Aretha Franklin was more than just the Queen of Soul, she was the Queen of Strength.
Right up until the very end, Franklin, who’d secretly lived with pancreatic cancer for nearly a decade, refused to let her ongoing health battle overshadow her lifetime of accomplishments. Holding tight to her Queen of Soul title for five decades, she blazed a trail that included selling 75 million albums, winning 18 Grammy awards, and becoming the first woman to be inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and youngest artist to receive a Kennedy Honor in 1994.
But while the “Natural Woman” singer broke records and broke down barriers, she worked hard to keep her tumultuous personal life as private as possible. From losing her mother at a young age to becoming a teen mom and surviving domestic abuse, the star managed to keep shining in the midst of countless struggles.
In this week’s issue family, friends and famous peers open up about the amazing career and private world of the American icon.
“My aunt had a heck of a life,” her nephew Tim Franklin told PEOPLE after her death, crediting her faith in God as the source of her strength. “In the end — just like in the beginning,” he said, “she reached out to the one who sustained her and refused to let go.”
News first broke on the morning of Aug. 13 that the legendary Queen of Soul was ailing, with sources later confirming to PEOPLE that Franklin was “gravely ill,” and another sharing that her death would be “imminent.” Shortly after, on Aug. 16, the family and publicist of Franklin announced that the 76-year-old music icon had died from advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type at her Detroit-area home.
Family members and friends — including Stevie Wonder and the Reverend Jesse Jackson — flocked to Franklin’s bedside to share her last moments with her, but little else was known about the star’s specific illness or prognosis prior to her death. And though Franklin’s remarkable career drew in eyes and ears from around the world, she demanded privacy and R-E-S-P-E-C-T when it came to fiercely guarding her personal life.
Fans speculated about Franklin’s health since she underwent a mystery surgery on Dec. 2, 2010. At the time she didn’t reveal what the procedure was for, saying only that it was “highly successful.” But later that week, a relative told Fox 2 in her hometown of Detroit that she had cancer, and the National Enquirer reported that it was pancreatic.
In January 2011, Franklin said that she’s “not going to even deal with” the reports of her cancer. Through to the end, she refused to speak of it publicly.
Health aside, when it came to marriage and motherhood, Franklin was at her most secretive. Throughout her career, Franklin “put out a picture of her having a happy home and happy children and everything was rosy,” said biographer David Ritz – who spent two years working with Franklin on her 1999 memoir From These Roots before later penning his own biography of her life, 2015’s Respect . He added “any stories to the contrary really got her mad.”
“She had a tough childhood,” Ritz told PEOPLE, referring to the fact that Franklin’s mother left the family when the singer was only 6 years old because of her husband’s infidelity. In her early teens and as her career as a gospel singer was just revving up, Franklin mothered two sons, never to reveal the identities of their fathers.
Then at 19, Franklin married Ted White, and had a son with him, named Ted “Teddy” White, Jr., 54. Ted and the singer divorced in 1969 after reports of domestic abuse surfaced, and a 1968 Time article described how White “roughed her up” more than once. Later, she married actor Glynn Turman, whom she divorced in 1984.
“Early on in her career she was hit by the tabloids,” explained Ritz. There were stories of her being a victim of domestic violence and she didn’t like that. She didn’t like the image of her being a beaten woman. She loved the blues but she didn’t want to be seen as a tragic blues figure.”
Her youngest son, Kecalf, 48, was born in 1970. His name is an acronym of both his father and mother’s full names — Ken E. Cunningham (the star’s road manager) and Aretha Louise Franklin.
“She’s not atypical in her privacy, she’s just extreme,” Ritz said. “I think her strategy for emotional survival was idealization of her life in general. When you tend to idealize things, you don’t have to deal with a lot of the tough realities.”
Though the singer never publicly confirmed who fathered her older children, Ritz revealed in his book that the father of her oldest son, Clarence, 63, was Donald Burke, whom Franklin knew from school.
“Aretha went back to school after having Clarence,” the musical icon’s sister Erma said in Respect. “She was an excellent student who did well in all her classes.”
RELATED: Fans Remember Late ‘Queen Of Soul’ Aretha Franklin Outside Harlem’s Apollo Theater
In 1957, Franklin welcomed her second child, Edward, who turns 61 this month. Franklin would then drop out of school to focus on her musical career, leading her to live a life of “silent suffering,” as her sister Erma describes in Respect. Already with four children of her own, Franklin “filled the gap” for her siblings’ children when they died.
“We had all lost our parents – she stepped in and filled the gap,” her nephew Tim added. “She was the last one of the siblings, and when my aunt Erma and my dad died within a couple months of each other, she stepped right in and put her feelings aside even though she was grieving a loss that was two months apart. She might have grieved in private, but we never saw it.”
“The Queen of Soul — we didn’t know her,” Tim continued about how the family matriarch’s global fame paled in comparison to her enormous heart. “She was able to keep that separate from her personal life, so we never knew the Queen of Soul. Rather, we knew that was an accomplishment that she had made.”
While her accomplishments never went unnoticed, neither did her personality, as a “very real” individual with a “very optimistic” attitude.
“I think you can read her emotions really quickly, if she’s feeling happy or in a good mood, she will sit down at the piano and start singing or serenading you,” music and biopic producer Harvey Mason Jr. explained to PEOPLE. “If she’s going through something, I think she has the emotions right there for everyone to see.”
“I think one of the things I found interesting about her is her knowledge of music and so many different genres of music, she would sit at the piano and start playing songs I would never expect her to know, singing opera, substituting for Pavarotti at the Grammys the one year is a perfect example of that,” he added. “She can go back and forth between different genres seamlessly and effortlessly and that is something that is really unique about her.”
One thing the star never hid was her show-stopping sense of style. During Franklin’s performance at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, her Swarovski-crystal-studded hat immediately stole the show and became the day’s most popular meme. And the designer behind the topper, Luke Song of Mr. Song Millinery, spoke to PEOPLE about his close relationship with the Queen, remembering her as “so soft spoken” and “classy all the way.”
“I’ve known her at least 20 years … she’s been frequenting our showroom for as long as I can remember. I’ve made hundreds of hats for her,” says the Detroit-based designer who often made hats for Franklin to wear to church.
“She would come into the showroom and she definitely knew what she wanted. A lot of times she brought in her own designs and brought in pictures and references,” Song adds.
Always dressed to the nines and arriving in style in a big white limo with her entourage in tow, Song says Franklin was “very down to earth and very personable. I’m very fortunate to have her as a customer. It was a privilege.”
Longtime makeup artist Robin Manoogian also opened up to PEOPLE about working with the star from 1994-2004, remembering her as a “woman of few words,” who “would dance to her own tune.”
“There were many people that were up there at her level and you could sense the level of respect [they had] and I remember that Bill Clinton was a big fan and they would all just fawn over her and praise her,” says Manoogian. “As the English bow down to the queen, everyone in the music business virtually stopped and took a bow to her.”
“She commanded such respect and you could feel it in the air when other people came into her presence and she usually just sat very quiet and to herself,” she continues. “And the joy of just watching her sit at the piano, she was in her glory.”
Like most in Franklin’s orbit, Manoogian is thankful for everything Franklin gave her. “It exceeded my own career dreams,” she says. “I don’t know how I was lucky enough.”
For more on the life, legacy and loss of Aretha Franklin, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.