Aretha Franklin’s relationship with her family and husband are a key part of National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha” series — including her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, a Baptist minister and civil rights activist.
In a recent interview, Courtney B. Vance, who plays C.L. Franklin (often called “the man with the million-dollar voice”) in the scripted series based on Aretha’s life, said that the tension between father and daughter was often palpable.
“Seven years, it took Aretha to break through and find her own voice and when she did, she and he battled because it was, ‘I made you,’ but ‘I’m here now, daddy.’ So the journey and the tension between the two of them was palpable,” Vance told Variety.
Aretha’s mother, Barbara Franklin, died four years after separating from her husband, so Aretha and her sisters were raised by their father and grandmother.
C.L. encouraged Aretha to sing at Baptist revival events and church ceremonies and was a key part in Aretha discovering her voice and love of soul music. But when Aretha began to strike out on her own, the two had differences and things got difficult — in the series, C.L. withholds money from Aretha whenever they argue and is portrayed as a bit of a philanderer, frequently meeting women while on the road with his daughter.
“We don’t show what happened to her mother because it’s cloudy and it would be speculation and gossip if we said exactly what happened because nobody knows: She died and Aretha stopped talking for a year, and C.L. had to do something because he knew she was going to be a star, so he said, ‘I’m going to take you on the road,'” Vance said. “It was a mess, but out of that mess came some rebirth, and all we can do is celebrate that.”
In a biography by David Ritz (which the Franklin family threatened to sue over), the gospel circuit C.L. took Aretha on was described as a “sex circus.”
“In Detroit, the church and the club were right on the same block,” Vance said. “Folks would leave the club at three in the morning on Saturday night, go change clothes, and go right to church. And so, in (C.L. Franklin’s) mind, music was music: secular and gospel music was the same and served the same function.”
Throughout the eight-part series, concluding Thursday, Aretha and her father frequently get into arguments, usually with her husband Ted White as the main topic. Even though he introduced Aretha to White, C.L. couldn’t stand that she married him, and this tension strained their relationship.
“What we know is that they, like every other family, were messy, and it’s the story of overcoming,” Vance said. “Aretha had a daddy who knew everything and you couldn’t tell him nothing, and she went and married Ted White, who was a bitter enemy and rival.”
Vance went on to describe the “messy” situation of how Aretha even met White when she was around age 19. By that time, she’d already had two children, first at age 12 and again at age 14.
“Ted was a hustler, a pimp, and used to move women around, and came visiting at C.L.’s house, and C.L. would bring Aretha down, and that’s just messy,” Vance said. “He’d bring his daughter down to the parties with celebrities because, ‘Sing something, she’ll sing it right back,’ and he would have her do that, and she met Ted. And so, when Ted and she got together when she was 16, 17, what could C.L. say? ‘Daddy, I met him in your house! He was good enough to come in your house.’ We show that because that’s what it was.”
Ultimately, any tension between Aretha and her siblings and their father was put aside after his health took a turn for the worst in 1979. C.L. was shot twice at point-blank range at his home on the west side of Detroit. He was in a coma for five years before he passed away; during that time, Aretha and her family gave him 24-hour nursing care.
“Genius: Aretha” is airing as a four-night event series that premiered on Sunday, March 21. The eight episodes of the season will air in pairs of two, with all available to stream on Hulu by Thursday, March 25.