Written By: Kate Hogan Via People Magazine
Born in Memphis on March 25, 1942, Aretha Franklin got a taste for gospel music thanks to her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin. At age 5 she moved to Detroit, where her dad became pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church and encouraged her talents. She eventually toured the country in her dad’s gospel caravan before landing a contract with Columbia Records, and later, Atlantic. It was then her career took off; her 1967 album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You went gold. The singer had two sisters and one brother, as well as a half-brother from her mother’s previous relationship. Her parents separated when she was young, though never divorced; her mom Barbara moved to Buffalo, New York, and would make trips back to Detroit to visit her children.
“She and my dad (pictured with Aretha and sister Carolyn) were very, very, very close,” the singer’s sister Erma told PEOPLE in 1985. “She depended on him and his advice, and when she was living in California, she’d call him three or four times a day.” Stunned by the botched robbery that left her father in an irreversible coma in 1979, Franklin began traveling between California and Detroit to visit her dad and ultimately bought a house in her adopted hometown. During her father’s five years of unconsciousness, “she spent over a half million dollars on him, $1,500 a week just for nurses,” Erma said. “But she still can’t talk about it, not even with her own family. You can’t even say the word ‘death’ around her. You have to say ‘passed away’ or find some other expression.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a friend of Franklin’s father; thus the singer joined the civil rights leader on tour, along with Harry Belafonte, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson. “I don’t think anyone knew how significant he would be in history, but everyone knew what he was trying to do,” she later recalled to Ebony. “I always had a great admiration for him and his sense of decency and the justice that he wanted. He was a good man. Just a plain old good man, good person, and you can’t help but admire that. He had values and principles and very high standards.”
Franklin had her first child, a son named Clarence, as a pre-teen; two years later she welcomed a second child, Edward (pictured). She never publicly identified the boys’ fathers.
A 19-year-old Franklin married Ted White in 1961; not long after, he started managing her career. However, according to a 1968 TIME story, he “roughed her up” more than once, and the two ultimately divorced in 1969. Together, the two had one son, Ted “Teddy” White Jr., in 1964. After playing backup guitar for his mom for years, he broke out on his own as a singer/songwriter, going by the name Teddy Richards.
It was in the late 1960s when Franklin’s career really took off; her albums Lady Soul and Aretha Now dropped in 1968, and included the mega-hits “Chain of Fools,” “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”
By 1970, she had five Grammys under her belt in categories including Best R&B Recording and Best R&B Solo Vocal Performance, Female. She went on to earn 44 nominations and 18 total statues.
Her fourth and final son, Kecalf (here with his daughter, Victorie), was born in March of 1970; his father was Franklin’s road manager, Ken Cunningham. In an undated interview with BET, Franklin’s “baby,” as she called him, showed off his rapping skills with some friends — and even joined his mom on tour later in life.
Cissy Houston was working her way up in the music industry when she was hired to sing backup on some of Franklin’s songs. She went on to launch a solo career and win two Grammys of her own, and even re-joined Franklin for a 2014 performance on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Franklin formed a lifelong bond with the Houston family, thanks to her work with Cissy. “I met Whitney (right, with Franklin and producer Narada Michael Walden) when her mother, Cissy, who was singing with me, brought her to one of my recording sessions,” Franklin recalled to Rolling Stone after Houston’s death in 2012. “She was around 9 or 10, with little red pigtails and her hair parted in the middle. I think Cissy had instructed her to be very quiet, because she didn’t say too much after that. She was just very quiet and very attentive, a pretty little girl. “By the time she was a young lady, Luther Vandross and I were talking about her. She knew how to be glamorous and graceful. She had class. She knew where she was going. It was clear her and her mother both had a similar quality to their voices — the genetics were just unbelievable. Just like her mom, she was one of the great sopranos.”
In 1978, Franklin married actor Glynn Turman, in a ceremony officiated by her father at his New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. Three television networks covered the nuptials; according to PEOPLE, there were 12 bridesmaids and groomsmen, the Four Tops sang and the bride wore a dress covered in 7,000 pearls. “I’ve never seen Aretha in better spirits,” her brother Cecil told PEOPLE. “She’s as happy as she’s ever been. She’s not singing the blues.” His longtime friend, actor Lou Gossett, told PEOPLE, “Glynn and Aretha are two halves of a circle. She’s got guts and soul and he’s got a disciplined, artistic temperament. They’re very close buddies too, and that’s an indication of a long-term relationship.” They never had children together, though Franklin did become stepmother to Turman’s three children from a previous relationship. The couple divorced in 1984.
At a 1980 performance at the London Palladium to celebrate the Queen Mum’s 80th birthday, Franklin joked that Queen Elizabeth swayed so hard in the royal box that her crown slipped, according to a 1981 PEOPLE story.
Franklin showed off her acting chops in 1980’s Blues Brothers, and “knocked everyone out,” star John Belushi told PEOPLE. “She’s a fine, fine actress, and I’d work with her again anytime.” He wasn’t alone: Universal Pictures even ran a campaign to get Franklin a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod, though failed. Still, “I was very pleased with my performance,” she said.
In January of 1987, Franklin became the first woman ever to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was unable to attend the ceremony, but sent Clive Davis and brother Cecil Franklin to speak on her behalf. “We feel that tonight is the, the greatest night in the life of Miss Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul,” her brother said. “Tonight, Aretha has been written into history.”
In 1991, Franklin won the Grammy Legend Award, followed by the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994. In 2011, the Recording Academy again honored the singer with a special tribute from Yolanda Adams, Martina McBride, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson and Florence Welch. “I will never forget it,” she told PEOPLE.
President George W. Bush gave Franklin the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, recognizing her as one of “our nation’s greatest musical artists.” He also praised her for “her lifetime of achievement and for helping to shape our nation’s artistic and cultural heritage.”
Her appearance at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration was incredible, but what really got people talking was her Swarovski-crystal-studded hat, which quickly took off as the day’s most major meme.
In January 2012, Franklin announced her engagement to “forever friend” William “Willie” Wilkerson, whom she’d been quietly dating since the 1980s. Weeks later, though, the pair called off the nuptials, saying they were “moving too fast.”
In 2014, Franklin was one of eight honorees at Harvard’s commencement ceremony; she received an honorary doctor of arts. She showed off her vocal chops and her piano skills, performing a rousing rendition of the national anthem.
Paying tribute to Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin had the crowd on its feet (and tears in President Barack Obama’s eyes) as she belted “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Franklin herself was an honoree — the youngest ever — of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1994, during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Speaking to PEOPLE at her 74th birthday party in New York City in 2016, Franklin said she didn’t have plans to slow down. “I’m here!” she said with a smile. “I’m not going anywhere. This is what I do. I’m going to be around. I’ll be like Perry Como [was], somewhere on a couch laying down with a microphone, still singing.” The singer later added, “I’m a little tired, but I’m still enjoying all of it. Every birthday is a gift. Every day is a gift.” Reports of declining health had been circulating for years, though the singer never confirmed any rumors of cancer or other such illnesses. Franklin died on Aug. 16, 2018. She was 76.