Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul - Craig Werner (2004)
Chapter 1. “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”
The Roots of the
LISTEN AT HER. AMEN.” Reverend C.L. Franklin’s words rose up above the swell of voices that greeted his fourteen-year-old daughter as she surrendered to the moan at the timeless heart of “Precious Lord (Take My Hand),” the most tormented and triumphant of gospel classics. The quickening rhythm of the church mothers’ fans beat an expectant murmur from the crowd, which gave way to joyous cries of “Amen” and “Tell it,” and the hum of Detroit record store owner Joe Von Battle’s portable recording equipment. Her fingers flowing over the keys of the battered piano, young Aretha immersed herself in a healing river of spirit and song. Closing her eyes as the spotlight glinted off the crown of her perfectly coifed hair, Aretha sank into the depths of the song she’d sung so many times beneath the bright blue cross above the pulpit of her father’s New Bethel Baptist Church, nestled in the heart of Detroit’s dirt-poor Paradise Valley ghetto. Crying out “Ain’t no harm to moan,” she flooded out a cascade of tones that lifted her five thousand listeners above the killing streets of the cities that had promised much and delivered little, and carried them back to the southern crossroads churches where many had first felt the power of the Lord.
Those who weren’t caught up entirely in their own trials might have paused to reflect on the song Aretha used as her gospel chariot. It was no secret that Thomas Dorsey, the reformed whorehouse piano player whose songs defined modern gospel music, had written “Precious Lord” the night he heard that his wife and son had died in childbirth. Those who attended New Bethel would have understood that Aretha’s moan bore witness to her still-fresh pain over her mother’s death. Raising her face to heaven and pounding out a shattering series of chords, Aretha struggled to twist the moan back into language. “At,” she began, shouting with an intensity that testified to the loving attention she’d received from the great gospel singers—Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Marion Williams—who’d helped raise her in a house where the regular visitors included Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Martin Luther King. The word stretched almost ten seconds until Aretha brought the line home. “At the river,” she continued, her words resonating with a chorus of African American voices, among them Paul Robeson’s “Deep River” and Langston Hughes’s vision of a deep deep river flowing from West Africa and the slave markets of New Orleans into the souls of black folk as they spread across a land in which they remained pilgrims of sorrow.
Praying that his ancient reel-to-reel equipment would hold out, Joe Von Battle recognized Aretha as something special. His keen grasp of the connection between the spiritual, aesthetic, and commercial dimensions of black music led him to believe she had the potential to reach music lovers far beyond the walls of the drafty old arena or the stained glass at New Bethel Baptist. A central figure in Detroit’s African American music scene who had recorded down-and-dirty R&B singers Washboard Willie, Tye Tongue Hanley, and the Detroit Count as well as C.L. Franklin’s sermons, Von Battle had navigated the cross-currents between gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues. He’d stood in Reverend Franklin’s living room trading stories with Mahalia, Sam Cooke, jazz pianist Art Tatum, “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington, and New Bethel’s talented young music director, James Cleveland. Reverend Franklin was reluctant to rush his daughter into a music business that had chewed up more than a few young black singers, but Von Battle had little difficulty convincing him to approve a series of recordings. The songs he committed to acetate on a series of Sundays in 1956 document the first steps on a path that would make Aretha one of the most deeply loved singers of her time and establish her as an American artist of the stature of Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, William Faulkner, and Duke Ellington.
Twelve years later Aretha would again turn to “Precious Lord” as she and her gospel people—a few of them white—staggered beneath a burden that seemed too heavy to bear. As a mule-drawn cart carried Martin Luther King’s body through the streets of Atlanta, Aretha offered up a quieter version of “Precious Lord” as a meditation on the most basic human question: how to keep hope alive in a world where the devil holds sway. Her face a twisted mask of grief, Aretha’s voice illuminated the gospel vision that sustained the foot soldiers of the movement, the ordinary people whose tears, sweat, and—far too often—blood had changed America in ways that seemed impossible to all but the most audacious dreamers a generation before.
As it has done since the first cries rose up from the festering holds of the slave ships, the gospel vision sounds the central predicaments of African American history: to flee or fight white power, to affirm black identity or assimilate into the larger society, to transcend the material world or try to conquer it, to pursue innovation or preserve tradition. Giving voice to the ongoing drive for freedom that remains the beating heart of African American history, gospel-based music bears witness to the burdens of life, the same experiences that gave rise to the blues. But where the blues celebrates survival, gospel seeks redemption. Whatever its specific form— traditional gospel, reggae, soul, the celebratory moments of disco and house music—the gospel impulse reconnects individuals with powers and communities larger than themselves: God and a community determined, as Mahalia Jackson sang, to “move on up.” Small wonder that gospel provided the guiding spirit of the civil rights movement that reshaped American life in the years following World War II.
For Aretha, the gospel vision and gospel music were inseparable. She’d grown up surrounded by the stars of the gospel firmament, and her earliest memories clustered around the legendary musicians who filled her father’s social circle. When Mahalia Jackson sang in Detroit, she stayed with the Franklin family and “taught me things a girl should know,” as Aretha recalled. “Mahalia would come in and she’d head right for the kitchen. She’d put up a pot of greens,” she reminisced, savoring her memories of the down-home smells that filled her world in those days. “We’d sit around and talk. I was shy, but I guess I did have a lot of questions. Then maybe we’d sing. They were so strong, those ladies. And always there for me. She’d sing in my father’s church, and I would be thrilled listening to her. And feeling so lucky she would come home, to our house.” When Mahalia finished whipping up her feasts of fried chicken, gumbo, cornbread, and sweet potato pie, she never lacked for good company. Easing back into the living room with its fine woodwork, plush green carpet, and purple satin drapes, she could relax with Franklin family friends like Clara Ward, Francis Steadman, Sam Cooke, Marion Williams, and James Cleveland. Attracted by the charismatic presence of Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, the “High Priest of Soul Preaching,” the gospel luminaries mingled with jazz musicians, R&B stars, and political leaders like Powell and King. For Reverend Franklin’s talented daughter, the best times were when “somebody would start toying with the piano and something would start up. There was always music in our house. The radio was going in one room, the record player in another, the piano banging away in the living room.”
Like the sounds and smells that surrounded her, Aretha came to Detroit from the South. She was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, the musical crossroads of the mid-South. Best known for the freewheeling night life of the Beale Street blues clubs, the sprawling cotton market at the bend of the Mississippi River was equally well known among African Americans as the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ and the home of renowned gospel composers W. Herbert Brewster and Lucy Campbell. Migrants fleeing the backbreaking labor of the Delta filled their Saturday nights with blues consolations and their Sunday mornings with gospel exultations, both of which testified to their hard times and their enduring hopes. The Franklins would soon join the thousands for whom Memphis served as a halfway house on the journey to the killing floors of Chicago or the assembly lines of Detroit. In Memphis they occupied a modest single-story home in a neighborhood that would nurture an impressive roster of musicians including Maurice White, the guiding spirit of Earth, Wind & Fire.
Named after her father’s sisters, Aretha Louise Franklin was the fourth of five children. While her brothers Vaughn and Cecil would pursue careers in the military and the ministry respectively, Aretha’s older sister Erma and younger sister Carolyn would add to the family’s musical legacy. Erma would enter soul music history for her superior version of Janis Joplin’s signature song, “Piece of My Heart,” while Carolyn would make her mark as the composer of Aretha’s mid-seventies soul ballad “Angel.” Together Erma and Carolyn would provide memorable backup vocals on classics from “Do Right Woman—Do Right Man” and “Respect” to “Chain of Fools.”
Aretha’s family had carried their songs to Memphis from the Mississippi Delta, where the young Clarence LaVaughn Franklin had pastored a series of churches in and around Greenville and Clarksdale, the mythic cradle of the blues. Born January 22, 1915, in Sunflower County, Mississippi, C.L. lived the harsh reality that echoed through the music of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Unwilling to accept his place in the Jim Crow South after returning from World War I, C.L.’s father had abandoned the family. His mother remarried a caring and hardworking but illiterate sharecropper, Henry Franklin. The family moved from plantation to plantation before settling in the parched cotton fields of Bolivar County outside Doddsville. As he grew up, C.L. witnessed white supremacy’s relentless assault on his stepfather’s sense of self-worth. The intensely intelligent youngster perceived the obvious injustices of Jim Crow: the inadequate schools and the way the white farmers cheated his stepfather each year when the price of the cotton never quite balanced the accrued cost of food and supplies. He raged at the everyday indignities that constantly reminded blacks of their place on the fringes of humanity. Decades later Franklin rankled at the memory of being intentionally sprayed by bus drivers taking white children to school while C.L. and his friends trudged along the muddy spring roads.
Chopping cotton alongside his father in the fields next to Highway 61 and the Illinois Central Railroad line, Aretha’s father dreamed of a better life as he waved back to blacks driving cars with northern plates. Walking the tracks, he hailed migrants aboard the “Chicken Bone Special” headed for the promised lands of Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. Returning to the sharecroppers’ quarters at the end of the day, he would relax listening to the blues moans of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Roosevelt Sykes as well as his favorite recorded sermon, Reverend J.M. Gates’s “Dead Cat on the Line.”
Although he always insisted that he never felt a conflict between gospel and the blues, C.L. Franklin’s path out of the Delta led not to Beale Street but to the pulpit of Memphis’s respectable New Salem Baptist Church. From his early childhood in Mississippi, he had been steeped in the spirit of the church, walking two miles to choir practice and traveling in a horse-drawn wagon to the churches where he heard the backwoods preaching style that would shape his own. When he was thirteen, he experienced a fiery vision on the wall of his bedroom. “A voice spoke to me from behind the plank and said something like, ‘Go and preach the gospel to all nations,’ ” he later told an interviewer. “I went and told my mother what I had seen and heard.” A few years later he formally accepted the call to preach after hearing an inspirational sermon by the Memphis-based Reverend Benjamin Perkins. C.L. established himself by rotating through a series of small rural churches, often serving as many as four congregations at a time. Like their blues-playing brothers and cousins, Delta preachers grappled in a highly competitive culture that required both insight and showmanship. The charisma that would propel C.L. to stardom first emerged, he fondly recalled, at Delta “preaching rallies,” where four or five young ministers would deliver short sermons, “trying to outdo the others” and capture the hearts and financial support of the crowd. Rivalries grew fierce, but from the beginning C.L.’s voice and flair for showmanship set him apart.
His growing reputation enabled C.L. to establish a home base in Clarksdale, although he continued to visit churches throughout the area. One day in Shelby, Mississippi, he met a young pianist and singer named Barbara Siggers. Attracted by her quiet beauty and resonant voice, he began courting her. A few months later, as a persistent rain drenched the cotton fields, they were married at the house of one of C.L.’s Clarksdale parishioners. The young couple stayed in Clarksdale for a year before moving on to Greenville and then, at the invitation of Reverend Perkins, whose sermon had set C.L. on his spiritual path, to Memphis and New Salem Baptist Church. C.L. busied himself serving New Salem and was soon pastoring a second church in the new Hollywood subdivision while pursuing studies at LeMoyne College. His young wife sang in the choir.
At home Barbara Franklin exercised an influence that was not only personal but musical. “I was young but I remember how warm and beautiful she was,” Aretha wrote in her autobiography. “I was very close to her and I can’t say which, if either of my parents was the greater influence on me.” The legendary producer John Hammond, who would sign Aretha to her first pop music contract, remembered hearing that “Aretha’s mother was one of the really great gospel singers. Aretha said she had more talent than C.L.” Still, without question, Aretha’s father provided the family’s center of gravity. And her mother suffered in the fishbowl of life in a preacher’s household. C.L.’s respectful and admiring assessment of her glossed over the difficulties faced by a talented woman in a church culture dominated by charismatic men: “People loved her. We weren’t too involved with them socially; we were involved with them in terms of the church program. She got along beautifully, beautifully. She had no problem. To me, people who respect the minister’s wife and encourage her, admire her for what she is doing, like to hear her sing—I don’t see why she has any difficulty, although I have often heard it said that it is difficult to be a minister’s wife.”
