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Aretha Franklin, ‘Queen of Soul,’ Rock Hall of Famer, dead at 76 of cancer

Aretha Franklin performs at a Clive Davis tribute concert on April 19, 2017, in New York City. | Getty Images

Aretha Franklin, a singer who changed the face of rock and roll, soul and R&B with such classics as “Think” and her signature song “Respect,” died Thursday at her home in Detroit.

She was 76 and had pancreatic cancer, according to her representative Gwendolyn Quinn.

Ms. Franklin died at 9:50 a.m. Thursday, according to her family, who said in a written statement: “We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on.”

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

Ms. Franklin had been battling cancer for several years. Health issues forced her to retire last year from regular touring and at times to cancel concerts.

The first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ms. Franklin amassed 18 Grammy Awards and sold more than 75 million records. Her biggest hits include “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer for You.”

Though Detroit was her home, she was extremely fond of Chicago and often played in and around the city, including frequent concerts at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.

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“Every performance she gave here was out of this world,” said Ravinia president and CEO Welz Kauffman. “People would quibble that in her later years perhaps her vocals were not what they once were. But the sheer grandeur of her vocal prowess was unlike anything we will ever see again. When she took off that white fur coat and sat down at the piano, it was like going to church. It was a very gospel-focused, very ‘God for all of us’ moment — a unifying moment for all of us. It was just heaven.”

Ms. Franklin’s love of gospel music shone brightly at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theater in 1972 when she performed “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” at the funeral for the iconic “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson. Eddie Robinson, Jackson’s pianist, said it was the best rendition of the standard he’d ever heard.

Chicago rapper Rhymefest said that although, “I only met Aretha through her music, her music raised me. It raised many of us. Aretha Franklin defined America for decades.”

“Music would not be the same without Aretha Franklin,” said journalist Clarence Waldron, her onetime publicist and a former editor at Jet magazine.

Her ties to Chicago included admiration and strong friendships with legendary singer Mavis Staples and gospel great Albertina Walker.

“Aretha was the star in Detroit,” Waldron said. “She would come to Chicago and have to step up her game, so to speak, because Mavis was another powerhouse.”

Walker “was her idol — her sense of fashion and how she would always be on when she was onstage,” Waldron said.

Ms. Franklin recorded songs associated with Walker, including ”Mary Don’t You Weep.”

Her most recent albums included 2016’s critically acclaimed “Divas” and 2017’s “A Brand New Me.” An upcoming compilation, “The Atlantic Singles Collection 1967-1970,” chronicling her early years at the label, is set for release in September.

Her 2014 cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” reached No. 47 on Billboard’s R&B chart. It became Ms. Franklin’s 100th charting single, making her the first woman to reach the milestone.

Aretha Franklin in what would become her final performance at Ravinia, in 2017. | Patrick Gipson
Aretha Franklin in what would become her final performance at Ravinia, in 2017. | Patrick Gipson

Ms. Franklin received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 from President George W. Bush, and, in 1999, President Clinton awarded her the National Arts Medal. She performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Born in Memphis, Ms. Franklin was raised in Detroit, her home since the 1980s. Her father was civil rights leader Rev. C.L. Franklin, and young Aretha began singing as a child at his Detroit church, New Bethel Baptist.

At 14, “She blew the church away singing these gospel songs,” said Robert M. Marovich, author of “A City Called Heaven, Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music,” who is editor of the website journalofgospelmusic.com.

Chicago’s Rev. James Cleveland, known as the ”King of Gospel,” was her most influential piano teacher, according to Marovich. When Cleveland left Chicago and moved to Detroit, Ms. Franklin’s father gave him a place to stay.

Her first gospel songs were released by Chicago’s famed Chess Records in the late 1950s. She soon opted for a more secular singing career and in 1967 signed with Atlantic.

Some music and gospel purists groused about her moving back and forth between genres, “but her father said she never left the church,” Marovich said.

In the late 1980s, she produced and sang on “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,” a recording that included spoken word passages from the Rev. Jesse Jackson of Chicago’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

“She knew that she was more than blessed with her voice,” Waldron said, “and that’s what carried her.”

In a 2015 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Ms. Franklin explained why Motown, the Detroit-based juggernaut, wasn’t part of her career path.

“Even though Motown was eight blocks from our family home, before I signed with Columbia, my dad went over to talk to [Motown founder] Berry [Gordy] about having me sign with him,” she said. “It didn’t work out with them. I don’t know why. I do know that Berry wanted me to have national and international exposure, and at that time Berry was not that far along with his company. He didn’t have it in place to get me where he said I needed to be.”

Ms. Franklin mentored many others. “She just showed us the way,” said Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites.

When his group toured with her during the 1970s, they learned by her example about being on time, getting paid upfront and taking care of their voices, he said. “When I used to go in the dressing room with her, I used to see hot tea a lot,” Thompson said.

Whenever Ms. Franklin came to Chicago, she loved to shop. And though she loved visiting upscale Tiffany’s and dining on French cuisine, Waldron said she remained a “real down-to-earth, simple kind of person,” just as happy eating gumbo delivered to Ravinia from Capt.’s Hard Time Dining on 79th Street.

Waldron said he’d hear her express her appreciation for Lem’s Bar-B-Que by declaring, “I’m going down to Lem’s to get me some ribs, y’all!”

She liked to soak in the serenity at the Buckingham Fountain.

“Oh, Clarence, it’s so beautiful, so relaxing,” she said of the famed lakefront fountain. “I bring my grandkids there, and they loved it.”

And though she might be wearing jeans, Ms. Franklin would top them with one of her many furs.

She was married twice, first at 19 to Theodore White and, in 1978, to actor Glynn Turman. Both marriages ended in divorce. Ms. Franklin is survived by four sons.

In a 2017 interview with the Sun-Times, Ms. Franklin said, “You couldn’t be more blessed than being able to do what you love most and make a living at it as well. No one loves music more than me.”

Contributing: AP