The piano she began learning at age 8 became a jazzy component of much of her work, including arranging as well as songwriting. "If I'm writing and I'm producing and singing, too, you get more of me that way, rather than having four or five different people working on one song," Franklin told The Detroit News in 2003.
Franklin was in her early teens when she began touring with her father, and she released a gospel album in 1956 through J-V-B Records. Four years later, she signed with Columbia Records producer John Hammond, who called Franklin the most exciting singer he had heard since a vocalist he promoted decades earlier, Billie Holiday. Franklin knew Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and considered joining his label, but decided it was just a local company at the time.
Franklin recorded several albums for Columbia Records over the next six years. She had a handful of minor hits, including "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" and "Runnin' Out of Fools," but never quite caught on as the label tried to fit into her a variety of styles, from jazz and show songs to such pop numbers as "Mockingbird." Franklin jumped to Atlantic Records when her contract ran out, in 1966.
"But the years at Columbia also taught her several important things," critic Russell Gersten later wrote. "She worked hard at controlling and modulating her phrasing, giving her a discipline that most other soul singers lacked. She also developed a versatility with mainstream music that gave her later albums a breadth that was lacking on Motown LPs from the same period.
"Most important, she learned what she didn't like: to do what she was told to do."
At Atlantic, Wexler teamed her with veteran R&B musicians from Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, and the result was a tougher, soulful sound, with call-and-response vocals and Franklin's gospel-style piano, which anchored "I Say a Little Prayer," ''Natural Woman" and others.
Of Franklin's dozens of hits, none was linked more firmly to her than the funky, horn-led march "Respect" and its spelled out demand for "R-E-S-P-E-C-T."
Writing in Rolling Stone magazine in 2004, Wexler said: "It was an appeal for dignity combined with a blatant lubricity. There are songs that are a call to action. There are love songs. There are sex songs. But it's hard to think of another song where all those elements are combined."
Franklin had decided she wanted to "embellish" the R&B song written by Otis Redding, whose version had been a modest hit in 1965, Wexler said.
"When she walked into the studio, it was already worked out in her head," the producer wrote. "Otis came up to my office right before 'Respect' was released, and I played him the tape. He said, 'She done took my song.' He said it benignly and ruefully. He knew the identity of the song was slipping away from him to her."
In a 2004 interview with the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, Franklin was asked whether she sensed in the '60s that she was helping change popular music.
"Somewhat, certainly with 'Respect,' that was a battle cry for freedom and many people of many ethnicities took pride in that word," she answered. "It was meaningful to all of us."
In 1968, Franklin was pictured on the cover of Time magazine and had more than 10 Top 20 hits in 1967 and 1968. At a time of rebellion and division, Franklin's records were a musical union of the church and the secular, man and woman, black and white, North and South, East and West. They were produced and engineered by New Yorkers Wexler and Tom Dowd, arranged by Turkish-born Arif Mardin and backed by an interracial assembly of top session musicians based mostly in Alabama.
Her popularity faded during the 1970s despite such hits as the funky "Rock Steady" and such acclaimed albums as the intimate "Spirit in the Dark." But her career was revived in 1980 with a cameo appearance in the smash movie "The Blues Brothers" and her switch to Arista Records. Franklin collaborated with such pop and soul artists as Luther Vandross, Elton John, Whitney Houston and George Michael, with whom she recorded a No. 1 single, "I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)." Her 1985 album "Who's Zoomin' Who" received some of her best reviews and included such hits as the title track and "Freeway of Love."
Critics consistently praised Franklin's singing but sometimes questioned her material; she covered songs by Stephen Sondheim, Bread, the Doobie Brothers. For Aretha, anything she performed was "soul."
From her earliest recording sessions at Columbia, when she asked to sing "Over the Rainbow," she defied category. The 1998 Grammys gave her a chance to demonstrate her range. Franklin performed "Respect," then, with only a few minutes' notice, filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and drew rave reviews for her rendition of "Nessun Dorma," a stirring aria for tenors from Puccini's "Turandot."
"I'm sure many people were surprised, but I'm not there to prove anything," Franklin told The Associated Press. "Not necessary."
Fame never eclipsed Franklin's charitable works, or her loyalty to Detroit.
Franklin sang the national anthem at Super Bowl in her hometown in 2006, after grousing that Detroit's rich musical legacy was being snubbed when the Rolling Stones were chosen as halftime performers.
"I didn't think there was enough (Detroit representation) by any means," she said. "And it was my feeling, 'How dare you come to Detroit, a city of legends — musical legends, plural — and not ask one or two of them to participate?' That's not the way it should be."
Franklin did most of her extensive touring by bus after Redding's death in a 1967 plane crash, and a rough flight to Detroit in 1982 left her with a fear of flying that anti-anxiety tapes and classes couldn't help. She told Time in 1998 that the custom bus was a comfortable alternative: "You can pull over, go to Red Lobster. You can't pull over at 35,000 feet."
She only released a few albums over the past two decades, including "A Rose is Still a Rose," which featured songs by Sean "Diddy" Combs, Lauryn Hill and other contemporary artists, and "So Damn Happy," for which Franklin wrote the gratified title ballad. Franklin's autobiography, "Aretha: From These Roots," came out in 1999, when she was in her 50s. But she always made it clear that her story would continue.
"Music is my thing, it's who I am. I'm in it for the long run," she told The Associated Press in 2008. "I'll be around, singing, 'What you want, baby I got it.' Having fun all the way."