Whatever his wife’s hardships, Franklin had embarked on a journey that would carry him to the forefront of the National Baptist Convention. In those days “for a black boy,” the illustrious African American photographer Ernest Withers explained, “growing up to be President of the Convention was like a white boy becoming President of the United States.” C.L.’s first step to that end took place when he delivered the eulogy for a friend who had pastored Friendship Baptist Church in Buffalo, New York. His sermon so impressed the mourners that they asked him to fill the vacancy, an invitation Franklin eagerly accepted. That same year his sermon at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention mesmerized a Detroit audience that included members of that city’s New Bethel Baptist, which was embroiled in conflicts that would soon lead half the congregation to walk out and form a new church. The members who stayed behind agreed that the charismatic young Franklin was an ideal figure to rebuild the congregation. Much to the dismay of his Buffalo flock, he agreed to move once more. C.L. Franklin served the Lord and C.L. Franklin.
When C.L. Franklin climbed into the pulpit of New Bethel on the first Sunday in June of 1946, the church huddled in a dilapidated former bowling alley on Hastings Street in the heart of Detroit’s Paradise Valley ghetto. Located on the city’s Lower East Side, Paradise Valley was the point of arrival for most of the black migrants who streamed to Michigan in search of the economic opportunities promised by Detroit’s wartime emergence as the “Arsenal of Democracy.” When they arrived, however, they found themselves in what the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper with a national audience, called “the largest Southern city in the United States.” As early as 1942 a Life magazine headline noted, “Detroit Is Dynamite,” warning that the uneasy racial situation could “either blow up Hitler or blow up the United States.”
A migrant’s first problem was simply finding a place to live. The black population of Detroit doubled between 1940 and 1950, putting enormous pressure on an already overtaxed and rigidly segregated housing market. As the ghetto expanded north from Paradise Valley on the east side of Woodward Avenue, conditions in the “rat belt”—residents reported more than two hundred bites in a two-year period—deteriorated. Over a quarter of Lower East Side apartments lacked plumbing and full kitchens. Migrants who prospered fled to middle-class black neighborhoods like Oakland Avenue and Conant Gardens; the growing divisions along class lines mocked the dreams that had drawn the migrants to Detroit in the first place.
Tensions between new migrants and old settlers in the black community, however, paled beside the seething fear and anger that the black migration provoked among whites in Detroit. In 1943 the tensions exploded into one of the worst riots in American history. The riot began on the bridge over the Detroit River that linked the city with the Belle Isle recreation area, which local whites sometimes called “Nigger Island.” Historian Timothy Tyson describes what happened when word of white attacks on black motorists reached Paradise Valley: “A young black man mounted the stage at the Forest Club, a popular black hangout in Paradise Valley, seized the microphone from the band leader, and told the crowd, ‘There’s a riot at Belle Isle. The whites have killed a colored lady and her baby. Thrown them over the bridge. Everybody come on.’ The rumor about the woman and her baby was not true, but thousands of African Americans raged through the streets, stoning white motorists and looting white businesses. White agitators spread similar rumors of outrage, many of which were sexual in nature, as white mobs rampaged on streetcars and set fire to blacks’ automobiles. Many white rioters traveled substantial distances from all-white communities, as one put it, ‘to kill us a nigger.’ White police ignored and sometimes encouraged white rioters; some became active participants in the violence.” The riot left 38 dead, including 17—all of them black—killed by police. Officials reported 676 serious injuries and $2 million in property damage.
In 1946, when Reverend Franklin and his young family arrived in Detroit, memories of the Belle Isle riot remained fresh, but those nightmare images could not overshadow the vitality and energy of their new home. On any Friday or Saturday night the clubs clustered along John R Street between Forest and Canfield overflowed with the music that accompanied the migrants on their journey north. They talked, drank, and danced to “Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker, the Clarksdale-born bluesman who held down a janitor’s job at Dodge Main. They rocked to “Fever” by Little Willie John, who’d moved from Arkansas to the Motor City when he was four. R&B belter LaVern Baker, billed as “Little Miss Sharecropper,” fronted Todd Rhodes’s jump blues band while trumpeter Howard McGhee, saxophonist Bill Evans (who would soon change his name to Yusef Lateef), and singer Betty Carter helped establish Detroit as a center of the burgeoning bebop movement. Hank Ballard, first with the Royals and then with the Midnighters, delighted crowds with his salacious smash “Work with Me Annie.” The three Jones brothers from Pontiac— drummer Elvin, who would form part of John Coltrane’s great band of the sixties, soulful pianist Hank, and trumpeter Thad, whom Charles Mingus once called “Bartok with valves for a pencil that’s directed by God”— joined a jazz world that included vibe virtuoso Milt Jackson and trumpeter Donald Byrd. A parade of Detroit-born or -based musicians sparkled at night spots like the Flame Show Bar, famous for its hundred-foot-long bar and the mirrors covering three walls. Thomas “Beans” Bowles, who would play a key role in the Motown story as a member of the Funk Brothers house band, described the scene outside the Flame at its peak in the late thirties: “On weekends the traffic would line up; you could not drive down Canfield or John R. That was hustle night, girls were on the streets, pimps were out, everybody was makin’ money. Lights and glitter, valet parking. Nobody bother you or nothin’.”
By the time the young preacher took the pulpit at New Bethel, Paradise Valley was surrendering its preeminence in black nightlife to Oakland Avenue, a north-end district that prided itself on comparisons with Los Angeles’s “Miracle Mile.” The name “Paradise Valley” grew increasingly ironic. A writer for Detroit’s leading black newspaper, the Michigan Chronicle, described the changes in the area around the young Reverend Franklin’s church: “No longer is the Valley the gay, charming, and alluring young lady she once was, instead she is a withered, ugly old hag whom no one loves and whom everyone is beginning to forsake for a younger more beautiful companion.” Thousands of returning veterans and new migrants came hoping the Paradise Valley boom would resume but finding little sign of it. Aretha’s brother Cecil fleshed out the picture: “The people you saw who had any measure of success were the pimp and the hustler, the numbers man and the dope man. Aretha knew what they were all about, without having to meet them personally.”
Rather than lamenting his bad timing, C.L. Franklin embraced the challenge. “Hastings is a fine place for a church because the church is for everyone,” he announced. The exuberant preacher set about marshaling the resources for that mission. If, as Franklin observed, “raising money in church is an art,” music historian Daniel Wolff was certainly correct in anointing Franklin “one of the premier artists.” By March 1949 New Bethel had been transformed from a crumbling bowling alley into a palace. Entering through an outer lobby with new picture windows on three sides, the growing congregation worshiped amid towering stained-glass depictions of Jesus and the disciples.
Aretha always retained her affection for the church where her father preached beneath the glowing blue neon crucifix above the altar. In her autobiography she admitted to feeling “the pull of those days in the old neighborhood down on Hastings with the Willis Theater across the street, small shops and storefront churches as far as the eye could see.” Aretha remembered the musical allure of the clubs where black musicians from Duke Ellington to Dinah Washington bedazzled appreciative audiences. She also relished memories of the storefront Holiness Church across the street from New Bethel where “they were shouting and praising His name so strong that I was drawn inside.”
Reverend Franklin called upon the Holy Spirit in a somewhat more cerebral style. From his days studying sociology and English literature at LeMoyne, C.L. enjoyed being called “Rabbi,” a nickname that suggested the intellectual content of his sermons. Developing a “more historically minded and less evangelical” style than most of his Baptist peers, Franklin argued that his thoughtful approach would have “a more lasting effect because you’re reaching their minds as well as their emotions.” Still, he shared his flock’s appreciation for the intermingling of music and spirit. Every Sunday, New Bethel raised its own chorus of voices bearing witness to the burdens of life in the promised land and testifying to the spirit that bestowed the strength to face another week on the loading docks or in the white folks’ kitchens. From the start music played a central role at New Bethel, reflecting Franklin’s belief that “gospel music mends the broken heart, raises the bowed down head, and gives hope to the weary traveler.”
At New Bethel C.L. perfected the inimitable style that would soon allow him to command fees of up to four thousand dollars per sermon. Future Supreme Mary Wilson, whose family attended New Bethel, described the weekly scene of women “rocking back and forth in the pews, saying, ‘Yes, Jesus. Yes, Lord.’ There were several women in starched white nurse’s uniforms and they would go over to the most hysterical churchgoers and fan them… . We would sit back and bet which of these middle-aged women was going to ‘get happy’ first.” Blues great B.B. King expressed his admiration for the man he called “my main minister. Whenever I was in Detroit, I’d make it a point to get myself up to New Bethel on Sunday mornings… . He spoke simply and beautifully, telling stories in hypnotic cadences that called forth the power of Scripture. He gave examples I could understand. His sermons were musical, moving with the rhythms of his emotions, building to a climax, and leaving you renewed. He also injected strong messages about racial pride. Listening to Reverend Franklin’s messages was like listening to a good song. You felt hope.” By the time the Chrysler Freeway Project forced New Bethel to relocate to the old Oriole Theater, the splintered congregation C.L. Franklin had encountered in 1946 had grown to between three and four thousand.
Even as “the Man with the Million Dollar Voice” advanced toward the preeminent place he would maintain for the next thirty years, the Franklin family was facing difficulties that would shape Aretha’s personality. In 1948, when Aretha was six, Barbara Franklin left the family and took Vaughn, her oldest son, to Buffalo. While C.L. Franklin rarely mentioned his wife’s departure, the split shook the children. Aretha has always rejected suggestions that her mother betrayed the family’s trust. “In no way, shape, form or fashion did our mother desert us,” she wrote. “She simply moved with Vaughn back to Buffalo, where she lived with her parents.” Remembering summer visits to her mother, who supported herself working as a nurse’s aide at Buffalo General Hospital, Aretha painted a warm picture of care-free childhood games and ice cream treats. The visits came to a tragic end in 1952 when Barbara Franklin died suddenly of a heart attack. Even a half century later Aretha would say only, “I cannot describe the pain, nor will I try.”
Many of those who knew Aretha well believe that Barbara’s departure and death affected Aretha even more deeply than she acknowledged. Mavis Staples, who first met Aretha when they were both teenagers on the gospel circuit, remembered that Aretha “had a brush and a case. And I asked, ‘That’s your mother’s brush?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s my mother’s brush. It’s still got a little bit of hair in it.’ I think that was the worst thing that could’ve happened for her, not to know her mother.” Mahalia Jackson concluded simply, “After her mama died, the whole family wanted for love.”
As she would throughout her life, Aretha turned to the church and song for solace. The same year her mother died, she accepted Jesus as her Lord and personal savior, a formal commitment that Aretha took with the utmost seriousness. By the time she was ten, she’d already found her way to the piano, “just bangin’, not playin’, but findin’ a little something here and there,” she later told an Ebony magazine interviewer. When C.L. overheard his daughter imitating popular hits like Eddie Heywood’s “Canadian Sunset,” he arranged for professional lessons. Frustrated by “too much ‘Chopsticks,’ ” Aretha asserted her musical independence. When the teacher arrived, Aretha recounted, “I’d hide. I tried for maybe a week, but I just couldn’t take it. She had all these little baby books, and I wanted to go directly to the tunes.” Listening carefully to visitors like jazz master Art Tatum and future gospel legend James Cleveland provided Aretha with all the schooling she needed. As Smokey Robinson, a close friend of Aretha’s brother Cecil, remembered, “We poke our heads into the music room and I’m amazed. Seated behind the baby grand is a baby herself, singing like an angel.”
In later life Aretha would minimize the burdens she experienced during her childhood; at times, her memories evoke a sepia Father Knows Best, complete with comic interludes. Family friend Dorothy Swan remembered entering the kitchen to find C.L. Franklin, who had not yet hired a permanent cook or housekeeper, cooking beans. Exasperated, the reverend complained, “I keep cooking them and they just get harder and harder.” To which Dorothy responded succinctly, “Put some water in!” Fortunately, the arrival of Aretha’s grandmother Rachel and a new housekeeper saved the family from starvation. With the help of visits from Mahalia, they gave Aretha a schooling in the kitchen arts that made her proud. “I’m good and mean with the pots,” she would later say. “These were the serious soul sisters with those big black cast-iron skillets.”
Living in a comfortable brick house in a shaded half-acre lot near Oakland Avenue, Aretha was shielded from the increasing problems of Paradise Valley. Although she had heard about the Detroit riot and felt the community’s outrage over President Truman’s 1952 seizure of the steel mills, she remembered the early fifties as “a time of high optimism in Detroit,” accompanied by “music [that] reflected that optimism, the belief that things were getting better for black folks.” From as far back as she could remember, music was part of the world that included parties at Belle Isle, movies at the Echo Theater, treats from Mr. Wiggins’s Sweetshop, car rides with the family in C.L.’s Cadillac convertible, and the excitement of listening to broadcasts of fights featuring Sugar Ray Robinson and Detroit’s own Joe Louis. “My childhood was a happy one,” Aretha wrote. “We roller-skated, sat on the back porch—some people would call it a stoop—and told a lot of jokes late into the midnight hour. I had a piano right off the back porch, and sometimes I’d sing.”
