Aretha Franklin was one of the most famous people in America, as well as one of the most famous divas. She was adamant about not flying. She insisted on cranking up the heat while she recorded, regardless of how uncomfortable it made other people.
Aretha Franklin required special fuel once she was in the studio: “She would call out… ‘Get me the fried chicken and cheeseburger,’” a drummer who worked with her told The Washington Post. “After that, she’d eat the chicken and burger, undo her jeans’ top button, and blast [the vocals] out.”
Food was just one of her excesses, along with alcohol, cigarettes and sex.
But given the tragedies of her life, who can blame her?
“You can hear the pain in her voice,” said Harvey Mason Jr., producer of the new movie “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha and opening Friday.
“Aretha channeled hardship into her singing,” he told The Post.
Both the singing and the hardship began when they were young.
When Aretha Franklin was just 6 years old, her mother abandoned the family, which had moved from Memphis to Detroit after the patriarch, pastor C.L. Franklin, fathered a child with a 12-year-old girl in his church congregation.
She juggled school and her preacher father’s gospel circuit appearances. C.L.’s sermons were so moving that Chess Records released them on vinyl. He was known as “the man with the million-dollar voice.” He did everything he could to protect her, including banging on the door of singer Sam Cooke’s hotel room one night after learning that his 12-year-old daughter was staying with the 23-year-old soul star.
C.L., on the other hand, couldn’t be everywhere at once. Aretha was reportedly impregnated by a local boy named Donald Burke shortly after her 12th birthday. Clarence was the baby’s name because no marriage was considered. Aretha gave birth to a second son, Eddie, who was named after his father, Edward Jordan, just before her 15th birthday. Jordan was described as a “player” by both Aretha and one of her brothers.
Franklin’s big voice and alluring looks made her irresistible to men on the gospel circuit, which Ray Charles dubbed “the sex circus” despite its godly teachings. In David Ritz’s definitive Aretha biography, “Respect,” blues singer Etta James said of a young Aretha: “I wouldn’t use the term sexually active. I’d say sexually overactive . . . Aretha gave it up often and easily . . .”
Aretha Franklin’s motherhood had no effect on her ability to succeed as a singer. While the teen transitioned from Christian to secular music, her grandmother looked after the children. Franklin was discovered by producer John Hammond, who had also discovered Billie Holiday, and signed a deal with Columbia Records when she was 18 years old. Around the same time, she was enslaved by Ted White, a man who blues singer Bettye LaVette once referred to as a “gentleman pimp.”
Harvey Fuqua, a producer at Motown Records, told author Ritz for his book, “Anyone who didn’t see Ted White as a straight-up pimp had to be deaf, dumb, and blind.”
White and Aretha’s relationship was tumultuous and violent, with Aretha being “beaten by her first husband Ted White,” according to “Respect.” Aretha Franklin “showed up at [recording] sessions looking like she had literally taken a beating,” according to a label, according to the book.
Aretha Franklin was also White’s manager, and her career was stuck in a rut. By 1967, she had moved from Columbia Records to Atlantic Records, and co-founder Jerry Wexler had arranged for her to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.