The Franklins had a troubled marriage due to Mr. Franklin's infidelities, and they separated in 1948. At that time, Barbara Franklin returned to Buffalo with Aretha's half brother, Vaughn. After the separation, Aretha recalled seeing her mother in Buffalo during the summer, and Barbara Franklin frequently visited her children in Detroit. Aretha's mother died of a heart attack on March 7, 1952, before Aretha's tenth birthday. Several women, including Aretha's grandmother, Rachel, and Mahalia Jackson, took turns helping with the children at the Franklin home. During this time, Aretha learned how to play piano by ear. She also attended public school in Detroit, going through her freshman year at Northern High School, but dropping out during her sophomore year.
Aretha's father's emotionally driven sermons resulted in his being known as the man with the "million-dollar voice". He earned thousands of dollars for sermons in various churches across the country. His celebrity status led to his home being visited by various celebrities. Among the visitors were gospel musicians Clara Ward, James Cleveland, and early Caravans members Albertina Walker and Inez Andrews. Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke all became friends of C. L. Franklin, as well. Ward was romantically involved with Aretha's father from around 1949 to Ward's death in 1973, though Aretha "preferred to view them strictly as friends". Ward also served as a role model to the young Aretha.