The children benefited from the attentions of C.L.’s companion, Lola Moore, whom Aretha remembered as “fashionable, fun and a dynamite cook.” Although some members of the congregation raised their eyebrows at the presence of an unmarried woman in the minister’s home, no one publicly challenged the story that she was just helping out with the children. For a while Lola lived with the Franklins, and the children hoped their father would marry her. But the relationship came to an end, and although Aretha cried when Lola caught a cab to the train station, she concluded simply, “Daddy’s personal affairs were not our business, and we knew not to question him.”
Ensconced behind the mahogany desk in his study or charming the visitors at his many parties, C.L. Franklin was the social and emotional fulcrum of the household. But his impact on his talented daughter was not simply psychological. When he lifted his expressive hands in benediction and filled New Bethel with his soaring words and rhythms, he provided his daughter a graduate education in giving voice to the spirit. Aretha frequently paid tribute to her father’s influence on her style: “Most of what I learned vocally came from him. He gave me a sense of timing in music and timing is important in everything.” In her autobiography she described what happened when C.L. felt the spirit: “When he would get into what I call high or third gear, it was called whooping. Later Harry Belafonte called Daddy a superwhooper, a description that made me smile… . Whooping is a powerful and highly rhythmic way of preaching in which words take the form of song— half speech, half melody. Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose ordination sermon was delivered by Daddy, said, ‘C.L. Franklin was the most imitated soul preacher in history, a combination of soul and science and sweetness and substance.’ ” When Reverend Franklin reached the climax of a classic sermon like “Dry Bones in the Valley,” “The Man at the Pool,” or “A Bigot Meets Jesus,” the line dividing speech from song existed mostly in theory. When the choir joined their minister in a favorite hymn such as “Father I Stretch My Hand to Thee” or “The Old Ship of Zion,” the emotional unity of individual performer and responsive congregation set a standard that Aretha would carry with her into the world of secular entertainment.
While C.L. Franklin never crossed over into that world, his performances earned him an audience beyond the walls of his church. In 1951 he began broadcasting his sermons on Detroit radio, first on a small station out of suburban Dearborn and a year later on powerhouse WJLB. Reaching out to a national audience, Reverend Franklin bought time on a Memphis station where rates were cheap. Broadcasting giant WLAC out of Nashville quickly picked him up. At WLAC, ostensibly a black station targeting a black audience, DJs Gene Nobles, William “Hoss” Allen, and John R, whose full name was John Richbourg, were fully aware that the airwaves paid little heed to segregation. At any given moment upward of half their listeners, like the DJs, were white.
The broadcasts also caught the attention of Detroit record store owner and producer Joe Von Battle, who convinced Reverend Franklin to record his sermons on the JVB label. Neither Franklin nor Von Battle saw anything unusual about mixing commerce and politics with sincere expressions of faith. Since slavery times African Americans had used biblical images to comment on political issues, and the gospel circuit had been one of the few spheres in which blacks could express themselves and earn a decent living. Seeking a larger audience and a bigger payday, Von Battle licensed the recordings to Chicago-based Chess Records, where Franklin rapidly ascended to stardom. He eventually headlined his own show on the gospel circuit and attained legendary status for his classic sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest.” B.B. King summed up the message. “God stirs the nest of our personal history,” the bluesman reflected. “He challenges us, like He challenged Daniel in the lions’ den. Reverend Franklin would remind me that God’s angels made the lions lie down like lambs. Like an eagle, God is swift and strong in healing our hearts.”
The sermon is widely recognized as one of the classics of American preaching. Taking a passage in Deuteronomy as his text, Franklin offers a stirring exhortation that echoes the gospel vision of the movement leaders. He opens the sermon by saying he is using the eagle “to symbolize God’s care and God’s concern for his people.” Then he lays out the take-home message in straightforward terms: “History has been one big nest that God has been eternally stirring to make man better—and to help us achieve world brotherhood.” As the sermon unfolds, Franklin abandons the abstractions and spins out a fable about a farmer who builds a cage for an eagle he discovers living among his chickens. “The man went out and built a cage,” Franklin chants, sweeping his listeners up in a wave of sound and rhythm:
every day he’d go in
and feed the eagle.
a little older
and a little older.
Yes he did.
to scrape on the sides
of the cage.
he had to build
Finally, the farmer’s heart melts at the sight of the eagle’s distress, and he opens the door, freeing the eagle to fly, first to the branches of a nearby tree, and then into the heavens toward the mountain where the other eagles soar. “My soul is an eagle in the cage that the Lord has made for me,” Franklin half-says, half-sings:
is caged in,
in this old body,
yes it is,
and one of these days
the man who made the cage
will open the door
and let my soul
Yes he will.
The sermon climaxes in a frenzy of moans wrapped around the most basic promise of the gospel vision: “One of these days, my soul will take wings … A few more days. O Lord.”
Aretha understood that her father’s sermons echoed the messages of the freedom movement. “Daddy preached self-pride,” she observed, paraphrasing his social philosophy. “We are black not because we are cursed, for blackness is not a curse; it is a curse only if you think so, and it’s not really a curse then; it’s just the way you think. All colors are beautiful in the sight of God. The only reason why you entertain a thought like that is because you have been culturally conditioned by white people to think that way, and they conditioned you that way because they used this as a means to an end, to give you a feeling of inferiority, and to then take advantage of you, socially, economically, and politically.”
The luminaries who gathered in the Franklin living room and kitchen represented the mainstream civil rights movement at its best. The traditional leadership class, they were well dressed, articulate, and confident that their cause was righteous. Cloaking their legal and moral appeals in the fiery words of the Old Testament, they supplemented their idealism with a hard-headed use of black economic power. During the Montgomery bus boycott, Martin Luther King claimed the moral high ground, but the power of black dollars did as much to carry the day. Organized around the presence of charismatic leaders including Franklin family friends Powell, Abernathy, and of course King, that movement embraced a “best foot forward” strategy designed to win white liberal allies and establish blacks as worthy of full participation in American society. They celebrated the individual breakthroughs of Jackie Robinson, General Benjamin Davis, and Nat King Cole, the first African American to host a network television show. They cheered Thurgood Marshall’s victories in the courts and King’s successful campaign to end segregation on the Montgomery buses. As the conversation around the Franklin dinner table gave way to the music that filled the house when the guests adjourned to the living room, Reverend Franklin’s young daughter was learning that, in black America, music and the movement could share a voice.
GROWING UP IN the Cabrini-Green housing projects, a black island on Chicago’s overwhelmingly white Near North Side, Curtis Mayfield never met the black political leaders or entertainers who frequented the Franklin household. Nevertheless, he and most other Cabrini residents joined their brothers and sisters throughout the nation in rejoicing over the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision and thrilling to Dr. King’s stirring speeches. Few of them were aware that they were already playing central roles in an unpublicized drama that would shape the fate of the freedom movement not only in Chicago but throughout the United States. Even as the southern movement brought the walls of Jim Crow tumbling down, poor African Americans in Chicago found themselves losing battles that would leave them more isolated in the final years of the century than they had been prior to Brown. If freedom was really just another word for nothing left to lose, many of the people of Cabrini-Green were free.
In Cabrini-Green as in the Georgia woods and the Mississippi Delta, hard-pressed residents turned to music and religion for strength and inspiration. Born June 3, 1942, Curtis was the first child of Curtis Lee Mayfield (who had been born Curtis Lee Cooper) and Marion Washington. Raised by his mother and his maternal grandmother, Sadie Riley, he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t listening to gospel music, especially the music that resounded out of the church presided over by his grandmother, Anna Belle Mayfield. “My grandmother was working to become a minister back in the early fifties. So I saw a lot of church. We had a little storefront place. It was known as the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church. And so it was just automatic for us young kids. We had Sunday school every Sunday, so after we’d come up in age of course we’d heard a lot of gospel music.” Like many storefront churches, Traveling Souls relocated several times before finding a resting place in the Lawndale District at the heart of the city’s mushrooming West Side ghetto. Curtis and the small congregation pitched in to touch up the peeling blue paint on the building and inscribe the church’s name in big white letters on the front window.
Reverend Mayfield presided over services in a room heated by a black potbellied stove. Rising from a chair behind the rostrum, she would share her experience of the spirit with a congregation that numbered forty or fifty. Jerry Butler, who had been born in Mississippi and raised in the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, remembers that when the spirit descended, services that began in the afternoon might last until midnight. He never forgot the emotional fire unleashed by the men and women as they spoke in tongues, “got the Holy Ghost,” and testified to the power of the spirit in their lives.
For Butler and his young friend Curtis, the spiritual message came through more strongly in the music than in the words. “Whereas the preaching would kind of tire you out and put you to sleep,” Mayfield admitted, “the music was an outburst just full of love that would build your heart up.” Reflecting on the energy unleashed in spiritualist services, Butler saw African Americans recovering dimly apprehended aspects of their cultural heritage: “They had gone spiritually back to their African roots. Yes, the songs they were singing were about Christ—and in English—but the rhythms and the dances, the shouts and calls and responses between that woman and the congregation, were African.”
It’s unlikely that many of his Cabrini neighbors in the forties would have endorsed Butler’s Afrocentric interpretation of their spiritual life. In the heady days after the project first opened in 1942, many saw Cabrini-Green as the harbinger of a future in which blacks and whites would live together in harmony. The Chicago Housing Authority had created the Cabrini project in 1937, choosing a site in a Sicilian neighborhood nicknamed “Little Hell,” tearing down the run-down tenements at the intersection of Oak and Cleveland Streets, better known as “death corner,” and replacing them with 581 two- and three-story row houses with flat roofs, private entrances, and small yards. For those who relocated to the interracial neighborhood from the overcrowded South Side slums, where rats outnumbered people, Cabrini-Green promised a taste of the American dream.
Almost from the start the project found itself caught up in the battle over public housing that would define the movement in the North. Like Detroit, black Chicago suffered from a severe housing shortage. In 1948 the Urban League reported that 375,000 South Side residents were crammed into an area that could legally accommodate 110,000. The saturation of the South Side created enormous pressure for redefining Chicago’s racial boundaries. In neighborhood after neighborhood events followed a familiar script. A relatively well-off black family seeking to escape the ghetto would agree to pay higher-than-market value for a house on a previously all-white block; panicked whites would flee the area, allowing landlords to scoop up their property at bargain prices; the landlords would then neglect maintenance and subdivide apartments, re-creating the conditions the black pioneers had fled at the start of the cutthroat cycle. In Chicago’s “bungalow belt,” where a large number of European ethnic working-class families owned their own homes, the first signs of the depressing pattern understandably generated fierce resistance.
The result was a state of what one historian called “chronic urban guerrilla warfare.” Whenever a black family moved into a white neighborhood, white residents mobilized to defend their turf. When black World War II veteran Roscoe Johnson and his wife, Ethel, moved into the Park Manor neighborhood, residents clustered on porches and in backyards, drinking, shouting “Bring out Bushman!” and “String him up!” and singing “Old Black Joe” and “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny.” As the night wore on, the verbal attacks escalated into physical violence. “We barricaded the door and put a mattress behind it,” Mrs. Johnson reported. “We crawled on our hands and knees when the missiles started coming through the windows. Then they started to throw gasoline-soaked rags in pop bottles. They also threw flares and torches. The crowds didn’t leave until daybreak.”
Similar scenes played out with distressing regularity throughout the city. Through the late forties and early fifties Chicago authorities reported scores of racially motivated bombings. When Curtis Mayfield was growing up, the primary difference between Chicago and Birmingham was the absence of news coverage up North. Fearing that the racial tinder littering the city could blaze up in a major conflagration, the city had convinced newspaper editors, including the editors of black America’s flagship paper, the Chicago Defender, to limit coverage of racial disturbances to brief factual accounts and to avoid editorials, inflammatory pictures, or emotionally charged language. Even though the city’s “tension map” blossomed with colored pins mapping incidents of racial violence, Chicagoans in unaffected areas, to say nothing of the rest of the nation, rarely even knew the clashes had occurred. Although the headlines of the Defender screamed out news of racial atrocities in the South, the black press minimized and sometimes altogether ignored the violence in their own backyards.
