A frank examination of Aretha Franklin, Mark Bego's definitive biography traces her career accomplishments from her beginnings as a twelve-year-old member of a church choir in the early 1950s, to recording her first album at the age of fourteen and signing a major recording contract at eighteen, right up through untimely passing in 2018. Originally positioned to become a gospel star in her father's Detroit church, Aretha had a privileged urban upbringing; ;stars such as Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, and Sam Cooke regularly visited her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin. It wasn't long before she was creating a string of hits, from "Respect" to "Freeway of Love"; and becoming one of the most beloved singers of the twentieth century.
This New York Times bestselling author's detailed research includes in-person interviews with record producers Jerry Wexler, Clyde Otis, and Clive Davis, Aretha's first husband, several of her singing star contemporaries, and a rare one-on-one session with Aretha herself. Every album, every accolade, and every heart-breaking personal drama is examined with clarity and neutrality, allowing Franklin's colorful story to unfold on its own. With two teenage pregnancies and an abusive first marriage, drinking problems, battles with her weight, the murder of her father, and tabloid wars, Aretha's life was a roller coaster. This freshly updated and expanded biography will give readers a clear understanding of what made Aretha Franklin the "Queen of Soul."
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THE QUEEN OF SOUL
It is a hot July afternoon in suburban Detroit, in 1985. Aretha Franklin is comfortably seated next to me on one part of the dark brown ultrasuede sectional sofa that winds its way across her spacious and modern living room. Through the sliding glass doors I can see the tree-lined backyard. Outside, a warm summer breeze sends a ripple across the surface of the huge swimming pool.
Aretha is smoking a Kool cigarette, and she takes an occasional sip from her glass of ginger ale. It strikes me as odd to be sitting next to a woman whose voice I have spent years admiring, and to watch her chain-smoke. After years of going through two packs of cigarettes a day, for Aretha it is still a habit that she can't seem to break.
The room is painted a creamy shade of off-white, and several walls are hung with framed Gold records and laudatory citations. Behind us is a black grand piano, and on top of it sit several gold statuettes and an impressive bust of a woman. The short gold statuettes are just a few of her many Grammy Awards, and the bust is of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, who is Aretha's favorite historical figure. On the shelf by the fireplace, there are two clear Lucite obelisks, which are better known as American Music Awards. Across the cream-colored wall-to-wall carpeting and against another wall, is a modern-looking entertainment center complete with a stereo and a wide-screen television set on which Aretha watches her favorite soap operas. Fresh-cut flowers are arranged in vases, and a recent portrait of Aretha is framed and hung on one of the walls.
With her well-manicured fingernails she plays with her gold necklace as she prepares to reflect on her long and eventful career in show business. She is dressed in a casual but smart blue pantsuit, and on one of her fingers she wears a large rectangular art deco ring, sparkling with dozens of diamonds.
Aretha takes one last drag from her cigarette, and stamps it out in a large ashtray on the coffee table before her. It is the signal that she is now ready to begin a rare press interview.
After over thirty years as a singing star, she's known around the world. In Italy she is called "La Regina del Soul." In France she is referred to as "Aretha Franklin La Magnifique." She is also known as "Sister Ree," "Lady Soul," "La Diva Franklin," and "The Queen of Soul." But to her millions of followers, the one word "Aretha" says it all. She is the most celebrated female artist in the history of recorded music. With more Grammy Awards and Top Ten chart hits than any other woman in the realms of rock & roll, pop, jazz, soul, or gospel music, her career is definitely one of legendary proportions.
She began singing in the choir at her father's church at an early age. "I love gospel music!" Aretha proclaimed in our interview. "Gospel music means everything to me. It certainly was part of my beginnings, the church being my background." When she found stardom in the late 1960s, she embodied the heart and the sound of "soul" music. She became a symbol of black pride, and her songs spoke of unbridled passion and heartbreak.
I found that Aretha especially glowed when she talked about her glory days at Atlantic Records in the 1960s and 1970s. "Jerry Wexler signed me to the Atlantic label," she recounted proudly that afternoon, "and of course I had many, many great days in the studio with him. 'Respect' was produced by Jerry Wexler, who produced so many hits for me. And there was [co-producer] Arif Mardin, whom I love and love to work with. Magic things happen when Arif and I work together. And let's see: [recording engineer] Tommy Dowd, who I think is just one of the best in the business. That man can do things — editing with tape — that I have never seen before."
