Aretha Franklin Siblings

When you hear the name Aretha Franklin, there’s no doubt she springs to mind as the legendary “Queen of Soul” with her powerful, soaring vocals and era-defining songs like “Respect.”

But did you know Aretha came from a family filled with extraordinary musical gifts? Though her meteoric rise to fame ended up overshadowing them, Aretha’s siblings were remarkable talents in their own right.

Growing up singing gospel in their father’s Detroit church, Aretha and her sisters Carolyn and Erma, along with brothers Cecil and Vaughn, shared a bond through music that shaped their lives.

While Aretha ultimately became a global icon, her overlooked brothers and sisters made significant marks on soul, R&B, and gospel in their own abbreviated careers. From Carolyn’s genius songwriting to Erma’s heavenly vocals, the Franklin siblings’ stories deserve to be remembered and recognized.

So let’s take a nostalgic journey back to the Franklin family home, {@Aretha Franklin Siblings@}vibrant voices soaring through the rafters. Their unique musicality and heartbreaking struggles will reveal a fascinating folk legend still waiting to be properly told.

Growing Up Franklin: A Musical Childhood

It all began with Aretha’s parents, influential Detroit pastor C.L. Franklin and wife Barbara Siggers Franklin. C.L. was a famous preacher known as the “man with the million-dollar voice,” using his booming, melodic oratory to fuse religious fervor with civil rights activism.

After Barbara and C.L. separated when Aretha was six years old in 1948, C.L. became even more renowned nationally through his sermons on the “gospel caravan” circuit.

Aretha and her siblings Carolyn, Erma, Cecil, and Vaughn were raised primarily by their father in Detroit, where C.L. preached at the New Bethel Baptist Church starting in 1946. The church quickly became the heart of the Franklin children’s world.

They soaked up the ecstatic gospel music of the choir and visiting gospel groups that performed during Sunday services and other events. But secular music filled their home too, as legendary jazz, blues, and R&B artists also stopped by to visit Reverend Franklin, the influential “preacher’s preacher.”

Even as a young child, Aretha’s musical gifts were clear as she began singing solos at New Bethel by age 10. But she wasn’t the only prodigy in the family. According to Mary Wilson of The Supremes, she became childhood friends with Aretha’s sister Carolyn after they were bused to school together in a white neighborhood as part of Detroit’s racial integration program in the early 1950s.

Wilson recalls Carolyn as a natural leader and impressive talent, saying, “She was always the leader. When I found out that she was actually writing some of the songs for Aretha, I was so impressed.” Little did Wilson know then what remarkable careers were to come for both Franklins.

Carolyn Franklin: Songwriting Sister

Although overshadowed by her iconic sibling, Carolyn Franklin was a powerfully gifted musician in her own right. Possessing a bluesy, earthy voice and trained piano skills, Carolyn soon emerged as a talented songwriter capable of penning hits.

After singing backup for Aretha alongside sister Erma on Atlantic Records hits like “Respect,” Carolyn really found her compositional groove.

Starting in 1967, she began collaborating with Aretha on songs that became soul classics, including the swooning ballad “Ain’t No Way” in 1968. With its lovelorn lyrics and gospel-inflected piano, Carolyn’s finely crafted tune rose to #1 on the R&B charts and cracked the Pop Top 20.

Later songs like the wistful “Angel,” a family collaboration with sisters Carolyn and Erma in 1973, also topped R&B and showed Carolyn’s ever-evolving artistry.

Inspired by Aretha’s breakthrough, Carolyn Franklin looked to launch her own solo career as a singer-songwriter in the late 1960s.

She signed with RCA Records in 1969 at a time when labels were hungry to court Black artists, hoping to capture the same magic as Aretha’s Atlantic Records.

Though Carolyn had critical acclaim, she failed to find commercial success with albums like her debut Baby Dynamite in 1969 and her follow-up Chain Reaction in 1970.

Reviews praised Carolyn’s energetic vocal attack and skillful phrasing, but always referenced her superstar sister Aretha. According to singer Bettye LaVette, a close friend of Carolyn’s, being an {@Aretha Franklin Siblings@} came with advantages and disadvantages when crafting her own identity as an artist.

Perhaps the spotlight of the era’s reigning “Queen of Soul” proved too blinding for listeners to fully appreciate Carolyn’s raw talent on its own terms.

Adding fuel to the comparisons, Carolyn also faced questions about her personal identity behind the scenes. According to biographers, she was open about having romantic relationships with women, causing some family tension given their father’s famous Baptist ministry.

Speculation also arose about whether songs like “Ain’t No Way,” with lyrics urging a lover to stop “trying to be someone you’re not,” might be expressing Carolyn’s veiled struggles with her sexuality in a culture unfriendly to LGBTQ identities.

Whatever the case, Carolyn Franklin never quite got her full due during her too-short career. Though she continued occasional songwriting and background vocal work with Aretha in the 1970s and 80s, Carolyn was unable to fully emerge from the towering shadow of her beloved superstar sister.

But her creative contributions deserve appreciation in hindsight. According to singer and friend Martha Reeves, “I don’t think one had anything to do with the other. After all, it took Aretha several years to finally break through; perhaps Carolyn just needed more time.”

