The Trauma That Fueled Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin’s voice may be deeply familiar to millions, but her origin story is lesser known—and that was by the Queen of Soul’s design. When the singer-songwriter commissioned a memoir, 1999’s From These Roots, it largely glossed over traumatic milestones in the performer’s life, including the death of Aretha’s mother, when the singer was only 10; Aretha’s pregnancy at 12 years old; her first marriage; and her alleged battles with alcohol.
The book was so sanitized that its ghostwriter, David Ritz, eventually admitted his disappointment, claiming it contained “enormous gaps and oversights.” About 15 years later, Ritz convinced Franklin to let him write a more honest biography, 2014’s Respect—bolstered by interviews with Franklin’s family members and contemporaries like Ray Charles, Billy Preston, and Luther Vandross. (“Mr. Ritz managed to persuade Ms. Franklin that if she didn’t let him write his own gloves-off story,” explained The New York Times, “someone more meanspirited would do it.” Even so, after Respect was published, Aretha called the book “full of lies.”)
Franklin’s formative coming-of-age traumas are depicted (or referenced in PG-13-appropriate detail) in Respect, the biopic directed by Liesl Tommy, written by Tracey Scott Wilson, and starring Jennifer Hudson, in theaters. “Her childhood had so much heartbreak that helps you understand how she was able to sing with such emotional intensity, and how she was able to bring so much pain and power to the renditions of the songs she chose to sing,” said Tommy in an interview with Vanity Fair. Or as Ritz put it in his 2014 biography, “The most traumatic parts of Aretha’s life would produce her most moving music.”
Ahead, the real-life tragedies that fueled Aretha’s music—with commentary by Tommy and Wilson.Her Parents’ Split
You’d never know from Franklin’s account of her childhood, but the singer-songwriter’s parents had a complicated marriage. Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, was a nationally known Baptist preacher and civil rights activist who, in spite of his religious commitments, impregnated a teenager at his church, according to his biography, Singing in a Strange Land. Meanwhile, Aretha’s mother, Barbara, became pregnant with another man’s son, Aretha’s half-brother Vaughn. In 1948, when Aretha was six, Barbara moved—taking Vaughn with her to Buffalo, New York, but leaving C.L. and her children with him behind.
“We were all devastated,” Aretha’s sister Erma told Ritz. “My parents’ relationship was stormy and…my father had a violent temper…I’d also be lying if I didn’t admit that we certainly knew about my father’s reputation as a ladies’ man. We saw how women in church literally threw themselves at him. After I became older, I saw for myself that he availed himself of many of those women.”
In 2018, Aretha told NPR’s Terry Gross, “I never discussed it with him, and he never discussed that sort of thing with his children. But as children, we could certainly see that women were kind of aggressively taking off behind him. He was single at the time, and sometimes you might see it with ladies sitting on the front row, a little high, skirts a little high, a little short, you know, when women are interested.”
Though the family still visited Barbara, the move “broke Aretha’s little heart,” according to Aretha’s brother Cecil in the book version of Respect. “I think Mother’s move impacted Aretha more than anyone,” said her sister Carolyn. “Aretha was a severely shy and withdrawn child who was especially close to her mother…Aretha and I shared a room, and after Mother left I saw her cry her eyes out for days at a time…Days before those trips to see Mother, Aretha would have her little bag packed and be ready to go.”Her Mother’s Death
When Aretha was 10, her mother died suddenly from a heart attack. In From These Roots, Aretha reflected, “I cannot describe the pain, nor will I try.” The Queen of Soul added that she remembered how she “sat in tears…for a long time” after returning from her mother’s burial.
Others, like her booking agent Ruth Bowen, offered more insight to Ritz.
“She was a traumatized child. It’s one thing to have your mama move out of the house for reasons you don’t understand. But it’s another to have your mama die of a heart attack as a young woman…And it happened just like that—no preparation, no warning. [Her father] told me after that he was afraid Aretha wouldn’t ever recover, that she was unable to talk for weeks. She crawled into a shell and didn’t come out until many years later…Without the music I’m not sure Aretha would have ever found her way out of the shell.”Aretha’s Early Pregnancies
Aretha gave birth to her first child, a son she named Clarence, two months before her 13th birthday. Aretha never publicly shared the identity of Clarence’s father, but Aretha’s brother and manager Cecil told Ritz that the father was “just a guy [Aretha] knew from school…she wasn’t all that interested in him and I don’t think he had any deep interest in her.” Aretha said in From These Roots that the pregnancy was uneventful—and Cecil said Aretha’s father wasn’t particularly furious. “He understood these things happen,” Cecil told Ritz before explaining that Aretha’s father gathered his children after the announcement to warn them about the consequences of sex.
