Franklin, who died Thursday at age 76 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, was born in 1942 in Memphis as the fourth of her mother’s five children. But her home wasn’t a stable one. Her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, who had a child from a previous relationship, left the family when Aretha was 6 years old. Many characterized her leaving as abandonment, but Franklin starkly disputed this idea.
“In no way, shape, form or fashion did our mother desert us,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Aretha: From These Roots.” “She was extremely responsible, loving and caring.”
Her mother died a few years later, before Franklin turned 10.
The singer spent most of her childhood with her father, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin, who eventually moved the family to Detroit. In the Motor City, he became the pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, where a young Franklin would perform for the congregation.
Her father was an unconventional preacher, to put it mildly. He was a noted civic leader and a beloved singer and pastor. But it’s also well-known that he was an unfaithful playboy, though the extent of his promiscuity remains a matter of debate.
Biographer David Ritz made the bold claim in his book “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin” that his church services often transformed into bacchanalian orgies.
“It was the point where Saturday night merged into Sunday morning and sin met salvation at the crossroads of African American musical culture. High on the Holy Ghost, dancing in the aisles of New Bethel, the saints celebrated the love of Christ,” Ritz wrote. “High on wine and weed, the party people celebrated the love of the flesh.” Ray Charles once visited the church and, despite his own propensity for promiscuous sexual experiences, was shocked, according to Ritz.
Franklin gave birth to her first child when she was 12 years old. She had her second child by a different father soon thereafter. At 15, Franklin was the mother of two children.
She wanted to be a pop singer, so she left Detroit — and her children — for New York City when she was 18 years old. There, she met Ted White, whom she married in 1961. He served as her manager, and they had a son together, her third. But the marriage was a tempestuous one that ended in 1969 amid rumors of domestic abuse.
“Ugly physical fights were not unusual between Mr. White and Ms. Franklin,” the New York Times noted.
And “in 1970, after their marriage broke down, Jet magazine reported that White was investigated for shooting Sam Cooke’s brother, who attempted to protect Franklin when her husband turned up at her house,” Sky News reported.
Strife — both physical and verbal — was a recurring theme in the singer’s life.
“She earned her diva reputation by seldom missing a chance to insult a female rival, even if — especially if — that rival was one of her ever-envious sisters,” the Times reported. The article later added, “When her father died in 1984, she nearly got into a fight with her sister-in-law, who tried to walk close to his coffin.”
In 1979, her father was shot twice by perpetrators who broke into his home in an attempted robbery. He barely clung to life, remaining in a coma for the next five years until his death. Soon thereafter, she lost both her brother (and manager) Cecil and sister Carolyn to cancer.
Did her turbulent personal life fuel her music, which was often victorious but tinged with searing pain? It’s difficult to say, but it does seem likely.
Rolling Stone magazine, for example, wrote of the song “Respect”: “There is no mistaking the passion inside the discipline of Franklin’s delivery; she was surely drawing on her own tumultuous marriage at the time for inspiration.”
Her songs, after all, were always seared with her own personal emotions.
“Soul to me is a feeling, a lot of depth and being able to bring to the surface that which is happening inside, to make the picture clear,” Franklin once said. “Many people can have soul. It’s just the emotion and the way it affects people.”