'A legend in her own right': Carolyn Franklin, Aretha's forgotten sister

She was a genius songwriter and singer but could never escape her sibling’s shadow – and died at just 43. Family and friends including Martha Reeves and Bettye Lavette celebrate the life of a cruelly overlooked artist

Some of the most remarkable footage of Aretha Franklin was taken in 1968, as she rehearses Ain’t No Way, written by her youngest sister, Carolyn. Diminutive and tomboyish in appearance, Carolyn is clearly in control of the session: she anchors the beat with a church clap, teaching her sister the melody while Aretha holds down chords on the piano. For the woman who ferociously demanded respect, Aretha appears meek, almost sheepish. Carolyn’s commanding presence and musicality are what shine.

Yet it was Aretha who would go on to become the Queen of Soul, and whose story will be depicted this year in the biopic Respect, while Carolyn has been mostly overlooked, known – if at all – for a few songwriting credits. Her life and career as a songwriter, backing vocalist and solo artist, though cut short, is one of frustrated opportunity, hidden identity and fantastic accomplishment.

Born in Memphis in 1944, Carolyn Ann Franklin was the fourth and last child of Barbara and the Rev Clarence LaVaughan (CL) Franklin, who – revered for his fusion of religious fervour with civil rights rhetoric – was invited to lead the congregation of the New Bethel Baptist church in Detroit after a spell in Buffalo. Carolyn was only four when her mother, exasperated by her husband’s philandering, returned to Buffalo. Barbara died of a heart attack in 1952; Carolyn, her sisters, Erma and Aretha, and her brother, Cecil, were raised primarily by their father.

Carolyn Franklin poses for a portrait in 1969.
Carolyn Franklin poses for a portrait in 1969. Photograph: Gilles Petard/Redferns

As was the way for many soul singers, the Black church ran deep in Carolyn’s musical DNA, and she grew up singing in the choir of the New Bethel. But the Franklin children were exposed to other permutations of Black music in the home: gospel, jazz, and blues musicians, including Clara Ward, Dinah Washington and BB King, gathered at the Franklin mansion at 7415 La Salle Boulevard. Carolyn even created a girl group in elementary school and invited a future Supreme to audition.

“She came up to me one day and she said: ‘Hey Mary, I heard you’re a really good singer,’” Mary Wilson tells me. They became friends when bussed to their school, which was located in a predominantly white neighbourhood, as part of Detroit’s policy of racial integration. “Carolyn was kinda like Florence Ballard in the Supremes: she was a very earthy Black girl: very streetwise, very likable, very fun, very athletic and she was always the leader. When I found out that she was actually writing some of the songs for Aretha, I was so impressed.” Wilson and Carolyn would remain friends as adults, playing cards together in a group that included Dionne Warwick and Nancy Wilson.

While studying music at the University of Southern California, Carolyn spent time in New York, where both her sisters held recording contracts. She recorded a handful of songs under the alias Candy Carroll but found no success. By the late 1960s she was back in Detroit, working at the post office, and writing songs on the side.

She grew close to her fellow soul singer Bettye LaVette. “We became instant friends,” LaVette says. “We looked very much alike; we were the same size, and we both acted very boyish.” I asked her how the Franklin sisters differed. “Erma was very demure; Aretha was very Baptist; Carolyn was very neighbourhood-ish.”

Carolyn soon became closely involved in Aretha’s career. After signing to Atlantic Records after several unsuccessful years at Columbia, Aretha turned to her sisters for gospel-inspired backing vocal arrangements. Carolyn and Erma helped Aretha rework Otis Redding’s Respect from an outburst of pent-up male frustration to an anthem that would encapsulate the demands of the feminist and civil rights movements. They also sang backing vocals on future Aretha hits including Baby I Love You, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and Day Dreaming. Carolyn wrote the blues ballad Baby, Baby, Baby and the jaunty Ain’t Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around) for Aretha’s first two Atlantic albums.

Ain’t No Way took her songwriting to a higher plane. The song is a bluesy lament and a plea for emotional reciprocity (“It ain’t no way for me to give you all you need / If you won’t let me give all of me”). Carolyn’s lyrics are housed in a stunning arrangement with gospel-accented piano and gliding tenor saxophone. It is quite possibly soul music’s finest ballad. “Anybody that heard it, of course, wanted to record it,” LaVette says – she asked Carolyn if she could record Ain’t No Way before it was given to Aretha.

The song has attracted interest in light of Carolyn’s sexuality. In her interviews with Aretha’s biographer David Ritz, Carolyn mentions in passing that her “romantic preference went in an entirely different direction” to that of her siblings. Ritz later confirmed that Carolyn’s preference was for women. “Everyone knew that back in the day,” remarks Wilson. I ask LaVette whether Carolyn was open about her sexuality. “I don’t think any of [the Franklins] were open about anything,” LaVette says, noting their father’s status in the Baptist community. The prolific bassist Ralphe Armstrong contends that Carolyn was bisexual. “I knew guys she used to date,” he says; the Temptations’ Otis Williams writes in his autobiography that he dated Carolyn briefly.

The writer Andrew Martone has advanced the theory that Ain’t No Way is an “undercover LGBT anthem” – a coded address to a secret lesbian lover. He points to the lyrics “stop trying to be someone you’re not” as evidence of Carolyn urging her lover to embrace her closeted sexuality. LaVette and Wilson are unsure, while Armstrong calls the theory “bullshit … It’s just a love song about having a broken heart.”

Having proved herself as a songwriter, Carolyn sought to follow in Aretha’s footsteps. In March 1969, Carolyn signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, at a time when the label was hungry for Black talent. In 1965, the label appointed Winston “Buzz” Willis in the newly created position of head of new product development, a rather euphemistic title. “They hired me to put them in the Black music business,” Willis says. He signed Nina Simone, the Friends of Distinction, the Main Ingredient, and Carolyn. She worked closely with the producer and songwriter Jimmy Radcliffe, who first introduced her to RCA. “It was a highly creative time for both of them,” says Jimmy’s son Christopher.

