We lost true royalty today. Aretha Louise Franklin, the Queen of Soul and an American institution, passed this morning at age 76. Her voice and her music spoke to generations, crystallized social movements, thrilled audiences and her fellow artists alike, and irrevocably changed the pop culture landscape. She was also a hell of a lot of fun. As we remember one of the greatest singers to ever step to a microphone, here’s a mix of not just her truly amazing achievements but also the moments that all but defined “diva” and made us lover her even more.
Live in Amsterdam, 1968
Aretha received a queen’s welcome in Amsterdam during her first wave of fame, during which she redefined popular music with an almost otherworldly voice—and those Dutch kids really responded in kind, showering her with flowers as soon as she stepped onstage to bless them with her presence.
The funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968
Aretha has been present at some of the most important moments of the past 50 years, arguably beginning with her performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The King and Franklin families were very close, and with her first number one hit, “Respect,” Aretha had become, like Dr. King, a symbol of black pride and had followed his example in joining the Civil Rights Movement. Just two months before his death, Dr. King had even presented Aretha with an award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Amazing Grace, 1972
By now the undisputed Queen of Soul, Aretha took it back to church with one of her greatest recordings, and one of the greatest recordings ever, the live double album Amazing Grace, taken from a two-day performance at L.A.’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. There was even a film crew present, with director Sydney Pollack at the helm, but due to some sloppy clapboard work, the picture and sound were out of sync and the resulting documentary never materialized. Aretha would later block attempts to release the remastered doc, but at least we have this trailer as a glimpse of what was and could’ve been. And if you haven’t heard her take on “How I Got Over” you haven’t lived:
The Original Divas Live, 1973
This tribute to Duke Ellington featured a who’s who of incredible female voices: Aretha, Sarah Vaughn, Roberta Flack, and Peggy Lee, no doubt helping to inspire the all-star diva dynamics of future years.
“Jump to” a Comeback 1982
The late ’60s and most of the ’70s proved fruitful for La Diva, which was also the name of an album in a series of critical and commercial failures that plagued her late ’70s and early ’80s output. But like any great diva, Franklin had a comeback up her sleeve and she reclaimed her throne with the help of another queen, the late great Luther Vandross, on the 1982 album Jump To It. Legend has it the two butted heads, particularly over the title track: the young, cocksure Vandross pushed for a longer mix with a lengthy intro while Aretha preferred to give the fans what they wanted right off the bat: her. They eventually compromised, with a single version and an album version, though both include a spoken verse that has Aretha spilling all the tea: “Now Kelly, you know when we talk we have a lot of fun, don’t we, girl? Dishing out the dirt on everybody and giving each other the 411 on who drop-kicked who this week. You know what I’m talking about.” YAS, kween, we do!
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, 1987
“A Deeper Love,” 1994
People, let me tell ya: The Queen worked hard every day. This dance classic was actually a cover of a 1991 song by Clivillés & Cole, also known as C&C Music Factory…also known as the guys who stole Martha Wash’s vocals for “Gonna Make You Sweat.” Aretha, however, did not play those games and put her own indelible stamp on this song, making it a mainstay at any Pride parade or gay bar nearing closing time—not to mention the closing credits of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (featuring a young Lauryn Hill, who would go on to produce Aretha’s “A Rose Is Still a Rose”).
Note: “A Deeper Love” is among Aretha’s greatest and queerest anthems, alongside 1985’s “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” with Annie Lennox and 1987’s “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” with George Michael.
Subbing in for Pavarotti, 1998
When one world-class singer falls ill before a show, who can possibly replace him but another world-class singer? That’s the scenario of not only my biggest dream (where I step in, seamlessly, for Beyoncé at Coachella) but also where Aretha found herself when legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti called in sick minutes before he was scheduled to perform at the 1998 Grammys. Luckily, Aretha had sung with Pavarotti a few weeks earlier and after a quick 30 minutes of prep, she took the stage and turned in an epic performance of “Nessun Dorma,” thus further cementing her legacy as one of The Greats (as if there was any doubt).
VH1’s Divas Live, 1998
As a true diva, Mariah Carey is not one to cede the stage to anyone, but even she had to pull up a chair and take a seat for the very first Divas Live. Aretha opens their performance with a story about not having any time to rehearse and inviting her newest “girlfriend” to her trailer to throw out some runs. Turns out it was Mimi herself, who emancipates herself onto the stage wearing all of Diana Ross’s old wigs, ostensibly to duet, but she soon realizes that impromptu rehearsal was a set-up. At one point, with Aretha jogging up and down the scale, Mariah just looks at the audience like, “What am I gonna do—she’s the Queen?”
Obama’s first inauguration and the Bow Hat, 2009
Barack Obama’s election as the 44th President of the United States was historic and so for his inauguration he chose to have a national monument perform. Wearing what would become the most famous and important Black Lady Church Hat™ in history, Aretha took the stage on the morning of January 20, 2009 to sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” With actually record-breaking attendance, this was peak America. Let’s make America this again.
The Queen of Shade
— Just the fax, ma’am’ing Dionne Warwick
— Questioning Beyoncé’s very existence
Latrice Royale: Natural Woman, 2012
Though not Aretha’s moment, per se, Latrice Royale’s powerful lip sync to “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman” on the fourth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race brought Aretha’s queer appeal full circle and proved, once and for all, that your wig SHOULD ALWAYS STAY ON (unless there’s another wig, or perhaps a cascade of rose petals, underneath it).
“Rolling in the Deep,” 2014
Nearly 60 years after her first album, Aretha returned to show these kids how it’s done with an album of covers, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. On The Late Show with David Letterman, and with longtime backup singer and Whitney’s mama Cissy Houston openly phoning it in, Aretha served a rollicking rendition of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” And with this single, she became the first woman to claim 100 entries on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
Fur Drop, 2015
Meanwhile, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also include that time Miss Girl snatched her own wig:
Finally, I’d like to wrap this post up with perhaps my favorite Aretha performance, from my favorite Aretha album, 1972’s Young, Gifted and Black. The quality isn’t great, but it’s nothing short of transcendent.