Aretha Franklin is one of the greatest American artists of all time. Her singing career covered six decades and reached millions of Americans. Nicknamed the Queen of Soul, she earned just about every award a singer-songwriter can win, and on January 21, 1987, she became the first female vocalist to be inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. She also led a very complicated life.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942 at the family home in Memphis, Tennessee. Her father, Clarence LaVaugn (CL) was a Baptist minister and circuit preacher. Her mother, Barbara, was an accomplished pianist and vocalist. Both of Aretha’s parents had children from previous relationships, and Aretha had four full-siblings as well. When she was two years old, the family moved to Buffalo, New York, and when she was five, they relocated to Detroit, where Mr. Franklin became the pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church.
Aretha had a childhood marked by sorrow. Her father was unfaithful in his marriage, and the couple separated in 1948. Mrs. Franklin moved back to Buffalo with her son, Vaughn. Aretha saw her mother on occasion during this time, but Barbara died of a heart attack on March 7, 1952, right before Aretha’s 10th birthday. Several women stepped in to help care for the Franklin children. One of these women was Mahalia Jackson, known as the Queen of Gospel. Aretha also got to know gospel singer Clara Ward at this time. Aretha attended public schools in Detroit and honed her ability to play the piano by ear. She began singing at New Bethel Church and by the age of 12, her father began managing her career as a performer.
On January 28, 1955, Aretha gave birth to her first child, Clarence. She was only twelve years old at the time, and though many people thought the father of Aretha’s son could be her own father as the baby was named after him, it was more widely stated that the father was a school friend named Donald Burk. Much later, written in her will Aretha named the father as Edward Jordan.
Despite having a son, Aretha began traveling with her father and a group of gospel singers to various churches for performances. It was at this time that she signed her first recording deal with JVB Records. Aretha’s first single Never Grow Old was released in 1956 at the age of 14. Her first album, Spirituals, was also released this year. The following year, on August 31, 1957, she had her second child, Edward Derone Franklin, who was also the son of Edward Jordan. Little information is known of Jordan, but it is said that Aretha was unimpressed with him and the two never did marry.
Though she had two sons, Aretha began to travel occasionally with The Soul Stirrers, a gospel music quartet which is known for having a major influence on soul, doo-wop and Motown. She also spent her summers on the Chicago gospel circuit. While she was traveling, her grandmother, Rachel and her sister, Erma, cared for her sons. Her talent was obvious to anyone who heard her and even Dinah Washington, famed singer of the 1950s and known as Queen of the Blues, was said to have dubbed Aretha as “the next one.”
In 1958, at sixteen years old, Aretha and her father traveled to California to further her career, and she also went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Two years later she persuaded her father to move to New York City so that she could record pop music with singer Sam Cook. Together, Cook and Aretha produced a two-song demo that led Columbia records to sign her to a contract in 1960. To enhance her performing abilities, she was coached by choreographer Cholly Atkins, a dancer and vaudeville performer who later became Motown’s house choreographer.
Aretha’s first single from Columbia was Today I Sing the Blues, released in September of 1960. The song reached the top 10 of Hot Rhythm & Blues Sellers chart. She then began releasing more secular music and branched out into vocal jazz, blues, doo-wop, and rhythm and blues. In 1961, she married Ted White, her manager, and by the end of 1961, she had her first hit single: Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody. This was an international hit, and Aretha was highly acclaimed. She released two more albums in 1962, and they both did well. During a performance at the Regal Theater, Pervis Spann, the radio personality for WVON announced that she would be crowned “Queen of Soul.”
By 1964, Aretha began recording more pop music, and reached top 10 on the R&B chart with Runnin’ Out of Fools. By the mid-1960s, she was making $100,000 per year from her performances in nightclubs and theaters. She also appeared on several rock-n-roll shows. In spite of this, she struggled with commercial success under the Columbia label. 1964 was a busy year for Aretha as she also gave birth to her third son, Ted White Jr.
In November 1966, Aretha’s contract with Columbia expired and she moved on to Atlantic Records. Under Atlantic, she recorded her number one hit, Respect, in April 1967. This became Aretha’s signature song. Her records under Atlantic became very successful in all aspects and she had many chart-topping hits. In 1968, she earned the first of her two Grammy Awards. That year, she also had her first tour outside the United States, and performed at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She also graced the cover of Time magazine. Sadly, in June Aretha separated from Ted White, and the marriage, which had been marred with domestic violence, ended in divorce a year later.
An interesting side note I found was that in 1969, another woman, Vickie Jones, performed at several Florida venues under Aretha Franklin’s name. People began to suspect something was amiss when they realized the Franklin impersonator charged only a fraction of the cost normally charged to see the real Aretha perform. Jones idolized Franklin and resembled her in both looks and vocals. Florida authorities discovered that Jones had been threatened and coerced into the impersonation scheme. She was cleared of all wrongdoing and enjoyed a brief career of her own.
Aretha Franklin’s success expanded into the early 1970s with more Top 10 singles. She moved out to Los Angeles to be closer to the recording studios for Atlantic, and in 1970, she had a fourth son, Kecalf Cunningham, with her road manager, Ken Cunningham. The two were together for many years but on April 11, 1978, she married actor Glynn Turman and became the stepmother to his three children from a previous relationship.
In 1979, Aretha was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but back home in Detroit, tragedy struck. On June 10, her father was shot in his home during an attempted robbery, and remained in a coma for the next five years.
She had a few successes during the late 70s, but her last three albums for Atlantic Records bombed, prompting her to leave the company in 1979. She then signed with Arista Records and in 1980, performed in London with Queen Elizabeth II in attendance. She also had a guest role in the comedy musical, The Blues Brothers. In 1985, her voice was declared a Michigan Natural Resource, and in 1987, she was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. She continued releasing hits for Arista, though some albums were not as successful.
In 1982, Aretha moved back to Detroit to be closer to her family, especially her father, whose health was worsening. He had been in a coma since being shot. On July 27, 1984, CL Franklin died, never able to overcome his injury. Aretha also formally divorced Glynn Turman.
Aretha continued to work and release songs for the next decade, including her final Top 40 hit in 1998, A Rose is Still a Rose. That year, she performed at the Grammy Awards, a last minute fill-in for Luciano Pavarotti. The opera singer had backed out due to an illness. Aretha’s performance proved to be a hit at the awards ceremony. Her last Arista album was released in 2003 and it wasn’t until 2014 that she signed with RCA Records. It was under RCA that she became the first woman to have 100 songs on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs chart.
Aretha’s last love was her life partner, William Wilkerson. Wilkerson was a Vietnam veteran and a retired Detroit firefighter who met Aretha at one of her concerts. Unfortunately, her health began to decline in 2017 and her final performance was in New York City on November 7, 2017. On August 13, 2018, she was reported to be gravely ill. The Queen of Soul died in her Michigan home on August 16, 2018, at the age of 72, from a malignant pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.
This remarkable woman was passionate in her career and contributed so much influence to the music world, yet she had a personal life that would have been difficult for even the strongest of women. Much of this life is still a mystery to all but those actual individuals who shared in her story. Aretha, with the help and support of family and friends was able to accomplish so much in her lifetime. Through trials and tribulations, successes and accomplishments, Aretha had to deal with it all, yet she was able to carry on like the queen that she was.