The complicity of the black press in hushing up the hostilities was part of a larger pattern of race in Chicago politics. Unlike most of their relatives down South, blacks in Chicago could vote. Black ballots were a crucial cog in the most effective political machine ever assembled in an American city. In exchange for control of a substantial number of patronage jobs for blacks and protection for South Side numbers rackets and jitney cabs, a black submachine run by one-legged black boss William Dawson delivered votes for Richard Daley’s machine on request, including some of the questionable ones that swung the 1960 presidential election to John Kennedy. Dawson and his allies also tacitly agreed not to challenge the racial status quo. Black politicians might speak out against racial injustice in Mississippi and Alabama. But their power base and economic self-interest were tied to the continuing existence of the Chicago ghetto.
Nonetheless, for the young Curtis Mayfield and his family, the Cabrini row houses did offer a glimpse of a better future, albeit one that vanished almost as soon as it came into sight. Under the leadership of Elizabeth Woods, the Chicago Housing Authority envisioned a solution to Chicago’s intense postwar housing shortage based on building small integrated projects scattered throughout the city. The CHA believed that small projects offered the best chance of providing real educational and employment opportunities for all Chicagoans. But the approach never got an honest chance. Before long a set of deals redirected resources from small projects to the endless miles of all-black high-rise projects lining the State Street Corridor on the South Side. Woods herself would be driven from office by a segregationist coup.
But before that happened, the Cabrini-Green of the early 1950s provided one of the rare test cases for Woods’s vision. Most of the first blacks to move to Cabrini, including the Mayfields, were fleeing the South Side slums. When black families began moving into Cabrini-Green on August 1, 1942, their new homes seemed promising. Retreating from Chicago’s steaming summer streets to the shade beneath the trees outside the row houses, dancing to the music at the frequent block parties or partaking of the feasts provided by the neighborhood’s established St. Philip Benizi Church, most of the neophyte North Siders shared the feelings of Margaret Wilson, who said: “In the early days, I didn’t feel a boundary to the community. I didn’t feel like Cabrini was separated from the rest of the area at all.” For future jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, his interracial group of friends seemed like a natural part of a comfortable childhood: “It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized I was from what others might consider a ‘poor’ family as far as money was concerned. But growing up in Cabrini, I never wanted for anything. We had clothes to go to church in, clothes to go to school in, and clothes to play in.” Ramsey ran with a mixed group—two or three whites, two or three blacks: “I didn’t realize there was anything unusual about the fact that our neighborhood was mixed.”
All too soon, however, events would justify Chicago activist Saul Alinsky’s sardonic definition of integration as “the period of time between the arrival of the first black and the departure of the last white.” At Cabrini the 1958 opening of the “Reds”—fifteen buildings of between seven and nineteen stories housing seven thousand new residents—marked the point of no return. Initially, as Jerry Butler remembered, the Reds seemed to expand the opportunity offered by the low-rise “Greens.” “When the red high-rises were built, the initial reaction was, wow, this is gonna be great,” he recalled. “And I think in its embryonic stages, it was great. It was a mixed community with all types of blue-collar workers. We had bus drivers and plumbers and sanitation workers.” Fellow Red resident Viola Holmes concurred: “I thought I was livin’ in heaven… . We had a big playground for the kids to play in during the day and all the grown folk would take over in the night time and set out there in back.” Rochelle Satchell underlined the communal spirit that permeated the projects: “Everybody took care of everybody. You never had to lock your doors. You never had fear of anybody just coming out. You never felt like they were going to do any harm.”
For the young Curtis Mayfield, life in the projects was simply life. Without romanticizing the era, Mayfield remembered the forties and fifties as a time of communal sharing. “Mostly everybody that had a little something or that had a little home or even an apartment, they had grandfathers, they had uncles and aunties, and many times those people lived right within the same household. And of course the women had their men and everybody had the support and took what little you might have to make it work for everybody.” Mayfield traced the values of his community to its roots in the rural South, where most of the older generation had grown up. “I was fortunate enough to be amongst a lot of folks who helped to strengthen my mental abilities as a youngster,” he said appreciatively. “I learned through the streets and through the wise old people. I used to love to listen to old folks. Though you have to sort things out and make certain amends because a lot of what they say’s BS. But there’s a lot of truth to it, too. You know, everything in its place. I got my learning talking to elderly people who’d had to do the same because of the times. Even prior to my time that was the only way to get a learning.”
The economic realities of life in the projects, however, placed those values under extreme pressure. The prospects for residents of Cabrini-Green during the early fifties couldn’t be divorced from a metropolitan economy teetering on the brink of collapse. The periodic recessions that plagued the postwar economy justified the old saying that “when white America sneezes, black America gets pneumonia.” Soaring unemployment rates squeezed black families hard. Carl Sandburg had celebrated Chicago as the “city of the big shoulders,” “the nation’s freight handler,” and the “hog butcher for the world,” but by the time Mayfield reached his teens, the slaughterhouses and railroad yards had lost much of their business to regional centers developed with federal subsidies. Casting uneasy glances at the run-down slums encroaching on the Loop business district, Chicago merchants began relocating to the mushrooming northwestern suburbs.
For young African Americans seeking blue-collar jobs that would allow them to support a family, it was an unmitigated disaster. Cut out of the job market before they’d entered it, some turned to hustling. Many struggling to scrape by on seasonal employment and service-sector jobs succumbed to despair. Mayfield lamented the changes that would ultimately transform Cabrini into a symbol of social collapse and cut the younger generation off from the community that had nurtured him: “As you got older, you began to see a different way of life, and the men and the women, they became divided. The men went their way and you could see families just sort of deteriorating simply because they didn’t have that background. A lot of kids can’t look back one generation. Everybody wanted to become individuals, independent individuals. Which has its place. But to have a foundation you need a very strong beginning, and you have to know where you come from.”
Mayfield’s foundation lay in his family and the music that suffused his life. Although his father left the family when Curtis was an infant, his mother helped develop his deep love for language. He fondly recalled that she “was very much into poetry. She wrote poems herself and had a lot of books of poetry which I used to read all the time. She read me Paul Laurence Dunbar, Dr. Seuss, limericks. These became the foundations for my hook lines and rhythmic patterns.”
Although Cabrini was located far from the glittering theaters and funky blues clubs that stretched along State Street between Thirty-first and Thirty-fifth Streets on the South Side, music filled Mayfield’s childhood. “I never really had to acquire an interest in music,” he reminisced. “I just grew up around people who were a constant inspiration.” Jerry Butler agreed: “I shrink away from saying music was part of the black community because it makes it sound like it wasn’t part of any other community, but music was always there for us. It was part of the neighborhood. We grew up singing.” Ramsey Lewis echoed Butler and emphasized the different styles of music available in the Cabrini mix: “There was always talk about different kinds of music. I was exposed to all kinds of music—jazz, pop, R&B, blues… . My dad never said, ‘Don’t listen to Frank Sinatra because he’s white,’ or anything like that. He brought Art Tatum’s music into the house and all sorts of stuff, but at the time I was so into gospel and classical music that I didn’t appreciate it until later.” Mayfield relished the variety, drawing deeply from Chicago’s blues scene and finding particular inspiration in legends Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
Mayfield’s first contacts with blues, R&B, and jazz came primarily via radio. Curiously, despite the area’s large and rapidly growing black population, when Curtis was young there was no radio station devoted entirely to black music. Until 1963, when Phil Chess purchased WVON, black radio had been one part of an “ethnic” mix on stations that also programmed, among others, Greek, Lithuanian, German, and Bohemian music. As a result, the young Mayfield was forced to scan the dial in search of black DJs like Holmes Daylie, aka “Daddy-O” Daylie, whose Jazz from Dad’s Pad aired on WAIT; Herb Kent, who always closed his show with the Gospel Clefs’ “Open Our Eyes”; and Al Benson, a whiskey-drinking Democratic precinct captain whose ten hours a day on the air were split between WGES, WJJD, and WAAF.
The pioneer DJs combined music, ads, and announcements targeted toward the black community, with an outrageous showmanship that made them stars on and off the air. “Daddy-O” Daylie, for instance, developed his rhyming rapping style while working as a bartender. Chicago DJ Sid McCoy remembered that celebrities loved to hang out and watch him perform: “He would get up there with a glass and pour that drink, and he’d be rhyming all the time that he was making that drink. He would wrap the glass in a napkin, and at the end of a couplet he would set the glass down. Then he’d take the ice and throw it up in the air and catch it behind his back. He was fantastic. Everybody loved him.” The first Chicago DJ to speak in a southern accent on the air, Benson was so popular that in 1949 he was elected to the honorary position of “Mayor of Bronzeville,” the affectionate term used by residents to describe the black South Side. A firm supporter of R&B and the civil rights movement, Benson chartered an airplane the day before the 1956 presidential election and blanketed his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, with five thousand copies of the U.S. Constitution.
The DJs provided the young Mayfield with an inexhaustible supply of fresh musical ideas: “I had so much to go back on for ideas and sounds and rhythms and feels.” The deepest of those ideas and rhythms came from gospel music. Chicago’s gospel heritage ran deep. Thomas Dorsey wrote most of his songs there, and once Mahalia Jackson followed the Illinois Central rail line north from New Orleans, Chicago was the undisputed capital of the gospel world. Sallie Martin nurtured a generation of great gospel vocalists, and despite their name, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi called the South Side home. “Most of my life it was almost automatic,” Mayfield recalled. “Most black folks connected one way or another with the quartets and the little chorus groups and what have you.” While his grandmother provided the religious center of the family, Mayfield picked up his earliest musical inspiration from the male relatives who introduced him to the gospel quartet tradition that exerted a profound influence on the Impressions. “My grandfather and my uncle, they were affiliated with my grandmother, but they were into the music. They listened to a lot of old-timers like the Original Five Blind Boys and the Dixie Hummingbirds. The Soul Stirrers when Sam Cooke was there as a young kid. That was my foundation, connecting music with the church.” Mayfield remembered standing on tiptoe, peering over the top of the old Victrola, and watching the black-and-white labels on the Specialty gospel records spin around and around while he basked in the voices of some of the greatest singers the nation has ever known.
Chicago permitted Mayfield to see his idols in person. His good friend and future band mate Jerry Butler attended Mt. Sinai Baptist, a prominent church that attracted leading gospel stars including frequent guest vocalist Mahalia Jackson, while James Cleveland served as choir director after leaving Detroit. On occasion Mayfield would join Butler on expeditions to the South Side. At Union Hall near Forty-eighth and State, he heard the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Soul Stirrers, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Bells of Joy, the Staple Singers, and a powerful group that never got out of Chicago, the Morning Glory Singers. “We heard plenty of church music, plenty of harmonizing,” Butler recalled. “To hear these people sing the way I always wished I could sing, to go so deep and then so high, just so strong. Those guys could belt out a tune. That was just good singing and good music. I was a quartet man, the four- and five-man groups. When it comes to quartets, it could even be barbershop. I just loved harmony. The church is where the foundation was laid down for us.”
The intense competition in the gospel quartet scene inspired singers like Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones, and the greatest of them all, Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. The quartets faced off in front of the most demanding audiences imaginable, developing their stage shows and musical licks in response to the most recent round of battles. The Dixie Hummingbirds immortalized the battle style in “Let’s Go Out to the Programs,” which incorporates affectionate parodies of their main rivals. What ultimately determined the winner of a showdown, however, was the spiritual fire of the audience’s response. Mayfield remembered seeing Brownlee running up and down the aisles of the Union Hall, drenched with sweat as he unleashed the soul-shattering screams that brought the audience to tears of ecstatic joy.
Mayfield and Butler began to build on that foundation as members of their own family-based gospel group, the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Composed of Butler, Mayfield, and Curtis’s cousins Sam, Tommy, and Charles Hawkins, the group performed in the highly competitive Chicago quartet scene of the early fifties. Though the group never reached the level of the adult quartets, the local showdowns honed the skills of the two future Impressions—and fed their spirits. “The church had plenty of little affairs with other churches,” Mayfield recalled. “We’d go visit other churches and they’d visit us, and every church would have a group, a young kid singer vocalist or someone who was singing music. A lot of a cappella and group singing and that was good for the youngsters. That would build your heart up.” As the youngest member of the Northern Jubilees, Mayfield began to develop the distinctive near-falsetto tenor that made his mature singing so distinctive. “I was maybe seven when they got started, and I guess within a few months I found that I could carry a tune. I had just an automatic high-pitched voice being that young. I fit right in as a tenor singer.”
