Aretha Franklin: The true story of The Queen Of Soul

Thursday 12th October 2017

Lins Honeyman documents the unsanitised life of the brilliant singer who turned gospel into soul music, ARETHA FRANKLIN

Continued from page 1

By her mid-20s, Aretha's career was moving faster than she could have imagined. With her manager and husband Ted White pushing for as many live bookings as possible and Jerry Wexler pressing for more recording time, it became clear that Aretha was becoming less and less reliable in terms of turning up for booked events. Amidst suspected physical abuse from White towards his wife and fellow soul artist Otis Redding's untimely death in a plane crash in December 1967, Aretha set about recording the 'Lady Soul' album which contained the monster hits "Chain Of Fools" and the Carole King/Gerry Goffin masterpiece "A Natural Woman". Whilst the former song was representative of her broken marriage, Aretha saw "A Natural Woman" as a prayer to God and, together with the inclusion of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" on the album, reflected something of her church roots.

In 1968, as part of her fourth Atlantic album 'Aretha Now', Aretha achieved further success with the release of the single "Think" - thought by many to be another semi-autobiographical warning shot to her husband. To the backdrop of a relatively successful European tour, a damaging and hugely misquoted feature on the singer in Time Magazine and the assassination of her father's friend and civil rights campaigner Dr Martin Luther King, her marriage to Ted White was all but over. This in turn led to more live appearances being cancelled at short notice before her brother Cecil stepped in to take over management duties. Whilst her popularity had reached new heights, it became clear to everyone except perhaps herself that Aretha's drink problem was out of control.

By the end of the '60s, Aretha began a relationship with black rights campaigner Ken Cunningham whilst he was still married. The polar opposite of Ted White, Cunningham was widely recognised as having a positive impact on Aretha and encouraged her to stop drinking and to eat more healthily - by this time Aretha's weight had also become a concern. Whilst recording the album that would become 'This Girl's In Love With You', Aretha discovered she was pregnant by Cunningham which resulted in her cancelling all personal appearances and concerts for the remainder of the year without telling her agent Ruth Bowen. In March 1970, Aretha gave birth to her fourth son Kecalf and, for once, her personal life seemed tranquil.

However, personal problems soon began to encroach on the singer's life again. Shortly after the birth of Kecalf, she took to the studio to record the now seminal 'Spirit In the Dark' album and was struggling vocally. During that time, she left the stage after one song at the Kiel Auditorium in St Louis in front of an audience of 6000 people due to suffering what was widely thought to be a nervous breakdown. Before long however, she was back in the studio recording 'Young, Gifted And Black' - an album of mainly covers which included versions of the Beatles' "The Long And Winding Road" and the Elton John hit "Border Song (Holy Moses)" before returning to the live scene with gusto with appearances at legendary settings such as Madison Square Gardens and the Fillmore West whilst, during another European tour, she started to show signs of a debilitating fear of flying that would have a major impact on the remainder of her career.

In 1972, plans were afoot for Aretha to go back to church to do a live recording of sacred material that would become the biggest selling album in her vast back catalogue. In the shape of an actual church service and involving her father Reverend CL Franklin, gospel artist Reverend James Cleveland and his Southern California Community Choir, the live album that would become known as 'Amazing Grace' was recorded in the New Temple Missionary Church in Los Angeles over two nights in January. Mixing songs by secular artists like Marvin Gaye's "Wholy Holy" and Carole King's "You've Got A Friend" with spirituals and hymns such as "Climbing Higher Mountains", "What A Friend We Have In Jesus" and "O Mary Don't You Weep" proved to be a success and the resultant album is a masterclass in gospel performance with all involved firing on all cylinders. Her brother and manager Cecil recognised the process of recording the album as something of a healing interlude in his sister's life: "Church was the presence of God's all-accepting love. Church was home, mommy, daddy, a place where she could completely be herself." Arguably Aretha's greatest performance, 'Amazing Grace' stands as a testimony to her talent as well as the depth of her church roots.

Within months of 'Amazing Grace', Aretha had her feet firmly back in mainstream territory and set about recording the experimental 'Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky)' with renowned producer Quincy Jones in the hot seat. Disappointingly, the resultant album was a hit and miss affair - a pattern that would be repeated in subsequent Atlantic albums including 'Let Me In Your Life' and 'You' with only the Curtis Mayfield collaboration 'Sparkle' standing out before she, Wexler and Atlantic parted company at the end of the '70s.

Despite the disappointing sales figures from the release of 'Hey Now Hey', Aretha and her team renegotiated a new contract with Atlantic in 1973 to the tune of $6,000,000 but, by now, cracks were starting to appear in her relationship with Ken Cunningham which in turn contributed to the singer's next nervous breakdown. Recovering relatively quickly, Aretha returned to the studio in early 1974 and began performing live again. However, poor record sales put pressure on Aretha to try and find a form of music that would endear her to the new generation of listeners and tentative and reluctant forays into disco and slick R&B proved unsuccessful.