After Aretha had the baby, C.L. allowed his daughter to drop out of school. But instead of letting Aretha stay home to take care of the child—that responsibility fell to Aretha’s paternal grandmother—C.L. recruited his daughter to begin traveling with him and his gospel group on the road.
As C.L.’s biographer, Nick Salvatore, wrote in Singing in a Strange Land, “C.L.’s inclusion of his daughter, a vulnerable woman-child, on the tour all but demanded that she grow up fast. In that intensely emotional, sexually charged adult context, she was at once a starstruck kid, a mother still discovering the meaning of those emotions, and an attractive female with a young teenager’s profoundly uneven self-confidence…her very presence unavoidably exposed her to experiences well beyond her years.” According to Ritz, Aretha told him that when she was 12, she went back to then 23-year-old Sam Cooke’s motel room with him.
When Aretha was 14, she became pregnant again—eventually having a second son that she named Eddie. Like Clarence, Eddie was also given Aretha’s last name and raised primarily by Aretha’s grandmother. In her memoir, Aretha said her preacher father was fine with this pregnancy too—a point that Aretha’s brother Cecil refuted to Ritz. “It’s enough to say he wasn’t at all happy and he made his unhappiness quite clear.”
In Respect, the pregnancies are handled vaguely—in an early scene, when Aretha is still a child, about 10 years old, a male family friend enters her bedroom at night and closes the door behind him. In a later scene, the adult Aretha has two sons. Tommy and Wilson told Vanity Fair that they were “following Aretha’s lead” in terms of the vagueness around the paternity of her first son.
“The specificity [of who impregnated] her doesn’t matter as much as what it did, in terms of trauma, and children not being able to provide consent,” said Wilson. Added Tommy, “All victims of abuse should get to share their own stories of abuse on their own timeline and terms.”Her First Marriage
According to Ritz, Aretha first saw Ted White at a party inside her family’s home in 1954 when she was 12. When the singer and single mother was in her late teens, she married White and appointed him as her manager in spite of her father’s protestations. Etta James explained to Ritz, “Ted was supposed to be the slickest pimp in Detroit. When I learned that Aretha married him, I wasn’t surprised. A lot of the big-time singers who we idolized as girls…had pimps for boyfriends and managers…Part of the lure of pimps was that they got us paid. They protected us. They also beat us up.”
In a 1968 cover story, Time portrayed Aretha as being a larger-than-life performer who could command any stage, but who skulked behind the scenes. “I’ve been hurt—hurt bad,” the magazine cryptically quoted her as saying. The story continued:
“…last year…Aretha’s husband, Ted White, roughed her up in public at Atlanta’s Regency Hyatt House Hotel. It was not the first such incident. White, 37, a former dabbler in Detroit real estate and a street-corner wheeler-dealer, has come a long way since he married Aretha and took over the management of her career. Sighs Mahalia Jackson: ‘I don’t think she’s happy. Somebody else is making her sing the blues.’ But Aretha says nothing, and others can only speculate on the significance of her singing lyrics like these:
“I don’t know why I let you do these things to me;
“My friends keep telling me that you ain’t no good,
“But oh, they don’t know that I’d leave you if I could…
“I ain’t never loved a man the way that I love you.”
Franklin’s brother Cecil told Ritz that White “was a violent cat whose violence only got worse. I felt like Aretha was singing ‘Respect’ to Ted, but it hardly made any difference. He kept slapping her around and didn’t care who saw him do it.”
“You could compare the Aretha/Ted situation with Ike and Tina,” Etta James told Ritz. “Ike made Tina, no doubt about it. He developed her talent. He showed her what it meant to be a performer. He got her famous. Of course, Ted White was not a performer, but he was savvy about the world.”
As Aretha became more miserable in her marriage, she allegedly looked to alcohol to numb her pain. It surprised her agent Ruth Bowen, who told Ritz:
“She had a habit of getting loaded before a performance. In no way did that help her singing…Aretha was big on denial. She didn’t want to hear that she had a drinking problem. It didn’t matter how many falls she suffered, how many tickets she got, how many subpar performances she gave due to inebriation. Her talent protected her. Even drunk, she could sing better than ninety-nine out of a hundred singers. Most people couldn’t tell anything was wrong.”
Aretha never publicly acknowledged her alleged battle with alcohol. While other public figures have garnered sympathy from fans by acknowledging their personal obstacles, that was not Aretha’s style.
“She had a tough childhood,” Ritz explained to People in 2018, shortly after the icon’s death. “And early on in her career she was hit by the tabloids…there were stories of her being a victim of domestic violence and she didn’t like that. She didn’t like the image of her being a beaten woman. She loved the blues but she didn’t want to be seen as a tragic blues figure.”