Aretha Franklin, Queen of Soul, dead at 76

Aretha Franklin, the Memphis-born singer known as the Queen of Soul, died Thursday of advanced pancreatic cancer at age 76.

Advanced pancreatic cancer cited as cause of death at her home in Detroit

Aretha Franklin, shown performing at the 2014 Montreal Jazz Festival, died Thursday at age 76 in Detroit. (Bill King)

Aretha Franklin, the Memphis-born singer known as the Queen of Soul, died Thursday of advanced pancreatic cancer at age 76.

Franklin died Thursday morning at her home in Detroit, according to her representative, Gwendolyn Quinn.

"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 said in the 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.

"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." 

Franklin's hits, such as Respect, I Say A Little Prayer and Chain Of Fools, are still associated with her powerful gospel voice, more than 40 years after their release.

A Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient in 2005, she said one of the highlights of her career was singing My Country, 'Tis of Thee at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 2009.

In a statement Thursday, Obama and his wife Michelle said: "Through her compositions and unmatched musicianship, Aretha helped define the American experience," "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. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance.

"The gift of her music remains to inspire us all."

Speaking about Franklin in 2003, media mogul and devoted fan Oprah Winfrey declared that "her voice is literally a national treasure... She is the undisputed Queen of Soul for all times."

Oprah Winfrey, seen with Franklin in 2011, described the singer's voice as 'a national treasure.' (Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press)

Franklin, who turned 76 in March, had been battling health problems, but continued to perform until as recently as last year. She has been secretive about her health issues, which have included periods out of the spotlight and at least one surgery.

​More recently, Franklin continued to book public appearances, but health concerns occasionally forced her to cancel or postpone them.

In the past few years, she regularly cited doctor's orders for cancelling notable concerts, including a Canada Day show in Toronto on the 150th anniversary of Confederation, and several New Jersey gigs, such as the one to mark her 76th birthday in March.

Franklin performed at an Elton John AIDS Foundation event in New York in November 2017. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

In early 2017, Franklin announced she was ready to retire from live performing, but didn't close the door to taking an occasional gig or two. She also said she wanted to continue recording music. 

Gospel roots

Franklin got her musical start singing in the gospel choir with sisters Carolyn and Erma at their father's church in Detroit, where the family moved when she was a toddler.

  She found fame when she signed with Atlantic Records, recording her first hit,  I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), in the late 1960s. The song was followed by a string of soul hits, including  Baby I Love You Think and  The House That Jack Built, making her world famous by 1970.
Respect was a giant hit for Franklin, who was just 25 when the track was released. (Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

"Aretha's vocal technique is simple enough: a direct, natural style of delivery that ranges over a full four octaves, and the breath control to spin out long phrases that curl sinuously around the beat and dangle tantalizingly from blue notes," wrote Time magazine in a 1968 cover story.

Franklin's success continued into the 1970s with hits such as Spanish Harlem, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Day Dreaming.

The singer returned to her native gospel sound with the 1972 album Amazing Grace, which became a top 10 hit, making it one of the most successful gospel-pop crossovers ever.

Franklin signed with Arista when her contract with Atlantic Records ended in the late 1970s. She started her own label, Aretha Records, in 2004.

"Fifty-two years of recording for other people, I thought at this point it's time for you to record for yourself," she told Time magazine. 

"That way there wouldn't be so many spoons in the soup; there would only be one Aretha spoon."

Franklin is seen performing in Detroit with James Brown in 1987. (Rob Kozloff/AP)

Across her career, Franklin racked up 20 No. 1 hits and sold millions of records.

She won 18 Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, and was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, in 1987.

Rolling Stone magazine named her the greatest singer, male or female, of all time. 

Franklin commonly performed with other music stars, including with George Michael in 1988. (Rob Kozloff/Associated Press)

Yet the Queen of Soul didn't shy away from admitting she still got butterflies before some performances, including ahead of Obama's 2009 inauguration.

"I only had three hours sleep that night," she told talk show host Rachael Ray in a subsequent interview, saying she was worried the cold weather would hurt her voice.

"I was a little nervous that morning."

Franklin sings during Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony in 2009. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Kept personal life private

Though she was a critical and commercial success, Franklin managed to keep much of her private life a mystery.

Franklin was born in Memphis in 1942. She was mainly raised by her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, in Detroit. 

Franklin is seen attending an event with her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, in 1975. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

She had two sons by the time she was 17 (she went on to have two more) and was married twice. There were reports that her first husband hit her in public at least once, and that he shot her production manager.

More tragedy followed when burglars shot her father in 1979. He lapsed into a coma and didn't reawaken before his death in 1984.

Franklin also suffered from a severe flying phobia after experiencing an uneasy flight in 1982, so mainly used a tour bus to travel.

Despite her troubles, Franklin's fans will likely only remember her voice.

"Aretha Franklin's voice is one of the glories of American music," Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times. 

"Lithe and sultry, assertive and caressing, knowing and luxuriant, her singing melts down any divisions between gospel, soul, jazz and rock, bringing an improvisatory spirit even to the most cut-and-dried pop material."

He continued: "Ms. Franklin doesn't need the tuxedo-clad orchestra or oversize gowns or a slide show to prove she's a star — she has her voice. There are enough divas in the world already, but there's only one Aretha Franklin."

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days, according to Franklin's family.

Franklin was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 2005. (Douglas A. Sonders/Getty Images)