Aretha Franklin, the self-taught piano prodigy, vocalist and songwriter who first conquered the charts in the late ’60s and never relinquished her throne, has died, her publicist confirms to the Associated Press. She was 76.
The Queen of Soul had struggled with her health for years. A source told PEOPLE Monday that Franklin had taken a turn for the worse and that her death was “imminent.”
“She has been ill for a long time,” the longtime friend told PEOPLE. “She did not want people to know and she didn’t make it public.”
A musical phenomenon who crossed musical, racial and gender barriers, Franklin began her vocal career as a teenager, singing gospel hymns in her father’s Detroit church. From these humble beginnings she scaled to the very heights of stardom, scoring her first national chart-topper in 1967 with a searing version of “Respect.”
Since then, the artist has notched 77 Hot 100 chart entries, and earned an astounding 18 Grammys out of 44 nominations. In 1987, two decades after her first No. 1, Franklin became the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and was later named the Greatest Singer of All Time by Rolling Stone.
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Showbiz 411 reporter Roger Friedman was first to report the singer was “gravely ill,” sharing that Franklin’s family were “asking for prayers and privacy.”
“I am so saddened to report that the Queen of Soul and my good friend, Aretha Franklin is gravely ill,” wrote Local 4 Detroit news anchor Evrod Cassimy on Twitter Sunday. “I spoke with her family members this evening. She is asking for your prayers at this time. I’ll have more details as I’m allowed to release.”
In February of 2017, the Queen of Soul told a Detroit TV station that she was retiring from music that year. “I will be recording, but this will be my last year in concert. This is it,” she said, though Franklin admitted she would perform at “some select things.”
Despite her failing health in recent years, Franklin returned to the stage in August for what would be her final public performance at the Mann Center in Philadelphia, despite noticeable changes in her appearance that caused concern about her well-being.
“Aretha Franklin has been ordered by her doctor to stay off the road and rest completely for at least the next two months,” Franklin’s management said in a statement at the time. She was expected to release her next album, entitled A Brand New Me, in November.
In April of that year, she sat down for an interview with PEOPLE just months after being hospitalized for an unspecified operation. Though she strongly denied having bariatric surgery, the singer — who had lost 85 lbs. — did not directly address the rumors that she had cancer.
“I feel fabulous, really,” she told PEOPLE. “And I’m so thankful to all of the people who said a little prayer for me. People at the check out line in the market were telling me that they prayed for me. It’s amazing how beautiful people can be.”
By the middle of that month, as news spread from family members that she was suffering from pancreatic cancer, Franklin was recovering at home, and saying she was up and about — and feeling better, too. In January 2011, the Queen went so far as to pronounce the matter resolved.
An electrifying stage presence who was also frightfully shy offstage, Franklin, under doctors’ orders, in November 2010 canceled all tour dates and personal appearances for the next six months — a sudden announcement that both disappointed and worried her fans, who could well see for the past few years she was not in the best of health.
Awards and R-E-S-P-E-C-T
While her four-octave range, phrasing and breath control have elicited critical raves for decades, Franklin’s records — “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),” among the hundreds of others — and her record of accomplishments speak for themselves: the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987; the holder of the record for most Grammys for best female R&B vocal performance (11); the most million-selling singles of any female artist (14); 18 competitive Grammy victories; two honorary Grammys; the sole (let alone soul) singer at Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential inauguration — the accolades, including a 2010 honorary doctorate in music from Yale, are literally too numerous to mention.
In 1968, when Franklin was 26 with the first string of early hits to her credit, TIME magazine featured her on its cover under a banner that read, in all capital letters, “The Sound of Soul.” Describing her voice, the news magazine reported, “She does not seem to be performing so much as bearing witness to a reality so simple and compelling that she could not possibly fake it.”
Father Knew Best
“Fake” was never in Aretha Franklin’s vocabulary. One of five children, Franklin was born in Memphis, but at the age of 6 moved with her family to a large, tree-shaded house not far from Detroit’s East Side, in the same neighborhood as Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson.
Her mother Barbara left at about that time, then died four years later. Aretha’s father, the Rev. C. L. (for Clarence LaVaughn) Franklin, was the fiery preacher of Detroit’s 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist Church — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was a family friend — and it was Aretha’s father who steered the shy girl through her first gospel recording when she was 14 and later oversaw her transition into a soul singer.
“She and my dad were very, very, very close,” Aretha’s sister, Erma, told PEOPLE in 1985. “She depended on him and his advice, and when she was living in California, she’d call him three or four times a day.”
During her father’s years of unconsciousness (he died in 1984, as a final result of the shooting), “she spent over a half million dollars on him, $1,500 a week just for nurses,” said Erma. “But she still can’t talk about it, not even with her own family. You can’t even say the word ‘death’ around her. You have to say ‘passed away’ or find some other expression.”
The move from L.A. back to Detroit was followed by a divorce from her second husband, actor Glynn Turman after nearly six years of marriage. Her first marriage, to Ted White, lasted from 1961 until their divorce in 1969. In all, she had four sons: Clarence, Jr., born when Franklin was 14; Edward (“Eddie”), born two years later, Ted White, Jr., born 1964; and Kecalf, born 1970 and whose father is Ken Cunningham.
Eddie Franklin, then 52, was the victim of a physical attack in 2010 at a Detroit gas station that required him to undergo surgery.
Another setback took place in 1983, when during a late-night flight home from Atlanta the small plane Franklin was on “did one of those dipsy-doodles” in midair and shocked the singer into a sudden fear of flying, she told PEOPLE. The all-but-paralyzing aerophobia, which remained a lifelong problem, led to a string of canceled or postponed projects, including a starring role in a stage bio of Mahalia Jackson and the lead in a Broadway musical about Bessie Smith.
And yet, despite her troubles, as Rolling Stone has said, “Aretha Franklin is not only the definitive female soul singer of the ’60s, she’s also one of the most influential and important voices in pop history.”
Feuding and Fussing
Protective of her title “Queen of Soul,” Franklin was miffed by Beyoncé for introducing Tina Turner as the “Queen of Soul” at the 2008 Grammys, which led to a minor controversy — and barbs being exchanged — at the time.
In fact, Franklin took tremendous pride in her status as a diva, but could also be baffled by diva behavior in others. While before a concert Franklin would drink hot tea and maintain a temporary silence for the sake of her voice, ”Someone told me that Céline [Dion] will go for a day without talking,” Franklin, in a rare interview, told The New York Times in 2003.
She then said, ”Excuse me? What? You kidding? I might go 20 minutes, maybe 30 minutes. That’s enough. Unbelievable.’”
“I’m a diva when it’s time to be a diva,” she said. “When I leave the stage, I am the lady next door.” Watching her 2011 Grammy tribute at home in February with a cup of banana pudding, the legendary singer said she was floored by the performances in her honor.
“I was sitting in front of the TV, waiting for it,” said Franklin. “It was wonderful, and a very special moment. When an industry as big as the recording industry pays tribute to you, on that level, you don’t forget that.”