Her image has been largely shaped by the songs that have made her famous. She is the uncompromising "earth mother" who is steadfast and strong. Her singing is blisteringly honest and charged with emotion. Her voice is unmistakably pure, unrestrained, and soul-stirring. The mention of her name cultivates a vivid mental picture of Aretha — the Survivor. It is easy to envision her as the no-nonsense woman, musically commanding "Respect," threatening her man that he'd better "Think" before he looks at another woman, announcing that she has discovered "The Spirit in the Dark," or enticing someone to take a ride on "The Freeway of Love." However, Aretha's shattering encounters with personal tragedy and pain have earned her the right to sing the blues as well.
Aretha has so much for which to be thankful. She possesses one of the most emotionally expressive five-octave voices of the rock era. She has been able to span three decades with Number One hit records, from 1967's "Respect" to 1987's "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)." The royal command performance, the unsurpassed total of twenty Grammy Awards, the movie and video performances, the sold-out concerts, the white Rolls-Royces and pink Cadillacs, and the highly publicized romances that stardom has brought her, are all part of the glamorous life she has led.
Yet, on the other side of the coin, Aretha's life hasn't been one long joy ride down "The Freeway of Love." Fate has thrown several obstacles into her path that have caused her anguish. Desperation, domination, disappointment, prejudice, frustration, teenage pregnancy, weight problems, and devastating emotional trauma are all part of her closely guarded private life.
In Jerry Wexler's eyes, Aretha's personal life is so sad that he refers to her as "the mysterious lady of sorrow." Clyde Otis claims that he was amazed she could sing at all in the sixties because she was so depressed that she appeared to be carrying the weight of the whole world on her shoulders. John Hammond once said that Aretha had "terrible luck" with the men in her life, and that they all made her suffer.
Although she bears several emotional scars, Aretha Franklin is clearly a survivor — not only in her career, but in her personal life as well. Although she has experienced a lifelong series of personal tragedies and disappointments, for each of her emotional low points, she has overcome her pain by channeling her frustration into creative energy. In turn, her determination has made her into an enduring star. The erratic highs and lows of her life — public and private — have obviously given her an inner strength that is both powerful and inspiring. Her inner faith has seen her through the worst of times.
A list of "forbidden" topics relating to her personal life is given before an interview is granted, and she would much rather talk about her music than her life. That afternoon at Aretha's home, I learned several things I did not know about her. But I was left wanting to know more:
* What it was like to grow up in a big inner-city house, raised by housekeepers and family friends?
* What was it like to grow up as the daughter of a local celebrity of the black community?
* What are the details of her relationship with her father, and what kind of power did he have over her?
* What was it like to become a soloist in the church choir at the age of twelve?
* Is gospel music really her first love, or is it merely a creative outlet into which she escapes?
* What kind of things was young Aretha exposed to while traveling on a bus from city-to-city with a gospel roadshow?
* How old was Aretha when she had her first child, and who was the father?
* Who was the black male pop star with whom she fell in love, and how did he inspire her?
* In what way did Aretha become a symbol of black pride in the 1960s?
* How much of her music was drawn from her own tragic personal life?
* Did she sing the blues because she was living them?
* When her first marriage broke up, into whose arms did she run?
* What kind of emotional toll did her father's five-year coma and eventual death have on her?
* Why does Aretha almost never leave Detroit? Like Scarlet O'Hara drawing her strength from the red earth of Tara, does Aretha derive her confidence from Detroit — or is she simply hiding there like a frightened child?
I felt as if I had just encountered one of the great unsolved mysteries of the show business world. The answers to these questions are all pieces of the puzzle that is the mesmerizing story of Aretha Franklin.CHAPTER 2
THE GOSPEL YEARS
Aretha Louise Franklin was born on March 25, 1942, the fourth child in a family of five children. "There's Vaughn, the oldest, who was a career man in the Air Force," she says of her siblings. "Then Erma, then Cecil — who's my manager — then myself, then Carolyn."
