As the world mourns the loss of music icon Aretha Franklin, those closest to the star have shared details of her “tough childhood,” early motherhood, and years of “silent suffering” later in life.
During her early years in Buffalo, NY and later Detroit, MI, Aretha witnessed her parents’ tumultuous marriage and later breakup over her father, Baptist minister and circuit preacher C. L. Franklin’s philandering. When she was just nine years old, Aretha’s mother, Barbara Franklin, passed away from a heart attack, leaving the young singer and her five siblings to be cared for by other relatives.
Then, when Aretha was a mere 12 years old, she gave birth to her first child, son Clarence Franklin, in January 1955. According to reports, Clarence’s father was Donald Burk, a boy that Aretha knew from school. At age 14, Aretha welcomed her second child, son Edward Franklin, with Edward Jordan.
“She had a tough childhood. She put out a picture of her having a happy home and happy children and everything was rosy, and any stories to the contrary really got her mad,” biographer David Ritz — author of 2014’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin — told People in a previous interview.
In Ritz’s book, one of Aretha’s sisters, Erma Franklin, revealed that the star sometimes struggled to balance her singing career with being a teenage mother to two young sons. “We were part of that generation of young female singers who definitely sacrificed time with our kids to attend to our careers. We did so knowingly. We also did so with heavy guilt,” Erma shared, adding that “silent suffering” was a known part of her sister’s life.
In 1961, Aretha married her first husband, Ted White, when she was 19 years old. She welcomed her third son, Ted White Jr., in 1964, just a few years before she and husband Ted divorced following reports of domestic abuse in their marriage.
“There were stories of her being a victim of domestic violence and she didn’t like that. She didn’t like the image of her being a beaten woman. She loved the blues but she didn’t want to be seen as a tragic blues figure,” Ritz wrote of Aretha in his book.
Ritz also explained that Aretha’s upbringing and failed marriages — her second union to actor Glynn Turman ended in divorce in 1984 — led the singer to be extremely private during her prolific life. “She’s not atypical in her privacy, she’s just extreme. I think her strategy for emotional survival was idealization of her life in general. When you tend to idealize things, you don’t have to deal with a lot of the tough realities. She’s tough,” Ritz wrote in 2014.
When Aretha tragically passed away at age 76 on Thursday, Aug. 16 after battling pancreatic cancer, the music icon’s children — including her fourth son, Kecalf Cunningham, who was born in 1970 — said in a statement that they “lost the matriarch and rock of our family.”
“The love she had for her children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins knew no bounds. We have been deeply touched by the incredible outpouring of love and support we have received from close friends, supporters and fans all around the world. Thank you for your compassion and prayers. We have felt your love for Aretha and it brings us comfort to know that her legacy will live on. As we grieve, we ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time,” her family said. Rest in peace, Aretha.