The Queen is gone.
Aretha Franklin, the groundbreaking soul singer whose majestic wallop of a voice is firmly rooted in music history, died Thursday, Aug. 16, in her longtime home of Detroit from pancreatic cancer. She was 76.
Throughout a career that made songs such as “Think,” “Rock Steady” and Otis Redding’s “Respect” everlasting jukebox smashes, the woman christened by Rolling Stone as the greatest singer of all time accumulated 18 Grammy Awards and 44 nominations.
In 1987, her groundbreaking persona and music were recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when the Queen of Soul became the first female artist to be inducted into the shrine to musical luminaries.
“Being in Aretha Franklin’s presence is a unique experience,” said her longtime friend and Atlanta resident, singer Peabo Bryson. “You suddenly realize this is the Queen of Soul. I mean that in the fact that she probably has the singular, most important body of work for a female ever. That body of work is second to none. It is beyond peer. That music represented every woman’s struggle…she wasn’t a feminist, but her take on a woman’s plight was fervent. It was concise. It was comprehensive.”
Franklin formally stopped touring in 2003, but she continued to play sporadic dates in the decade-plus following.
As part of that “final” tour, she performed at Chastain Park Amphitheatre, an appearance that was filmed for a piece on “20/20.”
“She had quirks,” recalled Peter Conlon, president of Live Nation Atlanta, which promoted the show. “She’d always ask you to pay her in cash before a performance. (Before the Chastain show), I paid her and she was stuffing $50,000 in her bra and going onstage to sing with it. I said, ‘Ms. Franklin, you really ought to get a manager.’ And she said, ‘Son, my last manager was my husband and that was a double mistake!’”
The following year, Franklin was slated to play Chastain again but two days before the show asked for a relocation to the air-conditioned Civic Center. Unable to accommodate the request on such short notice, Conlon was forced to cancel the concert.
The singer’s well-documented fear of flying actually stemmed from a rough flight she endured departing Atlanta after an appearance at the Fox Theatre in 1983.
As Franklin told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 1993 interview, “I was leaving Atlanta in a very small plane," she recalls. "A two- engine prop plane, I believe. And it was a very bad flight. I'm very much a ground person now.”
In another chat with the paper a decade later, Franklin recalled some early memories of playing in Atlanta.
“So much of my early career included Atlanta,” she said. “Some of my first tours with Sam [Cooke] and Jackie Wilson [sighs] . . . We had some of the best times there. I also came many times with my dad [the late Rev. C. L. Franklin] when I did gospel at the City Auditorium [the now closed Atlanta Municipal Auditorium]. Then there was the Royal Peacock. Let me tell you that [place] was as hot as it could get! There was another place on Auburn Avenue called Henry's Grill. Mmmm. The absolute best grits and sausage at Henry's Grill, honey.”
Franklin’s career – during which she sold more than 75 million records worldwide - spanned decades, from her 1960 Top 10 R&B hit “Today I Sing the Blues” through a 2007 chart appearance with Fantasia, “Put You Up on Game.”
In between, she charted with Aretha-fied versions of songs by other greats including Carole King and Gerry Goffin (“[You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman”), the Beatles (“Eleanor Rigby”), Simon & Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and The Rolling Stones (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), among others.
With her outsize personality and outfits worthy of musical royalty, she became a staple of the MTV era, winning a new generation of fans with the hits (and videos) “Freeway of Love,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” and feisty collaborations with the Eurythmics (“Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves”) and George Michael (“I Knew You Were Waiting [For Me]”).
For years, Franklin performed under a cloud of unspoken health issues. She frequently canceled concerts and in 2017 announced that it would be her final year of regular touring.
Franklin’s last public performance was at Chicago’s Ravinia festival in September 2017. Shortly afterward, she canceled a slew of shows - including an October date at the Fox Theatre - citing “unfortunate circumstances.”
The powerhouse singer was also scheduled to headline this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but bowed out a month before her April appearance.
During her last concert in Atlanta, in November 2014 at the Fox Theatre, Franklin wove vague details about her health problems into the gospel song, “Old Landmark.”
At the end of the song, Franklin shifted into preacher mode, shouting about doctor’s visits, receiving bad news, praying and keeping her faith and getting a clean CAT scan result – all while the music played behind her.
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