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The Queen is dead: Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018

Aretha Franklin, the undisputed Queen of Soul who spent part of her early life in Buffalo, has died, according to the Associated Press. She was 76 and reportedly died of pancreatic cancer.

Franklin, whose family moved to Buffalo when she was 2 before relocating to Detroit several years later, had officially retired from performing in late 2017. Though she would ultimately consider Detroit to be her home, Franklin spent many summers with her mother in Buffalo as a child, following her parents’ separation in 1948. She would later recall those idyllic summers in her memoir, “Soul Survivor.”

“Days flew by, and summer passed too quickly,” she wrote. “Mr. Cohen’s grocery store had the biggest dill pickles, and Buffalo’s Texas Red Hots were covered with the best chili in America. I never wanted summer to end.”

Franklin is a member of the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, Class of 2016. She is also the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and winner of 18 Grammy Awards. She performed at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. Rolling Stone placed Franklin in the No. 1 slot on its list of “The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.” She was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, at the head of the Class of 1987. If there is any justice in the musical universe, she should be a member of every other Hall of Fame imaginable, as well.

Franklin began her career singing in the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was pastor. (The Franklin paterfamilias had been pastor at Friendship Baptist Church on Clinton Street in Buffalo during the family’s stay here.) By 1960, at the age of 18, she had entered the world of secular music, and was signed by Columbia Records, for whom she would record several brilliant but only mildly commercially successful albums throughout the first half of the 1960s.

It was after she came to the attention of Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic Records that Franklin’s immense talent would find a commensurate commercial audience, however. Ertegun and Wexler seemed to implicitly understand that Franklin’s marriage of deep gospel tropes, jazz, and secular rhythm and blues music was groundbreaking, particularly when delivered via her stunningly powerful voice.

Atlantic sent Franklin to FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., to record with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, an arrangement that would change popular music forever when it yielded Franklin’s 1967 debut Atlantic album, “I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Love You.” The title track, “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” brought Franklin the mainstream success that had eluded her during her tenure at Columbia. These songs also helped to usher in the era of what would become known as soul music, a form that brought the intensity, incredible vocal chops and deep emotional commitment of gospel music to bear on the deep southern earthiness and supple, funky R&B perfected by the Muscle Shoals musicians.

Though she would go on to make meaningful music over the next five decades, it is her seminal work at the tail end of the 1960s – most notably, her first three albums for Atlantic – upon which her legacy largely rests.

Principal among the work is the song “Respect,” an Otis Redding tune that Franklin turned into an anthem for the civil rights movement. In Redding’s hands, the song had been a reaffirmation of traditional male-female roles, i.e. the man works hard all day and deserves a little respect when he comes home. Franklin rather brilliantly turned the song into a rallying cry for both women’s rights and the civil rights of all the oppressed. In Franklin’s hands, the song became an expression of defiance, a demand for the relief from a life of sacrifice that was her due, and by extension, the due of so many who heard the song and welcomed it into their hearts.  Once could reasonably site the song’s success as a precursor to the #MeToo movement.

Though she is often credited as being the first “diva” in popular music, it is unjust to lay this title on Franklin’s doormat. She is routinely cited as a primary influence by contemporary pop and R&B singers, from Christina Aguilera to Adele, Mary J. Blige to Beyonce.

Aretha Franklin dies at 76: 'Queen of Soul' transformed American music

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