By the time he was eleven Curtis had begun to display his multifaceted musical talent. When he visited his paternal relatives in Ducoine, Illinois, he started picking out tunes on the piano. Never having taken music lessons, Mayfield experimented and decided that he liked the sound of the black keys. The attraction carried over when he picked up a guitar that one of the Hawkins brothers had brought home after a stint in the army. “The guitar used to sit in my grandmother’s home in a corner, but no one would ever touch it,” Mayfield said. “It would just draw me closer. It wasn’t mine, but finally I had to go pick this instrument up, and when I strummed across it, it probably tuned in the key of Spanish, which is natural tuning— when you strum across it, it sounds out of tune. So subconsciously I tuned it to the key of F sharp, which I found later was all the black keys on the piano. Being self-taught, I never changed it. It used to make me proud because no matter how good a guitarist was, when he grabbed my axe, he couldn’t play it.” By the time Curtis reached fourteen, it was obvious to Butler that “he was an exceptional talent, but no one was quite sure how exceptional or how talented. All we knew was that one day while cleaning out a closet, he found this old beat-up guitar, and in a few weeks’ time he was playing ‘Jingle Bells’ and other songs by ear. Inside of three or four months he could play every song we knew, plus he had this great tenor voice. When he hooked up with us, the Northern Jubilee Singers took on a new dimension.”
Despite their youth the Northern Jubilees set out on the gospel highway, performing throughout the city. Once they had honed their skills in the neighborhood churches, they were able to book shows throughout the Midwest and, occasionally, in the South. “Uncle Charles kept us running,” Mayfield recalled. “Whether we were in the city or on the road, we were moving quite a bit. We were running, playing the cities, trying to keep our little group up.” Butler recalled traveling to Tampa on a church bus in the summer of 1953 where the young people sang at the National Spiritualist Convention. During that journey, Butler became aware of the thin line dividing the sacred and the profane: “A guy doing any kind of singing,” he reminisced, “in any kind of limelight, could attract pretty girls who would do anything, even have sex with you, just to say they were in your company.”
The lure of feminine appreciation no doubt played a part in Mayfield’s decision to form the Alphatones, a doo-wop-style group whose members included his West Side Grammar School friends Al Boyce, James Weems, and Dallas Dixon. Short and dark-skinned, Curtis had a round face and a gap-toothed smile that in later years would become part of his charm and appeal. But as a teenager, his shy demeanor provided no competition for the taller, more self-assured Butler. They rehearsed in the practice rooms at the neighborhood center in Seward Park and sometimes in the apartments of neighbors like Lillian Davis Swope, who cherished her memories of Cabrini’s musical ferment: “We had a lot of things goin’ on over here. We had Ramsey Lewis and we had Curtis Mayfield. I used to let Curtis practice his music in my house when I lived down on Hudson. I knowed all of them, Jerry Butler too. I had to finally take Curtis over to Seward Park and got the park to give him a room because my house wasn’t a conducive place for him to practice in.” Zora Washington remembered the Alphatones’ performances at dances in the basement of the Cabrini Reds. If the Alphatones were seeking to establish themselves with the young ladies, Washington laughed, they fell short of their dreams: “As far as dealing with Curtis, he was not my speed. As a kid, he just wasn’t it. As I got older, yes, I grew to appreciate his music, but as a girl, nooooo.” Mayfield would soon enter a larger world, musically and socially, but he never moved away from the laughter and the spirit of Cabrini-Green.
WHERE CURTIS AND ARETHA both grew up in worlds defined by the gospel vision, Stevie Wonder seemed destined to live the blues. Born six weeks prematurely on May 13, 1950, in Saginaw, Michigan, the young Steveland Morris, as the last name on his birth certificate read, was blinded, probably by an excess of oxygen during the fifty-two days he spent in an incubator while doctors worked to save his life. Stevie’s infancy was a difficult time for his mother, Lula Hardaway, and his two older brothers. His biological father, Calvin Judkins, was a handsome hard-living hustler who did little to support his family. Wonder’s friend Lee Garrett, who was also blind, recalled telling Lula about his unhappy childhood as a despised “blind brat”: “When I was telling Lula that story,” Garrett said, “she shrugged her shoulders, saying that she knew the expression ‘the blind brat’ only too well herself. If it were up to Judkins, Steve would have ended up in a corner like myself.”
Although she had been abandoned by her parents, Lula grew up in a hardworking, close-knit family ruled by her uncle, Henry Wright, near the small town of Hurtsboro in the heart of the Alabama black belt. As a child, Lula soaked in the gospel vision through the songs she sang in the church choir. She cherished her uncle’s inspirational stories about the family’s proud history and a distant past when black men had been kings. When her uncle died suddenly, however, the good times came to an end. Lula was exiled to East Chicago, where for a brief time she lived with her birth father in a neighborhood nicknamed “Alabama North.” Shuttled from relative to relative, she dropped out of school and gave birth to her first son before she moved in with Stevie’s father in Saginaw, which Stevie’s father would tell him was only twelve miles from the North Pole. Calvin Judkins turned out to be Lula’s worst mistake. When money was short, he beat her and sent her out onto the street, where she earned the money she needed to feed her sons by selling sexual favors.
Desperate to escape her nightmarish life with Judkins as well as Saginaw’s depressed economy and the frigid winds that blew in off Lake Huron, Lula moved the family to Detroit. Rising at 4:30 A.M. to work in the city’s fish markets, she scrimped and saved enough money to buy a small brick house on Breckenridge Avenue in the heart of the East Side ghetto. Her life continued to improve when she met and married Paul Lynch, who supported Stevie, Milton, Calvin, and the younger siblings born over the next few years—Larry, Timothy, and Renee—by working in a bakery. On the rare occasions when Stevie saw his biological father, the results could be traumatic. After one excursion his father brought Stevie back to his apartment. “He stayed away for a long time and left me alone. I got upset, and I started to cry about that,” Stevie told an interviewer. “But after a while I just said, hey, forget it, and I just went on to sleep. I was just afraid because the surroundings weren’t familiar to me.”
Even if his eyesight had been perfect, the prospects greeting Wonder would have been bleak. The primary difference between his world in the mid-fifties and Mayfield’s Chicago was that Detroit promised more and delivered even less. Although the myth of Detroit as a land of economic opportunity would linger through the sixties, the process that would later be called “deindustrialization” began almost immediately after V-J Day. By the time Lula Hardaway moved her family to Detroit, the large automakers had begun their exodus to the suburbs and were busily relocating plants to small towns in the South and Midwest where the labor force would be less militant. Lacking seniority and pull within the union hierarchies, the fortunate black workers who had made inroads during the war sought mostly to protect their own hard-won gains. Even so, they were concentrated in jobs that white workers considered demeaning or dangerous. As one auto industry executive told a white reporter in a moment of stunning forthrightness, “Some jobs white folks will not do, so they have to take niggers in, particularly in dice work, spraying paint on car bodies. This seems to kill a white man.” While he acknowledged that the work also “shortens [Negro] lives, cuts them down,” he shrugged, “They’re just niggers.”
No one familiar with Detroit’s history as a stronghold of the Black Legion and Ku Klux Klan was surprised by the intensity of white resistance that began in 1941 when the city announced that the Sojourner Truth housing project on the city’s Northeast Side would be open to blacks. Local whites immediately formed the Seven Mile-Fenelon Improvement Association and geared up to resist the plan. Posting signs that announced succinctly, “Negroes who move in here will be burned. Signed, Neighbors,” the association invoked the language of war, calling the plans an “invasion” and their neighborhood a “battleground.” When the first blacks moved in on February 28, 1942, the battle led to 220 arrests and left 40 injured. The clash established a pattern in Detroit that resembled Chicago’s. Like their cousin vultures in Chicago, realtors sought to capitalize on black desperation and white fear by “blockbusting,” reaping predatory profits and feeding the cycle of flight and violence.
These brutal dynamics created a painful dilemma for economically secure black communities like Conant Gardens, which formed an unholy alliance with the Seven Mile-Fenelon Improvement Association during the Sojourner Truth conflict. Like the whites who saw the projects as an assault on the good life they felt they had earned for their children, the black homeowners of Conant Gardens feared that the projects would drive out respectable citizens and lower property values. Aware of Conant Gardens’ position, many Sojourner Truth residents found the class divide as painful as the racial hostility, which was at least expected. Kenneth G. Booker was aware that “the people in Conant Gardens didn’t want us out here as well as the whites didn’t want us to be a project either.” Acknowledging that “it wasn’t everybody in Conant Gardens,” Sojourner resident Gerald Blakely understood their position, even if he didn’t sympathize with it. “What happened was that during that particular period that was the only area that blacks could get FHA loans. They were more concerned about the property values going down. It was the idea that it was a project and would take the property values down.” But the bottom line for “project boys,” as Robert Bynum, who was one of them, put it, was simply that “they didn’t want us.”
Never as secure or affluent as its white counterpart, the black middle class faced a no-win situation. On the one hand, no one should begrudge the residents of Conant Gardens, or of C.L. Franklin’s Oakland Avenue enclave, the fruits of their arduous labors. On the other hand, protecting those advances sometimes set the interests of those who had made it against the desire of others to escape the worsening conditions in Paradise Valley. In the long run the resolution of the Sojourner Truth conflict would mirror the economic fate of the nation as a whole: a fortunate few would attain unimaginable riches; a substantial number of African Americans, though many fewer, proportionately, than whites, would rise to middle- and upper-middle -class comfort. But all too many would find themselves abandoned, with neither a realistic chance for escape nor the long-term hope offered by a growing freedom movement in the South.
Against that backdrop, Stevie Wonder was probably fortunate to grow up in what he called “upper lower circumstances.” “I would love to do a TV special that would tell many things people don’t know about me,” he once told a Newsweek interviewer, “like how when I was younger my mother, my brothers and I had to go on the dry dock where there was coal and steal some to keep warm. To a poor person that is not stealing, that is not crime, it’s a necessity.” When Stevie’s mother denied the story was true, Stevie, who unlike George Washington may have occasionally told mutually incompatible versions of a story, clarified his underlying point: “My mother wasn’t very happy with the reference to the fact that I stole coal when I was young. I’m not ashamed to talk about it, but my mother felt very bad. I tried to explain to her that I told the story only because it’s sad that in a country that is as wealthy as the United States stealing for survival is a necessity as well as a crime.” To which Lula responded, “Politics or not, we never were that badly off.”
Lula’s refusal to fixate on the family’s problems carried over to Stevie’s attitude toward his blindness. Initially, Lula worried over her son’s condition and spent precious dollars on a series of doctors and faith healers, but Stevie did his best to convince her he didn’t feel deprived of a sense he’d never known: “I never really wondered much about my blindness or asked questions about it, because to me, really, being blind was normal. But I knew it used to worry my mother, and I know she prayed for me to have sight someday, so I finally just told her that I was happy being blind, and I thought it was a gift from God, and I think she felt better after that.” Noting that a girl born the same day in Saginaw had died in the incubator, he added sincerely, “I personally think I’m lucky to be alive.” Once Lula accepted Stevie’s condition as permanent, she did her best to assure him a normal childhood. She allowed him to explore the neighborhood with his brothers and encouraged him to swim, skate, and go bowling. “I always loved her for giving me that independence,” Stevie reminisced. “She let me feel the breeze of riding a bicycle.”
At times Wonder would credit his blindness with providing a buffer against discontent: “We were poor all right but I wasn’t aware of it as much as other kids would be. Being blind I didn’t see the things I didn’t have, like on television. I was sort of lucky.” As he matured, Wonder would often observe that, in a society obsessed with superficial appearances, his blindness conferred certain advantages. “I’m glad that I’m blind,” he told Rolling Stoneinterviewer Ben Fong-Torres. “Being blind, you don’t judge books by their covers. You go through things that are relatively insignificant, and you pick out the things that are more important.” Wonder insists that he has a clear understanding of sight. “I’m almost sure that the forms I see look exactly like yours. I mean even with textures of skin, or the different colors of skin, you can touch someone and you can get a pretty good picture in your mind, your mind’s eye. It’s no longer coming from your eyes, it’s coming from inside you. Well the same thing happens to me.”
One of Stevie’s earliest memories, which like many of his stories rings like a cross between an exaggerated family story and an urban tall tale, concerned his brothers’ attempt to alleviate his blindness. “When I was just a little baby I remember my brothers Milton and Calvin were messing around with a lot of stuff in the house, they had stuff all over everywhere, jam and bubble gum and stuff,” Wonder said. “They had a garbage can and some matches in the house, and they were saying, ‘God, you know Stevie needs some more light. Wonder what we can do to get him some light? Maybe we can set this thing … like start a fire in here and he’ll have some more light.’ So they went and started a fire and almost blew the house down.”
