Detroit, is where musical talent ran strong and free. Everyone was singing and harmonizing, everyone was playing piano and guitar. Aretha came out of this world, but she also came out of another far-off magical world none of us really understood. She came from a distant musical planet where children are born with their gifts fully formed.
Those were the words of the Motown legend Smokey Robinson. He was right, Aretha Franklin did have so many gifts and her death has had a profound impact on many people’s lives.
Three intertwined elements – religion, soul and respect – all played their part in shaping Aretha’s music.
Aretha was born in Memphis on 25 March 1942. Her father was the legendary Baptist minister C L Franklin (Clarence LaVaughn). She spent her pre school years living in Buffalo and by her fifth birthday the family had relocated to Detroit where her father became the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church
When Aretha’s family moved to Detroit it was a vibrant city undergoing massive economic expansion. It was the hub of the US auto industry and attracted hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Eastern Europe as well as black and white migrants from the Southern states. It was the fourth-largest city in the country.
Detroit was also a thriving cultural hub for the black working class – jazz clubs, dance halls and an emerging RnB scene thrived.
But come Sunday there was plenty of souls in need of redemption. That’s where C L Franklin came in.
Over 4,500 people attended the Detroit New Bethel Baptist Church every week and C L Franklin was its pastor. He was also a nationwide star of the pulpit earning $4,000 a sermon. He recorded at least 76 gospel albums and had his own gospel radio show.
On her 10th birthday Aretha sang in front of the 4,500 strong congregation, it was a triumphant debut and she soon joined her father on his gospel tours and sermon circuit. She recorded her first album at the age of fourteen, The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin.
Religion played and still plays an important role in black communities in the US, churches are religious, political and cultural hubs.
Two of the most important black Christian churches in the US were the Baptist and Pentecostal (Sanctified) denominations.
The black Baptist church broke from their white counterparts and sought religious autonomy in the late 18th century. It was a church shaped by the legacy of slavery, the US civil war, Reconstruction and the return of segregation. Baptists believe in salvation through immersion and the church attracted black middle class and ‘respectable’ black working class people.
The National Baptist Convention created a powerful national organisation, this body played a key role in codifying religious ideas and gospel music and during the 1950s and 1960s played an important role in the black US Civil Rights Movement.
The Pentecostal Church’s roots were more humble, it began life as a shop-front church in Los Angeles in 1906. Its founder William Seymour was the son of a former slave and built up his congregation with accounts of faith healing and a belief that the Holy Spirit manifested itself through gassolalia (speaking in tongues). The Pentecostal Church attracted poorer sections of the black community.
From their inception gospel choirs played a central role in the Baptist churches. The Pentecostal Church didn’t embrace gospel music until the 1950s; in its early years it focused on hymns and spirituals to uplift its worshipers.
The Franklin’s had followings in both the Pentecostal and Baptist churches. The spiritual, musical and political traditions of these churches shaped Aretha’s musical voice.
According to Aretha it was hearing Sam Cooke’s recording of You Send Me that made her switch from Gospel to secular musical. This was a brave step to take.
For doctrinal reasons sanctified churches opposed pop music. In different ways their respective churches shunned Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye for becoming secular singers. As a member of the Baptist Church Aretha found it easier to cross over into secular music. In one interview she stated:
I don’t think that in any manner I did the Lord a disservice when I made my mind up two years ago to switch over…after all, the blues is a music born out of the slavery day sufferings of my people. Every song in the blues vein has a story to tell of love, frustrations and heartaches. I think that because true democracy hasn’t overtaken us here that we as a people find the original blues songs still have meaning for us.
Aretha signed to Columbia Records in 1960 – over a period of five years she recorded ten albums. Columbia ignored her gospel roots and tried to make her a jazz-pop Broadway type singer.
In 1966 aged 24 but with ten years of recording under her belt she signed to Atlantic Records. This was her big break.
In January 1967, she went to the Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record at FAME Studios the song I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You). It reached number-one on the R&B chart and peaked at number nine on the Billboard Hot 100, giving Aretha her first top ten pop single.
In April of the same year she released Otis Redding’s Respect, this reached number-one in both the R&B and Billboard charts. Respect became her signature song and is rightly hailed as a civil rights and feminist anthem.
What followed was a string of hit singles and classic albums: I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You; Aretha Arrives; Lady Soul; Aretha Now; Aretha in Paris; Soul’ 69; This Girl’s In Love With You; Spirit In The Dark; Live At Fillmore West; Young, Gifted And Black; Amazing Grace; You.
