Aretha Franklin’s life was far from easy.
Aretha Franklin’s life was far from easy.

Dark side of Aretha Franklin’s life

ARETHA Franklin has been an icon of black America for decades, and is widely known as one of the greatest singers in popular music.

Following her death from pancreatic cancer at age 76, tributes have poured in far and wide for the gifted singer.

But Aretha's life was far from sunshine and rainbows, and amid a wildly successful career spanning nearly six decades, the singer struggled with alcoholism, abusive marriages and her own massive insecurities.


Aretha's father, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin was a travelling preacher from Mississippi, while her mother, Barbara Siggers, was an accomplished singer and pianist.

As Aretha was growing up, Mr Franklin developed a form of celebrity status for his emotive preaching style, earning thousands of dollars to deliver sermons in various churches across the country.

He would later become the girl's first music manager and help her forge the early stages of her path to musical fame.

But Aretha's home life was not a stable one.


Aretha had a troubled upbringing with her mother dying before Aretha turned 10.
Aretha had a troubled upbringing with her mother dying before Aretha turned 10.


Rumours of infidelity always surrounded her father. Her parents split in 1948 when Aretha was 6, and her mother died before her tenth birthday. The job of looking after young Aretha fell to several women, including her grandmother Rachel and Mahalia Jackson, who was known as the "greatest gospel singer in the world".

According to an unauthorised 2014 biography by David Ritz, Respect: The Life Of Aretha Franklin, Mr Franklin's church services were a front for "sex circus"-style 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 said he was "shocked" by how wild things got.

"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."


Aretha had two children to different fathers by the time she was 15.
Aretha had two children to different fathers by the time she was 15.


This possibly had an impact on young Aretha's life. She first fell pregnant at the age of just 12, giving birth to a boy, Clarence, in 1955. Her second child, Edward, was born in 1957, two months before Aretha's 15th birthday.

"She had a tough childhood," Ritz told People Magazine. "And early on in her career, she was hit by the tabloids."


At 18, she told her father she dreamt of becoming a pop star, and the singer began to be managed by Ted White, a man she married at the age of 19 and had another child with three years later.

White, according to many accounts, was not a good man. Ritz claimed the Detroit pimp had multiple women as lovers, singers and sex workers. He also claimed he was just using Aretha so he could reap the rewards of her success.

Many described White as controlling and abusive. While her massive hit Respect topped the charts in 1967, she was miserable in her marriage, according to the book. The pair began drinking heavily and eventually - after nine years of marriage - they divorced in 1970.


Aretha’s first marriage was abusive and difficult.
Aretha’s first marriage was abusive and difficult.


"Everyone knew that Ted White was a brutal man," her sister-in-law Earline said. "But Aretha … she's always clung to this fairytale storyline. She 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."

Aretha was reportedly not easy to work with. She wouldn't turn up to studio recording dates, drank excessive amounts of booze - including on stage - and had issues with compulsive eating.

But according to Ritz, she didn't want the public to know any of this.

"There were stories of her being a victim of domestic violence and she didn't like that," he said. "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. She put out a picture of her having a happy home and happy children and everything was rosy and any stories to the contrary really got her mad."

Aretha managed to kick her alcohol addiction the 1970s as part of a wider move to rebrand her image, but her addiction to food remained.

In 1978 she married actor Glynn Turman, but they divorced six years later.


The 1980s brought about a series of complications. In 1979, Aretha's father was shot twice at his home in an attempted robbery, and remained in a coma for the next five years. He died in 1984.

Her sister Carolyn, and her brother Cecil, both died of cancer towards the end of the decade.

Aretha also suffered constant rumours that she was a diva and difficult to deal with. Based on interviews with her close friends and family, Ritz wrote that she was insecure, jealous and craved attention.

He claimed she would fabricate stories about mystery lovers and leak them to the press just to keep her name in print.

She reportedly loathed her rivals, like Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, because she felt threatened by their success.


Aretha’s life was not easy — and her coping mechanism was to present an idealised version of herself to the world.
Aretha’s life was not easy — and her coping mechanism was to present an idealised version of herself to the world.


Aretha denied the claims in Ritz's book, dismissing them as "lies and more lies".

But Ritz stood by it. He said she had an extreme need for privacy, and relied on her optimism to cope with her struggles.

"She's not atypical in her privacy, she's just extreme," he said. "I think her strategy for emotional survival was idealisation of her life in general.

"When you tend to idealise things, you don't have to deal with a lot of the tough realities."