A relaxed blues humor recurs in many of the childhood stories Stevie has told over the years, many of which portray him as a mischievous adventurer predisposed to pushing boundaries. The salacious comedy routines of ghetto raconteur Redd Foxx inspired his first experiments with the opposite sex. “It was the playhouse trip,” Wonder recalled with a smile. “And I really was like taking the girl’s clothes off and everything. I don’t understand how I did that stuff, but I was into it. I had her in my room with my clothes off. And she gave it away ’cause she started laughin’ and gigglin’.” Although once again the details stretch credibility, Stevie told several versions of an incident that earned him his mother’s more serious displeasure. “You know those small sheds they used to have in back of houses?” he asked. “In the ghetto where I lived, we’d hop them from one to the other. I remember one time my aunt came in and said, ‘Okay Steve, Mama said don’t be doin’ that,’ and I said ‘Aw, fuck you.’ ” Stevie continued his roof-jumping exploits until his mother caught up with him and rewarded his language with an electrical-cord whipping.
When no one was available to watch over him, Stevie gravitated to the family radio, which he called “one of my best friends.” His favorite DJs, especially Larry Dixon, who hosted the Sundown show on WCHB, introduced him to the rapidly changing black music scene of the fifties. The radio equivalent of Motown, WCHB was a black-owned station that redefined the Detroit soundscape. When Stevie’s and Aretha’s families moved to Detroit, the color barrier remained very much in effect on Detroit radio. As late as the end of the forties, even a popular white DJ like Bill Randle, the host of the Interracial Goodwill Hour on WJLB, could be fired for playing “obviously black music” during daylight hours; Randle’s hanging offense was to expose unwitting whites to Nat King Cole. Still, in comparison to Chicago, Detroit radio opened up much more rapidly to the R&B explosion of the fifties. Detroit DJ LeRoy G. White, the jive-talking host of Rockin’ with LeRoy, and six-foot-four, three-hundred-pound white R&B lover Mickey Shorr assaulted musical segregation by appealing to teenagers of all races with a barrage of Johnny Otis, the Dominoes, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, LaVern Baker, the Drifters, and Howlin’ Wolf. The most popular DJ of all, Frantic Ernie Durham, frequently broadcast his WJLB show from the Twenty Grand Club on the edge of the expanding black enclave on the city’s West Side. Serving up an aural gumbo that was part black music, part advertising hustle, and part street poetry, Durham was famous for the surreal song introductions that shaped the verbal approach of descendants like P-Funk’s George Clinton. “Great googa mooga, shooga wooga!” Durham might begin. “Welcome to another inning of spinning with Ernie Durham, your ace from inner space, on the swinging-est show on the ra-di-o! Let’s cut the chatter with another platter! It’s ‘Treasure of Love’ from Mr. Clyde McPhatter!”
However silly it might sound to outside ears, Durham’s “nonsense” carried serious undertones. Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg, who took her regal presence from WDIA in Memphis to WCHB in 1963, outlined the implications. Emphasizing black radio’s role in the spread of the movement, she claimed, “If it hadn’t been for black radio, Martin Luther King would not have gotten off the ground, because we were the first to talk about it. It was new, it was exciting. Everybody became curious. We talked like the African drummers used to talk years ago. We talked in a code—‘Yes Mammy o Daddy, get on down!’ We talked about what to do, but some people didn’t know what we were talking about. After the movement started moving about the nation, we let everybody know what was going on, because no one would interview Martin Luther King. No one knew Jesse Jackson. Nobody interviewed these preachers, so we did that ourselves, on a low-key basis, but we did.”
Sitting in his room listening to Steinberg, Durham, and Larry Dixon, who incorporated quiet social commentary into the mix of jazz and R&B on the Sundown show, young Steveland Morris heard hints of the gospel vision in African American politics. But his first love was the music. Stevie’s early favorites included Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” Bill Doggett’s funky “Honky Tonk,” and the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” as well as songs by Mary Wells, the Coasters, Clyde McPhatter, and the Five Royales. As he listened to the R&B hits that prepared the way for Motown’s crossover success, Wonder also was being exposed to the music’s southern sources. He listened to the electrified down-home blues of John Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf and became a fan of gospel groups like the Staple Singers and the Dixie Hummingbirds featuring Ira Tucker, whose daughters, Linda and Sundray, would sing backup for Wonder during the seventies, and whose son Ira Jr. would become a staff member and confidant.
As long as he lived in the ghetto, Wonder had relatively little direct contact with racial prejudice. But when he entered Detroit’s Fitzgerald School, he encountered teachers who saw neither blindness nor blackness as a blessing: “They made me feel like because I was black I could never be or would never be successful.” One of his first realizations of racial difference came when he tuned in to a black radio station on the school bus. “I was the only black kid on the bus, and I would always turn the radio down, because I felt ashamed to let them hear me listening to B.B. King. But I loved B.B. King. Yet I felt ashamed because—because I was di ferent enough to want to hear him and because I had never heard him anywhere else.” The incident made a deep impression on Wonder, and in later years it would serve as a touchstone for his political sensibility. “Freedom begins in the simplest things, even in such things as feeling free enough to turn on a radio to a particular station,” he said. “You have to seize that for yourself and then demand that kind of freedom for others.”
Although Wonder’s first ambition was to become a DJ on the imaginary radio station WBMB—“Blind Man’s Bluff” radio—it soon became clear that he would not be satisfied playing music made by others. “The first time I really felt the power of music was on a family picnic at Belle Isle,” he recalled. “Someone had hired a band, and I sat on the drummer’s lap. He let me play the drums. It was a thrill I’ll never forget. People applauded and one man gave me three quarters. Man, I felt like I had a fortune in my pocket. Later, when I’d sing or play for fun at functions, people would give me dollars, but I’d never take them. I just wanted quarters. Paper money doesn’t jingle.”
By the time he was seven, Wonder had begun fooling around with the piano, harmonica, and drums. “I was always beating things, like beating tables with a spoon, or beating on those little cardboard drums they used to give kids. I’d beat ’em to death,” he reported with pride. At a Lion’s Club Christmas party for blind children, he received a small drum kit. “I started playing the drums on the wrong side. So they came over to me and said, ‘Hey, you don’t do it like this, try it over on the other side’ and I’d say, ‘Oh no, I wanna hear the side with the snares,’ ” he laughed. At about the same time a neighbor moved out, bequeathing her piano to the Hardaways. Even though he could barely reach the pedals, Stevie liked picking out tunes on the keys and claimed to have written his first songs when he was eight.
But the instrument that truly fascinated him was the harmonica. He first encountered it in the form of a tiny harmonica dangling off a family friend’s key ring. Noticing Stevie’s love for the toy instrument, an uncle gave him a Hohner chromatic harmonica. Before long his nephew was playing day and night. “I started playing the blues,” he said, naming Jimmy Reed, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and Chicago harmonica wizard Little Walter as his inspirations. “I took a little bit of everybody’s style and made it my own. I guess I practiced, but I never considered it practice because I loved it too much. It was like searching in a new place you’ve never been before. I kept finding new things, new chords, new tunes.”
Before long Wonder joined forces with neighborhood friend John Glover to form a street-corner group. Establishing themselves in the area around Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Streets, the young duo harmonized on a repertoire of popular hits including Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” and two early Smokey Robinson songs, “She’s Not a Bad Girl” and “My Momma Told Me to Leave Those Girls Alone.” John played the guitar while Stevie beat out rhythms on his newly acquired bongos. Already Wonder was developing the flair that would make him a favorite at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. “I used to love to do the imitations of Jackie Wilson,” Wonder said. “I heard he was a very exciting performer, so I used to do all kinds of flips and stuff.”
While Motown circulated the youngster’s wry comment that his first ambition was to be “a minister, or maybe a sinner,” his close friend and mentor Clarence Paul laughingly dismissed his protégé’s claims that he had been a junior deacon and church soloist as a concoction of the label’s publicity machine. Still, there’s no reason to doubt that his street-corner performances earned the disapproval of some respectable churchgoers. “We used to get pretty big crowds of people playing on those porches. I remember this one time, this lady who was a member of our church—she was Sanctified Holiness, but she was still a member of our church, the Whitestone Baptist Church—came along, and she said, ‘Oh, Steve, I’m ashamed of you for playing this worldly music out here. I’m so ashamed of you.’ I really blew it. I’d been a junior deacon in the church, and I used to sing solo at the services. But she went and told them what I was doing, and they told me to leave. And that’s how I became a sinner.” Sooner than anyone would have imagined, the sinner-in-training would embark on a career that would provide the strongest imaginable proof that rock ’n’ roll, the devil’s music, could be drafted into the service of the gospel vision.
GLIDING ACROSS THE gleaming hardwood surface of the Arcadia skating rink, feeling herself a part of “young black America at its best,” Aretha Franklin surrendered to the spell of the same music that enchanted Stevie Wonder. For Aretha, who used the first fifteen dollars she earned singing in church to buy a pair of white roller skates, the sounds of Johnny Ace, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Frankie Lymon, and the Flamingos—the “Four Tops of yesteryear,” as she’d later call them—melted into her warm memories of her early teenage years. Announcing proudly that “Detroiters were serious skaters,” she described the Arcadia on Woodward Avenue as “a sepia scene of budding innocence, all-American teenage stuff, sipping on cherry Cokes or hugged up as we skated to couples-only, listening to Dinah asking the musical question, ‘Did you say I got a lot to learn?’ ” A few years younger than Aretha, future Supreme Mary Wilson admired Aretha’s style and self-assurance: “I remember skating, timidly keeping to the rail, and watching Aretha Franklin whiz by. She didn’t just skate: she bopped.”
Wilson belonged to a sizable group of Motown stars-to-be who grew up near the Franklins. Aretha knew but never became friends with Wilson, Diana Ross, and Otis Williams of the Temptations. But her brother Cecil’s best friend, Smokey Robinson, spent a great deal of time helping Cecil and future Miracle Pete Moore operate a hair-processing business out of the Franklins’ first-floor bathroom. Charging two dollars rather than the seven that their youthful patrons would have paid at the local barbershop, Cecil mastered the fine art of making waves with a comb and using his finger to set the ’do. When he went away to college at Morehouse in Atlanta, Smokey inherited the clientele. For Robinson, the sounds of the Franklin household only added to the attraction of the job. He remembered gospel star Clara Ward singing in the kitchen while she cooked. Quickly Robinson fell under the spell of his friend’s talented sister. “I fell in love with her when she was seven,” Smokey smiled, but a few years later when he asked Cecil to set him up, he found that his friend was “too much of a protective big brother.” The romantic regrets didn’t stop Smokey from appreciating Aretha’s budding musical talent. “Me and my friends fooled with music,” Smokey wrote in his autobiography, “but none of us, like little Aretha, could sit down and play two-fisted full-blooded stomp-down piano. As a child, she played nearly as good as she does now.”
Barely into her teens, Aretha had already begun playing piano for the choir at New Bethel. Shortly thereafter she moved up to become one of three featured soloists, earning fifteen dollars a week. Her first performance remained a blur in Aretha’s memory. Facing a congregation of fifteen hundred, she sang “Jesus Be a Fence Around Me,” which she’d first heard performed by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. “Next thing I know, I’m just out there,” she reported. “Out there singing. But right then I knew that was for me.” So did the members of the congregation, who shared Mary Wilson’s assessment that from the start “Aretha had a way of singing gospel that transcended all musical boundaries. Sometimes in gospel music you can only enjoy it in the framework of religion. Gospel was part of my religion, but I was into pop and R&B music. Aretha had a way of making me enjoy my gospel roots in a pop context. In church, she would make you feel you were listening to good music and not being preached to from the Bible. That was the beauty of her style.” Aretha’s reputation spread rapidly, but the contrast between her spirit-filled performances and her shy personality surprised many who knew her. Otis Williams of the Temptations, who had first encountered Aretha and her sisters at the Arcadia, was one of them: “I got friendly with her sister and I used to walk her home from school. I remember one day doing that and finally getting to meet Aretha. There she was, real quiet and shy—the same little girl who was layin’ folks out in church. I guess I was surprised, she was so quiet.”
