Less than a week before her death, Aretha Franklin was on the phone with a friend, planning her next record. “I knew she was under the weather,” says Harvey Mason Jr., an R&B producer and session pro known for his work with Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake. “But she said, ‘Harvey, when are we going to start recording? I want hit records! I want stuff that’s going to be on the radio!’”
In her final decade, up to her very last days, the Queen of Soul refused to let anything slow her down. Franklin had been outrunning her own mortality since December 2010, when she underwent surgery for what was later revealed to be pancreatic cancer. The same illness that took the life of Steve Jobs, it’s a slow-moving killer; Jobs lived with it for years, and Franklin held on for eight. “Even in 2014, the diagnosis was there,” says Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who worked on her Sings the Great Diva Classics album that year. “She would say, ‘I’ve got some health issues I’m fighting. But I’m-a push on.’”
For Franklin, pushing on during the last few years of her life meant a slew of big plans that might have overwhelmed many younger artists, including several possible new albums and a biopic. She spoke with both Mason and Edmonds about working on what she hoped would be her first album of new material since 2011. In her quest to remain relevant, Franklin was determined to make a radio-friendly set featuring new songs written for her by Edmonds, Stevie Wonder and Elton John. “She was competitive and creative to the end,” says Tracey Jordan, Franklin’s friend and former publicist. “She was always listening to the radio and wanting to know what the kids were listening to, who was on the rise and who was on the decline. It kept her going.”
According to Jordan, Franklin enjoyed Ariana Grande’s music, but was particularly “feisty” on the subject of other younger singers who used Auto-Tune. “She felt that was kind of cheating,” Jordan says. Those in her inner circle knew her as a constant texter — “like crazy,” Edmonds says. (Friends could tell she’d recently done her nails by the missing letters.) In her free time, she was also a devoted viewer of The Haves and the Have Nots, a TV series on the OWN network about three Savannah, Georgia, families and their secrets.
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Franklin kept a presence on the touring circuit, playing roughly one concert a month for the first nine months of 2017 — always at venues that could be reached by bus, due to her longtime fear of flying. At one point, Franklin enrolled in a fear-of-flying program, but it didn’t help; she turned down million-dollar offers for overseas shows in the process.
During a series of shows in the summer of 2017, which she billed as her farewell tour, Franklin’s health issues returned. She was forced to cancel a July 1st date in Toronto on doctor’s orders, but she made it the next month to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, where she’d last performed in 2010. Mann CEO Catherine Cahill was struck by how much weight she’d lost as her illness advanced: “It was a dramatic change. We had heard through the grapevine she wasn’t well, and there was concern that she wouldn’t make the show.”
Yet the Philadelphia concert — her second-to-last major public performance — became a mighty testament to Franklin’s unbreakable spirit. Dressed in a white dress with a chinchilla sweater despite the August heat, she danced gently during a 90-minute set that spanned decades of hits, from “Respect” and “Think” to “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” and “Freeway of Love.” She offered up a stirring gospel tribute to her mentor, the late Clara Ward, and dug into the blues with a sultry version of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen.” The remarkable durability of her voice was on full display during a version of “My Cup Runneth Over,” a simmering outtake from her classic 1972 Young, Gifted and Black album, and in a churchly vocal improv during “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.”
All night, Franklin ignored a plush red armchair that the venue had set up in case she needed it. But when she sat down at the piano, she sounded melancholy as she recalled attending boxing matches in the city with her father and playing long-gone local clubs. “Life’s been good to me,” she said. In her dressing room afterward, kept as usual at high-humidity levels for preserving her voice, she seemed particularly tired.
By last November, when she sang her final, short set at Elton’s AIDS Foundation benefit in New York — including an 11-minute rendition of Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — the cancer had returned and spread. Franklin canceled her remaining dates and began spending more time at her condo at Riverfront Towers, on the Detroit River, the same complex where Rosa Parks had spent her last years. Frequently in pain and sleeping during the day, she only rarely went out for walks. Family members and, eventually, hospice workers surrounded her with care.
When she was able, Franklin continued to call and text friends and colleagues about all the work she still hoped to do, with all her usual gusto. “She was optimistic,” says Mason. “Maybe that was a disguise. I don’t know. But she never said, ‘I feel like I have limited time.’ ” She and Mason were in regular contact about the movie of her life; Franklin told him she wanted it modeled after Ray, What’s Love Got to Do with It, and Walk the Line, and mentioned that she hoped to sing on the soundtrack along with the announced star, Jennifer Hudson.
She also talked about making her first gospel record since 1987’s One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, and she was in almost weekly touch with Clive Davis, who had been guiding her career since signing her to his Arista label in 1980. The executive wanted to record a live album that would capture Franklin’s still-powerful lungs, and she was determined to attend the tribute concert he was planning in her honor for this fall at Madison Square Garden. “I’m going to be there,” she informed a close friend this summer.
Franklin never publicly addressed her health issues; the closest she came in the last year was at the Philadelphia show, where she mentioned her recent struggles and shared her doctor’s hopes that “we don’t see more of what we saw before.” During her final months, her need for privacy became even pronounced. In her last few days, Franklin was surrounded by family: her son Eddie, her niece Sabrina Garrett Owens, her cousin and backup singer Brenda Corbett, and her boyfriend, Willie Wilkerson, a retired Detroit firefighter. As word got out that she was near the end, friends including Wonder, Jesse Jackson and her second ex-husband, Glynn Turman, flew to Detroit to visit.
With Jackson, whom she had first met as the teenage daughter of the Rev. C.L. Franklin, she held hands and prayed. “We had a good talk,” says Jackson. “I thought she was ready. It was a miraculous moment.” By then, Franklin was awake but unable to speak much, and the calls and texts had stopped. “She lived all the way, always,” says Edmonds. “The only thing that was going to stop her was God. And God stepped in. Other than that, she was going to live.”
Additional reporting by Elias Leight.