Through the first half of the 1970s her artistic success was unabated, she had huge hits with the singles Spanish Harlem, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Day Dreaming.
Aretha possessed one of, if not the most, emotionally expressive five octave voices in pop-soul history. Her sound has been described as “Heavy Soul”. A combination of gospel, the blues, soul and pop. “I sing to the realists,” she told one journalist, “people who accept it like it is”.
The musical team around Aretha also helped shape her sound. She worked with producer Jerry Wexler for nine years recording 18 albums. The Memphis Horns and her wonderful four piece backing band Bernard Purdie (drums), King Curtis (saxophone), Billy Preston (keyboards) and Cornell Dupree (guitars) all helped create the Aretha sound.
After the album You the music deteriorated as did the record sales. Sparkle (1976) Sweet Passion (1977) Almighty Fire (1978) and La Diva (1979) never reached the musical heights of her earlier albums. The truth is Aretha didn’t really make the transition to disco.
In 1980 Aretha moved to Arista Records and had a musical renaissance under its head Clive Davis. Her vocal sound became more smooth and she recorded three solid albums Jump to it (1982); Who’s Zooming Who (1985) and A Rose is Still a Rose (1998).
Also her six-minute cameo in the film The Blues Brothers is film gold.
Aretha was a singer who demanded respect, for herself and for all oppressed people. Aretha and her family played an important role in the US Civil Rights Movement
C L Franklin was a major supporter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was Chair of the Detroit Council for Human Rights and along with King was a key organiser of the 1963 Walk to Freedom march in Detroit – the precursor to the March on Washington.
Along with other soul and gospel singers Aretha donated large amounts of money and played a number of benefits for the movement.
Today the media love to talk about Aretha and her role in the Civil Rights movement. In 1963 she performed a number of concerts in support of King and his Birmingham campaign. Depressed King notes in his diary that the concert in Oakland was only a third full and “not even Aretha singing in Chicago can garner much press coverage”.
When times were tough and without any fuss or publicity Aretha regularly paid campaigners’ wages and provided bail money for activists.
She also recorded a number of classic civil rights anthems – A Change is Gonna Come, People Get Ready and Ain’t Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around).
In 1968 the Detroit City Council proclaimed the last Friday of February “Aretha Franklin Day”. At Aretha’s concert in Detroit’s Cobo Hall, Martin Luther King awarded her with a Southern Christian Leadership Conference leadership award.
Two months later King was assassinated. Aretha sang Precious Lord at King’s funeral and went into the studio to write and record the track Think a homage to King.
As the Civil Rights Movement receded and the Black Power movement rose, Aretha’s political message echoed this new radicalism. Many of her tracks became songs of liberation. The single Young Gifted and Black was a call to arms, demanding black liberation. Natural Woman was song about being a proud black woman and Vietnam Vets believed the song Chain of Fools was about the about the leaders of the US army.
She told a reporter from the magazine Ebony:
I suppose the [Black] Revolution influenced me a great deal, but I must say mine was a very personal evolution – an evolution of the me in myself. But then I suppose that the whole meaning of the Revolution is very much tied up with that sort of thing, so it certainly must have helped what I was trying to do for myself.
The journalist also noted that on Aretha’s bookshelves were works by Franz Fanon, Herbert Marcuse and Angela Davis. In 1970 Angela was arrested by the FBI and charged with kidnapping and first-degree murder. Aretha announced that she was prepared to put up bail for Angela of $250,000.
In 1972 she recorded the album Amazing Grace, the cover showed her wearing an African robe and headdress. She told one author:
I embodied that pride. I stopped shaving my eyebrows and using pencils and went back to a natural look with a much lighter touch. I lost weight and wore my hair in a Afro. I began to appreciate myself as a beautiful black women. Daddy has been preaching black pride for decades and we as people had rediscovered how beautiful black truly was and were echoing, say it loud I’m black and I’m proud.
In the 1980s Aretha was involved in a number of important political campaigns, she spearheaded fundraising and raising awareness for HIV prevention groups. Along with Rosa Parks and Stevie Wonder, Aretha performed at a freedom rally for Nelson Mandela.
She became an ambassador for the Democratic Party singing at both Clinton’s and Obama’s inauguration ceremonies, and she sang The Impossible Dream at Rosa Park’s funeral in 2005.
Aretha was the last great soul artist who was a living link to the US Civil Rights Movement. Her songs of hope, pain and freedom are as powerful now as they were when she first walked into the studio in Muscle Shoals all those years ago.