Like Stevie Wonder, Aretha followed the exploits of charismatic Detroit DJs like Frantic Ernie Durham and LeRoy White as they popularized a new style of black music. A few years earlier the lines between gospel and secular music had seemed set in stone. But many mid-1950s stars heeded the example of Ray Charles, who had scandalized many churchgoing black citizens by incorporating sanctified singing styles into down-and-dirty hits like “I’ve Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say.” Charles responded to the criticism with his matter-of-fact observation, “All you needed to do to change gospel to blues was substitute a woman’s name for the Lord’s.” Then Charles went about the serious business of redrawing America’s cultural map. Musical terrain that was previously marked “white” and “black,” “smooth” and “raw,” and above all “sacred” and “secular” turned out to share some territory. Before long the man Julian Bond called “the Bishop of Atlanta” for his role in inspiring the freedom movement had won over all but his most rigid detractors while clearing the path for a host of church-tinged R&B singers interested in selling records on the “other side” of the color line.
Aretha’s favorite examples of the emerging sound ranged from Little Willie John’s bluesy “Talk to Me, Talk to Me” and the Clovers’ novelty goof “Love Potion Number Nine” through the ethereal harmonies of the Moonglows’ “Ten Commandments of Love” and Ruth Brown’s exuberant “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” to near-gospel hits like Clyde McPhatter’s “A Lover’s Question” and LaVern Baker’s “Soul on Fire.” At the same time she loved tuning in to “Senator” Bristol Bryant’s gospel hour to hear the Caravans, the Sensational Nightingales, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Swan Silvertones.
First at Alger Elementary School and then at Hutchins Junior High and Northern High School, Aretha usually fulfilled the role of good student, earning “A’s, B’s, some C’s, maybe a D here and there.” In most respects, she lived the life of a regular pupil, but her classmates and teachers knew that her musical talents went way beyond playing tuba and flute in the school band. When unruly students threatened to reduce study hall sessions to chaos, teachers would sometimes summon Aretha to help restore order. “They’d be throwing spitballs or fighting, and I’d have to play the piano to entertain,” Aretha said. “That was my first experience with a tough audience.”
Even if Aretha hadn’t been such a performer, Reverend Franklin’s prominence made it difficult for his children to blend into the crowd. “In Detroit, the Franklin girls were celebrities,” Mary Wilson observed. Erma Franklin responded by developing a dignified bearing that earned her the nickname “Madam Queen.” To Aretha, she “could be loving and caring or cool and aloof.” Honing her intellectual talents at Clark University in Atlanta, Erma developed the ability, as Aretha phrased it, to “spar intellectually” with her father. Many shared Wilson’s view of Carolyn Franklin as “a big wheel in school” and the most powerful personality among the sisters: “She was the baby in the family, but she always had street gangs and she was the leader.” Carolyn’s tough veneer developed in part as defense against her ostensibly tamer big sister. “I could have killed Aretha sometimes,” Carolyn told an interviewer. “When I was a child, she’d take me to the rabbit field across the street from our house, place me in the hole, and hide. I’d scream my head off in fright, damn near had a stroke screaming and crying, while I’d hear Aretha laugh her head off behind some bushes.” But Carolyn never doubted her sister’s love or support: “She was like the mama lion with me. If anyone messed with me at school, they had Aretha to deal with.”
In later years Aretha, Carolyn, and Erma would at times clash; twice C.L. was forced to restore peace when an argument threatened to escalate into physical violence. But they also shared profound emotional and musical bonds. It seemed natural that they would form their own singing group, the Cleopatrettes. For a while they filled the house with their versions of songs by the Drifters, Ruth Brown, and LaVern Baker. Soon, however, Carolyn and Erma began to resent Aretha’s intensity, ambition, and desire for musical control. “She always wanted to sing in a key that didn’t blend with the harmonies of the group,” Erma laughed. “So we decided to let her go do her own thing.” “I suppose I might have been sort of a bully,” Aretha admitted. “I wanted to go on through the night. And they’d be tired. And I would yell at them. ‘Sing, sing, I want you to sing.’ ” Giving up the girl group idea, the sisters shifted their attention to gospel. Hoping that spiritual messages would generate sisterly harmony, they formed a group that appeared at local churches for about eight months. Again the group collapsed because, as Aretha sighed, “we were too busy fussin’ and fightin’.”
A serious threat to Aretha’s future came when she found out she was pregnant shortly before she turned fourteen. Up to that time Aretha had enthusiastically joined her girlfriends’ pursuit of harmless romantic fantasies. She fell in puppy love with a boy she called “Romeo” when she was twelve and loved holding hands while skating to the romantic strains of the Penguins’ “Earth Angel” or “I Only Have Eyes for You” during “couples only” at the Arcadia. Things grew more serious when she fell for an older boy who wore open-collared shirts and tight jeans and, best of all, drove a Ford Fairlane convertible. What Aretha thought was true love collapsed into something more mundane when she told her beau about her condition. “When I was pregnant, he would drive past the house with the top dropped, blow the horn and keep going,” Aretha wrote in her autobiography. “I couldn’t believe he was going to be this cold. He never stopped to spend any time or to check on my condition. Finally, though, I saw him for what he was—a big dog.”
In her sixth month Aretha dropped out of school and lived at home until the birth of her first son, whom she named Clarence in honor of her father. Although she feared that the news of her pregnancy would anger him, C.L. proved supportive. “He was not judgmental, or scolding,” she said. “He simply talked about the responsibilities of motherhood. He was a realist and he expected me to face the reality of having a child.” Aretha realized that “the days of spiced ham and Popsicles were over.” Mary Wilson emphasized that even in the upscale Oakland Avenue neighborhood, out-of-wedlock births were not unusual. “Many of the neighborhood girls had babies when they were thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen years old,” she wrote, emphasizing that middle-class children like the Franklin sisters belonged to the same world as the residents of the nearby Brewster Housing Projects. “That was the bad part about being in the projects, because that kind of thing was happening all around us. So many people living in such close proximity has a lot to do with it.” With the help of her grandmother and Erma, Aretha cared for her new baby and returned to school. When she found out she was pregnant once more, with her second son, Eddie, she dropped out again, this time for good at age sixteen.
Aretha appreciated her father’s support and never questioned his decisions. But his reputation as a man who loved the high life as well as the holy life created tensions for his children. Jerry Wexler, who would later spend many late-night hours on the phone listening to Aretha talk about her burdens, painted a clear picture of C.L. Franklin’s complex relationship with his favorite daughter. Reverend Franklin was “a national leader,” Wexler wrote in his autobiography, but he was also “a charismatic character who reputedly took an occasional walk on the wild side. He’d been busted for pot possession and liked to party. Some say the preacher used his children, especially the precocious Aretha, as props and pawns; others called him a devoted father.”
Reverend Franklin made no secret of his love of good music, fashionable attire, and the night spots where the African American elite released its burdens and celebrated its successes. Bass player Herman Wright recalled C.L.’s visits to the Southland Lounge on Chicago’s South Side: “He liked music. He frequented clubs. He had an active life. Reverend Franklin was a real nice man, a smooth guy.” Franklin’s tailored suits, complete with diamond stick pins and alligator shoes, justified his nicknames “Black Beauty” and “the Jitterbug Preacher.” Mary Wilson testified that even in the pulpit, he exerted a hypnotizing influence over his female parishioners. “Women absolutely loved him. He was a ladies’ man. My mother adored him.” Some speculated that Reverend Franklin’s appeal played a substantial part in his wife’s decision to leave Detroit. New Bethel deacon Willie Todd observed that problems in the marriage arose because “Reverend was gone so much. He was a playboy. I mean, truth is the light. That wasn’t their first separation.” Observing caustically that once her mother departed, “some women pursued him aggressively,” Aretha described what happened when one pursuer showed up at the family house with a suitcase, ready to set up housekeeping: “Carolyn snapped into action. She grabbed a kitchen knife, ran up the steps, jumped in front of the woman, and backed her down the stairs and out of the house.” Sounding a theme that many have echoed, Wilson speculated on C.L.’s long-term effect on his daughter: “That charisma he had … I can see why his children would be as enamored of him as everyone else. It’s as if none of the men in Aretha’s life could ever match her father, because he was so dynamic.” For a while it appeared that C.L. might marry the mother of poet and music critic Al Young, who grew up in the Franklins’ neighborhood, but Mary Young put an end to the relationship. Years later she explained the reason to her son: “He would spend Saturday night with me. Then, at the crack of dawn, he would hop out of bed, shove his little bottle of whiskey in his coat pocket and say, ‘Oh, Mary, I have to go preach.’ I just couldn’t marry anybody like that.”
Reverend Franklin’s daughters did not hate all of his girlfriends. C.L.’s relationship with gospel singer Clara Ward presented his daughter with a particularly complicated emotional situation. Aretha traced her desire to become a singer to hearing Clara sing “Peace in the Valley” at a relative’s funeral when she was ten years old. Although the Ward Singers’ flashy style caused some heads to shake and tongues to cluck, Aretha loved their flair. Their sequined gowns and bouffant hairdos contributed to Aretha’s conviction that there was “nothing inconsistent between a flashy presentation and passionate love of God.” A striking woman whose piercing eyes flashed out from her thin face, Ward was in her late twenties when she fell under C.L. Franklin’s spell. When she began visiting the Franklin home, she fell under the spell of the young Aretha. Clara’s sister Willa Ward-Royster observed that her sister was “so amazed by Aretha’s singing voice and delivery that she offered all the guidance she could to advance that huge talent. Aretha had an inherent gift from Mother Africa or Mother Earth… . No one could have taught her how to reach back up to where the heart joins soul, gather the treasures trembling there, and then, song by song, present her glory to the listening world. Here was this shy, unaffected child who could without plan yank the covers off folks’ emotions.” Meditating on the good fortune that brought her together with an ideal vocal mentor, Aretha counted her blessings: “You can’t explain it yourself. But you can sense it in other people, I guess. Clara knew. She knew I hadto sing.”
Clara Ward’s entanglement with Aretha’s father began shortly after he moved to Detroit, and they frequently shared the bill on gospel shows in the late forties and early fifties. The relationship between Clara and C.L. took on new depth one night at Philadelphia’s Metropolitan Opera House, where they were appearing on a program with Mahalia Jackson, Brother Joe May, and midget evangelist Sammy Bryant. In Willa’s words, “The Reverend and Clara seemed to share the Holy Spirit intermingled with the human spirit. It was the start of my sister’s only heart, soul, and flesh real romance.”
As Ward’s visits to Detroit grew more frequent, her bond with Aretha deepened. The recently widowed reverend’s need for help with the children allowed Clara to justify those visits. As Willa wrote, “Although Mom was jealous of Clara’s closeness to C.L., she liked his children well enough, which made her receptive to the idea of Clara’s traveling to Detroit to sit with them occasionally. If she knew that the good Reverend was doing most of the sitting—and more—with my sister Clara, she did not let on.” What did upset Mrs. Ward was her suspicion that her daughter was being exploited. “Franklin just wants you to build his congregation up,” she lectured her daughter. “You’ve come too far and worked too hard to be singing there for free.”
As murmurings about C.L. and Clara spread, the stylish couple attracted the attention of the African American press. When they traveled together to the World Baptist Alliance Convention in Europe, photographers were there to greet them on their arrival in Paris and again when they returned to the United States. Eventually the fires would cool, but the two remained close. C.L. joined the Ward Singers for their twenty-first-anniversary program in 1954 and paid an emotional visit to Clara in the hospital after she suffered a stroke onstage in 1967. Always sensitive to the lingering rumors that assigned Clara partial blame for her parents’ separation, Aretha avoided the topic. “Daddy and Clara were great friends,” she said flatly. “They were broad-minded in their attitudes and absolutely subscribed to the biblical mandate that the gospel be spread all over the world.”
Whatever the complexities of her relationship with C.L. Franklin, Clara Ward helped provide his daughter with an unmatchable musical education. When Aretha was small, she would sit at the top of the stairs and peer down through the banister at a shifting parade of visitors including Art Tatum, B.B. King, Arthur Prysock, Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, Dorothy Donegan, Lou Rawls, Erroll Garner, and of course gospel stars like Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, and Sam Cooke. Aretha took special delight in meeting Cooke and Dinah Washington, another of her singing idols. A hardworking, savagely stylish singer, Washington was equally at ease with the no-nonsense R&B of “Baby, Get Lost,” a blues standard like “Trouble in Mind,” a torch song like “What a Diff ’rence a Day Makes,” or a jazzy pop ballad like “Unforgettable.” Widely recognized as “Queen of the Blues,” Washington set the standard to which Aretha aspired in her first secular records.
