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‘The gift that God gave me to use’: Aretha Franklin dies aged 76

17 August 2018


Aretha Franklin sings during a peace vigil at New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit, in 1981

Aretha Franklin sings during a peace vigil at New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit, in 1981

“A LOT of music left earth today,” the Revd Jesse Jackson said on Thursday, after news broke of the death of the singer Aretha Franklin. “The Heavens rejoice.”

Ms Franklin, the daughter of a Detroit preacher and holder of the record for the best-selling live gospel music album of all time, died aged 76 of pancreatic cancer, at home in Detroit.

Mr Jackson, a Baptist veteran of the civil rights movement, described her voice as her “divine instrument. Aretha could do it all, sacred and secular, from soul stirring gospel to foot-stomping R & B pop, jazz, and classical.”

She once said: “Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I’m using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I’m happy with that.”

Mr Jackson also paid tribute to her commitment to social justice, hailing her as “courageous crusader for civil rights, justice and R-E-S-P-E-C-T”.

Born in 1942, Ms Franklin grew up singing in New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, C. L. Franklin, was a preacher famous nationwide for his sermons, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies. From a young age, she toured with him, singing gospel songs.

Mr Franklin was also a champion of civil rights, and his daughter grew up in the presence of celebrated activists and performers. The Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a close family friend. Ms Franklin went on tour in the 1960s to raise money for his movement and sang “Precious Lord” at his funeral in 1968.

It was a song that appeared on her first album, Songs of Faith, which she recorded, aged 14, in 1956. She went on to sign with Columbia, then Atlantic Records, singing huge hits which included “Respect”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, and “(You make me feel like a) Natural Woman”. She secured the title “Queen of Soul”.

In 1972, she made her second gospel album, Amazing Grace, recorded live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. It remains the highest-selling record of her career, and has sold more copies than any other live gospel music album. Her father observed, in the recording, that his daugther had “never really left the church”. In 1987 she recorded One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, at the church in which she had grown up.

At the first inauguration of Barack Obama, she sang My Country ’Tis of Thee, and, in 2015, she sang for Pope Francis during his visit to Philadelphia.

“Even at 73, Franklin could trap lightning in her mouth at a moment’s notice and shout down fire to earth,” Dr Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology whose mother attended New Bethel, recalled in The New York Times this week.

She did not have an easy life. The Telegraph reported that Jerry Wexler, a producer, called her “Our Lady of the Mysterious Sorrows”, observing that “her depression could be as deep as the dark sea”. Her mother, Barbara Siggers, also a gospel singer, died shortly before she was ten, and, two years before she was born, her father had been obliged to leave a church in Memphis after impregnating a 12-year-old member of the congregation. By the age of 15, Aretha had two sons.

Among those paying tribute to her this week was Dr Angela Davis, a civil rights activist, who told The Nation that Ms Franklin had been one of her most prominent supporters. In 1970, she offered to pay Dr Davis’s bond, after she was arrested, telling Jet magazine: “Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free.”

The US President, Donald Trump, said that she had had been given “a great gift from God — her voice, and she used it well.”

In a joint statement, Barack and Michelle Obama said that she had “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 preacher in me believed that hers was the best way to tell our story to a world that might never darken the doors of a church but was sorely in need of a dose of the Spirit,” Dr Dyson wrote in The New York Times. “Aretha Franklin had a famous fear of flying. But now, like one of her compositions, she has ascended to a heavenly domain in which she passionately believed and to which her immortal art, both in the church and beyond, always pointed.”

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