Orgies, Attitudes And Anxieties: Biographer Paints Different Portrait Of Aretha Franklin
This is the information age. Gone the days when we didn’t know everything about our favorite artists’ lives. Now, it’s all about the tea, the latest gossip and the scandal of it all. With loose lips and fast typing fingers, it used to just be modern day artists’ business we were privy to. But with the prevalence and popularity of biopics and tell-alls, even the classic artists from yesteryear are on the brink of having their business exposed.
The latest victim?
Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
According to the Daily Mail, biographer, David Ritz , has been writing Franklin’s life story for 15 years but felt now was the time to release it. In fact, Ritz served as the co-author for Franklin’s autobiography, published 15 years ago. But this time around, with Respect, he plans to tell the truth about her life. And it doesn’t paint Ms. Franklin in the most flattering light.
Apparently, the original Re Re was something like a Kenya Moore type, fabricating stories about mystery lovers to keep her name in the press.
Well, that’s not too bad, right? Just wait.
The most shocking reveal detailed in the biography is about her father, C.L. Franklin, a minister. Daddy Franklin was extremely promiscuous. His church, according to the biographer, served as a front for orgies that singer Ray Charles described as a “sex circus.”
Daddy Franklin was so wild and loose back in the day that when Aretha turned up pregnant at 12-years-old, presumably after witnessing her father’s own promiscuity, people assumed that her preacher daddy had fathered the child. He was not but it was a testament to his behavior at the time.
Ritz describes it:
“It was the point where Saturday night merged into Sunday morning and sin met salvation at the crossroads of African American musical culture. High on the Holy Ghost, dancing in the aisles of New Bethel, the saints celebrated the love of Christ.
‘High on wine and weed, the party people celebrated the love of the flesh.”
So, what’s with this guy? Either he has a very active imagination or a personal vendetta out for Aretha Franklin. Or maybe both.
But he has some pretty credible sources.
Ray Charles, who frequently ran into gospel artists on the R&B circuit said:
“When it came to pure heart singing, they were mother*****s. When it came to pure sex, they were wilder than me – and that’s saying something. In those days I had a thing for orgies, but I had to be the only cat in the room with two or three chicks.
The gospel people didn’t think that way. The cats liked it with the cats and the chicks liked it with the chicks and no one minded mixing it up this way or that. I got a kick outta seeing how God’s people were going for it hard and heavy every which way. I was just surprised to see how loose they were.”
Gospel singer Billy Preston corroborated Ray’s story.
“It was the church crowd where the vibe was wide open. It was anything goes. In the community outside the church, gay men were called sissies. But inside the church, a lot of the music was created by gay men. In the church you were almost proud to be part of the gay elite of musicians.”
And Aretha was in the midst of it all. In addition to her alleged addiction to food, Aretha was also sexually precocious. According to the biographer, she joined soul singer Sam Cooke in his motel room in Atlanta when she was 12 and he was 23. (Considering the fact that she was indeed twelve years old and around plenty of sexually irresponsible people, there’s no telling whether Aretha was truly ready and willing to have sex at that age or was being coerced into it by the adults around her.)
Aretha gave birth two months before turning 13. The father was a guy she knew from school, Donald Burke. She named him after her father Clarence. She had a second child before she’d turned fitteen by Edward Jordan, a man described by her brother as, “just a player.” Both of the sons took the last name Franklin and were raised in Aretha’s home.
In the midst of all this, Aretha’s mother Barbara left C.L., because of his infidelity and promiscuity and moved back to Memphis.
Afterward, Aretha became the only child to drop out of school. Shortly after, she met a pimp in Detroit named Ted White. White allegedly viewed her as a meal ticket and came on as her manager, simultaneously introducing her liquor and marijuana.
When her hit song “Respect” came out in 1967, she was drinking heavily to numb the pain of her flailing marriage. Ruth Bowen, her booking agent, said that the liquor was making her sloppy. At one point, during a concert she fell off the stage and broke her arm while singing “Respect.” Aretha blamed it on being blinded by the stage lights.
Aretha’s sister, Carolyn said that Aretha was drinking so much, she thought she was on the verge of a breakdown and would show up to the studio looking like she had been beaten.
Finally, she left White.
Aretha, who worked hard to maintain the false image of her marriage, was hurting. But others saw her antics as diva-ish.
Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations and one of Aretha’s lovers said, “She was the Queen of Soul- and I think at times she saw her boyfriends like her servants.”
She got her drinking under control in the seventies and was pregnant again, her fourth child with her manager Ken Cunningham. She moved in with him but continued to see Dennis Edwards.
Though her career was thriving, Aretha’s mental health wasn’t the best. She worried about the pressures of the industry.
Her sister Carolyn said,
“She was afraid she wasn’t good enough as a singer, pretty enough as a woman, or devoted enough as a mother. I don’t know what to call it but deep, deep insecurity. Her style was to either drink away the anxiety or, when that stopped working, disappear for a while, find her bearings, and go right back onstage and wear the crown of the impervious diva.”
In the mid seventies, as other female artists like Roberta Flack, Natalie Cole, Barbra Streisand and others were breaking into the music scene, Aretha was described as being jealous and even infuriated by their success.
But it wasn’t just women. Anyone who was having success in the industry was a threat and she treated them as such. in 1981, after the success of his “Never Too Much” album, Luther Vandross came to produce an album for her. And she invited him to her home. But it wasn’t a warm meeting. Luther said, “The Aretha I had heard throughout my entire childhood on the radio–warm and down home–wasn’t the Aretha I heard on the phone… Instead of calling me Mr. Vandross, she changed it to Vandross.”
And he was supposed to refer to her as Miss Franklin.
Her professionalism slipped again when Franklin’s father was placed in a coma for six years after an intruder shot him.
There is tons and tons more tea over at The Daily Mail, but I think the gist of the biography can be summed up with this quote from Aretha’s brother, Cecil.
“‘She takes her suffering and turns it into anger,’ brother Cecil said. ‘It’s all about diva drama. It’s hard for her to deal with extreme sadness and loss. Rather than deal, she acts out. She goes to rage. Rage without reason. It’s crazy.”
And then this one from Aretha herself.
‘If Queen Elizabeth gets to be queen for the duration of her life, why not Queen Aretha.”