Her debut album, Baby Dynamite, was released in May 1969, with a second the following year drawing largely on covers. Compared with Erma’s jazzier cadences, and Aretha’s distinctive marriage of gospel and blues, Carolyn has a rougher, less polished sound; she is less dextrous than Aretha as a vocalist, but sings with power, attack and personality. Despite positive reviews in Billboard, though, neither album charted.

Meanwhile, her songwriting for Aretha continued to flourish with the sublime Angel. The Luther Vandross biographer Craig Seymour writes that Angel reflects a queer sensibility, addressing “a particular kind of loneliness that can occur once you face – and possibly announce – a truth about yourself”. This wistful ballad topped the R&B charts in 1973.

However, Carolyn’s solo career showed no signs of picking up. Even if crossover success was unrealistic, it is surprising that Carolyn’s material performed so dismally within the Black music ecosystem. Radcliffe blames “lack of support from the label in budgeting and promotion. They were interested in capitalising on the Aretha Franklin phenomenon, but didn’t really have a vision for her.” Willis laments: “She had the background, the credibility; I don’t know why she personally never had a tune for herself.”

Aretha’s astonishing success lingered over Carolyn throughout her career. “People won’t let me out of her shadow and I think that’s wrong,” she complained in an interview. LaVette says the family connection “was an advantage if she wanted to be a writer, but not if she wanted to be a singer”.

“It probably hurt them more than helped them,” says Carolyn’s niece Sabrina Owens. Owens’s mother, Erma (known for her hit Piece of My Heart), faced similar challenges. However, the Motown great Martha Reeves argues: “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. But after her third album, I’d Rather Be Lonely, also made little impact, Carolyn was dropped by RCA.

Carolyn (centre) as part of the Soul Food chorus in The Blues Brothers.
Carolyn (centre) as part of the Soul Food chorus in The Blues Brothers. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

A chance encounter in Chicago with Curtis Mayfield around 1975 almost changed her fortunes. Mayfield had been enlisted to score and produce the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Sparkle. He sought a polished R&B vocalist for the soundtrack and initially offered the songs to Carolyn, much to her elation. However, as Ritz relays in his biography, Aretha gained a copy of the soundtrack and insisted that she record it. After an intervention by their father, Carolyn was forced off the project; Sparkle went Top 20.

Though devastated, Carolyn still conceded the virtuosity of Aretha’s performance. “It’s hard for me to say that Aretha sang those songs better than anyone could have. But I do have to say it because it’s the truth,” she told Ritz. Her final album, If You Want Me, was released in 1976 after RCA, without Carolyn’s permission, cobbled together previously unused material (the funky and pithy Deal With It is a hit that never was).

Carolyn spent the ensuing years juggling various projects: she scored a musical adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood set in urban Detroit, wrote material for the Staple Singers, and studied acting in Los Angeles. She returned to Detroit permanently in June 1979 after CL Franklin was shot when confronting burglars during a home break-in. He remained in a coma for the remaining five years of his life.

Reeves reconnected with Carolyn when both their fathers were in hospital in the early 1980s. Reeves remembers Carolyn telling her “don’t go with them”, encouraging Reeves to continue living her life to the fullest and to not be consumed by grief. “She was trying to encourage me to be consoled that God is all powerful, and he’s taking care of us and we can make it whatever.” Alongside her sisters, Carolyn cared for her father until his death in 1984.

Having realised that her solo recording career was over, Carolyn enrolled at Marygrove college, in Detroit, in 1982. She aspired to establish a law firm to help artists navigate the music industry, reasoning in an interview that: “Kids sign their lives away … [they] have so many things working against them.” Carolyn briefly moved in with Erma and Owens to be closer to campus and became very close with Owens’s son LaRone, occasionally sneaking off together late at night to buy shrimp. “She was so good with him,” Owens tells me.

But in March 1987, Carolyn was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she began to deteriorate from 1988. As her condition worsened, Carolyn moved into Aretha’s home and was given round-the-clock care. Realising that Carolyn would not live to reach graduation, Erma contacted Marygrove pointing to Carolyn’s consistently strong academic performance as evidence that she was on track to graduate. Hence, her degree was conferred to her on her deathbed. “At that point, Carolyn could no longer walk, but that didn’t stop her from wearing her cap and gown in bed, where she was handed her diploma. We were cheering and crying,” Erma told Ritz.

Carolyn died in April, a week after her graduation, at 43 years old. “She fought as long as she could,” says her sister-in-law, Earline. Carolyn’s funeral took place at the New Bethel, like her father’s four years prior – and as Cecil’s would be in 1989, and Erma’s in 2002. Cecil presided over Carolyn’s service and declared: “We came here today not because somebody died, but because someone lived.”

Carolyn will be only a supporting character in Respect, played by the Broadway actor Hailey Kilgore, but she leaves behind a passionate, soulful body of work that deserves wider attention and recognition. I ask Carolyn’s family how they want her to be remembered. “As a very talented and gifted writer. As a person with a very kind spirit,” says Owens, who remembers being a young child watching her aunt improvise at the piano. “She just started a song. Then I realised: ‘She’s singing about me!’ I will never forget that day.”

“I want her to be remembered as the star that she was. She was very creative, very smart … somewhat of a legend in her own right,” adds her cousin Brenda, with Earline concurring: “[She was] a wonderful, aspiring young artist … full of spunk, energy and life.” Carolyn refused to be eclipsed by Aretha, and that deserves its own respect.


Fraser Morris

The GuardianTramp

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