Aretha Franklin has died at her home in Detroit, according to the Associated Press, following reports she was gravely ill. She was 76 years old.
For Franklin, the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, success hardly came overnight. It took the music industry more than 10 years—and a bold business decision by the eventual Queen of Soul—to understand the gospel legacy that ultimately made her famous as a powerful vocalist, beloved songwriter, and talented pianist.
Growing up in Detroit, the preacher’s daughter began her career at the age of three, singing in the choir at New Bethel Baptist Church, the Baptist congregation led by her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. Her first album, Songs of Faith, was recorded at New Bethel and released in 1956 when Franklin was just 14 years old.
Early producers didn’t know what to make of Franklin’s gospel-style rhythm and blues. Despite obvious talent, her early years at Columbia Records produced songs in a range of styles, including doo-wop and jazz. It was an odd bet on what should have been a straightforward talent, and by 1966, Columbia had lost $90,000 on her. When it was time for her to re-up her Columbia contract, the terms weren’t good enough for Franklin, who was starting to fully embrace her true worth.
In 1967, the legendary singer decamped for Atlantic Records, where execs noticed her songwriting abilities, and she was encouraged to pen her own material, play her own gospel-tinged piano styles, and even hire her sisters as backup singers. Between that freedom and taking on tracks by other artists, such as Otis Redding’s chart-topping R&B hit, “Respect,” Franklin’s career crescendoed. In many of her most popular songs of the late 1960s, including gospel-tinged “Chain of Fools,” and “I Say A Little Prayer,” it was further evident that Franklin’s managers at Atlantic allowed her faith and gospel roots to shine. Franklin’s 1972 album, Amazing Grace, was another huge hit, eventually going double platinum and earning her the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Gospel Soul Performance. Being encouraged to stay true to her roots and beliefs was very good for Franklin’s music career.
Franklin also remained rooted to Detroit philanthropically, and connected to her childhood congregation, performing an annual benefit concert at New Bethel despite—or perhaps precisely because of—her global fame. New Bethel’s Rev. Robert Smith Jr. told The Detroit News that Franklin still sends $10,000 checks to the church several times a year as well. Her estimated net worth is at least $60 million, according to InStyle.
The R&B icon released more than 40 albums in her career and earned 18 Grammy Awards and was one of TIME Magazine‘s 25 Most Powerful Women of the past century.
She had worked in show business for 56 years before announcing to a Detroit television station last year that following one last record, produced by Stevie Wonder, she planned to retire. That album is still unreleased.