Aretha Franklin’s music is tinged with a confident power - most notably in the way she transformed Otis Redding’s Respect into a towering, demanding hurricane of a song.
But her life wasn’t always as victorious as her records sounded.
From an early age, her life was marred with difficulties - the sorts of crushing trials and tribulations many people never work their way out from under. The Queen of Soul’s ascent to the throne was not always an easy one. But perhaps those very hardships are what informed her bombastic, muscular music.
Franklin, who died on Thursday at 76 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, was born in in Memphis in 1942 as the fourth of 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 the young singer was 6. Many characterised her leaving as abandonment, but Franklin starkly rejected this idea.
“In no way, shape, form or fashion did our mother desert us,” she wrote in her 1999 autobiography, Aretha: From these roots. “She was extremely responsible, loving and caring.”
Her mother died a few years later, before Aretha was 10.
Aretha spent most of her childhood with her father, Reverend Clarence LaVaughn “CL” Franklin, who eventually moved the family to Detroit. There he became the pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church, where young Aretha would perform for the congregation.
Her father was an unconventional preacher, to put it lightly. 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 cause for 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.”
Singer Ray Charles once visited the church and, despite his own propensity for promiscuous sexual experiences, was shocked.
“When it came to pure sex, they were wilder than me - and that’s saying something. In those days I had a thing for orgies, but I had to be the only cat in the room with two or three chicks,” he said, according to Ritz. “The gospel people didn’t think that way. The cats liked it with the cats and the chicks liked it with the chicks and no one minded mixing it up this way or that I got a kick outta seeing how God’s people were going for it hard and heavy every which way. I was just surprised to see how loose they were.”
Though these details might sound salacious, and while it would be irresponsible conjecture to claim what, if any, effect her father’s alleged behaviour had on her young life, it does appear to have affected her.
She gave birth to her first child at 12. Rumours swirled that her father was also the baby’s father, but eventually it came out that a boy from the neighbourhood was. She had her second child by a different father soon thereafter. By 15, she had two children.
She wanted to be a pop singer, so at 18 she left Detroit - and her children - for New York City. There, Franklin met Ted White, who 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 rumours of domestic abuse.
“Ugly physical fights were not unusual between Mr White and Ms Franklin,” the New York Times noted in 2014.
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 Franklin’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, Franklin lost her brother (and manager) Cecil and sister Carolyn to cancer.
Did her turbulent personal life fuel her music, which was often victorious but often tinged with searing pain? It’s difficult to say, but it does seem likely.
Rolling Stone, 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 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.” - Washington Post