How Aretha Franklin grew up in a ‘Sex Circus’, was pregnant at 12 & had four kids by four men but never found happiness


HER voice is instantly recognisable to millions and to fans she will always be the Queen of Soul.

But behind Aretha Franklin’s powerful ballads lay heartache, torment and an unfulfilled desire to find true love.

Soul legend Aretha is the subject of the eight part series Genius

The Respect star –  who passed away in 2018 aged 76  – had a troubled personal life that included a pregnancy at the tender age of 12 and four children by four fathers.

But this week the family have hit out at the new biopic, Genius, which recounts the life of the soul legend.

Granddaughter Grace Franklin has claimed the family reached out to makers of the eight part series, which aired on National Geographic in the US, but to no avail.

In a TikTok video, she said: “It’s hard to get any accurate depiction of anyone’s life without speaking to the ones closest to them.

“As the immediate family – emphasis on immediate – we do not support this film and we ask that you also do not support this film.”

Cythia Erivo stars as Aretha in the new biopic

She echoed a message from her dad, Aretha’s son Kecalf, who told Rolling Stone last year that when lawyers reached out in 2020 they were told it was “too late”.

In a statement National Geographic said they acknowledge the family’s concern adding: “We think we have a shared goal here – to honour and celebrate the life and legacy of Aretha Franklin.”

The series chronicles Aretha’s rise from the teenage daughter of pious preacher to soul superstar, through her stormy lovelife and brush with alcoholism.

The singer had a colourful lovelife and four children

Preacher dad runs ‘sex circus’ at church

A 2014 biography by David Ritz, named Respect, detailed Aretha’s colourful childhood in Detroit.

Her father Clarence “C.L” Lewis was renowned as a “promiscuous” gospel preacher at the Bethel Baptist Church where he was minister, providing far more than sermons at his gatherings.

In fact, orgies were so common that fellow singer Ray Charles labelled the church a “sex circus”.

Aretha’s father, left, was said to raise her and her sister, right, in a pious, biblical home

At just 12, she fell pregnant by a school friend called Donald Burk.

Aretha gave birth just two months before her 13th birthday to a baby boy she named Clarence after her father and who was the first of two babies she would have before the age of fifteen.

The second, Edward, was named after his father, a local friend.

Motherhood did not curtail Aretha’s burgeoning musical ambition.

From an early age she harboured ambitions to become a famous pop singer, and leaving grandmother Rachel and sister Erma to take charge of her children she dropped out of school to pursue her goal.

Aretha, left, pictured with her father and sister, had a turbulent life

It was around this time she was introduced to singer Sam Cooke, who later told Ritz that he had enjoyed more than her legendary voice when she joined him for a night in an Atlanta motel room. He went on to write You Send Me about her.

At 19 Aretha married local ladies’ man called Ted White who promptly assigned himself as her manager and the couple had a child – another boy, Ted Jr.

By then she was well on her way to international fame – at the age of just 16 she had already toured with Martin Luther King, Jr. and in 1968 sang at his funeral – but while her reputation soared her home life quickly soured, her marriage mired in alcohol and acrimony.

“She was drinking so much we thought she was on the verge of a breakdown,” revealed sister Carolyn.

Aretha finally kicked White out in 1968, but her alcohol problem got worse.

Iconic Aretha turned to drink in her unhappy marriage
The singer had a rocky relationship with first husband Ted White

Love life like a soap opera

As success grew, so did her ego leading Dennis Edwards, lead singer of the Temptations  – and another of Aretha’s lovers – to suggest that she saw her boyfriends as little more than servants.

Nor did she dally when it came to meeting someone else after the breakdown of her marriage, and by early 1970 she had given birth to her fourth son, Kecalf, by her then road manager Ken Cunningham.

By 1978 Aretha was ready to tie the knot again, this time to film star Glynn Turman.

Yet once more despite a seemingly glamorous life on the surface it seems Aretha could still not find the domestic happiness she longed for and the marriage was over within six years.

With another failed relationship behind her, Aretha’s friend Ruth Bowen said Aretha lost her grip on reality.

“Aretha gets up every day and starts creating her own reality,” said Ruth. “At some point she started seeing her love life like a soap opera.

“She began writing a soap opera script – just making up s***, fantasising about men and relationships that never existed.

Aretha almost walked down the aisle for a final time with Willie Wilkerson

Soul legend Aretha Franklin passed away in her Detroit home in 2018

That became a new pattern for her – making up stories about these beautiful love affairs that happened only in her mind.”

Sadly it seems that is where her happiness was destined to stay: while on new Years Day 2012 Aretha announced that she had got engaged to longtime companion Willie Wilkerson – veteran of two previous engagements –  she called it off within a matter of weeks claiming things were “moving too fast.”

She never married again – perhaps no man was a match for her.

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