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:
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.)
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.’ ”
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 Dylan, Bruce 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)