Erma Franklin: The Elder Sister

Carolyn wasn’t the only abundantly blessed vocalist among the Franklin siblings. As the eldest sister in the family, Erma Franklin also carried the family torch of musical excellence from an early age.

Erma was born in 1938 in Tennessee before the family relocated to Detroit, and she joined her younger siblings at New Bethel Baptist.

Possessing a smooth, mellow tone compared to Aretha’s fiery vocals, Erma found her own success as a solo artist in the 1960s. Her signature hit was “Piece of My Heart,” written and produced by Bert Berns in 1967, which reached the R&B Top 10.

Erma’s soulful rendition was so highly acclaimed that it earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.

Tragically, the following year singer Janis Joplin recorded an even more famous cover version of Erma’s song with Big Brother and the Holding Company. But Erma’s original recording stands as a highlight of 1960s soul in its own right.

Like Carolyn, Erma also sang backup for Aretha Franklin during her Atlantic Records tenure, appearing on epochal songs like “Respect.” According to singer Bettye LaVette, a Detroit friend of the sisters, Erma was the most demure and reserved of the three Franklin girls even as her heavenly voice rose to prominence.

Erma balanced her music career with community service work back home in Detroit. For over 25 years, she dedicated efforts to the Boysville Holy Cross Center, helping poor and minority children in need.

Sadly, Erma was only 64 when she passed away from throat cancer in 2002, leaving a too-brief legacy of gospel-rooted music and selfless giving to others.

Cecil Franklin: Assistant Pastor and Manager

In contrast to the renowned singing Franklin sisters, brothers Cecil and Vaughn took less public roles of spiritual leadership and military service respectively. Cecil Franklin was the only full brother of Aretha and older than her by two years.

When their father C.L. Franklin became pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church in 1946, Cecil joined the family ministry and served dutifully as Assistant Pastor.

But Cecil also supported Aretha’s skyrocketing career behind the scenes, working as her personal manager during the 1960s and 70s.

According to singer Martha Reeves, Cecil provided valued guidance and encouragement: “Carolyn told me ‘don’t go with them’, encouraging me to continue living my life to the fullest and to not be consumed by grief.”

Cecil’s relationship with Aretha was clearly close, both spiritually and professionally. Sadly, he passed away in 1989 at only age 49 after suffering a heart attack brought on by serious pneumonia.

Like the rest of the {@Aretha Franklin Siblings@} who died relatively young, Cecil left behind a truncated but devoted legacy of faith and service to others.

Other Siblings: Carl Ellan Kelley and Vaughn Franklin

While her Detroit family formed the core, Aretha Franklin had other lesser-known siblings from her father C.L. Franklin’s previous relationships.

An out-of-wedlock daughter named Carl Ellan Kelley was born in 1940 when C.L. was a young minister in Tennessee, but he eventually brought her to live with the family in Detroit. C.L. also adopted a son named Vaughn Franklin, born in 1934.

Details on their relationships with Aretha are scarce, though Vaughn Franklin served honorably as a military veteran. He was a flight engineer in the Air Force for 20 years, earning decorations for his service in the Vietnam War. After retiring from the military in 1974, Vaughn settled down in Alabama. He died there in 2002 at age 67.

Meanwhile, Aretha’s half-sister Carl Ellan Kelley largely avoided the spotlight. She focused on motherhood and her role as a grandmother in later life, passing away in 2019 at age 78.

While the talents of Aretha and other siblings seized the limelight, Carl and Vaughn played valuable supporting roles in the sprawling Franklin family story.

Loss and Legacy

Behind all the Franklin siblings’ outstanding gifts, there is also profound tragedy in their shortened lives. The same fate that made Aretha the lone surviving Franklin was devastating for those who died prematurely at the height of their talents.

After the loss of her brother Cecil in 1989, Aretha saw sisters Carolyn and Erma swiftly taken by cancer as well. Erma passed away from throat cancer in 2002 at only age 64, followed by Carolyn in 1988 at age 43 after a battle with breast cancer.

Both sisters died in Detroit and had funerals at New Bethel Baptist Church, just as Cecil and both parents did.

The losses also deeply wounded the next generation, as Carolyn and Erma’s niece Sabrina Owens told biographer David Ritz. “They were my mother figures,” Sabrina said, “so central to my life as a child and teenager.”

The early passing of so many {@Aretha Franklin Siblings@} hints at the health difficulties and lack of access to quality medical care plaguing Black Americans broadly during that era.

Yet even in their short lives, the Franklin brothers and sisters left monumental impacts in American music and culture. Carolyn and Erma especially deserve renewed appreciation for their seminal contributions as singers and songwriters, on top of providing invaluable creative support to Aretha herself.

Though they never got the acclaim they fully warranted, we can still celebrate the lives of these forgotten Franklin legends.

The Franklin siblings’ tale ultimately reveals how genius and tragedy can Intersect in mysterious ways. While the Queen of Soul Aretha alone survived to ascend her throne, her overlooked brothers and sisters bear powerful stories in their own right.

The bonds of family and creative partnership between Aretha and her gifted siblings represent a rich legacy yet to be fully explored. One thing is certain – the Franklin family’s impact on music continues to inspire generations, and the legends of those lost siblings still ring out today.

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