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Aretha grew up on the fringe of Detroit's Negro East Side in the same neighborhood with several singers-to-be —Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and all of the Four Tops. The Franklin house was a big tree-shaded one with a tidy lawn, even though it did have cockroaches in the kitchen and rats in the basement. Yet the gamy life of the ghetto was only half a block away. Recalls Aretha's brother Cecil, 28: "The people that you saw who had any measure of success were the pimp and the hustler, the numbers man and the dope man. Aretha knew what they were all about without having to meet them personally." Her mother deserted the family when Aretha was six and died four years later, two shocks that deeply scarred the shy, withdrawn girl. "After her mama died," says Gospel Singer Mahalia Jackson, "the whole family wanted for love."
Aretha's father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, was—and is—pastor of Detroit's 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist Church, where the preaching is so fiery that two white-uniformed nurses stand by to aid overwrought parishioners. Franklin commands up to $4,000 per appearance as a barnstorming evangelist, has recorded 70 steadily selling LPs of his sermons. He may not be a member of the Baptist Ministers Conference, but his Cadillac, diamond stickpins and $60 alligator shoes testify to an eminently successful pastorate. Just how successful is not altogether clear, although when he was convicted last year for failing to file federal tax returns, the Government had shown that his income between 1959 and 1962 was more than $76,000. Franklin paid a $25,000 fine. Now 51, he is a strapping, stentorious charmer who has never let his spiritual calling inhibit his fun-loving ways.
Through her father, Aretha became immersed in gospel music at home as well as in church. Such stars as Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and James Cleveland often came by the house for jam sessions, whooping and clapping, singing and playing all through the night while Aretha watched intently from a corner. Once, at a funeral for an aunt of Aretha's, Clara Ward was singing the gospel tune Peace in the Valley; in her fervor, she tore off her hat and flung it on the ground. "That," says Aretha, "was when I wanted to become a singer." Aretha had the spirit, all right; after her first solo in church at the age of twelve, excited parishioners crowded around her father, saying, "Oh, that child can sure enough sing."
Cutting Loose. Two years later, she was a featured performer with her father's gospel caravan, an evangelist show that crisscrossed the country by car (except for Franklin, who preferred to travel by plane). Though it ripened her vocal and professional skills, the experience of touring was in other ways a harsh initiation for Aretha. Says Cecil dryly: "Driving eight or ten hours trying to make a gig, and being hungry and passing restaurants all along the road, and having to go off the highway into some little city to find a place to eat because you're black—that had its effect." And the post-performance parties among older troupers in hotel rooms, where the liquor and sex were both plentiful—they had their effect too.