Aretha Franklin, who passed away on Thursday morning, had a voice that could shake the heavens. You felt it in your body, her powerful vibrato reverberating head to toe, and you felt in your soul, a heavy gust of emotion propelling those notes to a higher spiritual register.
Rolling Stone recently declared her the greatest singer of all time, but she was much more than a voice. As her avowed fan Barack Obama succinctly put it in an elegant Twitter eulogy, “Aretha helped define the American experience.”
As the world begins to mourn the loss of one of its inimitable treasures, here are 11 reasons why Aretha Franklin earned her title as the Queen of Soul, and why she’ll never be surpassed or replaced.
Between 1968 and 1975, Aretha won so many Grammy awards for best R&B female vocal performance–she won it every single year–that people began to informally refer to the award as “the Aretha.” Ultimately, she would go on to rack up 18 competitive Grammy Awards, and a lifetime achievement Grammy in 1994.
A civil rights anthem
“I just lost my song,” Otis Redding famously said after hearing Franklin’s feminist cover of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” for the first time. “That girl took it away from me.” Redding’s prognostication proved out. This song is now widely remembered as an Aretha Franklin specialty, its original author confined to a footnote. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” was more than a hit, however, it became an anthem both for feminist activists and the civil rights movement. Few songs in modern history can claim as wide a range of impact.
At a memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Franklin belted out a heartfelt, searing cover of “Precious Lord, Lead Me Home.” The emotional heft in this performance, beyond the grief of losing a great civil rights leader, was personal: The two were friends, and King had just bestowed an award on the singer a few months before he was assassinated.
On Feb. 16, 1968, ahead of Franklin’s performance at Detroit’s Cobb Hall, Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh dedicated a day to the former Detroiter. The R-E-S-P-E-C-T didn’t stop there either. Nearly 50 years later, the City of Detroit would rename a section of Madison Street “Aretha Franklin Way.”
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
In 1987, Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Obviously, it’s a shame no woman was inducted sooner (the Hall of Fame was established in 1983) but it’s fitting that the Queen got to be first.
Aside from lending Dan Aykroyd’s and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers legitimacy by appearing in their film with a fiery performance of “Think,” Franklin also popped up on Murphy Brown, and her music has appeared in everything from The Simpsons to Sneakers and School of Rock. She surely rivals James Brown for soundtrack supremacy.
Substitute opera singer
Disaster nearly struck at the 1998 Grammys. Luciano Pavarotti bowed out at the last moment, due to illness, leaving the other members of the Three tenors desperately needing a backup. Luckily, Aretha Franklin was on hand to save the day. With only 20 minutes to prepare, Franklin delivered a lush operatic aria on “Nessun Dorma” that made it look as though she’d been practicing classical music her entire career.
Presidential Medal of Freedom
In 2005, George W. Bush presented Franklin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Of course, she’d already won admiration from presidents before, performing at inaugurations for both Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. It wouldn’t be her last inauguration, either.
In 2009, Franklin rocked the house at President Obama’s inauguration, a culminating moment for the longtime civil rights advocate. As if her performance of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” wouldn’t be memorable on its own merit, Franklin wore an enormous bow on her hat that proved hard to forget.
Franklin’s 2014 cover of the Adele mega-hit “Rolling in the Deep” is what pushed her over the top to become the first woman with 100 hits on the Billboard R&B chart. It was 54 years after she first landed there. Ultimately, Franklin had 17 Top 10 pop singles and 20 #1 R&B hits.
Kennedy Center Honors
Franklin’s performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at a December 2015 Kennedy Center Honors event is on this list for two reasons: the iconic fur drop, in which she nonchalantly flings her coat to the floor while hitting the high note at the end, and the fact that this performance brought attendee Barack Obama to tears. A magnificent voice and an incredible person. RIP to a true queen.