Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the daughter of Barbara (née) Siggers and Clarence LaVaughn Franklin. Her father, who went by the nickname, “C. L.”, was an itinerant preacher originally from Shelby, Mississippi, while her mother was an accomplished piano player and vocalist. Alongside Franklin, her parents had three other children while both C. L. and Barbara had children from outside their marriage. The family relocated to Buffalo, New York when Franklin was two. Prior to her fifth birthday, C. L. Franklin permanently relocated the family to Detroit, Michigan where he founded the Baptist church, New Bethel. Franklin’s parents had a troubled marriage due to stories of C. L. Franklin’s philandering and in 1948, they separated, with Barbara relocating back to Buffalo with her son, Vaughn, from a previous relationship.
Contrary to popular notion, Franklin’s mother did not abandon her children and Franklin would recall seeing her mother in Buffalo during summertime while Barbara also frequently visited her children in Detroit. Franklin’s mother died on March 7, 1952, prior to Franklin’s tenth birthday. Several women, including Franklin’s grandmother Rachel, and Mahalia Jackson took turns helping with the children at the Franklin home. During this time, Franklin learned how to play piano by ear. Franklin’s father’s emotionally driven sermons resulted in him being known as the man with the “million-dollar voice” and earning thousands of dollars for sermons in various churches across the country. Franklin’s celebrity led to his home being visited by various celebrities including gospel musicians Clara Ward, James Cleveland and early Caravans members Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke.
Music Career Beginnings
Just after her mother’s death, Franklin began singing solos at New Bethel, debuting with the hymn, “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me”. Four years later, when Franklin was 14, her father began managing her, bringing her on the road with him during his so-called “gospel caravan” tours for her to perform in various churches. He helped his daughter get signed to her first recording deal with J.V.B. Records, where her first album, Songs of Faith, was issued in 1956. Two singles were released to gospel radio stations including “Never Grow Old” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”. Franklin sometimes traveled with The Caravans and The Soul Stirrers during this time and developed a crush on Sam Cooke, who was then singing with the Soul Stirrers prior to his secular career.
After turning 18, Franklin confided to her father that she aspired to follow Sam Cooke to record pop music. Serving as her manager, C. L. agreed to the move and helped to produce a two-song demo that soon was brought to the attention of Columbia Records, who agreed to sign her in 1960. Franklin was signed as a “five-percent artist”.During this period, Franklin would be coached by choreographer Cholly Atkins to prepare for her pop performances. Before signing with Columbia, Sam Cooke tried to persuade Franklin’s father to have his label, RCA sign Franklin. He had also been persuaded by local record label owner Berry Gordy to sign Franklin and her elder sister Erma to his Tamla label. Franklin’s father felt the label was not established enough yet. Franklin’s first Columbia single, “Today I Sing the Blues”, was issued in September 1960 and later reached the top ten of the Hot Rhythm & Blues Sellers chart.
Franklin moved back to Detroit from New York City into this suburban colonial (built in ’49) in the early ’60s, her toddlers and hustler-hubby-manager Ted White in tow. She was still signed to Columbia Records doing pop and jazz standards. The family lived here for a number of years in the ’60s, until Aretha hit it huge on Atlantic, and neighbors complained of the noise from all-night parties and parked cars clogging sides of the street.