By 1977, Aretha had fallen for movie star Glynn Turman and plans had been made for her to return to the UK for a string of concerts. Within 24 hours of the scheduled opening of the tour, Aretha pulled out without any reasonable explanation and was duly sued by the organisers. Aretha laid the blame at her loyal agent Ruth Bowen's feet and the two parted company for several years. Now living with Glynn, his three children and her own four boys, Aretha announced plans to marry her new man and the wedding took place in April. Commercially, her albums continued to sell poorly and she was in danger of losing the public's attention completely. Before long, Aretha and her crew started making plans to sever links with Atlantic and form a new partnership with Clive Davis and his Arista label.

However, in June 1979, personal matters once again took precedent over business affairs with the news that Aretha's father had been shot during a robbery at his home in Detroit - the wounds from which, although not fatal, caused a series of cardiac arrests. As a result of lack of oxygen to the brain, Reverend CL Franklin entered a coma that would last for five years until his death. Initially, Aretha decided to put her career on hold to help look after her father but, when it became clear that additional paid care would be required, she had no choice but to return to recording and performing to help cover costs.

At this time and after a number of failed attempts to enter the world of movies, Aretha gained a role in the John Belushi/Dan Aykroyd film Blues Brothers playing a waitress whose husband is leaving her to go on the road with his old band. In the film, she performs her seminal hit "Think" and, along with similar cameos by the likes of John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles, her performance is one of the highlights of the hugely successful film.

At the turn of the decade, Aretha finally signed with Arista Records and started discussing her new album with Clive Davis. In an attempt to keep up with the times musically, the eponymous Arista debut and its follow up 'Love All The Hurt Away' suffered from lacklustre material that, whilst shiny and new, sounded superficial compared to her Atlantic work. For her third Arista album, Aretha decided to employ the services of soul artist Luther Vandross whose first record 'Never Too Much' had just turned Gold. The pair set about working on the Vandross-composed "Jump To It" - a dance/disco track that earned Aretha her first number one hit for five years. Despite her relative new found success at the hands of Vandross, her father's continuous comatose state and reports of marital problems meant that her private life continued to be in turmoil. Taking the decision to move back to Detroit to be with her siblings and ailing father, she was also escaping her own marriage issues back home in California.

By this point, Aretha's fear of flying had reached a critical stage and various live appearances were cancelled at short notice due to her refusal to take to the sky. Partly as a result and partly due to her father's care costs, cash flow became a problem. In February 1984, Aretha's divorce from Glynn Turman was settled but she would face further financial obstacles including being sued by the State of New York for alleged tax evasion. Despite convincing herself that her beloved father would pull through, the Reverend CL Franklin passed away on 27th July, 1984.

In the mid-'80s, Clive Davis teamed Aretha up with producer/songwriter Narada Michael Walden which resulted in the hits "Who's Zoomin' Who" and "Freeway Of Love". Vocal duets with the likes of Annie Lennox on the Eurythmics hit "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves" and George Michael on "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)" also helped boost the singer's profile whilst her cover of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" for the Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name helped keep her in the spotlight. Amidst ongoing last minute concert cancellations and money problems, Aretha was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987. Despite being the first woman to receive the honour, she failed to turn up at the event and sent her brother Cecil to collect the award in her place.

In an attempt to replicate the success of her earlier live gospel album 'Amazing Grace', Aretha set about planning 'One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism' which was recorded live over three nights at her father's New Bethel church in Detroit. Taking the decision to organise the whole project herself including taking on responsibility for hiring musicians, selecting the songs, producing the album and being the main performer, the end result was perhaps not as cohesive as it could have been despite the involvement of big gospel names such as Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds Of Joy and Mavis Staples. Ultimately, the album sat in the lower reaches of the charts and proved to be another commercial flop for Aretha.

Showing page 2 of 3

1 2 3

Reader Comments

Posted by Jim Radford in Scottsville, VA @ 02:06 on Aug 17 2018

Another fine article from Lins. Very informative and interesting. He gives credit where credit is due, honors Aretha's memory and legacy, and yet he tells the unvarnished truth about this supremely gifted and often self-destructive artist. Good job, Lins.

Posted by Geegi Motton in Bakersfield, California @ 21:24 on Feb 6 2018

The Queen of Soul has always touched me through her music and will always remember her beginning.She was brought up loving the Lord and raised accordingly.I'm going to continue loving you Aretha because you're my Queen forever
Love you and God Bless you

Posted by Marcus in Devon, England @ 12:51 on Oct 15 2017

Her music has been a constant in my life. Her range and phrasing and timing leave her alone at the top of the main sic mountain. I have often been dismayed at some of the negativity toward Aretha by some in the US. you should cherish this woman and the contribution she has made to your great country and the wider world.

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

Add your comment

We welcome your opinions but libellous and abusive comments are not allowed.

We are committed to protecting your privacy. By clicking 'Send comment' you consent to Cross Rhythms storing and processing your personal data. For more information about how we care for your data please see our privacy policy.


Connect with Cross Rhythms by signing up to our email mailing list

A Step Change...
Cross Rhythms Media Training Centre
Artists & DJs A-Z
# A B C D E F G H I J K L M
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #
Or keyword search


Dedication Room
Live on the edge and shout what you believe in our Dedication Room