Surely you’ve heard, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is gravely ill with terminal cancer and has been moved to hospice care. The news has brought tearful tributes from celebrities and fans; lengthy retrospectives of her almost sixty-year career will follow. In a life as rich, troubled, and glamorous as hers, with so many intense highs and lows, it’s almost impossible to know where to begin, though a number of biographers have already told her story—or stories. She kept many of the details of her life private for years, and denied the sensational details in a recent biography by David Ritz, who collaborated with her on an earlier bio, 1999’s Aretha: From These Roots.
Her struggles with alcohol and overeating, pregnancies at 12 and 14 years old, tumultuous and abusive relationships… describing her challenges and her wilder times, claims Ritz in his defense, throws her incredible talent and success into even higher relief. It probably won’t hurt sales, either. In any case, there’s no doubt that Aretha is a survivor. She sang anthems of self-reliance like “Respect” and “Think” from deep wells of personal feeling and experience. Music, she told Essence magazine in 1973, “is my way of communicating that part of me I can get out front and share. It’s what I have to give; my way of saying, ‘Let’s find one another.’”
A musical prodigy as a singer and pianist, America’s reigning diva “grew up surrounded by gospel greats,” notes Biography.com, “such as Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Clara Ward, as well as civil rights icons including Martin Luther King Jr.,” whom she mourned in song at his funeral. She’s won 18 Grammys, sung at the inauguration of three presidents, became the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, had 43 singles in the top 40 charts… this list of accomplishments seems to just scratch the surface. What matters in the end, and what will endure, are not the honors, awards, and chart positions, but her incredible musicianship and voice. Her gospel roots drove every performance, giving even the lightest of songs, like Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” a stirring power and conviction.
As millions around the world offer prayers for Aretha, revisit some of the finest live moments in her early career in the clips here— “Respect” in 1967, at the top, the year she won her first Grammy for best R&B recording. See her perform “Chain of Fools” in 1968—the year she appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Sound of Soul”—and “Say a Little Prayer” on The Cliff Richard Show in 1970. Just above, catch a stunning performance of one of her most beloved hits, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” And below, see her soulful take on Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at the Fillmore West in 1971. Our thoughts are with Aretha and her family. May she continue to inspire new generations for many decades more after she leaves us.