Four of the Franklin children — Erma, Cecil, Aretha and Carolyn — made the same middle-adolescence passage from Hutchins Intermediate School to Central High that I survived during Detroit’s booming years.
Among youthful black dwellers of that bustling city-universe, Big D divided up into jazz people and rhythm & blues people. Since Aretha Franklin’s musical upbringing and training didn’t happen in Vernacular Music 369, or on National Public Radio, but in an actual, physical community where music, live music, was plentiful and accessible, this division is crucial to recall. In 1952, jazz people were cool; R&B people were not. Gospel people were otherworldly. Blues people like B.B. King and Lowell Fulsom usually popped up at the bottom of the Graystone Ballroom posters for an upcoming dance. Your country aunts and uncles went out to catch their stuff.
Like school cafeteria servings, pop music still got plopped onto your plate in one big clump. FM radio was just getting off the ground. Perry Como, Doris Day, Kay Starr, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, George Shearing, the Weavers, Stan Kenton, Arthur Godfrey, Billy Eckstine, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, the Mills Brothers, Pearl Bailey, collaborations between Frank Sinatra and Dagmar (TV’s non-singing, busty blond bombshell), the tweetie strings of Mantovani — all of this oozed down into your psyche unlabeled.
When it came to Negro gospel music, the general public knew little about it once you got beyond the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Mahalia Jackson. Many regarded Marian Anderson as a gospel singer. And if people knew anything about Paul Robeson and his concert stage repertoire of Negro spirituals, they weren’t talking. At the height of the McCarthy era, it was uncool to even bring up the man’s name.
Among church-going working people, black or white, things were different. Gospel music mattered. I grew up with the Pilgrim Travelers, the Five Blind Boys, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Swan Silvertones, Clara Ward, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and those early Staple Singers recordings on Chess. Now, we’re so used to the voices of Patti LaBelle, Chaka Khan, Queen Latifah, June and Bonnie Pointer, Deniece Williams, Gladys Knight, Irma Thomas, Etta James, Mariah Carey, Anita Baker and others who have absorbed and adapted the churchified sound, that it’s easy to forget that, back when those first astonishing recordings appeared on Atlantic, there was really was no one quite like Aretha Franklin.
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Erma Franklin, Aretha’s older sister, is the one I’d always thought was going to be the star. She later made records and TV appearances, too. Even though I was jazz-struck, and thought rhythm & blues people were uncool, in my book — which was still largely blank — Erma was undeniably cool. When I learned that it was she and sister Carolyn who came up with the idea of injecting the phrase “Sock it to me!” into the backup vocal they provided for Aretha’s fiery “Respect,” I almost died.
Two grades ahead of me, Erma performed at an assembly in the Hutchins Intermediate School auditorium. Listening and watching closely while she sang Buddy Johnson’s R&B anthem “Since I Fell for You,” I got a rush that turned into a crush. With her pretty brown eyes, her soft hip moves, her smile the River Nile, Erma Franklin put the whammy on me. She had a grownup way about her that frightened and thrilled. It also made me the perfect listening admirer. I thought Erma was just the best.
“Be the best.” That was what our parents, our teachers, our preachers urged. “Be the best at whatever you do.” This advice was so widespread among African-Americans at the time that it would become a riff in the moving sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
The Franklin children’s father was a minister, too. But it helps to understand that C.L. Franklin wasn’t just any minister. My personal interest in Reverend Franklin rested in part on the baffling possibility that he and my mother were going to marry. They had an affair while I was entering my teens, but their talk about marriage soon died away completely. When I asked Mother why, she smiled and said, “I’ll tell you all about it when you get old enough to understand.”
