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Franklin, who won 18 Grammy Awards and had some 25 gold records, died at her home in Detroit surrounded by family and loved ones, her publicist said. She had been battling advanced pancreatic cancer.
Calling it one of the darkest moments of their lives, Franklin's family said they were unable to find the appropriate words to express the pain in their hearts.
"We have lost the matriarch and rock of our family. The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins knew no bounds," her family said in a statement.
Franklin's father was a Baptist preacher in Detroit, and the gospel singing she heard in his church was her musical foundation. Her uniquely emotional and powerful voice would put her at the forefront of 1960s soul music along with Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett.
Franklin was active in the US civil rights movement and sang at the funeral of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr in 1968.
She also performed at the presidential inaugurations of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. In 1987, she became the first woman voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone magazine in 2010 named her the No. 1 singer of the rock era.
After recording and touring as a young gospel singer, Franklin's career took a secular turn in 1961 when she signed with Columbia Records. She had only modest success with Columbia, which had trouble classifying her style and tried to steer her toward pop.
She switched to Atlantic Records in the mid-1960s, where producer Jerry Wexler put her powerful voice in a setting that combined gospel, soul and rock, and made her a superstar by letting "the lady wail." As Franklin put it in her autobiography, she "Aretha-ized" the music.
Singer John Legend called her the greatest vocalist he had ever known. "Salute to the Queen," he wrote on Twitter.
Fellow singer Diana Ross tweeted: "I'm sitting in prayer for the wonderful golden spirit Aretha Franklin."
US President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter: "She was a great woman, with a wonderful gift from God, her voice. She will be missed!"
Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, issued a statement saying Franklin "helped us feel more connected to each other, more hopeful, more human. And sometimes she helped us just forget about everything else and dance."
STRING OF HITS
Franklin's heyday extended into the early 1970s as she dominated the music charts with "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," "Baby, I Love You," "Chain of Fools," "Think," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Do-Right Woman" and "Respect," a cover of a Redding tune that became a song of empowerment during the civil rights era.
Franklin's popularity faded, then revived in the mid-1980s with songs such as "Freeway of Love," a duet with George Michael named "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves," "Who's Zoomin' Who?" and a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash."
Franklin also inspired a generation of singers.
"Pop music today is rich with glorious gospel voices and women singers in the mold cast by Aretha," the late Wexler said in his autobiography. "Aretha became a model for people like Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston ... The list of her disciples is long."
Franklin was privately known to be shy, moody, imperious and difficult. She often did not get along with other women singers, including her sisters, could be quick to fire underlings and was erratic when it came to showing up for concerts and appointments.
Franklin often demanded she be paid in cash before performing and took her status as musical royalty seriously. In 2008, Beyonce introduced Tina Turner as "the queen" at the Grammy Awards ceremony, which Franklin decried as "a cheap shot" at her.
Franklin was born March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised in Detroit. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, was respected as a civil rights leader, an early advocate of "black pride" and a friend of King.
But Rev. Franklin had also been arrested for drug possession and, under unexplained circumstances, his wife left him and their five children when Aretha was six. Four years later, Franklin's mother died and Aretha avoided discussing her parents publicly.
Franklin started touring as a teenager in her father's gospel show. She got a musical education from gospel greats: the Staple Singers, the Soul Stirrers, James Cleveland and The Mighty Clouds of Joy.
She also came to know jazz and R&B greats invited to the family home, including Cooke, Art Tatum, Dinah Washington, Fats Domino and Bobby Bland.
By 17, she had given birth to two children and later had two other sons. First married to Ted White, who became her manager and publicly abused her, Franklin later married actor Glynn Turman in 1978, but they divorced in 1984.
Franklin, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, was the subject of a singing tribute at the February 2011 Grammy Awards ceremony and a Carnegie Hall tribute concert in early 2017. She did not attend either.
Franklin did not perform regularly for many years, partly because of an aversion to flying after a rough trip in 1982. Instead, she traveled in a customized bus. She often had to cancel shows for health reasons.
In February 2017, she said she would keep recording but retire from touring after a limited run of concerts marking a new album that year, "A Brand New Me," which featured her doing some of her biggest hits with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
She performed "Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2015 in a tribute to songwriter Carole King. Her last live performance was Nov. 7, 2017, for the Elton John AIDS Foundation gala in New York.