The Unknown about Aretha Franklin
Alexa Elderkin Nicki Swift @NickiSwiftCeleb
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, passed away in her home on Aug. 16, 2018 after a quiet battle with pancreatic cancer, her publicist confirmed (via NPR). She was 76 years old. Franklin's music career spanned nearly six-decades and included seemingly innumerable records both sung and set. She was nominated for 44 Grammy Awards and took home 18 of them (including the Legend Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the title of MusiCares Person of the Year). She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she sold more than 75 million records. In 1994, at 52 years old, she became the then-youngest person to nab a Kennedy Center Honor. In 2005, President George W. Bush honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
"I didn't think my songs would become anthems for women. But I'm delighted," she told TIME in 2017. "Women probably immediately feel compassion and relate to the lyrics. We can all learn a little something from each other, so whatever people can take and be inspired by where my music is concerned is great."
By now, you already know that there are a lot of reasons to R-E-S-P-E-C-T Aretha Franklin, but here's what you may not know about Rolling Stone's "greatest singer of all time."
Her family was close with Martin Luther King Jr.
Aretha Franklin's father, C.L. Franklin, was among the most famous preachers of his time, complete with recorded sermons and his own radio show. According to The New Yorker, Aretha was surrounded by music and film legends growing up in her father's home and ministry, including Nat King Cole, Della Reese, Duke Ellington, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross. In addition to the era's greatest entertainers, C.L. was also close with one of the most famous and influential men of all time: Martin Luther King, Jr. Aretha even went on tour with the father of the Civil Rights Movement and sang at his funeral after his assassination.
"If Martin needed money, he could make one phone call to Rev. Franklin, and that money was there," activist Dick Gregory told American Masters (via NPR). Perhaps even more importantly, "Rev. Franklin could deliver his daughter, over what managers and record executives would say."
During an interview with Ebony, Aretha reminisced about her time with the reverend. "I always had a great admiration for him and his sense of decency and the justice that he wanted. He was a good man. Just a plain old good man, good person, and you can't help but admire that. He had values and principles and very high standards, very articulate, you know."
Her family life was rough
For all her father's religious fervor, he also had a lustful side that reportedly included statutory rape. According to The New Yorker, C.L. fathered two children by two different women in 1939, followed by another child with a 12-year-old girl in 1940. The magazine said he was also abusive and unfaithful to his wife, Barbara Siggers (Aretha's mother).
According to The New Yorker, Siggers also committed infidelity and bore a son out of wedlock. She reportedly left her family in 1948 to move to Buffalo, N.Y. to be with her new son, but biographer Nick Salvatore told The New Yorker that Siggers regularly returned to visit Aretha and her siblings, and that the children visited Siggers during their vacations from school.
Siggers and C.L. Franklin never formally divorced. Siggers passed away from a heart attack in 1952, when she was just 34 years old. In 1979, C.L. Franklin was shot during a robbery in his home, The New York Times reported. He was in a coma for five years before dying in 1984 at age 69.
Sam Cooke allegedly came on to her when she was 12
Aretha Franklin may have had a relationship with singer Sam Cooke when she was just 12 years old to his 23 –which would be considered statutory rape. The details about what transpired between the two soul icons have never been confirmed, but Franklin hinted in the Sam Cooke Legends documentary (via the Daily Beast) that "her father interrupted what was likely going to be a sexual encounter."
In the film, she recalls a time when she and her father were on tour and ran into Cook. She later went to the singer's hotel room alone. "I sat there on the side of the bed very innocuously," she recalls. "And we were just talking about the music industry and other artists and whatever else we were talking about and the door was closed. While we were talking, the conversation took another turn. Read between the lines…" Her father was looking for her, "just as it took this 'other turn,'" Franklin said she heard him holler, "Aretha, I know you're in there!'"