Still, while that possibility glittered, it tickled and confused me to imagine and think about what it would be like to have Erma Franklin as a stepsister. It was after he’d begun to prosper as a preacher in Memphis and Buffalo that C.L. Franklin, a Mississippi farm boy, moved his family to Detroit. By then he had become an evangelical sensation known as “The Man with the Golden Voice.” Mid-20th century Detroit was renowned for its powerful black ministers, among them Bishop Robinson, pastor of Alpha and Omega Church, and the flamboyant Prophet Jones (whose ghostly robes and extravagant headgear might have influenced the wardrobe and costume choices of the late, space-fixated musician Sun Ra).
Prophet Jones’ live Sunday-night TV broadcast, which didn’t start until 11 p.m., kept many of us up so late that we’d have to drag ourselves into school Monday mornings. When I went out on my paper route to deliver the Detroit Free Press, members of Prophet Jones’ all-night congregation would just be emerging from the converted movie theater on Linwood Ave. that had become their place of worship. C.L. Franklin founded the sumptuous New Bethel Baptist Church, whose membership was veering toward 5000. African-Americans talked and gossiped about churches and ministers and their congregations the way many Americans now worship at the altar of celebrity. Like many another enterprise, churches measured their popularity and success in numbers.
So the Memphis-born Aretha, the second of six Franklin children, had grown up comfortably in success-blessed settings. Like her controversial, life-loving father — each of whose blood-and-fire sermons earned him close to what my dad made in a year on the assembly line at Chevrolet — Aretha got much of her training on the gospel circuit, which she toured from age 14, the year she made her first album for Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess.
Two of gospel music’s giants — James Cleveland and singer and hymn composer Clara Ward — were frequent, sometimes live-in visitors at the Franklin home in Detroit on stately LaSalle Boulevard. Both Cleveland and Ward encouraged and inspired Aretha in her singing as well as her piano playing, which continues to be underrated. Moreover, Reverend Franklin, no stranger to the secular world, enjoyed personal friendships with illustrious on-stage and off-stage showbiz notables and political officials.
Asking that I not identify her too sharply, a close, younger relative of mine, whom I’ll call Philandra, reminisced about the days when she regularly went skating with Aretha and her younger sister Carolyn. The Arcadia Roller Rink on Woodward Avenue, not far from Wayne State University, was a real big thing.
“The thing I remember most,” Philandra told me, “is when Aretha was up and ready to party, the party was on. And when she was down, everybody tiptoed around her and left her alone. I remember once she said, ‘I got a leather suit that I’m gonna wear skating.’ And she fell into the Arcadia really sharp. It was kind of a grayish color. And she was skating, and she fell and the skirt split right up the back. And I remember how embarrassed she was. I told her, ‘You can’t wear too good a clothes when you’re skating. You never know when you’re gonna fall.’ And she looked so mad about it. Everybody was off that day. She never did get the dressing thing right.”
“Well,” I said, “Aunt Mae and I didn’t think she was properly dressed when she performed at the White House.”
“Yes,” said Philandra, “I watched it on television. But I think Clinton kind of liked it.”
Then Philandra went on with her memory. “Her dad had kind of put her out of the house, and she was in the garage — which was where he let her live. And, you know, those garages had servants quarters, and she had a piano up there. I enjoyed visiting her. We’d go up there and bang on the piano and sing and whatnot. She could sing, though. We used to sit at that piano and wail. Aretha could sing.
“But after she started singing professionally, she got a little too grand for us,” Philandra continued. “One day we were over at her house on LaSalle. I was looking at that pink 1958 Imperial they had. I was sitting on the steps, and Aretha was up on the top step. She told me her daddy was gonna give her the money to go to New York and get her a contract. And she said, ‘One day when the name Aretha Franklin is spoken, everybody around the world will know who you talking about.’ I just looked at her because it sounded like a fantasy.”
Overwhelmed by the stories and biographies — official and unofficial — that we construct around our sacred celebrity-aristocrats, fans easily overlook or forget those special qualities and abilities that endeared our idols to us in the first place. Soon, maybe as early as next year, Aretha’s own version of her life — written with veteran soul music biographer David Ritz — will be published. According to rumor, the book is packed with the kind of shocking disclosures we have come not only to expect, but demand from our heroines and heroes.
