Aretha Franklin’s amazing life – from troubled upbringing to soul music darling

Her voice was said to produce “effortless glory like no other human”, and with hits such as Respect, I Say A Little Prayer and Natural Woman, Aretha Franklin touched the hearts of presidents and paupers alike.

Aretha, 76, who had pancreatic cancer, died at her home in Detroit today after more than 50 years as a soul and R&B superstar.

She may have been the Queen of Soul, but her rise to the top – and maintaining her position there – was not always easy.

Aretha became a mother at the age of just 12, and grew up in a home where her father was a sexually promiscuous gospel preacher whose church was a front for orgies – a place Ray Charles described as a “sex circus”.

Throughout her career, Aretha was crippled by insecurity, and tortured her family, producers and managers with tantrums and jealous rages.


She fabricated stories about mystery lovers, releasing them to the press when she felt challenged by other female stars.

But she won 18 Grammy awards, sold 76 million records, and sang at the presidential inaugurations of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Clinton tonight tweeted: “Like people all around the world, Hillary and I are thinking about Aretha Franklin tonight & listening to her music that has been such an important part of our lives the last 50 years. We hope you’ll lift her up by listening and sharing her songs that have meant most to you.”

When Aretha announced her retirement from the music business last year, she reflected on her career, saying: “This is what I’ve done all of my life. I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from and where it is now.”

Her last performance was at an Elton John Aids Foundation gala in New York in November.

In a tribute on Instagram, Sir Elton, 71, said: “She was obviously unwell, and I wasn’t sure she could perform. But Aretha did and she raised the roof. She sang and played magnificently, and we all wept.

“We were witnessing the greatest soul artist of all time. I adored her and worshipped her talent. God bless her. The whole world will miss her but will always rejoice in her remarkable legacy. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.”

While he was US President, Barack Obama said if he had to choose an artist whose music he would take to a desert island, it would be Aretha: “For she’ll remind me of my humanity, what’s ­essential in all of us.

“And she just sounds so damn good.”

After learning of her death today, he tweeted: “Aretha helped define the American experience.

“In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect. May the Queen of Soul rest in eternal peace.”

Paul McCartney asked followers to remember Aretha as “the Queen of our souls”, tweeting: “The memory of her greatness as a musician and a fine human being will live with us forever.”

Aretha was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 25, 1942, the fourth of five children. Her mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, was a gospel singer while her father, Clarence La “CL” Vaughan, was a Baptist preacher.

Her parents separated when she was six, and four years later her mother died of a heart attack. The family moved to Detroit, Michigan, where CL joined the New Bethel Baptist Church, and started to come to national prominence.

Aretha’s musical talents began to emerge. A gifted pianist with a powerful voice, she got her start singing in front of her father’s congregation. Due to her father’s connections, Aretha mixed with soul and jazz royalty, as well as Martin Luther King, who was a close friend of CL’s.

Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald all visited the family home, while Dinah Washington gave Aretha and her sisters singing lessons.

Aretha began performing with her father’s travelling revival show and, while on tour, befriended gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke.

The future star was crazy about singer-songwriter Cooke, who crooned his way into her heart with You Send Me. She joined him in his motel room in Atlanta when she was just 12 and he was 23, and Cooke later boasted that he enjoyed a lot more than just Aretha’s voice.

Two months before she turned 13, Aretha had a child by Donald Burk, a boy she knew from school. She named their son Clarence, after her father.

A second child followed when she was 15, fathered by a different boy. Both her children would take the last name of Franklin and she dropped out of school to raise them in the family home.

But her ambition soon drove her into the arms of the slickest pimp in Detroit, Ted White, who became her husband and manager in 1961. He introduced her to weed and wine while moulding her into a lady.

One of White’s working girls once said that he had used her earnings to finance Aretha’s early career.

In 1960, with her father’s blessing, Aretha travelled to New York, where she signed with Columbia Records, releasing the album Aretha in 1961.

But it would take another six years and a move to Atlantic before she would become hugely successful, releasing a cascade of hits that included Respect, Chain of Fools, I Say a Little Prayer and the self-penned Rock Steady.

Although he got his wife a record deal, White was a scary character. Aretha had a son with him, but that did not help the relationship.

Although Respect topped the charts in April 1967, she was ­miserable with White and they both started drinking heavily. Aretha was smoking up to three packs of Kool cigarettes a day and getting “loaded” before performing.

Her sister Carolyn once said: “She wanted the world to think she had a storybook marriage. She was having all those hits and making all that money. She was scared of rocking the boat, until the boat capsized. She was drinking so much we thought she was on the verge of a breakdown.”

She finally dumped White and began a relationship with her then road manager, Ken Cunningham, but she carried on drinking and was also eating compulsively. By 1968, the drinking was out of control. The ­pressure got to her and her brother Cecil hospitalised her for what was described as nervous exhaustion.

In 1970, Aretha had a son, Kecalf, with Cunningham. She gave up alcohol later in the 1970s, but her over-eating continued.

Aretha’s other weakness was her ego. She became so jealous when Roberta Flack and soul singer Donny Hathaway sang duets together, that she fumed about being on the same record label as them.

She had the same ­reaction when Diana Ross was chosen to play Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues, and was also furious when Natalie Cole became a star in 1975, ending her eight-year Grammy streak.

When disco fever took hold, young black singers, such as Chaka Khan and Donna Summer, rose to fame and Aretha felt they were eclipsing her. She was by then caring for her father, who had been in a coma for five years after being shot by an intruder.

Aretha split from Cunningham in the summer of 1977 when she fell for the actor Glynn Turman, who she married in 1978 but divorced in 1984.

As her popularity waned and her father’s health declined, Aretha was also saddled with a massive tax bill.

But a cameo in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers helped revive her flagging career. It provided a brief respite from her money troubles and in 1985, she returned to the top of the album charts with Who’s Zoomin’ Who?.

Featuring the single Freeway of Love, as well as Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves with the Eurythmics, it became Aretha’s biggest-selling album yet.

Her follow-up, titled Aretha, also charted well and went gold as her duet with George Michael, I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), hit No1 globally.

In 1987, Aretha became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2008 she won her 18th Grammy, making her one of the most honoured artists in the history of the awards.

Although she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just the year before, in 2011 Aretha released her first album on her own label, A Woman Falling Out of Love.

She performed several concerts, including a two-night stint at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, proving that the Queen of Soul still reigned supreme.

Singer Barbra Streisand tonight shared a picture of herself with Aretha taken at around that time.

In an Instagram post, Streisand, 76, said: “This photo was taken in 2012 when Aretha and I performed at a tribute celebration for our friend Marvin Hamlisch.

“It’s difficult to conceive of a world without her. Not only was she a uniquely brilliant singer, but her commitment to civil rights made an indelible impact on the world.”

Carole King, who wrote Natural Woman, tweeted: “What a life. What a legacy.” In a statement after her death was announced, Aretha’s family said: “In one of the darkest moments of our lives, we are not able to find the appropriate words to express the pain in our heart.”

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Aretha Franklin

  • Aretha Franklin has died
  • Her wild love life
  • Her secret life – alcoholism and abuse
  • Her greatest songs

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