ARETHA Franklin was huddled in a dressing gown and slumped on a deep sofa at her home at 7415 La Salle Boulevard. She hated the limelight and had come to hate the daylight too.
For 10 depressive days in February 1967, she was hidden away at home, tearful, listless, and on the verge of abandoning her promising career as a singer.
Doctors had diagnosed depression, one imagined her reluctance to face light to be signs of meningitis, and others simply described her condition as exhaustion from overwork.
In a far from flattering article, Time magazine portrayed Aretha as a depressive “who sleeps till afternoon, then mopes in front of the television set, chain-smoking Kool cigarettes and snacking compulsively.”
What had not yet been diagnosed was her agoraphobia, a condition that made her uneasy about public appearances, and at times fearful of venturing outdoors.
In February 1967, Aretha came perilously close to giving up her career as a singer. She hid away in the family mansion which sat like a tabernacle on Detroit’s La Salle Avenue. It was a home with many secrets to conceal.
Her father The Rev CL Franklin preached fire and brimstone but lived his life like a pop star. His wife had divorced him, leaving him a single father tending a family of four, but his charisma meant that the preacher was rarely if ever alone.
A string of housekeepers, many recruited from the Bethel congregation, helped out, and Franklin had unofficial wives, including a long-standing love affair with the brilliant gospel singer Clara Ward, who in turn became Aretha Franklin’s surrogate mother.
Signing for Atlantic had brought a surge of self-confidence into Aretha’s life but her first recording session for her new label went catastrophically wrong.
Determined to put substance back into her rudderless career, her producer Jerry Wexler was keen to capture the grittier southern sound that was emerging from independent studios of Alabama and Memphis.
He had hired Rick Hall’s Fame Studios which had already played host to some of the great leathery voices of the southern soul scene – Arthur Alexander, Irma Thomas and Wilson Pickett. It was a decision that was inspired and misguided in equal measure. Unlike Detroit, where the R&B recording scene was predominantly black, Muscle Shoals had a very different ethnic composition.
A drunken fight broke out between her irascible husband, Ted White, and rogue trumpeter Ken Laxton, a talented but combustible redneck studio musician. The session came to an abrupt end, Aretha stormed out and returned alone to her motel, followed by her drunken and abusive husband and by Wexler.
In his book A Life In American Music, Wexler has described what happened next, the raised voices, banging doors, and gunfire. After a night of arguing, punctuated by long bitter silences, Franklin and White ended their relationship, at least temporarily, and she returned to Detroit alone. It was neither their first dispute nor their last.
The R&B producer Clyde Otis remembered a “put-upon” relationship. “Ted beat her down so unmercifully,” he claimed. “This is a woman who is so insecure.”
On her arrival home from Alabama, Aretha took a taxi to her father’s home in floods of tears. She talked to her father about her self-doubts and considered the prospect of returning to Detroit permanently, rejoining the Franklin family gospel caravan and abandoning a solo career in secular music.
Aretha was intensely close to her father, so close that their relationship provoked the unfounded rumour that he was the father of the child she bore in 1955 when she was only 13, and of her second son, born two years later when she was only 15.
Rather than remove doubt from the swirling rumours, Aretha Franklin chose not to dignify them with a response. She refused to name the father of her first child, restricting the release of the birth certificate and only ever saying that the matter was “very, very personal, and nothing I care to discuss”.
What is not in doubt was her dedication. Aretha Franklin was bewitched by her flamboyant father until he died in 1984, a victim of armed robbery in his own home.
In a famously accurate description, Wexler christened Franklin “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows”.
In his autobiography, he wrote: “Her eyes are incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain… her depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don’t pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”
Linda McCartney, who was an aspiring young photographer in February 1967, sensed similar dark clouds. She had met her husband, Paul McCartney of the Beatles, at a photo shoot for the era-defining album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and had gained access to other major musicians, including Franklin.
“We met at the Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles and she was in tears,” McCartney later reminisced. “She was sort of drinking vodka, and she was just a mess, so depressed. I took pictures of her… and the sadness was amazing.”
Paradoxically, the songs that Aretha Franklin recorded in that month were blessed with something special.
The aching brilliance of the recording sessions gave Jerry Wexler renewed hope and the song I Never Loved A Man was destined to become an all-time soul classic. With no obvious B-side to accompany it, Wexler convinced Franklin that he could recreate the Muscle Shoals in New York.
They agreed by phone that she would head for midtown Manhattan, well away from the racial tinderbox of the Deep South, and for reassurance, her sisters Erma and Carolyn and a longtime family friend, the gospel singer Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney Houston, would be hired as her back-up singers.
Franklin packed her bags, and flew to New York, where in a few intense days she recorded songs that have become historic, among them the torch song Respect, which she had sung live onstage but never recorded.
At the time, Respect was more immediately associated with Stax singer Otis Redding, and when Otis heard Aretha’s version for the first time, he acknowledged its pure brilliance, simply saying, “That woman has stolen my song.”
She had turned it from a song about a man wanting respect in the family home to an anthem; a song that was simultaneously about civil rights and feminism.
It is a song that will long outlast the woman that gave it life.