Aretha Franklin wore her crowns like no other.
At the Grammy Awards in 1972, where she won the fifth of her 18 trophies: A regal scarlet shawl embroidered with gold, swirled around her sturdy Afro.
At the first Divas Live concert in 1998: A golden wrap that outshone Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and any other singer VH1 dared put up on her stage.
At the inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009, where she sang My Country ’Tis of Thee: An oversized, rhinestone-studded bow, tilting outrageously into Internet infamy.
And at Detroit’s Ford Field in 2016, when she sang one of the longest National Anthems ever recorded: A simple knit Lions cap, a nod to her deep roots in Motown.
But it was the hat she never took off, the one nobody ever wore better, that defines her: The crown of the Queen of Soul.
Franklin, the woman Rolling Stone and countless others declared the greatest singer in the history of pop music, died Thursday at 76 at her home in Detroit. She was suffering from advanced pancreatic cancer, and had been in hospice care, surrounded by family and friends.
To say Franklin is on the Mount Rushmore of pop divas does her no justice at all. Fact is, she’s the only reason such a monument would ever exist in the first place (as she’d probably be first to remind you). Make a case for Etta or Barbra or Whitney or Adele all you like, but on their very best days, the world’s greatest singers, male and female, were in her class. It was never the other way around.
Memphis-born and Detroit-raised, Franklin grew up belting gospel in church, where her father was a renowned Baptist minister and her mentor was Mahalia Jackson. Her raw vocal talent, the way she whirled those notes up and out of her body, was obvious. But she was not a household name overnight — it wasn’t until leaving Columbia Records for Atlantic in 1967, a decade into her career, that she started her path to icon status. That year, Chain of Fools, Baby I Love You, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You) and her signature song Respect all went to No. 1.
Respect was an interesting one. Otis Redding wrote and sang it from the perspective of a man who wants respect from his lady "when I come home." Franklin’s update pleaded for respect not just from her man, but from the world — it was she who worked in the unforgettable "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" breakdown and "sock it to me" refrain. If it’s not the most empowering pop song ever, it’s in the conversation.
"In later times, it was picked up as a battle cry by the civil rights movement," she told NPR in 1999. "But when I recorded it, it was pretty much a male-female kind of thing. And more in a general sense, from person-to-person — I’m going to give you respect and I’d like to have that respect back, or I expect respect to be given back."
A Civil Rights icon in her own way — she sang at the memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and would later do so for Rosa Parks — Franklin proudly transcended racial and cultural barriers in her music. In the late ’60s and early ’70s she sang rock and folk as easily as gospel and soul. Eleanor Rigby, The Weight, Gentle On My Mind, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Bridge Over Troubled Water: All of them, she reimagined as her own.
She would record, and in some cases write, more original hits — Freeway of Love, Sisters are Doin’ It For Themselves and the George Michael duet I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) were all big ’80s hits — but her barrier-obliterating talent allowed her to crisscross genres and record with just about anyone. She popped up in The Blues Brothers, sang with James Brown and Frank Sinatra, didn’t flinch at duets with young upstarts like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey.
More than peers like Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and Natalie Cole, Franklin established the archetype of the modern pop diva: Possessed of blinding talent, and refusing to suffer fools who questioned it or rivals who challenged it. Respect became not just a song, but an order. When she made the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 — part of its second class ever, and the first female ever so honored — she didn’t show up. Maybe it was her fear of flying, or maybe it was because she, like many others, believed she should have gone in with the first class. Keith Richards inducted her anyway.
But never did her divadom stop her from stopping every show, regardless of the company. Twenty years ago she stepped into the Grammy ceremony spotlight at the very last minute, subbing for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and bringing the house down on Puccini’s difficult aria Nessun dorma. In 2015, her piano performance of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman honoring Carole King at the Kennedy Center Honors — a title she also earned in 1994 — reduced President Obama to tears.
Upstaging Pavarotti and making the president cry: All in a day’s work for the world’s greatest singer.
In recent years, Franklin’s touring scaled back dramatically due to flagging health. In 2016, she booked a show in Sarasota — it would have been her first local gig in more than a decade — only to cancel due to what the venue called "a lack of band personnel." Around that time she announced she’d be phasing out live performances over the next year. Concerts scheduled so far in 2018, including one headlining the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, had already been canceled on doctor’s orders.
There is no replacing Aretha Franklin at Jazz Fest or any other concert, because there is no replacing Aretha Franklin, period. For 50 years she was the Queen of Soul, a title she’ll hold in perpetuity. There’s no passing this crown down the line. She was the only living soul it ever fit.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.