Aretha Franklin, 76: Music icon sought R-E-S-P-E-C-T for rights, women
Aretha Franklin, the music icon, legendary singer and “Queen of Soul” loved by millions whose history-making career spanned six decades, died at her Detroit home on Thursday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 76.
The multiple Grammy winner influenced generations of female singers with unforgettable hits and cemented her place in US music history with a powerful, bell-clear voice that stretched over four octaves. In a career crossing generations, her hits spanned from soul and R&B, to gospel and pop.
“It is with deep and profound sadness that we announce the passing of Aretha Louise Franklin, the Queen of Soul,” her family said in a statement. “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.”
The family thanked fans around the world for their “incredible outpouring of love.”
Franklin never saw herself as a feminist heroine. That, she quipped, was Gloria Steinem’s role. But she leaves a legacy of indelible anthems that resonated deeply with women by celebrating their strength and individuality—and demanding, well, just a little respect.
“I don’t think I was a catalyst for the women’s movement,” she told Rolling Stone in 2014. “Sorry. But if I were? So much the better!”
The women’s movement was just getting going in 1967 when Franklin took on Otis Redding’s “Respect,” which soon became known as an anthem both for civil rights and for feminism. Franklin changed the song’s meaning, radically, just by singing it in her own, inimitable voice.
She may not have intended it to be a feminist anthem, but she surely knew how it would resonate. Instead of a man asking for his “propers” when he got home, here a woman was asking for—no, requiring—that same respect, from her man and in a broader sense, from society.
Women who rock
“‘Respect’ is THE second-wave feminist anthem, more than any other song I can think of,” said Evelyn McDonnell, editor of the anthology “Women Who Rock” and professor at Loyola Marymount University. “Aretha was intersectional before the term existed.”
She noted that Franklin’s version of “Respect” was the quintessential “answer record” to Redding’s—in this case, with the very same song.
To music writer Caryn Rose, Franklin’s message in that song was deliberate. “She knew what the message was, and she intended it,” said Rose, who wrote the essay on Franklin in “Women Who Rock.” Redding himself basically conceded defeat—
with good humor—when singing the song at the Monterey Pop Festival.
“This next song is a song that a girl took away from me,” he said. “A good friend of mine … but I’m still gonna do it anyway.” It’s hard now to imagine a male voice singing the song.
Franklin would later say she intended to convey a message about respect that was broader than any one movement.
“The statement was something that was very important, and where it was important to me, it was important to others,” she told Vogue magazine. “Not just me or the civil rights movement or women—it’s important to people. … Because people want respect, even small children, even babies. As people, we deserve respect from one another.”
Franklin was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987, opening the door for other women. But to call her the greatest female singer is to ignore that in the view of so many she was the greatest singer, period.
“There is no one who can touch her,” wrote Mary J. Blige in Rolling Stone, when the magazine chose Franklin as the top singer of all time. “She is the reason why women want to sing.”
Though “Respect” was probably her most famous anthem of female empowerment, there were other songs of great resonance to women, like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” written by Carole King. It’s a love song, of course, But in Franklin’s rendition, somehow it became, unmistakably, about womanhood. “It’s celebrating in the gloriousness of being female,” said McDonnell. “So yes, it’s a feminist anthem, too.”
Fans mourning the death of Franklin left balloons, flowers and mementos at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where as a child the star kicked off her storied career singing gospel.
And in California similar tributes quickly amassed on Franklin’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The 18-time Grammy award winner inspired multiple singers during her five-decade career, from pop diva Mariah Carey and the late Whitney Houston, to Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige and the late Amy Winehouse.
In 2010, Rolling Stone magazine put her at the top of its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time, male or female.
She performed at the inaugurations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at the investiture of the country’s first African-American head of state.
Glimpse of the divine
In a heartfelt tribute from the Obamas, the former president and his wife Michelle praised Franklin’s “unmatched musicianship,” which they said “helped define the American experience.”
“Every time she sang, we were all graced with a glimpse of the divine,” the Obamas said in a statement.
“In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. She helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human.”
US President Donald Trump called the singer “terrific,” saying she “brought joy to millions of lives and her extraordinary legacy will thrive and inspire many generations to come.”
Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on Thursday hailed her as “one of America’s greatest national treasures.”
Singers and musicians quickly flooded social media in mourning her passing, which came on the same day that fellow US music giant Elvis Presley died at his home in Memphis, the city where Franklin was born, 41 years ago.
Paul McCartney called Franklin an inspiration and “the Queen of our souls,” while Diana Ross hailed her “wonderful golden spirit.”
A diva rooted in gospel
Franklin who was widely known by only her first name, in true diva style rose from singing gospel in her father’s church to regularly topping rhythm and blues and pop charts in the 1960s and 1970s.
Other than “Respect,” Franklin had dozens of Top 40 singles, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These include “Day Dreaming” (1972), “Jump to It” (1982), “Freeway of Love” (1985), and “A Rose Is Still A Rose” (1998). A 1986 duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” hit number one in several countries.
In 2005, Franklin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award for an American civilian by then President George W. Bush.
In 2010, she suffered serious health problems, but continued to perform until late last year, singing last in November 2017 for the Elton John AIDS Foundation in New York. That same year, Detroit named a street after her. —REPORTS FROM AP AND AFP
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