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Remembering Aretha Franklin, the soulful voice of our time

A legend is gone. Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” died Thursday at age 76 in Detroit from pancreatic cancer. One of the best-selling musical artists of all times, she defined a generation of music with countless hits like “Think” and “Respect.” Judy Woodruff gets remembrances from Chris Richards of the Washington Post and opera singer Grace Bumbry.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A legend is gone. Aretha Franklin died today at the age of 76. Her doctor said the cause was pancreatic cancer. One of the best-selling musical artists of all times, she sold over 75 million records worldwide.

    Franklin was showered with honors over the years and I was fortunate to be at one of them, three years ago, with my late NewsHour partner and co-anchor Gwen Ifill, when we emceed an event at the national portrait gallery.

    Here now is part of the interview Gwen recorded with her that night, and a look at her amazing legacy.

    Only one Aretha Franklin.

    And so it was fitting that the "Queen of Soul" was honored with the First Portrait of America Award and this painting that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

  • Aretha Franklin:

    We were ladies and gentlemen, and we weren't overnight stars. It was gradual.

    And, for me, I just try to keep my head out of the clouds, keep my feet on the ground.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Franklin was honored not only for her soul singing but for jazz, rock, pop, classical and gospel as well.

    Aretha Franklin grew up in Detroit, along with other music icons like the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson. Throughout her life, she remained very faithful to the city, which had given birth to Motown. In 1960, at just 18 years old, she went to New York City to be courted by several labels including Motown and RCA, ultimately signing with Columbia Records which released the album "Aretha" in 1961.

    Six years later, she recorded the single "I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You." When the album of the same name was released, the first song "Respect" reached number one on both R&B and pop charts, winning Aretha her first two Grammys.

    Franklin's chart domination soon earned her the title "Queen of Soul" and she became a symbol of black empowerment during the civil rights movement.

    Performing at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, spurred by Mahalia Jackson's death, Franklin returned to her musical origins for the 1972 album "Amazing Grace." But that decade saw her career slip before returning to the top of the charts in the '80s to with an album featuring "Freeway of Love."

    She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and went on to sing at the inaugurations of both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

    In 2005, she received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    And here she was at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, in typical Aretha fashion in a full length fur, paying tribute to Carole King, drawing a tear from President Obama.

    A capstone to her career was an invitation to perform for Pope Francis when he visited Philadelphia in 2015.

    Gwen sat down that fall with Franklin to talk about her life and work.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Tell me, how do you think of yourself?

  • Aretha Franklin:

    A lady next door.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    But nobody thinks of you that way, none of your fans, none of the people in that room tonight.

  • Aretha Franklin:

    Sure. Yes. Yes.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    They think of you as much more than that.

  • Aretha Franklin:

    Well, no, they don't see me in that setting, right.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Yes.

    So, then, how do you handle the weight of the diva-ness of this all? Because, I mean, there's a little bit of that in you. You have a lot of flair.

  • Aretha Franklin:

    I love to sing. It's just a natural thing for me.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    So, is part of you, you know, always going to be Reverend C.L. Franklin's daughter?

  • Aretha Franklin:

    Absolutely.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    I'm a preacher's kid, too, so I —

  • Aretha Franklin:

    I knew you — P.K., Ok.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    But I — I am a P.K. But I don't sing quite like you.

  • Aretha Franklin:

    Oh, well, we don't all sing.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    We have other gifts.

  • Aretha Franklin:

    Yes, you have other gifts.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    I want to ask you about that, because one of the things that comes up with people who are immensely successful about what they choose is what brought about the success, who urged you, or who didn't stop you.

  • Aretha Franklin:

    Well, my mentor was Clara Ward of the famous Ward gospel singers of Philadelphia.

    And my dad was my coach. He coached me. And just my natural love for music is what drove me.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    But when did you cross the line from gospel to pop?

  • Aretha Franklin:

    I didn't cross the line. Gospel goes with me wherever I go. Gospel is a constant with me.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    So when people hear you sing —

  • Aretha Franklin:

    So, I just broadened my musical horizons.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Yes. So when people hear you sing "Pink Cadillac," there's gospel in that?

  • Aretha Franklin:

    No. So —

    No, that's secular.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    That's secular.

  • Aretha Franklin:

    That is secular, yes.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    Will you ever consider stopping?

  • Aretha Franklin:

    No, not ever, no. I'm not ever going to retire. That's — that wouldn't be good, for one, just to go somewhere and sit down and do nothing. Please. No, that's not moi.

  • Gwen Ifill:

    It's not moi.

  • Aretha Franklin:

    That is not moi.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Aretha Franklin last performed in her hometown of Detroit in June of 2017. Thousands showed up at an outdoor festival where she ended her concert with a plea to keep me in your prayers."

    For more on who Aretha Franklin was and what she meant, I am joined by Chris Richards, music critic for the "Washington Post."

