There is an endless number of great soul singers who marched through the Franklin household. Smokey Robinson was a friend of Aretha’s brother, Cecil:
“Cecil and I were kids when we met,” he told me. “We grew up on the same love of music — not just gospel, but jazz. The first great voice that influenced me was Sarah Vaughan. I don’t think Cecil and I were ten when we started digging progressive jazz.”
Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, was a famous preacher at the New Bethel Baptist Church at 4210 Hastings Street, in Detroit. His most famous sermon was “As The Eagle Stirreth,” a bestselling sermon recording:
“Hastings Street is ground zero for the Aretha Franklin story. Her father’s New Bethel Baptist Chruch was at 4210 Hastings, steps from the heart of the black entertainment district. It was the point where Saturday night merged into Sunday morning and sin met salvation at the crossroads of African American musical culture … Was it the grinding grooves of the club that got into the church, or was it the sensuous beat of the church that got into the club? Did C.L. Franklin get his blues cry from Muddy Waters the same way Bobby Bland borrowed his blues cry from C.L.?”
“When I first visited Detroit from Chicago,” said Buddy Guy, “it was later in the fifties. I had to see two people. The first was Reverend C.L. Franklin, ’cause B.B. had told me he could preach better than Howlin’ Wolf could sing. B. was right. … Gospel music made folks happy. Blues made folks lose their blues. I didn’t see that much difference between the two, even if preachers did claim it was the difference between Jesus and the devil. B.B. King loved C.L. Franklin because he didn’t say that. He didn’t pit one against the other. He said all good music came from God.”
Reverend James Cleveland was one of my favorite coming into this book. His piano playing is so heavy. The author asks him “which came first — the spirituals or the blues?”
“Aretha’s father would laugh at that question,” said Reverand Cleveland, “because he knew there was no answer. It’s a riddle that can’t be solved. You could say that the spirituals came first, but if you broke it down further you could also say that the field shouts came before the spirituals. How do we know whether someone out there was picking cotton didn’t first start moaning about how tired he was, or about how much he wanted a woman? Then maybe a God-fearing woman heard that song and switched it up to where she was praying for God to save her. The fleshy needs and the godly needs are very close. We’re likely to use music to call out both those needs because they’re both so basic. Which comes first? You tell me.“
Aretha’s first husband took control of her career and beat her violently. Aretha’s peers call him a “gentleman pimp.”
“You can’t understand the music culture of Detroit in the early sixties,” said R&B singer Bettye LaVette, who emerged from that culture, “without understanding the role of the pimp. Pimps and producers were often the same people. The sensibility was the same — get women working for you; get women to make you money. We demonize pimps now, but back then they were looked up to by men and sought out by women. They had power. They knew how to survive the ghetto and go beyond the ghetto. Some of my best men friends were pimps. Some of the women I admired most were working for them — classy, sophisticated, beautifully dressed women. I didn’t have what it took to be a high-class prostitute of the kind that the best pimps like to parade, but as a singer, I was certainly pimped by certain producers — and glad to be.”
“Back then, women were powerless. If we wanted to get ahead in show business, we had to operate in the system. The greatest example of that system was probably Motown, where Berry Gordy’s first wife, Raynoma Singleton, claimed that Berry himself had pimped women. He wasn’t good with whores, but he was great with singers. The parallel is strong.”
Aretha got her first recording contract with Columbia, where she released a series of eclectic, well-reviewed albums that didn’t yield any hits. She showed an acute desire to record showtunes and various standards.
“Al Jolson had sung “Rock-a-Bye with a Dixie Melody” in blackface in the twenties. Later it was recorded by Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland and Jerry Lewis. Though an essential American song, it seemed a strange choice for Aretha, especially at the start of the civil rights movement. Cecil [her brother and longtime manager] explained to me C. L. Franklin’s love of Al Jolson and his reason for urging Aretha to include the tune.”
“My father told me how Jolson harbored great affection for black people,” said Cecil. “His entire blackface act was a way of paying tribute to our musical genius. Dad knew the history of American entertainment and had read how Jolson had hired black writers and helped bolster the career of Cab Calloway. We forget now, but back in the day, Al Jolson and black people had a mutual-admiration society.”
“In spite of Cecil’s spirited defense of Aretha’s inclusion of the song, it’s difficult for me to listen to her version without cringing. Although her vocal is enthusiastic, the strings feel anemic, the horn chart cheesy, and the rock-’em-sock’em finale forced and false.”
Aretha had difficulty reaching widespread fame while recording jazz and standards for Columbia.
“While working with Etta [James] on her book, I asked her why she thought her string-heavy jazzy standard turned into a smash while, in that same year, Aretha couldn’t hit with a bluesy standard like “That Lucky Old Sun”
“The answer’s easy,” said Etta. “Aretha sang the shit outta those standards — just as good if not better than me. But Columbia didn’t know how to reach black listeners, and my company, Chess, did. Leonard Chess had a genius for feeling out the black community. Jerry Wexler was the same. They were white Jews who would never use the word [n-word], but they us  better than we knew ourselves. Columbia didn’t have no one like that. They had John Hammon, but he was like a college professor up there in the ivory tower. He wasn’t street like Chess or Wexler.”
Not really sure what this was about. Apparently Jerry Wexler was almost … killed?
“I’d just come back from a music-industry convention in Miami, where I was to accept an award on Aretha’s behalf,” Wexler remembered. “In Floriday, what I thought would be a pleasure turned into a nightmare. Gangster elements had taken over the industry’s black-power movement. During the banquet, King Curtis came up to me and said, ‘We’re getting you outta here. You’ve been marked,’ King escorted me out to safety. Later I was hung in effigy. Phil Walden, Otis’s white manager, received death threats. Marshall Sehorn, a white promo man, was pistol-whipped. It was some scary shit.”
By the way, King Curtis seems like a great guy. He’s certainly a great musician.
Apparently Aretha’s live performances were hit or miss. But there are some really special performances. Here she is with her childhood friend Smokey:
By the way, is there anything more devastating in popular culture than the list of soul and R&B singers who died far, far too young under tragic circumstances? Donny Hathaway, Sam Cooke, Sam Cooke’s brother, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Billy Holliday, Nat King Cole. Aretha was personal friends with nearly all these people, childhood friends with half of them. Her mother died when she was a child.
Two of my favorite piano players, Richard Tee and Billy Preston, also died too young. Here are Aretha and Billy playing together:
I haven’t quoted at length any of the emotional drama from the book, which I found sad and also tedious. The short story is that Aretha was a difficult person, prone to depression and delusion. She was a teen mother twice over, and largely left her children back in Detroit while pursuing her career in New York City. She canceled gigs on whim, had extravagant tastes, and created relationships for the press out of whole cloth. She comes across as a brilliant artist who was committed to staying relevant and having hits, even into her sixties. Those around her frequently express regret that she didn’t age more gracefully as an artist — all except Ray Charles, who completely identifies with her desire to stay on the charts.
What I’ll remember from this book is the picture of Detroit as a place that was just overflowing with musical innovation in every direction. It was the epicenter of something amazing happening in popular music, and it all seemed to be connected to Aretha’s father’s church. Everyone seemed to know Aretha.
There was another passage that struck me, though I can’t find it now. There was a bit where someone mentioned that a lot of the folk and rock music on the radio featured more cryptic lyrics, whereas soul and R&B tended to have more straightforward story songs. Country is like that too, and so was early Rock and Roll. I don’t know what to make of that, but it’s interesting.