The “Respect” singer’s life featured both challenges and accomplishments, including a life-changing fear and a performance alongside a former Cabinet member.
Iconic singer Aretha Franklin will forever be remembered for hit songs such as “Respect,” “Think” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” as well as her activism and role in the civil rights movement. However, there are facets of her life and career that aren’t as recognized. Here are 10 things you may not know about this musical legend:
She was terrified of flying
In the early 1980s, Franklin had to endure some intense turbulence while flying in a small two-engine plane from Atlanta back home to Detroit. As she described it in 2007,”That plane was dipsy-doodling all over the place.” The experience resulted in a fear of flying. From that point onward, Franklin traveled by bus, not by plane, to get to concerts and other events.
Franklin tried to rid herself of this fear. She explained in 2014,”I did take a class, Fearless Flyers, but I missed two weeks of it and my fellow students went on to Indiana and passed, and I didn’t, so I need to make those two classes and then hopefully I’ll pass and I’ll be able to fly again.” But her aviophobia persisted, and Franklin never again took to the skies.
She was mistakenly identified as Whitney Houston’s godmother
In 2012, swollen feet left Franklin unable to attend Whitney Houston‘s funeral. At the service, Dionne Warwick, Houston’s cousin, mentioned Franklin before realizing she wasn’t present. Warwick then said of Franklin,”She loves Whitney as if she were born to her. She is her godmother.” However, Franklin was not Houston’s godmother (another popular singer, Darlene Love, filled that role).
Houston’s mother corrected Warwick within days, but that wasn’t enough for Franklin. Five years later, Franklin sent a fax to the Associated Press that accused Warwick of making a”libelous” statement. In a follow-up interview with the Associated Press, Franklin said,”She blatantly lied on me… fully well knowing what she was doing.”
In later years, she wanted to study at Juilliard
Franklin was a self-taught musician who learned to play the piano by ear and couldn’t read music. Considering her accomplishments and adulation as a performer, being an autodidact didn’t hold her back — but as she grew older, she developed the goal of someday studying piano at Juilliard.
In 2003, when asked what her biggest regret was, Franklin confided to Vanity Fair,”Not learning to read music. However, Juilliard is still on my mind! I’ve come within two blocks of the building, and my schedule would not allow for me to enroll at the time.” And in 2007 she told The New York Times,”I have been trying to get over to Juilliard for the last four years.”
Franklin never enrolled at the famed school, but she did manage to take private lessons with a Juilliard-trained instructor.
Her voice was declared a natural resource
In 1985, the Department of Natural Resources of the state of Michigan officially declared Franklin’s voice a “natural resource of the state.”
She walked out of rehearsals for ‘Divas Live’
In 1998, Franklin agreed to be part of a group concert for VH1 known as Divas Live. Prior to rehearsals at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, she laid down one simple edict to the show’s producer: “I’ll come to The Beacon, I’ll do it. But I need that air conditioning off.”
Yet when Franklin arrived to rehearse, the air conditioning was running. So she did what any self-respecting diva would do — she left. The remaining divas — Shania Twain, Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and Carole King — rehearsed without Franklin. No one knew if she would show up for the concert.
Of course, in the end, Franklin did make it to the theater. Some of her cues were a little mistimed during the show, but the concert was a hit. Its standout performances included Franklin joining with her fellow divas to sing the perennially popular “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
She planned to bail Angela Davis out of jail
Following a 1970 attempt to free an incarcerated Black Panther that ended in a deadly shootout, activist Angela Davis was arrested. She was charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and murder because the firearms used in the failed escape were registered to her.
Franklin was committed to the fight for civil rights, but Davis was a divisive figure, referred to as a “dangerous terrorist” by President Richard Nixon. But the controversy surrounding the activist didn’t keep Franklin from deciding that she needed to provide the funds for Davis’ bail. “Angela Davis must go free,” Franklin said in an interview with Jet magazine. “Jail is hell to be in. I’m going to see her free if there is any justice in our courts, not because I believe in communism, but because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people. I have the money; I got it from Black people — they’ve made me financially able to have it — and I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”
Davis ended up not being allowed bail, so Franklin wasn’t able to come to her aid. But Davis, who went on to be acquitted of the charges she faced, remembered Franklin’s intentions. She later said of the singer’s gesture,”I thanked her publicly for it many times, but can’t remember if we actually spoke to each other.”
She performed with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Over the course of her career, Franklin appeared alongside many famous people. Surprisingly, this list of performing partners includes former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. On July 27, 2010, the two shared a stage in Philadelphia in order to raise money for educational and outreach programs.
According to Rice, the initial inspiration for their collaboration came from Franklin. Rice related that while she was with Franklin at a White House event,”We were just talking and chatting and she said, ‘You play, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said we should do something together.” A month before the concert, Franklin said,”Ms. Rice is a consummate classical pianist and since I sing the arias, I thought we could do something — a bipartisan effort for our favorite charities.”
Rice played on her own in the first half of the concert. In the second half, she served as the accompanist as Franklin sang “I Say A Little Prayer” and “America (My Country ‘Tis Of Thee).”
She stood up to the Super Bowl
In 2006, the Super Bowl was scheduled to be played in Detroit, a city that holds a special place in music history. Yet instead of turning to a Detroit artist — perhaps Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder or Gladys Knight — for its halftime show, the NFL instead selected the Rolling Stones.
Many who were justifiably proud of Detroit’s talent weren’t happy with this decision. This included Franklin. She shared how she initially felt in an Associated Press interview:”I didn’t think there was enough [representation from Detroit], by any means. And it was my feeling: ‘How dare you come to Detroit, a city of legends — musical legends plural — and not ask one or two of them to participate.'”
Fortunately, the NFL tried to rectify its error. In addition to featuring Wonder in a pre-game performance, Franklin was invited to join singer Aaron Neville for the national anthem. Franklin being added to the lineup marked the first time she performed at any Super Bowl. She’d been invited to sing before, but travel concerns — such as her fear of flying — had led her to refuse. She deemed this Super Bowl appearance“an ultra-special honor.”
She never forgot her father’s church
Throughout her life, Franklin made regular contributions to Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, which had been led by her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. She provided $10,000 checks to the church several times a year. In addition, she gave money to struggling families during the holidays, sponsored Thanksgiving and Christmas meals and arranged an annual concert at the church.
Her inauguration hat has a place in history
Franklin belted out “America (My Country ‘Tis Of Thee)” at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama. During her performance, she wore a gray felt cloche hat that was topped with an impressive bow bedazzled with Swarovski crystals. At the time the hat inspired memes and became a viral sensation. Since then it’s cemented its place in history.
After the inauguration, Franklin’s hat was loaned to the Smithsonian (though it wasn’t added to the museum’s permanent collection). A replica was added to a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame traveling exhibit. And after Franklin’s death, Obama had a request for her estate: He wanted that eye-catching hat.
Confusion over the dispersal of Franklin’s estate — she was thought to have died intestate until several handwritten wills were discovered in her home — meant Obama had to wait for the hat. However, it should eventually become part of his presidential library, which seems to be the outcome that would have best pleased Franklin. Luke Song, the milliner who crafted the chapeau, said in 2018,”She told me she wanted it at the Barack Obama Presidential Library, and I think that is exactly where it should be.”