Aretha Franklin: Soul singer endured tumultuous childhood to conquer the world and demand Respect

Probably Aretha Franklin’s best known song, Respect, was released in 1967 at the height of a tumultuous period in the battle for US civil rights.

But its anthemic demand – in fact a personal request – echoes down the ages to speak to people today, just as it did in the era of Martin Luther King Jr and segregation.

It is possibly why Barack Obama labelled her music as embodying the connection between African-American culture and the experiences felt by many throughout US history.

He told BBC Radio 4 the reason he would take her music to a desert island, over and above almost anyone else’s, was because “she’ll remind me of my humanity, what’s essential in all of us. And she just sounds so damn good.”

It could be because her life, born to the family of a philandering baptist minister and ending up the female artist with the most entries in the US R&B chart’s history, in many ways exemplified the trials and fortunes of many from her background.

She was born in the spiritual home of R&B, Memphis, in 1942, to an itinerant preacher and a piano player and singer.

Before she was five, the family moved to Detroit where her father had been given the pastorship of a church.

But her childhood was not a happy one. Amid rumours of infidelity, her parents separated in 1948 and her mother moved to Buffalo with a son from a previous relationship. A few years later her mother was dead.


Renowned gospel singer Mahalia Jackson looked after the young Franklin

The job of looking after the young Franklin fell to several women, including one who was known as the “greatest gospel singer in the world”, Mahalia Jackson.

The world she grew up in was one in which gospel singing took centre stage, and where the growing popularity of her father’s driving sermons led to his mission being visited by various performers like Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.

The young Franklin would accompany her father on the road as he and other singers toured churches – moves that eventually led to her releasing gospel records herself.


Sam Cooke, pictured here in 1964, was a visitor at Franklin’s home

It may have been because of the unstable nature of life at home that she fell pregnant and had children twice before the age of 15.

At 18, she told her father she wanted to follow in Sam Cooke’s footsteps and become a pop artist, and after she signed to Columbia she enjoyed a degree of success on the R&B chart.

She was managed by Ted White, a man she married in 1961 at the age of 19 and had another child with three years later.

White was described by a number of sources as controlling, dealing out domestic abuse on many occasions.

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.

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