Aretha Franklin barely talked about her first pregnancy at 12 years old. Neither of the second, at 14. He had both children by decision of his father, the famous preacher CL Franklin. Her mother had passed away when she was 10 years old, but it did not matter: she was an absent mother, who left home when Aretha was only six years old because the father was a declared womanizer and an abuser. He decided everything, including that his daughter, a child prodigy who left everyone speechless in the religious songs of the church, was a professional singer. By the time Aretha, still a minor, was a gospel star about to sign her first record deal with a multinational, her father was still in command, the same guy who was planning incest rumors about. But Aretha wasn’t talking about any of that. I just sang.
If Aretha Franklin’s voice was always a kind of miracle, the silence that accompanied all her traumas, insecurities and abuse also had something out of the ordinary. Only in a very different way. Beyond the myth, the queen of soul, who sang in the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr and in the inauguration of President Barack ObamaHe was a person unable to cope with pain, a word that he refused to recognize, although his life, full of success and recognition, was almost marked from the beginning by this feeling.
“For Aretha, pain was the most private part of a person. He preferred to live in stories of self-deception in front of others than to acknowledge that pain. Many of her stories about her life were pure fantasy, ”David Ritz, author of the unauthorized biography of the artist, recognized in a telephone conversation from Los Angeles, translated into Spanish for the first time under the title Aretha Franklin. Apology and martyrology of the queen of soul (Libros del Kultrum), a book that explains all the traumas that, to some extent, influenced Aretha Franklin, a diva who at the peak of her fame was very competitive – even with her singing sisters -, she had the air of a whimsical star, he canceled concerts at the last minute and, above all, he got to invent things or sweeten his emotional setbacks to the point of paroxysm.
Ritz was also behind Aretha: From These Roots, the singer’s autobiography published in 1999. Memories so controlled and manipulated by the artist’s own account that they led the musicologist, who is also the author of very remarkable biographies on Ray Charles, Etta James, Marvin Gaye and Lenny Kravitz, to offer a new vision more complete with this unauthorized biography. “I had a great relationship with her until I published this book,” confesses the writer. The book offers a more detailed overview of Franklin’s life through the voices of family members, musicians, producers and managers who shared time and work with her. A very valuable document that the singer, who died in 2018, described in her day as “filthy garbage” and for which she broke her relationship with Ritz, who met the star of the soul thanks to Ray Charles. “I wanted to teach other points of view and interpretations about things that she denied or did not want to talk about. Aretha was a person with a lot of intelligence, but also very controlling ”, explains the biographer.
Very jealous of all her sentimental and family problems, she was always silent where there were shadows. Her teenage pregnancies came in the middle of what musicians Ray Charles and Billy Preston called “the sex circus,” that is, the gospel scene of the 1950s. As Erma, the singer’s older sister, tells us, “childhood barriers” were broken in a circuit where even stars with pristine image like Sam Cooke had relationships with minors.
If Aretha Franklin’s father was bothered by this, it was more because he lost control over his daughter. “He was the general who led the entire operation,” confesses Cecil, the singer’s brother who would end up being her manager. The same general and preacher who slapped his daughter when she confronted him about the decisions about her career and who decided to sign her for Columbia Records, a multinational anchored in jazz, to the detriment of Motown, much more modern and that would mark pop of the sixties with Diana Ross, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson. A decision that hurt her beginnings, as Ritz says, who assures by phone that “Aretha was also independent in making many decisions.”
However, in reading her own book, it is shown that the patriarchy was devastating for the singer and she sought to get out of her father’s iron control by marrying Ted White, a pimp converted by music. Father and husband hated each other as they sought to exercise the same thing: dominion over the star. “You can’t understand the culture of 1960s Detroit without understanding the culture of pimps,” explains singer Bettye LaVette in the book. “The producers and the managers were the new coolies.” Aretha, raised in that “culture of men with power”, went from bad to worse. White, who became his manager, was an unapologetic abuser who led his wife into alcoholism and, in search of quick successes at Columbia, pushed her to record songs that were not highly recommended by producer John Hammond and the other musical collaborators. Its triumph had to wait for its arrival in 1967 to Atlantic, where, protected by the vision of producer Jerry Wexler, it found its full potential and defined the soul. In 1969, she divorced White.
It was his step to become a national star, the great icon of African American music, admired by all, a legend in life, but with an unpredictable character, unable to recognize his bad artistic decisions and family problems. Also unable to talk about her pain. A pain that could well explain his alcoholism, his periodic depressions, his great anxiety with food and his emotional volatility. And even her song, that of that girl who in the beginning was “very shy and insecure”, as those closest to her claimed, and who, being a minor, was already an orphan of a mother, mother of two children without a recognized father and a musical star that everyone wanted to rule over.