Over the decades, all the write-ups, press releases, TV documentaries, gossip, hearsay and scuttlebutt about Aretha Franklin has cemented into brick-solid narrative architecture. Jerry Wexler once called her “Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows.” News items appeared about lawsuits her creditors were bringing against her for failing to pay her bills. Some worry about the weight she’s carrying. During the fabled Atlantic period, her marriage to Ted White — a non-musician who got a co-credit on several of the hit songs Aretha composed and recorded for Atlantic — was complicated. That he treated her badly was an open secret.
Meanwhile, Aretha can still sing. If anything, her voice, over the past four decades, has improved. In an interview with Time, Aretha herself acknowledged this improvement: “I stopped smoking in 1991,” she explained. “It helped my voice tremendously. The clarity and everything. The range even increased.” Globally revered as the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin puts her heart into everything she sings, whether it be the kind of sacred church offering that inspires and undergirds her stunning delivery, or a winsomely erotic, earth-shaking blues or a Puccini aria. And, in recent shows, Aretha has warmly performed opera and hip hop.
When by laser beam, iron oxide paths or well-needled vinyl I travel back through the late century with Aretha, I hear so much that’s been overlooked in the music she’s given us that it’s almost as much fun to remember her aloud as it is to repeat tracks, rewind or to turn the record over and play the other side. Lest we forget, every side has its other side, too, and the way Aretha Franklin’s life connects with the lives of others, including my own, is intriguing to consider. Music of course is a kind of glue to which anything can stick. Consider the afternoon, in 1982, when I sat at my mother’s bedside in a Mexican clinic outside Tijuana, where she’d gone to take laetrile treatments for the cancer that was eating its way through her body.
I was singing “Day Dreaming,” which is one of my favorite Aretha pieces, and one she herself composed. I had always admired and loved the song’s cascading melody and unusual rhythmic and chordal conception. Mother and I began to talk about Aretha and the Franklin family.
Mother looked way off into space and said, “I saw that child up in Detroit the other day before I came down here for treatments. I was in the Red Lobster [which happens to be one of Aretha's favorite restaurants], and Aretha came over to the table and said, ‘Mary, you don’t come around anymore. I’m still the same me. You don’t have to stay away just because I’m supposed to be so famous.”
When I again asked my mother the question I’d asked years ago — why she hadn’t married Aretha’s father — Mother said, “All right, you asked, so I’ll tell you. You’re old enough now. I don’t know if you’ll understand, but I couldn’t marry anybody like that,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he would spend Saturday night with me. Then, at the crack of dawn, he would hop up out of bed, shove his little bottle of whiskey in his coat packet and say, ‘Oh, Mary, I have to go preach.’ Al, I just couldn’t marry anybody like that.”
To pinpoint the beginning of Aretha Franklin’s actual presence in my life is a lot like trying to nail down the origin of a cry. The musical cry that encircles the world didn’t originate in the United States, it was African-American music that gave it back to the world. Perhaps. Perhaps and maybe and probably and if are quiver-points in that cry. And what is that cry all about? If the fixed and measurable sound of the cosmos is indeed the Om of ancients, the Amen of the Christians, the Amin of the Muslims, then its fluttering, human-sung version is the blues. And the blues are simply the flip side of spirituals.
In church, they sing “Jesus.” On the street, they sing “Baby.” “Baby, Baby, sweet Baby … “
Sometimes the sacred and the secular sound alike. There is a good reason that “Amazing Grace,” the gospel album Aretha made in 1972 for Atlantic with her mentor James Cleveland, has sold and sold and sold to the point where it has achieved double-platinum status. And there is a reason that I have many of her musical treasures on vinyl, tape and compact disc. Aretha Franklin is anything but a sound-alike. She was always one of a kind, a spirit. And with each passing moment, big pieces of that spirit seem to be disappearing from the world.