What you never knew about Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, has died at the age of 76. The news broke not long after reports began surfacing detailing Franklin’s ailing health. The singer’s publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn, released a statement to the Associated Press (via The Washington Post) from the star’s family saying she passed away at 9:50 a.m. at her Detroit home. “Franklin’s official cause of death was due to advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, which was confirmed by Franklin’s oncologist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Karmanos Cancer Institute,” the statement read in part. 

In 2017, Franklin, who was experiencing undisclosed health problems, retired from touring. Still, the news of her passing is shocking and many have begun to mourn the loss of the iconic superstar. “We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on,” her family revealed in their statement.

There is no doubt that Franklin’s legacy will, indeed, continue. To start, here are some things you probably never knew about the late and great singer.

She was a "traumatized child"

Ruth Bowen, Franklin’s booking agent, detailed the singer’s early life in the biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. “She was a traumatized child — that’s who she was,” said Bowen. As her biography explains, Franklin’s biological mother took her youngest son, Vaughn, and left her husband and her four other children behind.

Although Franklin and her siblings would visit with their mother on a somewhat regular basis, custody was awarded to Franklin’s father — which was highly unusual being as this was the 1940s — because he had the means to care for the children. 

Not long after Franklin’s mother left her father, she suffered a heart attack and died suddenly. “Aretha was ten when that happened,” Bowen explained, “And it happened just like that — no preparation, no warning.” Her mother’s passing hit Franklin hard. So hard, in fact, that her father feared she’d never recover. “She was unable to talk for weeks. She crawled into a shell and didn’t come out until many years later,” Bowen added.

She took to music at a young age

“What brought her [out of her shell], of course, was the music,” said Bowen. It was her minister father’s Baptist church that Franklin would first experiment with music. Although the young Franklin was saddened by the loss of her mother, she belted out songs amazingly well. “It was gospel filled with blues. I mean, frighteningly strong blues, beautifully mature blues,” Bowen detailed. Afterward, Franklin would return to her seat and go back to being the sad and quiet child her father had worried so much about.

Nevertheless, her love of music persisted. “Everyone who’d gone to our church knew Ree [Aretha] could sing ’cause she started so young. But her piano playing was a whole separate talent” her brother Cecil Franklin explained in his sister’s biography. He detailed Franklin’s incredible gift, saying, “Her ear was infallible.” She had the ability to hear a song — just once — and be able to play it back “note for note.” Just as she was able to do with the piano, she was able to listen to vocals and replicate exactly what she’d heard. “That’s the talent they call genius,” her brother said. Genius, indeed.

She met her first husband when she was just a preteen

According to Respect, Franklin met her eventual first husband, Ted White, when she was just a preteen in 1954. He was attending a party thrown by Franklin’s father in the family’s home. White would go on to become Franklin’s manager and, some two years after the two met, Franklin released her very first album, a collection of gospels entitled “Songs of Faith.” She was just 14 when her first songs were recorded. Then, in 1961, Franklin and White married.

The two had a very tumultuous relationship. “Ted White was a highly possessive husband and could be a scary character,” Franklin’s older sister, Erma, said (via Full English Books). Record producer Clyde Otis further explained, “[Franklin] had problems with Ted but she also had problems of her own … I saw that she’d get down in the dumps sometimes and didn’t want to work.” He explained how White would push Franklin to work. “Maybe she needed that push. But I also saw that sometimes that push became a shove. He didn’t hesitate slapping her around and didn’t care who saw him do it,” he explained. The couple divorced in 1969.

Relationships and children

In a biography of Franklin’s life, Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul, it is revealed that Franklin became pregnant at the age of 14, just as her musical career was really starting to take form. Franklin ended up dropping out of high school to care for her son, who she would name Clarence Franklin, after her father. Some two years later when Franklin was 16, she gave birth to another son, Edward Franklin. The singer has never revealed the fathers of her two oldest children. 

After marrying Ted White, Franklin gave birth to another son, Ted Jr. Not long after Franklin and White’s divorce, she began dating Ken Cunningham, her road manager who replaced White after the couple’s divorce. Over the course of their six-year relationship, Franklin had another son, Kecalf. “Although they never married, this was to become one of the most lasting and satisfying personal relationships in Aretha’s life,” her biography states. 

