As one of the most versatile American singers of all time, Aretha Franklin was best known for singing soul music and gospel and popular songs, but with less than two hours notice, she was able to use her powerful mezzo-soprano voice to sing a great opera aria when she stepped in to replace Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards. She was so talented and respected that she won honorary degrees from five Ivy League schools: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown and Penn. On August 16, 2018, she died after an eight-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Now a new movie about her life, RESPECT (starring Jennifer Hudson), is being praised by critics and gives us a chance once again to enjoy her amazing voice.
In 2010 at age 68, she cancelled concerts to have tumor surgery, but denied rumors that the surgery was for pancreatic cancer. A year later she was giving concerts, but in 2013 she was again cancelling concert tours for several months. She resumed her concert tour on Christmas of that year. In 2017, seven years after her surgery, she again had to cancel concerts and when she resumed performing in July she appeared to have lost more than a hundred pounds. She gave her last concert on November 7, 2017. In August 2018 her family announced that she was in a hospice, surrounded by family and friends including Stevie Wonder, Jesse Jackson, and ex-husband Glynn Turman. She died on August 16, 2018 at age 76. This formerly robust lady weighed about 85 pounds at the time of her death.
Early Life and Career
Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee to a father who was an itinerant preacher and a mother who sang and played the piano professionally. When she was five, her family moved to Detroit where her father became the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church. When she was six, her parents separated and her mother moved to Buffalo, N.Y. Just before her 10th birthday, her mother died from a heart attack and Franklin was looked after by her grandmother and Mahalia Jackson.
She learned how to play the piano and sang solos at New Bethel Church. Her father became a celebrity media preacher and she met Martin Luther King, Jr., and gospel musicians Clara Ward and James Cleveland. When she was 12, her father began to feature her as a singer on his gospel tours throughout the country. At age 14 she made her first recording and at 16, she toured with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She dropped out of high school in her sophomore year. At 18, she moved to New York and signed with Columbia Records, where she became a star and the rest is history. She was the most charted female singer ever, with 112 charted singles on Billboard, 100 R&B entries and 20 number-one R&B singles.
The director of the two cult-classic Blues Brothers movies, John Lloyd, said, “I knew she would be a wonderful actress.” Her performance of “Think” in the first Blues Brothers film, with John Belushi and Dan Akroyd, is one of the greatest movie scenes ever. She never appeared in any other films.
Filling In for Luciano Pavarotti
In 1998, Grammy Awards Producer Ken Ehrlich had scheduled the great Luciano Pavarotti to sing “Nessun Dorma”. Ten minutes after the show had already started, his assistant rushed up to him and told him Pavarotti had lost his voice. The show was already on the air and Pavarotti was scheduled to perform in the show in less than two hours. The 50-piece orchestra and 30-member chorus had already assembled for their performance and the producer had to decide how to fill the four-and-a-half minute segment of the show. He knew that Aretha Franklin was on the program, so he ran up two flights of stairs to her dressing room and told her about Pavarotti’s cancellation. She replied, “OK, Ken, I can do that.” Realize the problems: the orchestra had the music prepared for Pavarotti so she had to sing in the same key and word sequence that he would have used. She went onstage to sing her own portion of the show and then went back to her dressing room to work with the producer and practice some more. Then the Queen of Soul came on stage and gave an amazing performance, followed by thunderous applause.
Risk Factors for Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is among the most lethal of all cancers, with only about four percent of patients surviving five years after their initial diagnosis. Franklin had a more rare type of malignancy called a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, which often has a somewhat longer survival rate. Genetic mutations are known to trigger about ten percent of pancreatic cancers (Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, April 22, 2005) but many of the risk factors for pancreatic cancer involve lifestyle choices. Factors you cannot change include:
• Age. Pancreatic cancer risk increases with age.
• Gender. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer than women.
• Race. African-Americans and Ashkenazi Jews are at increased risk
Franklin’s Modifiable Risk Factors
• Former Chain Smoker. Smoking triples risk. She smoked most of her early life until she finally gave it up at age 50, which was followed by extensive weight gain; 30 percent of pancreatic cancer sufferers have been smokers.
• Overweight. She spent most of her life being overweight. At age 34, a crash diet helped her lose 40 pounds very rapidly, but she gradually regained far more than that until her fifties when she started to yo-yo with alternating weight loss and gain. Having excess fat is a major risk factor for pancreatic cancer and many other cancers.
• Former Alcoholic. Alcohol itself is a potent cause of many cancers.
• Diet. A diet high in red meat and processed meats and low in fruits and vegetables is associated with increased risk for pancreatic cancer. She changed her diet after surgery and cut out fatty foods and anything she would typically eat with hot sauce. She started to measure her food and weigh herself daily, and eat nuts, greens and fresh produce, but she never gave up some of her old indulgences. She said, “I have a cup of ice cream, but I don’t go hog wild.”
• Exercise. After a lifetime of not exercising, she had started exercising regularly, with 1.5 mile walks three days a week.
• Diabetes. I have no proof that she was diabetic, but her excess weight put her at high risk for that disease. Suddenly developing diabetes in later life is a major risk factor for pancreatic cancer.
Other Risk Factors
• Chronic pancreatitis
• Cirrhosis (liver damage)
• Exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, benzene, certain dyes and petrochemicals
• The common bacteria, Helicobacter pylori, increases risk for stomach ulcers, stomach cancer and pancreatic cancer
• Hepatitis viruses that infect the liver increase risk for pancreatic cancer
All of the lifestyle factors that increase risk for pancreatic cancer are also associated with increased risk for other cancers and heart attacks.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com