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Who were Aretha Franklin's sisters? How Erma and Carolyn helped the 'Queen of Soul' to secure her crown

Aretha Franklin was closest to her sisters, but she also had three other siblings, including a half-sister and a half-brother
Aretha Franklin's rise to the top was supported by her sisters Erma and Carolyn
Aretha Franklin's rise to the top was supported by her sisters Erma and Carolyn

Aretha Franklin may have been the 'Queen of Soul', but there was a sisterhood who kept her securely reigning for years. Far from being a case of sibling rivalry, it seemed that her sisters reveled in her success. Now let's learn a little more about the less known Franklin sisters Erma and Carolyn, but who were equally important in Aretha's journey to the top.

Rebecca Naomi Jones, who plays Carolyn Franklin in 'Genius: Aretha', believes that the strong sense of sisterhood Aretha was fortunate to experience, was instrumental in her success.


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Cynthia Erivo and PatriceCovington star as Aretha and Erma Franklin in 'Genius: Aretha' (Instagram@patricecovington)

Rebecca Naomi Jones, in an interview to about Aretha's sisters, says, “I learned so much about how much they held her up. We’ve talked a lot about sisterhood, and how much that was an aspect of Aretha’s rise to stardom, Carolyn and Erma sang back up for their sister, helped her write songs, and even watched her kids while she was on tour."

So what happened to Aretha's sisters and what kind of professional and personal life were they able to carve out for themselves?

Let's start with Erma Franklin who was Aretha's elder sister, who was also a successful pop and gospel singer. Erma's best-known work was 'Piece of My Heart' which was recorded in 1967. She was nominated for a Grammy Award and a cover version of 'Piece of My Heart' was recorded the following year with vocals by Janis Joplin. Erma Franklin died of lung cancer at the age of 64 in 2002.

Carolyn Franklin Aretha's younger sister also was a successful musician in her own right. As she had often done in life, she appeared as one of Aretha's background singers in the 1980 movie 'The Blues Brothers'. She retired from the music industry in 1976 and only stepped out of retirement occasionally to sing with Aretha. Carolyn died in 1989 from breast cancer. 

While Aretha obviously had a special bond with Erma and Carolyn, she also had three other siblings including a half-sister Carl Ellan Kelley, a half-brother Vaughn Franklin and her brother Cecil Franklin.

Aretha's half-sister Carl Ellan was reportedly the result of her father CL Franklin's affair with a 12-year-old parishioner at his church. She was born during CL Franklin's tenure at New Salem Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. She was the last of CL Franklin's children to outlive him and passed away recently in 2019.

Courtney B Vance stars as C.L. Franklin in 'Genius Aretha' (National Geographic)

Aretha's half-brother Vaughn Franklin was CL Franklin's son from a previous relationship. As for Aretha's brother Cecil, he followed his father's footsteps to the church and was an assistant pastor. He and his father worked alongside each other at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan. 

By Thursday, March 25, all eight 'Genius: Aretha' episodes will be available to stream on Hulu, just in time to celebrate Aretha's birthday. Catch the trailer of 'Genius: Aretha' below: