Aretha Franklin’s decades-long career dominance was rooted in songs that unleashed the power women so often had to hide. But the lyrics for one of her first big hits may have struck closer to her heart than many realized. In 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” she sang the words, “I don’t know why I let you do these things to me / My friends keep telling me that you ain’t no good / But they don’t know that I’d leave you if I could.”
At the time of its release, Franklin — who died in 2018 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 76 — was married to her first husband Ted White, who also became her manager. Not only did she rarely talk about their seven-year marriage, which began when she was 19, but a 1968 magazine story that alluded to trouble in their relationship led to her closing herself to major media interviews all together.
But many close to her have hinted that this period of the Queen of Soul’s life may have been one where she struggled with getting her own respect.
READ MORE: Aretha Franklin: The Powerful Meaning Behind Her Equality Anthem “Respect”
Franklin’s inner circle was skeptical of White from the start
Not long after releasing her first album in 1961, Franklin met White at a Detroit Club called 20 Grand. Her sister Erma knew him and “she also told me he considered me among the most beautiful women in the world,” Franklin wrote in her memoir From These Roots.
That seemed to be the kind of attention Franklin craved. “She fooled around and got with a man like Ted White, but that’s the kind of dude Aretha likes, the dude that flies fancy,” singer Mavis Staples told Vanity Fair.
But Franklin’s inner circle was not so fond of him. Aretha’s brother said their father Reverend C.L. Franklin “knew Ted was something of a shady character” and “thought the association would hurt Aretha.” Producer Harvey Fuqua had harsher words: “Anyone who didn’t see Ted White as a straight-up pimp had to be deaf, dumb and blind,“ he told Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin biographer David Ritz. “It took someone that slick to get a great talent like Aretha in his stable.”
They married six months after meeting
While Franklin was still a teen when she met White, she was also a mother of two, having given birth to her first son Clarence when she was 12 and Edward when she was 14. Her family always had her back, with Franklin saying her dad “was not judgmental, narrow or scolding” about her youthful pregnancies. “In my fifth or sixth month, I dropped out of school. My family supported me in every way,” she wrote in her book.
But that supportive nature did not carry over when Franklin and White grew closer. Deacon Willie Todd declared, “Reverend Franklin couldn’t stand Ted,” according to Vanity Fair.
Despite his disapproval, the two were married six months after meeting in 1961; she was 19 and he was reportedly 30. “C.L. was bitterly opposed to the whole deal,” wrote music journalist Mikal Gilmore in a sprawling 2018 obituary for Rolling Stone. “He counted White as an enemy.”
There were several alleged experiences that hinted at trouble in their marriage
While Franklin herself never directly addressed the dark side of the relationship, one of the first signs of trouble emerged in a 1968 Time story that said White had “roughed her up in public at Atlanta’s Regency Hyatt House Hotel.” While there weren’t further details, it did go on to say: “It was not the first such incident.”
The story described White as “former dabbler in Detroit real estate and a street-corner wheeler-dealer” who had “come a long way since he married Aretha and took over the management of her career.” Even gospel great Mahalia Jackson spoke out in the article, saying: “I don’t think she’s happy. Somebody else is making her sing the blues.”
Over the years, other reports have backed up the Time allegations. “Aretha is the kind of girl, you’ve got to love her hard,” pianist Teddy Harris said. “She requires a lot of attention and she didn’t get that from Ted. Ted was into something else. He was kind of abusive.”
As for Franklin herself, all she ever said — even in her very own autobiography — was “I didn’t realize I was in way over my head,” calling White a “take-charge kind of guy.”
That “taking charge” seemed to overshadow both her personal and professional lives, exploding in a violent incident between White and producer Rick Hall that, according to Hall, turned into a “full-blown fist fight.”
READ MORE: Inside the Lifelong Friendship of Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson
They divorced after seven years and Aretha remained silent about their relationship
Franklin didn’t handle things perfectly either. “She was drinking so much, we thought she was on the verge of a breakdown,” her sister Carolyn said in Ritz’s biography.
There were also headlining-grabbing incidents during the period, including when Franklin received a reckless driving charge in Detroit for running two cars off a road in 1968, as well as when she was charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly trying to hit two police officers after a traffic infringement in Michigan. Musician Rod Hicks shed a different light, saying, “I’ll tell you something about Ted White… He didn’t have no pussycat. He had a tiger on his hands when that girl got drunk.”
White, for his part, didn’t exactly have a clean record, most notably with police looking for him after he allegedly shot an associate in the groin at Franklin’s home. Whatever happened behind those closed doors, it wasn’t long after that alleged incident that Franklin and White divorced. They had one child, son Teddy Richards.
Perhaps through all the talk, it is Franklin’s silence that speaks the loudest. “Aretha has gone through a lot of trouble in her life,” Wexler said in Vanity Fair. “A lot of trouble. And she doesn’t want any reference to it.”
But now and then, she would drop hints that being the Queen of Soul was not easy on her own soul. “Trying to grow up is hurting, you know,” she said. “You make mistakes. You try to learn from them, and when you don’t it hurts even more. And I’ve been hurt—hurt bad.”