How Aretha Franklin’s tragic life made her a demanding diva

Aretha Franklin was one of the biggest stars in America — and one of the biggest divas. She refused to travel by plane. She insisted on the heat being cranked up while she recorded, other people’s comfort be damned.

Once in the studio, Aretha required special fuel: “She would call out . . . ‘Get me the fried chicken and cheeseburger,’ ” Narada Michael Walden, a drummer who worked with her, told The Post. “Then she would eat the chicken and burger, undo the top button of her jeans and blast [the vocals] out.”

Food was just one of her excesses, along with alcohol, cigarettes and sex.

But given the tragedies of her life, who can blame her?

“You can hear the pain in her voice,” said Harvey Mason Jr., producer of the new movie “Respect,” starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha and opening Friday.

“Aretha channeled hardship into her singing,” he told The Post.

The singing and the hardship both started young.

Aretha’s mother abandoned the family — which had moved from Memphis to Detroit after the patriarch, pastor C.L. Franklin, fathered a child with a 12-year-old girl in his church congregation — when the future singing legend was just 6 years old.

She juggled school and traveling on the gospel circuit with her preacher father. Known as “the man with the million-dollar voice,” C.L.’s sermons were so stirring that Chess Records released them on vinyl. He did his best to look after her — one night banging on the door of singer Sam Cooke’s hotel room after hearing that his 12-year-old daughter was in there with the 23-year-old soul star. (Aretha always maintained that nothing undignified went down).

Franklin's mother, Barbara (left) abandoned the family when Aretha was 6, and after her father C.L.(right) had impregnated a 12-year-old girl.
Franklin’s mother, Barbara abandoned the family when Aretha was 6, — after her father C.L. had impregnated a 12-year-old girl.

C.L. couldn’t be everywhere at once, though. Soon after her 12th birthday, Aretha was impregnated by a local boy reportedly named Donald Burke. Marriage was not considered and the baby was named Clarence. Just shy of her 15th birthday, Aretha gave birth to a second son: Eddie, named after his  father, Edward Jordan. Both Aretha and one of her brothers described Jordan as a “player.”

Aretha Franklin had a volatile relationship with first husband Ted White (left).
Aretha Franklin had a volatile relationship with first husband Ted White.
Roger Bamber/ANL/Shutterstock

With her big voice and alluring looks, Franklin proved irresistible to men on the gospel circuit — which, despite its godly teachings, was nicknamed “the sex circus” by Ray Charles. In the definitive ­Aretha biography, “Respect,” by David Ritz, blues singer Etta James said of a young ­Aretha: “I wouldn’t use the term sexually active. I’d say sexually overactive . . .  Aretha gave it up often and easily . . .”

Motherhood did not deter Aretha from making it as a singing star. Her grandmother took care of the babies as the teen crossed over from Christian to secular music. In 1960, at age 18, Franklin was scooped up by producer John Hammond, who had also discovered Billie Holiday, and signed a deal with Columbia Records. Around that same time, she fell under the strong thumb of Ted White, a man who blues vocalist Bettye LaVette once described as a “gentleman pimp.”

The singer split from her second husband, actor Glynn Turman (left), after she moved to Detroit and left him in Los Angeles.
The singer split from her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, after she moved to Detroit and left him in LA.
Michael Ochs Archives

“Anyone who didn’t see Ted White as a straight-up pimp had to be deaf, dumb and blind,” Harvey Fuqua, a producer at Motown Records, told author Ritz for his book.
The relationship between White and ­Aretha was volatile and violent — according to “Respect,” she was “beaten by her first husband Ted White.” The book quotes a label saying Aretha “showed up at [recording] sessions looking like she had literally taken a beating.”

White was also Aretha’s manager, and her career was stuck in neutral. By 1967 she moved from Columbia Records to the Atlantic label, and co-founder Jerry Wexler sent her to a recording session in Muscle Shoals, Ala.

With all of her talent and all she’d been through, Aretha merited being a diva.

Insider on singing legend Aretha Franklin

There, White got drunk and quickly demanded that the trumpet player be fired for “making passes at my wife,” producer Rick Hall told The Guardian. White and Hall ended up in a fistfight and the session was canceled early — but not before Franklin and the players recorded a song called “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” It unleashed from Aretha a raw vocal style that would launch her to stardom — but getting there was no easy journey.

“Aretha had at least one nervous breakdown, drank like crazy and was married to a pimp,” an insider who knew her told The Post. “Her great songs were born out of chaos.”
The “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” record wrapped in Atlantic’s New York City studio, and the single became Aretha’s first big hit — followed months later by what would become  two of her signature numbers, “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” The iconic “Chain of Fools” came a year later.

Aretha gave birth to her first son, Clarence (center), when she just 12 years old.
Aretha gave birth to her first son, Clarence (center), when she just 12 years old.
AFP via Getty Images

Between 1967 and ’68, Aretha was one of radio’s biggest stars. She released four albums that made Billboard’s Top 10 and won her first two Grammys. She was also on the cover of Time, with the story inside mentioning her husband knocking her around in public at an Atlanta hotel. Meanwhile, her own drinking raged.

