Aretha Franklin performs at the Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, N.Y., July 27, 2011. 

Aretha Franklin performs at the Jones Beach Theater in Wantagh, N.Y., July 27, 2011. 

Josh Haner/NYT

Editor's note: This story has been updated since Aretha Franklin's death.

Hundreds of years from now, when historians talk about the most groundbreaking vocalists of the 20th century, it's likely they'll agree who should be at the top of the list — Aretha Franklin, the undisputed "Queen of Soul."

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, dies at 76

Franklin, 76, is the single greatest popular singer in American history, an astonishing vocalist who fused gospel, jazz, blues and R&B into some of the most moving records ever recorded. She died in her home in Detroit on Thursday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

She didn't invent soul music. But she perfected it with dozens of hits, including "Respect," an Otis Redding tune she transformed into the national anthem of soul and a signature song of the civil rights and women's rights movements.

Like most legendary artists, Franklin flew under the radar for years before she finally struck gold. A gifted teen gospel singer from Detroit when Columbia Records signed her in 1960, she put out a string of tame jazz-pop albums that, as lovely as they were, failed to capture the fire in her voice.

But she found her groove at Atlantic Records, the storied label that was home to Ray Charles and other R&B and rock pioneers. Recording in 1967 in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, Franklin dug back into her gospel roots and dove headfirst into "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)" with pure ecstasy and unvarnished pain.

The sound was sexual and spiritual, magical and mystical, and for the next five years, she recaptured that sound again and again in hits that became the bedrock of soul music, including "Think," "Respect," "Chain of Fools," and "A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)."

Franklin continued to make brilliant recordings, off and on, throughout the '70s. In the '80s, her voice was still powerful enough to turn lightweight songs like "Freeway of Love" into monster hits.

Afraid of flying, she toured sporadically later in her career, and her voice lost some of its wattage as she grew older and battled health problems, including cancer. But even in later years, her singing and performing could still be transcendent.

Performing in 2014 at the Winspear Opera House, she bragged about defying her doctor's dire prognosis as she raised a hand in the air and began testifying like a preacher:

"I feel like jumping!" she roared. "I feel like shouting! I'm going the distance!"

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, performs "Angel" as she takes the stage at CitySquare's annual A Night to Remember! at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Saturday, September 6, 2014.

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, performs "Angel" as she takes the stage at CitySquare's annual A Night to Remember! at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas, Saturday, September 6, 2014.

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

Those of us who tried to interview her over the years encountered a far more subdued artist who refused to open up about her career or her troubled life, which included teen pregnancies (she gave birth to two children by age 14), a mother who moved to a different state and died when Aretha was 9, and a husband who physically abused her.

Former Dallasite David Ritz, who co-wrote her 1999 autobiography Aretha: From These Roots, later apologized for the book and said Franklin insisted he write a fake fairy-tale version of her life. Jerry Wexler, her producer at Atlantic Records, once wrote, "I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows. Anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura."

But the Queen really didn't need to reveal her secrets or talk about her deepest moments of anguish and joy. It's all there in her singing, plain as day for everyone to hear.

Thor Christensen is a Dallas freelance writer and former pop music critic of The Dallas Morning News.

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