Inside Aretha Franklin's Final Years Outside of the Limelight

Singer died of pancreatic cancer at age 76 on Thursday

By Corinne Heller Aug 16, 2018 4:33 PMTags

Aretha Franklin was not in the limelight as much during her final years, as she battled pancreatic cancer. She succumbed to the disease on Thursday. She was 76.

With her powerful voice and hit singles such as "Think" and "Respect," Franklin cemented her place in music and African-American history as the Queen of Soul during her more than 60-year music career.

"I'm not ever going to retire," she told PBS NewsHour in 2015. "That's— that wouldn't be good, for one, just to go somewhere and sit down and do nothing. Please. No, that's not moi."

But Franklin's health had been in decline for almost a decade and had promoted her to cancel many tour dates over the years.

Aretha Franklin: A Life in Pictures
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

In 2010, there were rumors she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the least curable cancers, as they are mostly caught during late stages. That November, she canceled tour dates and personal appearances for several months by order of her doctors. She underwent surgery for an undisclosed ailment in December. A month later, she told Jet magazine, "The problem has been resolved," adding that she was treated after feeling pains in her side during a concert. In May 2011, she returned to the stage with a Chicago concert.

In January 2012, Franklin underwent some turmoil in her love life; She announced that she was engaged to her longtime companion Willie Wilkerson. He would have become the third husband for the singer, who was married twice before and has four sons. Three weeks after announcing her engagement, Franklin said she and Wilkerson would not be walking down the aisle after all.

Meanwhile, Franklin's health problems continued. In 2013, Franklin canceled several shows to deal with an undisclosed ailment. She returned to the stage with a Christmas concert and went on tour in 2014.

A year later, Franklin performed her hit "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" at the Kennedy Center Honors as part of a tribute to singer-songwriter Carole King. President Barack Obama, who was in the audience, was moved to tears.

In 2016, Franklin canceled more concerts, citing health reasons. A year later, she canceled more shows and retired from touring. She also revealed extreme weight loss. Her last live performance was on Nov. 7, 2017, at the Elton John AIDS Foundation gala.  A year later, she intended to continue touring after all but again canceled more concerts due to health reasons.

In 2017, Franklin released her 42nd and final studio album, A Brand New Me, which includes archived recordings of songs such "Think" and "Respect," featuring new orchestral arrangements by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and newly recorded backing vocals.

Days before her death, Franklin was reported to be gravely ill and in hospice care at her home.

Franklin has inspired countless singers. She also paid tribute to them herself; Her last single was a cover of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," featured on her 2014 cover album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. It contained also covers of songs such Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," Alicia Keys' "No One" and Barbra Streisand's "People."

In 2016, when asked if she sees herself as an example for strong women, she told Vogue, "You could say that, you could say that. I am a natural woman. I think that women have to be strong. If you don't, some people will run right over you."