After the birth of their son, Theodore (who now goes by Teddy Richards), Aretha divorced White in 1969. But drama followed Franklin.

Soon after the split, Franklin — who was then pregnant with her fourth son, Kecalf, fathered by her road manager Ken Cunningham — was entertaining Charles Cooke, brother of Sam. According to a 1970 article in Jet magazine, White showed up and said he wanted to speak privately with Franklin. Charles refused to leave, an altercation ensued, and White shot him in the groin. Cooke was injured, and there was reportedly a police investigation.

Edward Franklin (who was born two years after Clarence) sings at his mothers funeral service.
Edward Franklin, who was born two years after Clarence, sings at his mother’s funeral service.
Getty Images

Another shooting would break Aretha’s heart. In June 1979, as her once-hot career was cooling and her album “La Diva” was bombing on the charts, she received news that her father, C.L., had been shot twice during a home invasion. He was rushed to the hospital and would remain in a semi-comatose state for five years before dying at age 69.

After the shooting, Aretha flew from a Las Vegas concert appearance to Detroit, where he was hospitalized, and never returned to her adopted home of Los Angeles.

“It changed the trajectory of her life and she thrived there,” said the insider. “She went crazy and fought depression, but she also knew what it took to keep herself together and stay an operative artist. Detroit was her cocoon.”

Aretha had married actor Glynn Turman (“Peyton Place,” “Cooley High”) in 1978 but, according to ABC7 News, “the difficulty of maintaining a long-distance relationship” — with Franklin in Detroit, Turman in LA — contributed to the ­union’s dissolution in 1984.

In Detroit, Franklin blossomed into a full-blown diva — complete with wild touring demands, a hair-trigger temper and strange habits.

Kecalf Cunningham (center) is the son of Aretha and her touring manager.
Kecalf Cunningham (center) is the son of Aretha and her touring manager.
FilmMagic

Despite waning sales, Aretha’s iconic status was still such that she could summon fellow stars — including Annie Lennox, Whitney Houston and Keith Richards — to meet her on her own turf to record songs and shoot videos together. But her commands could be a lot to take.

Drummer Walden flew to Detroit from the West Coast for a 1984 session with ­Aretha to record “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” which would be her first and only platinum studio album. “I waited four or five days at my hotel,” he told The Post. “She would say to me, ‘Look out the window. You know I don’t drive in the snow.’ ”

The singer did still leave Detroit on occasion. Film producer Mason, who also produced music for the singer, recalledworking with her in Los Angeles and  how “Aretha always wanted it to be very hot in the studio. It had to be 90 degrees. Studios in LA tend not to have heaters. So we brought in little portable heaters for her. It was hot. But this was Aretha. If she wanted it hot, we made it hot.”

And getting to those LA studios was a challenge. After a rough flight in the early 1980s, Aretha refused to fly again. So she went everywhere, even across the country, by car or bus — always routing around mountains, which scared her, too. She also refused to stay above the fifth floor in hotels.

According to a tour rider obtained by The Smoking Gun, Aretha demanded that the air-conditioning vents be closed at venues when she performed, that a silver tea service with canapés be provided backstage, and that promoters paid out $25,000 of her fee in cash at each show.

Teddy (pictured) is Aretha's son with her first husband, Ted White.
Teddy is Aretha’s son with her first husband, Ted White.
FilmMagic

“After the show I would go backstage, get paid in cash by Aretha and sign a 1099; then she would tell you what you did right and wrong,” Walden recalled of his time drumming for her. “She always had a fur coat, a Chanel purse” — that she never let out of her sight, even while on stage — “and a wad of cash.”

Aretha continued to perform in the 2000s, including at Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration when her ostentatious hat with an oversized bow got as much attention as her rousing rendition of “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” The next year she had surgery for a tumor but she denied reports that it was related to pancreatic cancer.
Walden was supposed to play Jazz Fest with Franklin in April 2018. “But then she got too sick to go,” he said. “She had cancer and never complained. She would just hold her side.”

Aretha died from a pancreatic tumor on Aug. 6, 2018. Initially she appeared not to have left a will, which caused mayhem over her multimillion-dollar estate. But according to the Detroit Free Press, three handwritten documents turned up — one found tucked beneath a couch cushion — explaining what she wanted to leave to whom. This past March, an unsigned, 22-page typed document, which includes correspondence between Aretha and a law firm, was uncovered. Most of the $6.7 million worth of assets go to her four sons; a niece and cousin are to share her clothing.

Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha Franklin in the new film “Respect,” out Friday. Marlon Wayans co-stars as her first husband, Ted White.
Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha Franklin in the new film “Respect,” out Friday. Marlon Wayans co-stars as her first husband, Ted White.
Alamy

The insider sees all of this as one last diva move from Aretha — and one that was well within her right.

“One thing I respect about Aretha is that, with all that she’d been through and all of her talent, she merited being a diva,” the insider said. “She got it and held onto it. There is a part of her character to celebrate for being tough. Aretha was a ­motherf–ker, man.”