Influential singer a symbol of black pride and women's liberation

A fan signing a board covering one of the windows at the house in Memphis where Franklin was born. Flowers and mementoes left at Aretha Franklin's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles on Thursday. The marquee on Fox Theatre in memory of
Flowers and mementoes left at Aretha Franklin's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles on Thursday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE, REUTERS
A fan signing a board covering one of the windows at the house in Memphis where Franklin was born. Flowers and mementoes left at Aretha Franklin's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles on Thursday. The marquee on Fox Theatre in memory of
The marquee on Fox Theatre in memory of the singer in her hometown of Detroit.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE, REUTERS
A fan signing a board covering one of the windows at the house in Memphis where Franklin was born. Flowers and mementoes left at Aretha Franklin's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles on Thursday. The marquee on Fox Theatre in memory of
A fan signing a board covering one of the windows at the house in Memphis where Franklin was born.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE, REUTERS

DETROIT • When Aretha Franklin's death was announced over a public address system, glassmaker Maurice Black said grief was so great at his Detroit auto plant that supervisors briefly shut the line.

"The look on everybody's face - it was just shocking," the 53-year-old said outside Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church, where the music icon kicked off her storied career singing gospel as a child.

What made the news of her death on Thursday - from pancreatic cancer at age 76 - so raw was that many still remembered how she had visited the factory only a few years earlier.

Mr Black grew up in a neighbourhood around the church, where he would eat her cooking at lavish meals she provided for the community and the homeless each Thanksgiving and Christmas.

There is pride in the neighbourhood that the Queen of Soul shunned the celebrity trappings of cities such as Los Angeles and New York to live close to her roots.

One of the most influential singers in American popular music, Franklin secured lasting fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

She explored the secular sweet spot between sultry rhythm and blues and the explosive gospel music she had grown up singing in her father's Baptist church.

The result was potent and wildly popular, with soul anthems that turned her into a symbol of black pride and women's liberation.

Her calling card: Respect, the Otis Redding hit that became a crossover smash in 1967 after she tweaked it.

When she sang Respect, it was never just about how a woman wanted to be greeted by a spouse coming home from work. It was a demand for equality and a harbinger of feminism, carried by a voice that would accept nothing less.

Twenty of her singles topped Billboard's R&B chart and more than 50 reached the R&B Top 10 over a six-decade recording career.

A graceful mezzo-soprano stylist who was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, she had remarkable range, power and command.

"She just bared her soul, she exposed herself, she did everything but get on the floor and scream and cry," singer Natalie Cole told VH1.

In Franklin's music, the politics were mostly personal, even when she sang about being Young, Gifted And Black (1972). But she became the multi-octave voice of the civil rights movement, performing at rallies staged by Martin Luther King Jr, a family friend.

In 1968, at the apogee of her career, when she was in her mid-20s and recording soul classic after soul classic on Atlantic Records, she said: "Soul to me is a feeling, a lot of depth and being able to bring to the surface that which is happening inside, to make the picture clear."

Long before she abruptly axed a half-year's worth of performances and appearances in November 2010 (doctor's orders were cited), her health had been a source of concern, mostly because of the considerable weight she was carrying.

When she resurfaced in 2011 for a brief concert tour, she told AARP magazine that she had shed 39kg. She attributed the change to diet and exercise - and also that she had had pancreatic cancer.

Her career could be divided into two parts: the Atlantic Records years in the late 1960s and 1970s, and everything else, with some periods more fallow than others.

Before she became a superstar, she was a young pop-jazz singer struggling to find her voice at Columbia Records.

Earlier, in 1956, at age 14, she had released her first album of hymns and spirituals. Her career was placed on hold when she twice became pregnant. She had two sons by the time she was 17.

She signed with Columbia in 1960, spending six years at the label. She recorded jazz and pop albums that produced some minor hits.

In 1966, when producer Jerry Wexler came calling on behalf of Atlantic Records, everything changed.

"He provided the vehicle to allow me to perform and express myself," Franklin told Wall Street Journal.

She won 18 Grammy Awards, many in a category created in 1968 seemingly to acknowledge her greatness: Best Female R&B Vocal.

Ever since, just about every powerhouse songstress - from Mariah Carey and Jennifer Hudson to Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston - has been measured against Franklin.

Franklin's relationship with Atlantic stopped at the end of the 1970s, after a string of disappointing releases. She signed with Arista Records around the time of her showstopping turn in 1980 movie The Blues Brothers.

Under the direction of Arista chief Clive Davis, her career rebounded, with pop-rock hits that included Who's Zoomin' Who? (1985) and Freeway Of Love (1985).

During the second half of her career, she toured intermittently, hampered by a fear of flying that she developed in 1982 after a turbulent flight from Atlanta to Detroit.

Even though her hits slowed, she was no museum piece in the latter stages of her career. She won three Grammys in the new millennium - the final one in 2008, when she and Mary J. Blige were honoured for Best Gospel Performance for Never Gonna Break My Faith.

Accurately, if immodestly, she accepted the regal moniker Queen of Soul.

"It's an acknowledgement of my art," she once said. "It means I am excelling at my art and my first love.

"And I am most appreciative."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2018, with the headline 'Influential singer a symbol of black pride and women's liberation'. Print Edition | Subscribe