In 1978, Franklin married her second husband, Glynn Turman. A friend of Turman, actor Lou Gossett, remarked at the time, “Glynn and Aretha are two halves of a circle.” Nevertheless, they had their differences and the couple eventually parted ways in 1984.

Coming to New York

When Franklin left school to tend to her firstborn son, that didn’t mean she stopped focusing on her career. Being away from school meant she spent a lot of time at home. In addition to caring for her newborn, she would listen to music and play the piano, according to her biography. It was during this time that Franklin would develop a love for, and experiment with, popular R&B music and blues. While she was busy honing her talents and raising a child, Jerry Wexler, a music producer for Atlantic Records, was keeping his eye on her. In fact, he’d already heard her first album that she’d recorded at just 14 years old. “That was the record that made a big impact on me,” Wexler admitted.

At this time, though, Franklin was working with Columbia Records. Wexler was of the mind that “they didn’t focus their direction,” but, he waited for Franklin’s time at Columbia to end before he stepped in. Franklin went on to sign with with Atlantic Records, went to New York, and recorded the song “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” It became Franklin’s first massive hit in 1967.

Making it big with this cover song

It’s hard to imagine anyone other than the Aretha Franklin singing “Respect” but, believe it or not, the song is actually a cover. According to her biography, Franklin was transfixed by the original Otis Redding rendition. She and her sister Carolyn started fiddling with the song and came up with spelling out the word “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and adding the iconic line “sock it to me.” 

On February 14, 1967 — Valentine’s Day — Franklin, along with her sisters, recorded their cover. “Aretha added another dimension to the song,” Wexler explained, “This is almost a feminist clarion. Whenever women heard the record, it was like a tidal wave of sororal unity.” Even to this day, “Respect” is arguably Franklin’s most memorable song. It was a hit in its day and is now considered the fifth greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone.

After the hit was released, Wexler and Franklin continued to work together and created a total of 18 albums in just nine years. 

Her career would go on to span six decades

By the time Franklin retired from touring, her career had been going strong for over 60 years. She had the opportunity to perform at three presidential inaugurations, including President Barack Obama’s in 2009. Franklin herself called the event “phenomenal” when speaking to Billboard. “Just masses of people, no matter what direction you looked,” she added.

Franklin was also actively involved in the civil rights movement of the ’60s. At Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, Franklin sang a song in his memory. Through the years, Franklin didn’t slow down her involvement in the causes she was passionate about, including the clean water crisis in Flint, Michigan. 

All in all, her musical career earned her 18 Grammy Awards and the sale of “8.8 million albums during the Nielsen Music era,” Billboard stated. When asked what’s been her greatest legacy, the icon replied, “I don’t know —somewhere between the musical and the humanitarian.” Undoubtedly, she will be remembered for both.

She found love once more

Over the holidays in 2011, Franklin, who was then 69 years old, became engaged to William “Willie” Wilkerson. Franklin’s seemingly “new” beau, a retired fireman, was actually someone she’d met some 27 years prior while she was signing autographs in Detroit, Michigan. At the time, the adorable couple was planning for a summer wedding. Just a month after announcing their engagement, however, the couple released a surprise statement to People.

“Regretfully, To Our Friends and Supporters: Will and I have decided we were moving a little too fast, and there were a number of things that had not been thought through thoroughly,” the statement read, “There will be no wedding at this time.” Although the couple declined to make any further comments, they signed the statement jointly and thanked their friends for “the many well wishes.”

The two lifelong friends never did end up getting married, but, according to People, Franklin and Wilkerson remained close until Franklin’s passing.

She shattered many glass ceilings

Aretha Franklin was a woman who accomplished many firsts. In 1987, she became the very first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “Aretha Franklin was an artist of passion, sophistication and command, whose recordings remain anthems that defined soul music,” the organization’s website stated, “Long live the Queen.” 

Up until 2017, Franklin also had the most total appearances among all female artists on Billboard‘s Hot 100 list. That same year, Franklin was celebrated by Timein series called “Firsts,” which recognized 46 incredible female leaders who were the first ones in their fields. Naturally, Franklin serves as an inspiration to all women — especially women of color.

Franklin told the publication that she thinks everyone can learn “a little something” from one another. “All music is motivating, inspiring, transporting,” Franklin humbly admitted, “I didn’t think my songs would become anthems for women. But I’m delighted.” Nothing but R-E-S-P-E-C-T for our Queen.

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