Their household was infused with religion. Their father was a Baptist minister who was known for his emotional deliveries from the pulpit, and their mother was a renowned gospel singer. Aretha inherited her father's sense of drama and her mother's vocal talents. These talents helped to create a show business legend.
Much is known about Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin and his vivid flair for life. Born on January 22, 1915, he rose from modest beginnings amid the cotton fields of rural Mississippi, to be heralded as "The Man with the Million-Dollar Voice." In the 1950s he reputedly commanded up to four thousand dollars per sermon. In the 1960s Time magazine claimed that his obvious success could be measured by his attraction to glitzy Cadillacs, diamond stickpins and expensive alligator shoes. He became known as a flashy bon vivant in the middle of the Detroit ghetto. With an inner-city congregation all his own, he delivered impassioned invocations with fervent charisma, and when he passed around the collection plate it always came back filled.
Time wasn't the only observer of Reverend Franklin's financial prosperity. The Internal Revenue Service also took note of the fact that passing the collection plate was an unaccountable "cash" business and in the late sixties he was audited and fined for tax evasion.
Throughout her life, Aretha's father remained a key figure in her personal life and in her career. Regardless of who she married or where she was living, Reverend Franklin's thoughts and opinions were often to guide her. "He had a tremendous influence over her," recalls one family friend. "I don't know if it was just as a father figure or what."
Far less is known about her mother. Her maiden name was Barbara Siggers, and those who knew her often recalled her glorious singing voice. It is said that as a gospel singer, Barbara Siggers was in the same league with Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. According to John Hammond, "Mahalia always told me that Aretha's mother was one of the really great gospel singers. She said she had more talent than Reverend C. L. Franklin."
Aretha explains of this period of her life, that from Memphis "we moved to Buffalo, then to Detroit. I was raised in Detroit, the north end. Then we moved to the west side, then further out."
In spite of his marriage to Barbara Siggers in 1936, Reverend C. L. Franklin had quite a reputation with the women and girls in his church. In 1940 Reverend Franklin caused a scandal when he had an affair with Mildred Jennings, a thirteen-year-old member of his congregation at New Salem Baptist Church in Memphis. She became pregnant by him, and gave birth to a daughter, Carl Ellan Jennings.
In 1948 Barbara suddenly packed her bags and left Detroit, Reverend C. L. Franklin, and the four children they had together: Aretha, Erma, Carolyn, and Cecil. She moved to Buffalo, New York with her oldest son, Vaughn, to whom she had given birth prior to her marriage to C. L. Franklin.
Whatever caused Barbara Franklin to leave her husband and her four youngest children appears to have been too traumatic for anyone to discuss. One is left to guess what might have caused her sudden flight. Was it marital strife? Another man? Another woman? A liquor problem? Was she finally done with his infidelities? The matter remains a tightly-kept family secret to this day.
There are two ways to look at this story. Many sources view what happened as Barbara having "deserted" Aretha and her siblings. However, Aretha later recalled that this was not the case since she, Erma, Carolyn and Cecil would go to Buffalo to see their mother during their summer vacations.
Barbara and Vaughn had moved into Barbara's parents' home in Buffalo and Aretha remembers her summer visits there fondly. Her mother had taken a job as a nurse's aide at Buffalo General Hospital, and Aretha and her siblings recalled riding their bicycles through the streets of Buffalo in the warm summer sun. Aretha was so impressed with her mother's job at the hospital that as a child she contemplated making nursing her life's work. One Christmas Aretha and Carolyn were given little toy nurses kits, and they would prescribe little candy pills to each other as make-believe medicine.
However, the carefree memories of her childhood were soon clouded by tragedy. When Aretha was just ten years old, her mother suffered a massive heart attack and died. Reverend C. L. Franklin called Aretha, Carolyn, Erma and Cecil into the kitchen of their Detroit house one day, and plainly but solemnly delivered the sad news. It was a devastating blow to them. The children all went to their mother's funeral, but Reverend Franklin reportedly did not attend.
