
Her work defined a generation, even as she defined and redefined herself through her music over and over again, aided and abetted almost from the start by Jewish music producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, the man known as ‘The Godfather of R&B’ and who coined the phrase “rhythm and blues.” Wexler, born in the Bronx in 1917, began his own career as a music journalist but joined the industry as a music producer in the 1950s. It was he who helped mold Aretha Franklin’s career once her contract with Columbia expired in 1967, until he left Atlantic in 1975.
In his autobiography, “Rhythm And The Blues: A Life in American Music,” Wexler described his first encounter with Aretha Franklin: her first gospel album, a live recording on Chess made in 1956 when was age 14, singing “Precious Lord” in New Bethel Baptist Church of Detroit, where her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin was the spiritual leader. Her singing, wrote Wexler, was “informed with her genius.”
“We have lost the greatest singer of our time,” songwriter, musician and vocalist Billy Joel wrote in a post on Twitter after hearing the news Thursday. “As a songwriter, I know personally how meaningful a gifted interpreter of material can be. No one can replace her.”
She was an artist who knew the ups and downs of a difficult life from the start; Born in Memphis in 1942, by the time she was six years old, her mother left her husband and five children. Her mother was dead by the time the budding gospel singer had turned 10 years old.
She began to sing professionally, touring with her father when he preached around the country while she was still a teenager, meeting all the R&B greats who were hosted by Reverend Franklin. By age 15, she had given birth to two children.
Wexler said in his autobiography that he “thinks of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows” with eyes that were “covering inexplicable pain. Her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea,” he wrote. It was those depths and the intensity of what he called “the purest wellsprings of faith and belief” that Franklin brought to the microphone in what she came to call “soul music.”
But it was a snappy song that Otis Redding had written in 1964 and performed before Aretha Franklin truly took on and made her own. Franklin’s version of “Respect,” released in 1967 with a snappy staccato backup by her sisters, Carolyn and Erma, was an entirely different creation after Wexler suggested spelling out R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and adding “T.C.B.” — short for “taking care of business.”
That song became the watchword for an entire generation of women and girls — an eternal, ethnic, global phenomenon that women around the world interpreted in myriad ways, all unique and each making it their own.
There are even rabbis who have used the song as a springboard for sermons focusing on the Torah concept of “Derech Eretz” and other Jewish values relating to “Respect.”
Five years after Wexler left Atlantic for Warner Bros., Aretha Franklin also left to sign in 1980 with another Jewish producer, Clive Davis, who owned Arista Records.
It was with Davis that Franklin made her scene-stealing cameo performances in the iconic “Blues Brothers” musical comedies, The Blues Brothers and its sequel, Blues Brothers II, featuring two of her greatest hits of all time, ‘Respect’ and ‘Think.’
It was also with Davis that Franklin stunned an audience at the 1998 Grammy Awards when she stood in at the last minute for world-renown opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who was scheduled to sing his trademark aria, Nessun Dorma, but was unable to appear due to a sore throat. To the utter shock of the audience, Aretha Franklin — a winner of 18 Grammy Awards — sang the aria instead, bringing the audience to its feet in a standing ovation with the final note. Renowned vocalist Sting presented Pavarotti with a living Legend Grammy immediately following Franklin’s performance; the opera star died in 2007.
Amazingly, Franklin again performed “Nessun Dorma” — 17 years later, in 2015 — this time for Pope Francis in Philadelphia. To access a YouTube of her performance at the 2015 World Meeting of Families, where she appeared, click here.
Aretha Franklin was also a civil rights activist, and a friend of Martin Luther King Jr; she sang at his funeral. But she was clear about keeping politics out of her music: she told Jet Magazine in November 1970, “It’s not cool to be Jewish, or Negro, or Italian. It’s just cool to be alive, to be around. You don’t have to be Black to have soul.” She was simply deeply devoted to the concerns of the average American; even telling an interviewer at NPR in 2004 that veterans had told her how her songs sustained them. “On occasion,” she told the interviewer, “I hear that some of them helped them get through the service — and I’m delighted by that.”
Franklin sold more than 75 million records during her career, and inspired generations of singers and musicians across the spectrum who followed. The first woman to be inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, the recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1979, she was also eventually inducted into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame in 2010, and enshrined with a star on the Walk of Fame outside the iconic Harlem theater. “She’s with us spiritually forever,” Apollo Theater historian Billy Mitchell told ABC-7 TV Eyewitness News on Thursday afternoon.
Lauded by countless Americans as a “national treasure” it was clear that those who occupied the highest office in the country certainly agreed: Aretha Franklin sang at the inaugurations for three presidents (Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), and was awarded the nation’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by a fourth, President George W. Bush, during his second term in office. She also performed at the grand opening of the Trump International Hotel and Tower in 1997, praised by now-incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump decades before he considered running for office.
Aretha Franklin’s performance at the Kennedy Center of “A Natural Woman,” really brought it all home for a hall in the nation’s capital that was packed to the limit. This was a song whose very title was written by Jerry Wexler, who — as he recounted in his memoir, as the Jewish Forward notes — specifically commissioned Jewish song writers Carole King and Gerry Gofin to write to order, and which became one of her most iconic all-time hits.
On that night, Carole King — sitting in the audience — clearly couldn’t believe Franklin had chosen her song above all as the one to perform for President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, both in the audience. And that performance brought the house down there in Washington DC. The song had remained, as it was from the start, as Wexler wrote, a “part of Aretha’s own persona, a product of her own soul.” Tear-filled eyes could be seen throughout the hall, and the applause shook the rafters.
Now, as tributes, tears and prayers continue to pour in on social media from around the world, everyone who ever saw or heard or knew Aretha Franklin is offering their condolences to her family. The world today is a little emptier without her, but that much richer with the musical treasures she left behind.