She was a mother of two by the time she was 14
In Respect, a biography of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz, the author reveals (via the Daily Mail) that the singer got pregnant when she was just 12 years old. While there was speculation that her own dad fathered her child, Ritz claims the baby was the result of a dalliance with a schoolmate named Donald Burk.
Not long after giving birth, Franklin became pregnant again, this time with a man named Edward Jordan, described as a "player" in the book. Both children kept Franklin's last name and were raised in the Franklin family home.
Ritz surmised that Franklin was sexualized at a young age through her exposure to her father's church, which the author claims hosted orgies. The late great Ray Charles spoke about the allegedly sex-crazed gospel groups he ran into on the road. "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," he said (via the Daily Mail).
Her first husband had a 'brutal' reputation
At age 19, Aretha Franklin married Ted White, a man with a highly controversial reputation.
In singer Bettye LaVette's biography, A Woman Like Me (via the Daily Beast), LaVette describes White as a "gentleman pimp" and claims to have had an affair with him. She also said he was abusive toward Franklin: "In the context of the Detroit showbiz culture of the sixties, men slapped their women around … But without Ted's grooming, Aretha would never have been a superstar." LaVette says she didn't know if Franklin — someone she considered a friend — knew about her hookups with White.
Franklin's father was reportedly not a fan of White, but many of her peers at the time credited White for Franklin's success. He was even accused of pimping prostitutes to fund Franklin's early career. "Anyone who didn't see Ted White as a straight-up pimp had to be deaf, dumb and blind," singer Harvey Fuqua told author David Ritz in Respect. "…He was proud to be one of the slickest operators in Detroit. It took someone that slick to get a great talent like Aretha in his stable."
"Everyone knew that Ted White was a brutal man," Franklin's sister, Earline, told Ritz (via the Mirror). She said Aretha "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 one day the boat capsized and she nearly drowned."
She had a drinking problem
Aretha Franklin reportedly suffered from numerous addictions throughout her storied life, with many allegedly spawned by her troubled marriage to Ted White. Her ex-husband has even been accused of introducing her to some of her vices.
Franklin's close friend, Ruth Bowen, claimed (via the Mirror) that Franklin was so miserable in her marriage to White that she turned to food, cigarettes, and alcohol. In 1967, Franklin actually fell off the stage during a performance, which was rumored to be because she was inebriated. "Aretha was using booze to numb the pain of her lousy marriage. Liquor was just making her sloppy," Bowen said.
"She was drinking so much we thought she was on the verge of a breakdown," her sister, Carolyn, told author David Ritz in Respect (via the Daily Mail). In 1968, Franklin's alcohol consumption reportedly got so out of control that she had to be removed from a flight. She supposedly got sober in the 1980s and quit smoking cigarettes in the '90s.
Her diva demands were the stuff of legend
It's not unusual for the greatest singing sensations to make headlines for diva demands, but Aretha Franklin may have set the standard. She reportedly wouldn't get on stage for any reason unless she was paid a cool $25,000 up front in cold, hard cash — and that's only a small portion of what she was paid per performance. "This is why she always carries around a big purse. No joke," reported The Smoking Gun. "The purse has been spotted on stage. It seems a little odd, but it's understandable."
That's not all. Franklin's tour rider reportedly required the air conditioning in each venue to be turned off an hour before her arrival for rehearsals and performances, five-star hotel accommodations for her and her entourage that could not be located above the fifth floor, and canapes in her dressing room. Also interesting (and awesome) to note? Perhaps stemming from her roots with the Civil Rights Movement, Franklin reportedly had a special clause in her rider specifying that she would not perform to a segregated audience.
She had a debilitating fear of flying
Franklin was terrified of flying after a turbulent trip on a small aircraft in the early 1980s. She didn't fly for decades following the incident, reported TIME. As a result, she even turned down an offer to perform for Queen Elizabeth II to avoid the flight overseas.
