Aretha Franklin – (Part 1) The Sacred and the Profane

Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” died on August 16, 2018 at the age of 76. This is her story. If you think know Aretha, you probably don’t. Read on. 

I think that, to make sense of Aretha – “Ree” to her friends and family – you have to understand her relationship with her parents, especially her father. Her father was not nobody. His name was Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, a preacher known as  the man with the “Million-Dollar Voice.” Intimates called him C.L. or Frank.

He became a preacher in 1931, at the age of 16, two years into the Great Depression. Initially he traveled around working the Black itinerant circuit, landing in Memphis and Buffalo before being lured to Detroit. A fiery preacher, you could say (at the very least) that he was charismatic. As a consequence, this most worldly of preachers had a hard time staying faithful. And at $4,000 per speaking engagement ($43,000 in today’s dollars), he was quite well off.

C.L. had four children by his first wife, one of whom was Aretha (b. 1942.) But he had a couple of other kids on the side, one with a 12-year-old girl. (As we shall see, kids “grew up” fast in this showbiz culture at that time whether they wanted to or not.) By all accounts, Aretha was a shy, introverted little girl. And so it hit her hard when her mother up and left the family when Ree was six years old, taking her son by another man with her. To make matters worse, Aretha’s mother died before the girl turned ten.

C.L. took up with other women but never married any of them and Aretha was, according to her siblings, very sensitive – a “daddy’s girl” – leaving her with a lifetime of insecurity. When C.L.’s latest girlfriend Lola Moore had had enough of his philandering, she took off one day in a taxicab. “I thought [Aretha] was going to throw herself in front of that taxicab,” her sister Erma said. “She was inconsolable. It took her days to come out of her room and face the reality that we had lost Lola.”

While everyone in the family – including C.L. – sang, it was clear that Aretha had a special gift. She could both sing and play piano beautifully and soon became part of her father’s “gospel caravan,” singing in a variety of Black churches. Her father recorded her performing a gospel tune called “Never Grow Old” (all of 14 years old) in his New Bethel Baptist Church. This and other songs were released on an album called Spirituals.

Listen to this. This is friggin’ amazing:

Spotify link

Aretha would sometimes travel with the Soul Stirrers, a group that Sam Cooke sang with for six years. Aretha – like many women – had a crush on Mr. Cooke and some say that not only was it reciprocated but that they were also more than just close friends.

And this is the astonishing thing I discovered in reading about the gospel circuit. For while they sang, preached and prayed to Jesus during the day, they became a whole different group at night. According to the book Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,* both Ray Charles and Billy Preston (yes, that Billy Preston) referred to the gospel circuit as a “sex circus.”

“When it came to pure heart singing,” says Ray, “they were motherfuckers. When it came to pure sex, they were wilder than me – and that’s saying something. In those days I had a thing for orgies, but I had to be the only cat in a room with two or three chicks. (Whoa! – ME.)

The gospel people didn’t think that way. The cats liked it with the cats and the chicks liked it with the chicks and no one minded mixing it up this way or that. I was just surprised to see how loose they were.” (Me too – ME.)

In 1960, when she was 18, Aretha moved to New York City to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Sam Cooke. If you read anything about her in this period of time, you realize that while she was a great talent, no one seemed to really know what to do with her – Jazz? Blues? Popular music? She could sing it all but regardless of what she did or sang, for years nothing really “stuck” with the public. (But the critics, to their credit, recognized her talent.)

Given that she and her father both knew Cooke and Berry Gordy, it’s logical to think that she would sign a contract with either Sam’s label, RCA, or Motown. But her father felt that the best place for her was Columbia Records which had (and has) a proud history.

Her debut album, Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo was produced by legendary producer John Hammond.** It was a grab bag of tunes but clearly demonstrates that she had the goods no matter what she sang.

Listen to her on “Today I Sing the Blues.” B.B King himself could not have sung this any better. (Typically after Aretha sang a song, nobody else wanted to touch it.)

Spotify link

She had her first international hit single with her rendition of the standard “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” By the end of 1961, Franklin was named as a “new-star female vocalist” in the jazz bible, Downbeat magazine. Even though she had this hit, she was by no means a breakout star in the way that, say, Barbara Streisand was with “People” in 1964. 

Despite this success, she fell out with producer Hammond who later said he felt that Columbia did not understand Franklin’s early gospel background and failed to bring that aspect out further during her period there. Her sister Erma said she was “too white for the black folk, too black for the white folk.”

Aretha was gaining critical, if not commercial success and began to be recognized by her peers. Her fourth album, Laughing on the Outside (1963), had a Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael standard called “Skylark.”

Etta James once recalled listening to this tune. In the second verse, Franklin jumps an octave. “I had to scratch my head and ask myself, How the fuck did that bitch do that? I remember running into Sarah Vaughan, who always intimidated me. Sarah said, ‘Have you heard of this Aretha Franklin girl?’ I said, ‘You heard her do ‘Skylark,’ didn’t you?’ Sarah said, ‘Yes, I did, and I’m never singing that song again.’ ”

Spotify link

Meanwhile Berry Gordy was churning out one hit after another over at Motown. And Aretha continued to struggle to find her way, waiting for that one big hit that would put her on the map. It would take a few more years and a change of labels for that to happen.