Sometimes C.L. would summon his daughter from her watching point or even rouse her from sleep so she could entertain his guests with renditions of “Canadian Sunset” or “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” In return, Aretha received personal attention from some of the most influential keyboard players of the era. She imitated Erroll Garner’s “raining tremolos and easy swing” and marveled at the unsurpassed inventiveness of houseguest Art Tatum, although she never tried to re-create his dense modernist style: “I just cancelled [his playing style] out for me and knew I could never do that, but he left a strong impression on me as a pianist and a person.”
On the other hand, Aretha said, James Cleveland “helped shape my basic musical personality in profound ways. James was a gospel genius. He was one of those people modernizing gospel while honoring its traditional soul and message.” Barely out of his teens when he accepted the position of minister of music at New Bethel, Cleveland had already established himself as an accompanist for the Caravans and Mahalia Jackson. Along with his close friend gospel singer Melvin Rencher, Cleveland lived with the Franklins until, family legend had it, he was banished for the unpardonable sin of eating a bowl of banana pudding Reverend Franklin had reserved for himself. Fortunately, before his exile he had already helped Aretha take her first steps toward the piano style that would ground her great love songs in the sound and feel of the gospel vision. Paying tribute to Cleveland, who would remain one of her closest musical friends until his death, Aretha wrote, “He showed me some real nice chords and I liked his deep, deep sound. There’s a whole lot of earthiness in the way he sings and what he was feelin’, I was feelin’, but I just didn’t know how to put it across. The more I watched him, the more I got out of it.”
Aretha got as much inspiration and even more pleasure out of her friendship with Sam Cooke, who rose to stardom after he replaced the legendary R.H. Harris in the Soul Stirrers. Aretha had grown up listening to gospel quartets and considered the Swan Silvertones, the Dixie Hummingbirds, and the Sensational Nightingales “monuments of pure gospel power.” She appreciated their style almost as much as their spirit. “Rather than robes, the men might wear matching green or blue or even gold suits. They were servants of God to be sure, but they were also showmen.” Like many young girls, she fell in love with Cooke’s boyish charm and the spiritual sensuality of his voice on Soul Stirrer hits “Nearer to Thee,” “Wonderful,” and “Touch the Hem of His Garment.” Aretha kept a Sam Cooke scrapbook, switched from Kools to Kents because that was the brand Sam smoked, and treasured a crumpled cigarette package he had thrown away.
Although Cooke’s fellow Soul Stirrer S.R. Crain may have exaggerated when he claimed that Sam and Aretha had been lovers “when they were still little children,” Aretha was only seven years old when Cooke first met C.L. Franklin in 1949. Making his Detroit debut as a member of the Highway QCs on a bill with the Harmony Kings of St. Louis and Detroit’s Flying Clouds, Cooke impressed the minister, who asked the group to stay in town. Almost immediately, however, the QCs accepted a spot on powerhouse Memphis radio station WDIA, widely known as the “Mothership of the Negroes.” When Cooke returned to Detroit, he did so as a member of the Soul Stirrers and later as a crossover solo sensation headlining the Flame Show Bar. Still not old enough for admission to the night spot, Aretha eagerly awaited her heartthrob’s visits to the family home. “I’d have died to go to the Flame. But I was too young. It drove me crazy,” she lamented. “I would hear Sam Cooke was coming, and I would be beside myself. I truly loved that man. He would come to the house, so polite and gentle. And so handsome.” Although the age difference and Cooke’s constant travels discouraged a full-blown romance in later years, Cooke clearly enjoyed his young fan and fed her dreams when he invited her and her father to his house and gave her a fringed suede jacket.
Cooke’s importance to Aretha went beyond romantic fantasies. As one of the first gospel singers to successfully navigate both the musical and the financial transitions from gospel to secular music, Cooke pursued the crossover strategy as part of an explicitly political agenda. Following the path opened by Ray Charles, Cooke believed that as white audiences grew accustomed to the gospel touches in his crossover hits, they would gradually open up to the real thing. The dollars they funneled into the black music world would help fuel the community’s economic development. A constant reader who would later befriend both Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, Cooke believed in African American solidarity. He guarded against losing contact with the fans who had lifted him to stardom by playing gospel versions of his hits when he performed in black clubs. “When the whites are through with Sammy Davis, Jr., he won’t have anywhere to play,” commented Cooke even as he was preparing to play the Copacabana Club. “I’ll always be able to go back to my people ’cause I’m never gonna stop singing to them… . I’m not gonna leave my base.”
He was certain Aretha had what it took to follow in his footsteps. “As much as anybody, Sam Cooke made me want to sing,” she said. “He would just say, ‘Sing, girl.’ And believe me, that was enough.” Aretha paid close attention to Cooke’s vocal technique as well as his winning smile: “He did so many things with his voice—so gentle one minute, so swinging the next, then electrifying, always doing something else.” While he was still a member of the Soul Stirrers, Cooke played the Franklins a rough recording of “You Send Me” and encouraged C.L. Franklin to consider a pop career for his daughter. Although C.L. responded that he “didn’t want her to start out too young,” Aretha took the message to heart: “I guess I figured if Sam could do it, I could too.”
Aretha’s initiation into show business began in her early teens when she spent her summer vacations traveling with her father’s gospel revue. As a small child she had occasionally joined her father onstage, sometimes with comic results. Atlanta DJ Zenas Sears remembered being asked to introduce Aretha at a show when she was five or six: “All the acts were around in a circle—there was no running in from the wings in those days, they were all there—and so I introduced [C.L.] and finished with it, and I forgot Aretha. She kicked me in the shins. So I did it—and she kicked me again and sat down.” Sears no doubt nodded in amusement years later when he heard the tiny spitfire issue her grown-up demand for respect. On tour with her father, Aretha earned fifty dollars a night for singing one or two songs before the climactic sermon. But she put an equal value on the opportunity to perform on bills with the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Roberta Martin Singers, and the Ward Singers. “They were real gospel giants,” she remarked. “It was great training.”
At times the gospel highway seemed more like a backwoods road. While C.L. flew from city to city with frequent trips back to Detroit to attend to his congregation, Aretha and her siblings put in countless miles in rickety buses and overcrowded cars. “We’d drive thousands and thousands of miles,” Aretha recalled with a shudder. “I’ve been to California from Detroit about four times through the desert. Negotiating those narrow Rocky Mountain curves left me with big eyes.” When the highway led them to the Deep South, the Franklins encountered the Jim Crow world they had heard their father discussing with Dr. King. Cecil Franklin underscored the hardships attendant on a schedule that might take them to Richmond on Sunday, Wilmington on Monday, Raleigh on Wednesday, Durham on Friday, and Atlanta over the weekend. He described “driving 8 or 10 hours to make a gig, and being hungry and passing restaurants all along the road, and having to go off the highway into some little city to find a place to eat because you’re black—that had its effect.”
For gospel performers, as for their colleagues in jazz, R&B, and the blues, financial exploitation was a matter of course. Erma provided a sardonic description of the standard operating procedures: “When you were singing gospel, it was very hard to get your money after the program was over. The promoter would run off with all the money, so it was almost a knock-down-drag-out fight to get on the show with Reverend Franklin, because then you didn’t have to worry about your money.” Not even personal friendship guaranteed fair treatment, as Aretha discovered when she went to Chicago at the invitation of the notoriously penurious Mahalia Jackson. Aretha was thrilled when Mahalia praised her singing, but she hadn’t been paid and “was just too shy to ask her for money.” When she finally summoned the courage to ask, Mahalia said she’d “talk to your dad about it,” and Aretha “left Chicago with my heart broken.”
Before she was eighteen, Aretha would amass a life’s worth of experiences that blurred the line between gospel and the blues. Smokey Robinson described her world-weary report on a trip that had taken her to Chicago, Memphis, and St. Louis: “ ‘I meet all kinds of people, Smoke. There’s a lot of stuff happening out there on the road. Sometimes it’s even more than I want to see.’ She turned her eyes from me and gazed out the window, looking like a wise woman in the body of a child.”
The road provided some compensations for the hardships. Erma seconded Cecil’s descriptions of travel in the South, noting, “Blacks had to stay with blacks in the South. You had to stay in black motels, so you had your gospel groups and your rhythm-and-blues groups at the same motel.” But, she continued, because the R&B groups were familiar with C.L.’s sermons, “they’d introduce themselves and they’d become fast friends with everyone else who were stars on the road. So when they’d come to Detroit they would call my dad and come over to the house. Invariably, they’d start to singing and then it’d be one big party.” The moments of camaraderie could materialize without warning. Aretha remembered a “rainy night on a dark Mississippi road” when the Franklins stopped for gas at a station “in the middle of nowhere.” A second car pulled up, and out spilled the Staple Singers—Mavis, Pervis, Yvonne, Cleotha, and Pops. After a brief reunion, Aretha headed back into the night with the Staples’ “Uncloudy Day” and “The Downward Road Is Crowded” ringing in her head.
Whatever the hardships and contradictions of the gospel highway, the singers and preachers who traveled along it transmitted their redemptive vision to black audiences in every corner of the country. Few expressed the role of music in that vision more strongly than C.L. Franklin in his sermon “Without a Song,” based on the 137th Psalm, verses 1-4: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we set down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof, for they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
The question had echoed down through the generations, transmitting the anguish of Middle Passage and slavery to the parishioners of New Bethel and the thousands who heard Franklin’s recorded sermons in their living rooms. Even as he expressed the lure of withdrawal, he cried out against silence. The Hebrews should have sung, he intoned: “Yes, they were in a strange land; yes, they were among so-called heathens; yes, the situation in which they found themselves was an unfamiliar situation… . But even under adverse circumstances, you ought to sing sometimes.” Sounding a keynote of the gospel vision, Franklin affirmed a power in music that reached deeper than words. “Sometimes you don’t have to know what the words of the singer may be, but you appreciate the melody and the music of the song,” he assured the congregation, calling out for their assent. “Some things you can’t say, you can sing. Isn’t it so?”
As the congregation called out its “Amen”s and “Yes, sir”s and the tempo of the church women’s fans quickened, Reverend Franklin shifted gears, offering a story that illuminated the connection between personal and political tribulations and that reminded the beloved community of the power of its voice. Long years before, back when black people lived in bondage, Franklin began, an old black woman, answering the call of a sermon delivered by John Wesley’s brother, sought to join a white church. When the minister turned her away, Franklin thundered, the black folks who had witnessed her repudiation raised their voices in song. “As the old lady’s name was Mary,” Franklin chanted, his voice taking on the sadness and joy of his people’s history, “they sang, ‘Oh Mary, don’t weep, don’t mourn; Pharaoh’s army got drownded; Mary, don’t weep, and then don’t mourn.’ Think of the message that is wrapped up in that song.”
Fully aware that Pharaoh continued to shape the lives of black people from Clarksdale to Cabrini-Green, Reverend Franklin reminded his listeners of how their ancestors had used “Steal Away to Jesus” to “create unity and give rise to thoughts of liberation,” and he challenged them to bring the singing spirit of song into the struggles they would face once the sermon ended. No matter how bleak the prospect, he assured them, “the Negro sang. Through his darkness, through his trials, and through his tribulations, he sang.” Surrendering entirely to the rhythmic chants and whoops, Reverend Franklin ended by bearing witness to a power beyond words:
I want to keep on singing,
until somebody knows,
that my rock in a wearied land
to every lost soul.
When Aretha recorded “Precious Lord” and the other songs on her 1956 debut album, Songs of Faith, she was echoing her father’s exhortations. Throughout the album Aretha sings with a raw power and spiritual depth that stakes her claim to the legacy of her gospel mothers. Accompanied by her father’s affirming words and the responsive claps and murmurs welling up from the congregations at New Bethel and the Oakland Auditorium, where the cuts were recorded, Aretha plumbs the history locked up in the gospel classics: Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)” and two Clara Ward standards, “Never Grow Old” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” a tour de force that transforms the blood at the root of black life into the sacred source of redemption. Mapping the roots of the gospel vision as clearly as Mahalia’s “How I Got Over” or Marion Williams’s piercing gospel blues “The Moan,” Aretha stretches the words until they break, opening herself to something that can only be said in song. Testifying to the self-shattering power flowing from the spirit into the answering moans of her beloved community, she celebrates the possibility of redemption in a world ravaged, now as then, by war and rumors of war. Aretha would go on to make more polished and popular music. She would even become world famous. But she would never bear witness to the power of the gospel vision with greater anguish or greater depth than she did in her father’s church at fourteen.