However, in 2016, Franklin told The New Yorker that she was taking anxious flyer classes and planning to take a short flight to get adjusted to the idea again. She'd reportedly grown sick and tired of long trips in a tour bus forever, noting a particularly grueling ride from her Detroit-area home to Los Angeles. "That one just wore me out," she said. "It's a nice bus, but it took days … I'm thinking about making the flight from Detroit to Chicago. Baby steps."
She talked more about overcoming her fear on The Meredith Vieira Show (via Praise Baltimore). "It's a short trip to Chicago and back … I can walk home if I'm not comfortable," she said.
She wasn't the best bookkeeper
For all of her cash, Aretha Franklin allegedly had a habit of not paying her bills. In October 2015, The Detroit Free Press reported that she was being sued over a condo she owned in Michigan. Franklin reportedly owed more than $11,500 to her gated community's association, which then tried foreclosing on her $700,000 condominium.
It was not the first time she'd been sued for alleged nonpayment. In 1999, The Detroit Free Press (via Jet magazine) reported that Franklin was deeply in debt, with more than 30 lawsuits filed against her totaling nearly $1.2 million. She paid some of her creditors and settled with others, but she allegedly ignored some court judgments, leading creditors to attempt to obtain liens on her properties. However, the paper did note that most of Franklin's debts were eventually paid.
Franklin released a statement in '99 saying that the story in The Detroit Free Press was a "malicious and vicious attempt to discredit [her]," but she also added, "I take responsibility for the handful of suits for a small fraction out of the 99.9 percent of people who are paid responsibly and in a timely way."
Judge Harvey Tennen, who used to represent Franklin, said she had trouble managing her own finances and should have had a team doing so for her, but he said he understood why she didn't. "People have taken advantage of her her whole life," he said.
She was the Queen of Soul
Mariah Carey is famous for her pipes and her epic shade, but hot diggity dang — Aretha Franklin could seemingly hold a grudge better than anyone. In April 2017, five years after Whitney Houston's death, she lashed out at Dionne Warwick via the Associated Press because she was furious that Warwick had told the public that Franklin was Houston's godmother. Franklin said that was a lie.
"There's been so much going on around her [Houston] … I didn't want to add anything to that and I didn't want to be a part of that," Franklin said. When asked if she'd accept an apology from Warwick, she replied, "I don't care about her apology, at this point it isn't about an apology, it's about libel … We've never been friends and I don't think that Dionne has ever liked me."
Franklin also subtly shaded Taylor Swift in a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone. When asked about Swift's music, Franklin replied, "I heard 'Shake, Shake' — is that what it's called?" Instead of sharing her thoughts about the tune, Franklin changed the subject. "I love her gowns … I love whoever is dressing her. She wears some beautiful clothes."
The New York Times also reported that in the book Respect, author David Ritz claimed Franklin was litigious and fighting mad over Steely Dan's reference to "'Retha Franklin" in "Hey Nineteen." The band's track refers to a girl so young she can't identify the Queen of Soul.
Her music sustained troops during the Vietnam war
Despite her many highly-publicized accolades, perhaps the most powerful elements of Aretha Franklin's legacy remain largely unsung and less tangible.
For example, Franklin told NPR that veterans have confided that her music helped them endure the Vietnam War. "On occasion, I hear that some of [the songs] helped them get through the service — and I'm delighted by that," she said in 2004.
Doug Bradley, co-author of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, included Franklin's "Chain of Fools" among the "Top Ten Vietnam War Songs." Bradley said her tune "took on special mean in Vietnam." Some veterans related the track to the chain of command. Others said it helped them cope with the assassination of Martin Luther King. Jr. According to Bradley, Franklin's voice was among the music that "helped soldiers/veterans connect to each other and to life back home and to cope with the complexities of the war they had been sent to fight." In fact, many of the veterans interviewed for the book "had never talked about their Vietnam war experience, even with their spouses and family members," but "they could talk about a song … and the talking helped heal some of the wounds left from the war."
Though the incomparable Aretha Franklin has died, her voice will clearly continue to sustain others in countless ways for generations to come.
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