Aretha Franklin’s Mother: The Woman Behind The Legend

Aretha Franklin Mother
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Hey there music lover! I’m sure you know all about the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. That powerhouse voice, those iconic songs – she’s one of the greatest singers of all time. But what you might not know is how instrumental Aretha’s own mother was in shaping her tremendous talent.

Barbara Siggers Franklin may not be a household name, but she made a huge impact during her sadly short life. As a gifted gospel singer herself, Barbara recognized little Aretha’s vocal skills early on.

Even after she and Aretha’s father CL Franklin separated, Barbara encouraged her daughter’s musical gifts during summer visits in Buffalo, New York.

Despite the distance, Barbara made sure to regularly visit Detroit to see her children, and Aretha and her siblings traveled to Buffalo to stay with Barbara during the summer holidays. Her continued support laid the foundation for Aretha’s legendary career.

Let’s take a closer look at the story of the remarkable woman who gave the world Aretha Franklin.

Barbara’s Early Life and Marriage to CL Franklin

Born Barbara Siggers in Shelby, Mississippi in 1917, Aretha’s mother was known as one of the finest gospel singers in the country. The girl could sing! When Barbara married a charismatic young preacher named C. L. Franklin in 1936, it was a match made in musical heaven.

Barbara Married C.L. Franklin
Barbara Siggers & C.L. Franklin

After relocating to Memphis, then Buffalo, the couple finally settled in Detroit, where CL took over as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church.

During those years, Barbara gave birth to four children: Erma in 1938, Cecil in 1940, little Aretha in 1942, and Carolyn in 1944. Barbara had a son named Vaughn (1934) from a previous relationship, whom C.L. took in as his own. Talk about a blended family.

Even as she raised the kids, Barbara actively participated in the musical life of C.L.’s church. And her preacher husband became pretty famous himself, with his rich “Million Dollar Voice” broadcast on radio nationwide.

Young Aretha got her start singing in her father’s church alongside her iconic dad. With two musically gifted parents, it’s no wonder talent ran strong in the Franklin family.

Marital Troubles Lead to a Painful Separation

Unfortunately, the Franklin family faced trouble at home. CL’s wandering eye led to affairs and illegitimate children.

Unable to tolerate his unfaithfulness, Barbara made the difficult decision to leave CL in 1948. She returned to Buffalo, where her mother lived, but heartbreakingly had to leave her children behind with their father.

The distance took a serious emotional toll on the sensitive 6-year-old. Though necessary, Barbara’s choice to prioritize her own well-being meant painful separation from the daughter she loved so dearly.

The silver lining was that Aretha and her siblings did still get to visit Barbara during summer breaks in Buffalo. Also, Barbara visited Detroit to see her children.

And despite CL’s transgressions, Barbara never officially divorced him. Even through hardship, threads of connection remained.

Barbara’s Life and Work in Buffalo

After returning to her hometown, Barbara moved in with her mother at 21 Lyth Avenue in north Buffalo. Making ends meet, she worked tirelessly as a nurse’s aide at the former Meyer Memorial Hospital. In her spare time, Barbara gave private music lessons, sharing her vocal talents.

According to Aretha’s fond recollections, the best part of summer visits was waiting eagerly on the front porch for her mother to return home from work. Barbara would draw her children close as she rocked on the porch, reassuring them of “better things to come.”

That quality time meant the world to young Aretha, though it lasted only a few short months each year. Even when apart, Barbara gave her daughter strength.

Barbara’s Sudden Death and Its Impact

In 1952, the Franklin family experienced a terrible tragedy. Barbara passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack, at just 34 years old. It was a shocking loss, especially for a child as attached to her mother as Aretha was.

Barbara's Grave in Forest Lawn
Grave of Barbara S. Franklin. Image: Phyllis Meyer

The depth of her grief was immense for one so young. Aretha later said no words could adequately express her pain.

Mourners gathered at Friendship Baptist Church in Buffalo for Barbara’s funeral before her burial at nearby Forest Lawn Cemetery.

To this day, Barbara’s gravestone in Forest Lawn reads “In loving memory of our mom. You will always be in our hearts.” Clearly, her premature passing left an enormous void in her 10-year-old daughter, one that never fully healed.

But Aretha carried her mother’s bright spirit with her in the form of her musical gifts.

Later Connections Between Aretha and Her Mother

Audra McDonald plays Aretha Franklin's mother in the Biopic.
Audra Mcdonalds as Barbara in Aretha Franklin’s biopic Respect

Even decades after Barbara’s death, Aretha made sure to visit her gravesite whenever she was performing nearby. Well into the peak of her fame, she traveled to Buffalo to sit by her mother’s grave and feel close to her again.

When old age and declining health made it hard for Aretha to walk the cemetery grounds, staff members kindly transported her by golf cart to Barbara’s headstone.

In her later years, Aretha opened up about the incredible loss she endured as a child. In her 1999 memoir “Aretha: From These Roots,” (Amazon link) she wrote candidly about sitting on the Lyth Avenue curb utterly devastated after her mother’s funeral. The pain of their separation clearly lasted a lifetime.

That intense maternal bond translated beautifully on screen in the 2021 film Respect, with Tony winner Audra McDonald portraying Barbara Franklin.

To capture the spirit of this lesser-known but essential figure in Aretha’s story, McDonald studied details of Barbara’s life and channeled the strength of a Black mother in her circumstances. The role earned McDonald an NAACP Image Award nomination – proof of her moving performance.

Barbara’s Influence Shaped the Queen of Soul

Though their time together was cut short, Barbara Siggers Franklin had an outsized impact on daughter Aretha’s path to greatness. Recognizing her extraordinary vocal talents early on, Barbara gave Aretha the confidence to pursue her musical gifts fully.

Their relationship anchored young Aretha amidst the turbulence of divorce and loss. And the memory of her beloved mother no doubt inspired Aretha to reach for – and achieve – the highest heights of stardom.

Barbara Franklin lived just 34 vibrant years, but her passion, faith and wisdom echo through her daughter’s storied career. What a remarkable legacy for an extraordinary woman. When you listen to the soaring vocals of the legendary Queen of Soul, remember Barbara – the mother who made it all possible.

So there you have it, the untold story of the mother behind the music. Barbara Siggers Franklin may not have achieved fame herself, but she nurtured one of history’s greatest singers.

Her devotion in those early years gave Aretha the foundation to share her incredible talents with the world. Next time you hear “Respect” or “Natural Woman,” give a little nod to Barbara!

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Team Guitar Top Review Talk about Guitars! We are a group of friends that bonded over their shared love of playing guitar. We all have different backgrounds and experiences with music, but we share a passion for writing about the things that we love.

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