Teen Motherhood, Losing Her Dad and Her Quiet Health Battle: Aretha Franklin's Personal Struggles
The life of the Queen of Soul was not without tragedy
She had 44 Grammy nominations, countless fans and a voice many called the greatest of all time. But Aretha Franklin — who died of pancreatic cancer on Tuesday, Aug. 16 at the age of 76 — never had an easy road. The tragic loss of her beloved father, alleged abuse at the hands of a husband and her private health battle dotted her storied career.
Losing Her Mother
Born to father C.L. Franklin and mother Barbara Siggers Franklin, the singer had two sisters and one brother, as well as a half-brother from her mother’s previous relationship. Her parents separated when she was very young, though never divorced; her mom moved to Buffalo, New York, and would make trips back to Detroit to visit her children. However, she died before Franklin turned 10.
Franklin had her first child, a son named Clarence, at age 14; a year later she welcomed a second child, Edward. She never publicly identified the boys’ fathers.
“I still wanted to get out and hang out with my friends,” she told Ebony in 1995 of young motherhood. “I wanted to be in two places at the same time. But my grandmother helped me a lot, and my sister and my cousin. They would babysit so I could get out occasionally.”
Franklin’s sisters Carolyn and Erma were both talented singers, too, though as writer David Ritz detailed in the biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, jealousy ran rampant in the Franklin family.
As sister Erma told Ritz of a proposed record deal, “I would be on Epic, which was a different brand than Columbia [which signed Aretha]. They were part of the same company but I’d have my own producers and an identity separate from Aretha. I thought she would be thrilled. She wasn’t. She threw a fit. She told Daddy that she didn’t want me on Epic, that it would hurt her career and that people would be confused by too many singing Franklin sisters.”
A similar spat happened when Carolyn was asked to record the soundtrack to 1976’s Sparkle. According to Erma, Aretha ultimately got the gig for herself.
Franklin’s marriage to Ted White in 1961 at age 19 helped her career, but according to a 1968 TIME story, he “roughed her up” more than once, sometimes publicly, and the two ultimately divorced in 1969.
A Second Divorce
The singer’s 1978 marriage to actor Glynn Turman marked a positive period in her life. “I’ve never seen Aretha in better spirits,” her brother Cecil told PEOPLE. But the couple divorced just six years later.
“I think just growing apart,” was why they divorced, she told Ebony in 1995. “And miscommunicating. We talk from time to time. And after having been together for so long, you just couldn’t leave it any better than that.”
Losing Her Father
“She and my dad (pictured with Aretha and sister Carolyn) were very, very, very close,” the singer’s sister Erma told PEOPLE in 1985. “She depended on him and his advice, and when she was living in California, she’d call him three or four times a day.”
Stunned by the botched robbery that left her father in an irreversible coma in 1979, Franklin began traveling between California and Detroit to visit her dad and ultimately bought a house in her adopted hometown.
During her father’s five years of unconsciousness, “she spent over a half million dollars on him, $1,500 a week just for nurses,” Erma said. “But she still can’t talk about it, not even with her own family. You can’t even say the word ‘death’ around her. You have to say ‘passed away’ or find some other expression.”
A Fear of Flying
Severe turbulence during a small plane ride in 1982 led the singer to stop flying; she opted to take buses to gigs instead. It deterred her from traveling to Cleveland for her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and even from going to England to perform for the queen.
Her Son’s Scare
In 2010, one of Franklin’s four sons, Eddie, was beaten at a Detroit gas station and required surgery to wire his jaw shut. The singer never opened up about the attack, though released a statement to Billboard clarifying some rumors around the situation. Eddie survived and recovered.
Until her death, neither Franklin nor anyone in her circle would confirm what had long been rumored: she suffered from pancreatic cancer.
In a 2011 interview with PEOPLE, she talked around the topic, confirming she had “not minor” surgery but leaving it at that. “I read the rumors, and they were just ridiculous. I feel fabulous,” she said. Medical issues “are very personal,” she continued, adding that the surgery “will add 10 to 15 years to my life span.”
Weight issues also plagued the singer, who slimmed down in 2011 with the help of a personal trainer and nutritionist (not gastric bypass surgery, as was rumored). “Before, I ate whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted,” she told PEOPLE. “After concerts, I’d get burgers and lie down. It went on like that until my weight got out of control.”
The new Franklin makes “a mean salad,” she said. “I have a cup of ice cream, I don’t go hog wild.” Walking her gym’s track and home treadmill helped, too, as did quitting smoking for good years earlier.
In a statement about her death, her family confirmed her longtime battle with pancreatic cancer.
“She has been ill for a long time,” a friend told PEOPLE. “She did not want people to know and she didn’t make it public.”