A roundup of notable obituaries from the week ending Aug. 17
Aretha Franklin, 76, whose exceptionally expressive singing about joy and pain and faith and liberation earned the Detroit diva a permanent and undisputed title — the “Queen of Soul” — died Thursday at her home in Detroit. The cause was pancreatic cancer.
One of the most celebrated and influential singers in the history of American popular music, Franklin secured lasting fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s by exploring the secular sweet spot between sultry rhythm and blues and the explosive gospel music she’d grown up singing in her father’s Baptist church.
The result was potent and wildly popular, with defining soul anthems that turned Franklin into a symbol of black pride and women’s liberation.
Her calling card: “Respect,” the Otis Redding hit that became a crossover smash in 1967 after Franklin tweaked it just so (a “sock it to me” here, some sisterly vocal support there), transforming the tune into a fervent feminist anthem.
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“Whenever women heard the record, it was like a tidal wave of sororal unity,” the song’s producer, Jerry Wexler, said two decades after Franklin first declared, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.”
Twenty of Franklin’s singles topped Billboard’s R&B chart and more than 50 reached the R&B Top 10 over a six-decade recording career. She earned volumes of praise for her innovative and emotive vocal performances, even when the material didn’t quite measure up to her talents.
A graceful mezzo-soprano stylist, Franklin had remarkable range, power and command, along with the innate ability to burrow into a lyric until she’d found the exact coordinates of its emotional core.
“She just bared her soul, she exposed herself, she did everything but get on the floor and scream and cry,” singer Natalie Cole told VH1. “She just had that special something that people respond to.”
“I don’t know anybody that can sing a song like Aretha Franklin,” Ray Charles once declared. “Nobody. Period.”
She was at once a brilliant technician and a master emoter, a devastating combination that was unleashed on hits ranging from the swaggering “Chain of Fools” and the cooing “Baby, I Love You” to the pleading “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and the fiery, finger-wagging, “Freedom!”-chanting “Think,” another of Franklin’s feminist anthems that gave unprecedented voice to black women in particular.
In Franklin’s music, the politics were mostly personal, even when she sang about being “Young, Gifted and Black.” But through the profundity and ubiquity of her songs, she became the multi-octave voice of the civil rights movement, performing at rallies staged by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a family friend — and, later, at King’s funeral.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 93, the former Indian Prime Minister and Hindu nationalist who set off a nuclear arms race with rival Pakistan but later reached across the border to begin a groundbreaking peace process, died Thursday after a long illness.
Elena Shushunova, 49, a Soviet gymnast who won the women’s all-around gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, “died suddenly” on Thursday, according to the Russian Gymnastics Federation. Russian media reported she had complications from pneumonia.
Jill Janus, 43, lead singer of the heavy metal band Huntress, ended her own life on Tuesday outside Portland. She had long struggled with bipolar disorder and had been an advocate for mental health and encouraged fans who were suffering to seek help.
Charles Grahmann, 87, whose 17-year tenure as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas from 1990 to 2007 was marred by one of the first church sex-abuse scandals to explode into public view, died Tuesday during cardiac surgery in San Antonio.