There are a few music legends who changed the game so much that they were the blueprint for everything that came after them: Elvis Presley. Ray Charles. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. James Brown. Bob Dylan.
Aretha Franklin — who died Thursday morning at 76 from pancreatic cancer — is in that exclusive club.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of any female R&B artist of the “real singer” kind who wasn’t influenced by the aptly titled Queen of Soul. Natalie Cole, Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé all owe a huge debt of R-E-S-P-E-C-T to the 18-time Grammy winner. So does Jennifer Hudson, the woman who was handpicked by Franklin to play her in a biopic due to start filming next year.
And she wasn’t just the mother of all black female singers: Christina Aguilera, Adele and Ariana Grande are all part of the Aretha lineage. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is Aretha all over, so much that Franklin herself covered it on 2014’s “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics.”
With her church-bred voice, the “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” singer brought gospel-style melisma to the pop world. Those vocal runs you hear everybody trying to do on “American Idol” and “The Voice”? That’s all Aretha.
But there are many more reasons why Franklin is regarded by many as the greatest singer who ever lived. (She was voted such by a Rolling Stone panel in 2010.) While everything about her voice is soul personified, she was not just an R&B singer. She could do gospel, jazz, pop, disco, even classical.
In one of her most stunning performances, she filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammys on the Puccini aria “Nessun dorma” (from the opera “Turandot”). That’s the kind of genre-defying diva she was.
And just two years ago, at a Thanksgiving Day football game between her hometown Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings, she sat down at the piano and sang a five-minute version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — just because she could pull off interpretive genius like that.
It’s a testament to her towering standing that a duet with Franklin was like getting blessed by the pope. George Michael, Annie Lennox, Elton John, Luther Vandross and Frank Sinatra — no vocal slouches themselves — all measured their greatness against the greatness of Franklin. If you could hold your own with her, you could hold your own with anybody.
But as brilliant a singer as Franklin was, she was also a splendid songwriter, penning golden-era gems like “Rock Steady,” “Day Dreaming,” “Call Me,” “Dr. Feelgood” and “Think.” That last one, which she famously wailed in the 1980 movie “The Blues Brothers,” established Franklin as a feminist force along with her signature anthem, “Respect.”
In addition, she was an inspirational figure of black pride, with albums like 1972’s classic “Young, Gifted and Black” and her performances during the civil rights movement. She even sang at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Aretha used her gifts to make a difference as well as to make art.