Known as the Queen of Soul, she was born into true American royalty as the daughter of one of the most celebrated of the nation’s black Baptist preachers, the Rev CL Franklin, and his wife, Barbara, a nurse’s aide and a singer and choirmistress in her husband’s church.
Clarence LaVaughn Franklin had met Barbara Siggers in Sunflower County, Mississippi, where he picked cotton while practising his preaching in small local churches. Aretha Louise – one of the couple’s four children, and named after her father’s two sisters – was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where CL Franklin had become pastor of the New Salem church; she was still an infant when they moved, first to Buffalo, New York State, and thence to Detroit, where her father became the minister of the New Bethel church. Aretha was six when her mother returned to Buffalo, accompanied by her son from a previous relationship. The remaining siblings were supervised in their father’s comfortable Detroit home by their paternal grandmother, Rachel, known as Big Mama, and a series of housekeepers, but spent the summers with their mother until Barbara died of a sudden heart attack when Aretha was 10.
The children – including an older sister, Erma, and a younger one, Carolyn, both gifted singers – grew up under the wing of a charismatic father who was among the first of his kind to spread his message via radio, recordings and national tours with his own travelling revival show. CL Franklin made friendships with many important African Americans: he marched alongside Martin Luther King and ordained the young Jesse Jackson; Ward was an intimate friend; and Aretha once came home from school to find Art Tatum, the nonpareil jazz pianist, playing the family grand.