What is most recalled about Barbara Siggers Franklin are the widely-spread statements about her alleged "desertion" of the family and her sudden death. In Aretha's eyes, her mother never deserted her children, it was her marriage to C. L. Franklin she deserted. Family friends recall that her mother's untimely disappearance from Aretha's life caused the young girl to change from an outgoing, happy youngster to a shy and insecure child. Mahalia Jackson once commented, "After her mama died, the whole family wanted for love."
Detroit in the years immediately following World War II was the scene of economic expansion and growth. Although racial prejudice existed, compared to Memphis, the Motor City was a liberal land of opportunity. There were jazz clubs, dance halls, theaters, burlesque houses, bars, and a booming nightlife scene. In other words, come the Sabbath, there were plenty of souls in need of Sunday-morning redemption. That's where Reverend C. L. Franklin's oratorical powers came into play.
In Memphis, Reverend Franklin was the pastor of the New Salem Baptist Church. Upon moving to Buffalo, he was called to Friendship Baptist Church. When he took over the New Bethel Baptist Church, at the corner of Linwood and West Pennsylvania in Detroit, he made it clear that his Sundays spent before the congregations in Memphis and Buffalo were just "dress rehearsals" for his true calling.
When Reverend Franklin began preaching and the choir started rejoicing, enraptured parishioners would stand up and shout a heartfelt "Praise the Lord!" Often, members of the crowd gathered in the 4,500-seat church would become so frantic with their "testifying" that nurses in starched white uniforms had to revive them. On hot summer Sundays, the air would be stirred with complimentary cardboard fans. Mounted on wooden sticks, the handheld cardboard fans were printed with advertisements for local funeral homes. Clearly there were only two realities in Reverend Franklin's church — life and death.
Word spread fast and people traveled from great distances to hear the gospel according to Reverend C. L. Franklin. Eventually a glowing blue neon crucifix was installed over the altar to match the electricity of his oratory delivery.
Reverend Franklin became so famous for his sermons at the New Bethel Baptist Church that he was often asked to make guest appearances across the country. When he was called away from Detroit on business, his four children were left in the care of a series of housekeepers and family friends. For a while, Aretha's grandmother, Rachel, moved in and took care of her and her siblings. The children called her "Big Mama," and she was their father's mother. She had a reputation for being a strong disciplinarian if any of the children did anything wrong. Big Mama was one of the women who taught Aretha how to cook, along with the Franklin family's regular housekeeper, Katherine. Another household guest was Lola Moore, whom Aretha referred to as "Daddy's special friend." Three of the most frequent visitors who took care of the Franklin children were Frances Steadman and Marion Williams, who were both gospel vocalists with the Clara Ward Singers, and Mahalia Jackson.
Mahalia Jackson was already a singing legend when she came to visit the Franklin home. She was to become a lifelong inspiration for Aretha. In her own opinion, Mahalia felt that she was "ordained to sing the gospel."
Mahalia Jackson was born in New Orleans in 1911, the daughter of a stevedore / barber / preacher and his wife. Her mother died when she was four years old, and she was raised by her aunts. By the time she was twelve, Mahalia had vowed to spread the gospel. According to her, "Ever since that day, I promised the Lord that I'd dedicate my life to song."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul"
Copyright © 2012 Mark Bego.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: All Hail the Queen!,
Prologue: Detroit 1989,
CHAPTER ONE: The Queen of Soul,
CHAPTER TWO: The Gospel Years,
CHAPTER THREE: Aretha Sings the Blues,
CHAPTER FOUR: Aretha Arrives,
CHAPTER FIVE: Young, Gifted and Black,
CHAPTER SIX: Trouble in Mind,
CHAPTER SEVEN: Aretha Jumps to It,
CHAPTER EIGHT: The Freeway Back to the Top,
CHAPTER NINE: The Spirit of Detroit Dénouement 1989,
CHAPTER TEN: A Rose is Still a Rose — The 1990s and Beyond,
CHAPTER ELEVEN: So Damn Happy,
CHAPTER TWELVE: How Does Aretha Keep the Music Playing?,
Aretha Franklin Discography,
Aretha Franklin's Grammy Awards,
About the Author,
About "Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul",