NOEL KING, HOST:
We are heartbroken to report this morning that the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin has died at the age of 76 years old. Ann Powers is with me now. She's NPR's music critic and correspondent. Good morning, Ann.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: You have described Aretha Franklin as the voice of America. What did you mean by that?
POWERS: I really can't think of any other popular musician who embodied American values at their best, American democracy at its best. Aretha Franklin's music brought us together in such profound ways, always deeply rooted in black experience, in the black church, in daily life. But - and it reaches out to everyone. She reached out to everyone. That's why it's such a great loss, I think, because she made us our best selves. Corny as that might sound, I think it's true.
KING: No. It doesn't sound corny at all. Let me play some of that music that made us our best selves. Hang on.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINK")
ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing). You better think. Think. Think about what you're trying to do to me. Yeah. Think, think. Let your mind go. Let yourself be free. Oh, freedom.
KING: I mean, one of a hundred songs we could've played this morning. She had such extraordinary versatility as a musician.
POWERS: Yes. Aretha Franklin started her career as a teenager singing gospel music. I don't know, would you call that her career, or just her life? She was born singing, you know? Moved into jazz, made incredible jazz records, now appreciated after being somewhat underrated in the past. And then, of course, invented soul. (Laughter). I mean, she brought together gospel elements, jazz elements, popular music elements and, you know, the sound of the South in the '60s, the most conflicted moment in 20th-century American history, you might say, the most intense place to be. She made that moment in history legible through intimate portraits of her heart in song from those great years that she recorded for Atlantic Records. And then she moved on, you know, and experimented with all kinds of versions of pop music, all the way into hip-hop. She never, ever stopped. And also, she could sing opera. She could sing an aria, and she did it well.
KING: Can you talk a little bit about what she meant to other musicians?
POWERS: Aretha Franklin is - was - is and was the gold standard for everyone. I think there are few vocalists who hold that status for their whole lives. She worked with the greatest producers. She collaborated with people like Curtis Mayfield. You know, she set the standard for someone like Stevie Wonder. She is at the lead for everyone - for younger musicians, all the way to her later recordings working with rap legends like Andre 3000 of Outkast, Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige. They all turned to Aretha as their mother, (laughter), as their president. You know? (Laughter). That's what she was.
KING: Yeah. It's amazing to be relevant for so long to so many people across so many generations. I cannot think of anyone else who has done it quite like her or even remotely like her. Let me ask you. I know you are feeling the hurt this morning. Is there a particular Aretha Franklin song you're thinking of?
POWERS: There's so many that I love. For some reason, this morning I turned to the song, "Ain't No Way." It's just the tenderness in her voice, the way that this song turns deep pain and loneliness into joy and transcendence, which is always Aretha's recipe for us, her recipe for grace.
KING: NPR's Ann Powers reporting on Aretha Franklin, who passed away this morning at her home in Detroit, Mich., at the age of 76. Ann, thank you so much.
POWERS: Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO WAY")
FRANKLIN: (Singing) Ain't no way... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.