    And Grace Bumbry, an American opera singer, who now lives in Europe. She first met Aretha Franklin in 1978, when they both performed at the first Kennedy Center Honors Program here in Washington. They remained close friends ever since. She joins us from Vienna.

    And we welcome both of you to the NewsHour.

    Grace Bumbry, to you see first. We're so sorry for the loss of your friend. What did — what did Aretha Franklin mean to you personally?

  • Grace Bumbry:

    Well, you know, Aretha was five years younger than I, but we had one thing in common, and that was Marian Anderson. So that was our jumping-off point.

    Then came many other things, many other personal things. You know, she did not like to fly. I don't think she ever flew at all. I even invited her to my home in Switzerland, and she said, no, she would like to come, but unfortunately she said she can't quite make those airplane flights.

    But the thing that I liked about her and loved about her, what we had in common was music, our love of music, and I think the love of perfection. Aretha was more of a musician than people give her credit for. And this is because — the reason I say that is because she could sing and took advantage of the fact that she could sing opera.

    She — I remember one time she even stepped in for Luciano Pavarotti when he stepped out of a performance of "Nessun Dorma". No one wanted to take it except Aretha, hopped in and said, yes, she would do it.

    Now, who would — who else would have the nerve to do that? Nobody except somebody who was a grand opera buff. And she did it beautifully.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Chris Richards, that really does — that says something about Aretha Franklin. She could cross from rock and pop to gospel and even opera.

    What was it about her voice, her music?

  • Chris Richards:

    Yes, when we're talking about the most influential singers of the 20th century, we're talking about Aretha Franklin. We're talking about the most pivotal voice I'd say. You can really divide American popular music into before and after her.

    The thing about it was that it was able to convey so much emotion in the voice, able to put so much feeling, to be able to load so many different notes into a single syllable. She had this incredible ability to surface her humanity. And I think it's made her a legend, and it's part of the air we breathe now, it's so influential.

    The way we sing at karaoke night, the way we sing at our community talent shows. Not just Beyonce and Mary J. Blige and all these artist that she's influenced. The way we sing as people has so much to do with Aretha Franklin.

  • Grace Bumbry:

    May I say something to that point? The point is that she always spoke the words. It was about text. It was about soul. It was about feelings.

    And this is what I tried to import upon my students. That you have to listen to people like Aretha Franklin. They can give you so much. They tell you so much.

    It goes to the heart, the heart is what's important, not just a beautiful technical way of singing. And Aretha showed the world how she could sing and what she — what it meant to her to be able to sing that well, to give the audience.

    You know, for me, singing is about communication. It's like communicating with the people sitting in that auditorium. And she knew that, and she worked on it and she showed the whole world what it meant to be a great singer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Chris Richards, you could almost hear her heart when she sang. You were also telling me that she took control of her career. She wasn't passive entertainer.

  • Chris Richards:

    Right. She's an incredible arranger of these songs, even when she was covering a seasoning like "Respect", a song that Otis Redding was popularizing until Aretha Franklin came along and made it her own. She was able to control those arrangements. And she was an incredible piano player, very much in control of the music that she made, and then very in control of her career.

    In the studio, she had a lot of great collaborators. Jerry Wexler, her producer at Atlantic famously. Later on, she made incredible music with Curtis Mayfield and Luther Vandross. But as Luther Vandross said, you know, late in his life, that, you know, she was running the show in a lot of way, a commanding personality who had incredible control, not only over her voice but her art.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Grace Bumbry, she did have a somewhat difficult childhood. Her mother left her family when she was very young. Did that shape her in some way?

  • Grace Bumbry:

    Well, I would imagine that shaped her tremendously. The loss of your mother no matter from which angle and the fact she had to stand up and take over. I think that's why you have that deep — that deep longing in her sound. A sound that nobody else has except for Aretha, and that is because of that pain.

    And, you know, you get — you get special sounds through negative situations. But I remember when I lost my mother, and it was very difficult. The voice changes. The voice changes. It's an emotional change in you life.

    And for Aretha to have lost her mother so early on goes without saying that it changed her. It made a big difference to her sound, not only negatively but also positively. It made the sound that she had.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just finally, Chris Richards, what would you say her influence is if it's possible to put it into words?

  • Chris Richards:

    Sure. Well, the yearning that Ms. Bumbry just mentioned, that became America's yearning. Her music broke through at the height of the civil rights movement. It became a soundtrack for that. It became the soundtrack for feminism.

    And then after that, it just kind of became the sound of the virtuous America that we want, that we're still struggling to be. We don't have equality for women in this country right now. We don't have equality for people of color. That yearning is in Aretha Franklin's music and we hear it not only in her singing but in the singing that's all around us today. I think that's a beautiful thing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Chris Richards with "The Washington Post", Grace Bumbry joining us from Vienna. The operatic great. Thank you, Ms. Bumbry. And, Chris Richards, thank you both.

  • Chris Richards:

    Thank you.

  • Grace Bumbry:

    It's my pleasure. Thank you very much.

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