____________________________________________________________________

*David Ritz, who wrote Respect, had previously written a book with Franklin. But he felt that she whitewashed her past and wrote this book to set the record straight. Aretha called it lies. But Ritz knew everybody in her family quite well and interviewed all of them as well as Ray Charles. So the book has a lot of credibility and everyone agrees that Aretha was heavily into reinventing her own history.

**Per Wikipedia: Hammond was instrumental in sparking or furthering numerous musical careers. A short list includes Bob DylanBruce Springsteen, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, George Benson,  Leonard Cohen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He is also largely responsible for the revival of delta blues artist Robert Johnson’s music. If you don’t think Music Enthusiast is not planning a post or two on this dude, think again.

Next up – The Queen of Soul

Sources: The New Yorker, Wikipedia, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. David Ritz. Little, Brown and Company (October 28, 2014)

 

12 thoughts on “Aretha Franklin – (Part 1) The Sacred and the Profane

  1. I’m about to begin reading Respect. I have been aware of the ‘blurred’ parts of Aretha Franklin’s life, however, I think we shouldn’t be too hard on her Black women were/are so often seen by as merely sexual objects and or the recipients of other people’s projections upon them. Aretha Franklin may not have been a saint but please lets not tarnish her any further in death than she may have been in life. BTW I have posted a tribute blog and radio show on Aretha Franklin here on WordPress.com The Queen of Soul – Aretha Franklin RIP A Tribute 4th September 2018 blog, The Happening – 19/08/2018 A Tribute to Aretha Franklin plus the Usual Eclectic Mix 21/08/2018.

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    1. Sure, I understand but my take on it is that people aren’t saints, black or white. And if I’m an honest reporter, I have to report warts and all. You’re going to read a lot you won’t like in ‘Respect’ and if you can’t deal with that, I suggest you not read it or the rest of my series.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Sorry, not trying to patronize. Just saying that that the book is a lot stronger than anything I might have to say. And I think overall my take on her is pretty positive. Not judging her – just telling her story as I have read or heard about it. You’ll see what I mean in the book.

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        2. Oh, emphatic HELL NO! No finger-wagging here, just honest (I hope) reporting. Glad you’re still on board. We’ve had a few good exchanges. I try to be respectful not only of the artists I write about but also the community of people who are nice enough to visit. I could have handled the first exchange better for sure.

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  2. Hi I’m back. No one likes their ‘idols’ to be criticised or denigrated. I’ve given up on Respect The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz, an unauthorised version of her life. As a former psychotherapist who has worked in the private and public sector (in the UK) I have to say that I did not find Ritz’s book particularly pleasant reading. It felt like a revenge biography, written because he didn’t get the story he really wanted in his initial book on Aretha Franklin. I am no shrinking violet but the constant focus on sex and the sexual behaviour of Aretha and those around her was wearing. Taking a feminist view, Aretha Franklin, seems to have been a woman who was misused by some people around her, by this I am referring to the men (and just to be clear I’m no man hater). To all intents and purposes she, Aretha never got over the feeling of being abandoned by her mother. Hardly surprising that she suffered from a great sense of insecurity and a lack of confidence. Yes, she seems to have been a difficult person to work or live with, yes, she made decisions in terms of her career that did not help her get to where she wanted to be fast enough, yes, she made seemingly uninspiring choices in terms of her husbands/partners but as

    ‘Ruth Bowen her longtime booking agent, together with friends and relatives kept on saying: Aretha is a troubled genius [but] with whom, they shared great affection and frequent rifts.’ See book review by Robin Tolbert 11/12/2014 Washington Independent Review of Books. I would concur with Talbert that:
    To the disappointment of Ritz and others, topics such as depression, domestic abuse, and even career missteps were off limits in: Aretha: From These Roots.

    Robin Talbert suggests that the book (By Ritz) doesn’t make us admire you any less. It helps us understand you more. Just let your story be what it is.

    I would argue that letting one’s story be is a tall order for a lot of us, but as a Black woman, who was in the public eye, it’s a very big ask, when one has to contend with the voyeristic tendencies and projections of the public, both black and white people. I had heard all sorts of rumours about Aretha Franklin’s life before I attempted to read David Ritz’s book. The rumours and gossip did not make me love her music or the person who some say she was, any the less. So having read just over half of the Ritz book. I still admire the late great Aretha Franklin – The Queen of Soul.

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    1. I hear that and for the record, I still admire and respect her too. Ritz’ book helped me understand some of her motivations but it didn’t change my – pardon the pun – respect for her in any way, shape or form. I am keenly interested in seeing that ‘Amazing Grace’ film when it comes out in wide release. Thanks for your honest, no-bullshit appraisal. And keep coming back, please. 🙂

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    2. BTW, I just wanted to add two other things. When I said in my original comment back to you that you “may not want to read my series or the book,” you were offended and said you were made of sterner stuff. What I was really trying to say was “I don’t think you’re going to like Ritz’ book so I suggest you not read it.” I was kinda warning you and I was correct in that I think.

      Also, consider that writing a four-part series on ANY artist is a considerable amount of invested time for me and a labor of love. It’s a hell of a lot of work. I could have written nothing about Aretha but I chose to do so simply ‘coz I think she was great. If some of the facts are inconvenient, not much I can do about that. I’m writing a series write now on Led Zeppelin a band I love to death. But boy, they too have a LOT of inconvenient facts. I am not going to dwell on them. But neither am I going to ignore them.

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