The first time I learned that there was a singer by the name of Aretha Franklin it was uneventful. My high school sweetheart, Brenda, showed me the Columbia album cover with this 16-year-old girl they claimed to be “The Next Nancy Wilson”. Big deal! Did we really need another Nancy Wilson when the one we have was just beginning her long career?
The problem was that Columbia restricted this young talent. They thought her destiny would be “Pop” music. Her manager was responsible for discovering Billie Holiday and he was trying to replicate that through a young Aretha. It turned out to be a “pipe dream”. Aretha personally had the blues. It would be in that genre where her true talent would be found.
Her upbringing was gospel. Her father, C.L. Franklin was a very popular minister. His congregation was in Memphis, Tenn. Her father was known for philandering and when Aretha was nine years old her mother left the family and moved to New York. Aretha would be raised by the church basically by choir members. Gospel star Clara Ward had a strong influence on her. Before long and after the untimely death of her mother, Rev. Franklin moved his ministry to Detroit. Aretha was just nine years old.
At the age of 12 Aretha gave birth to her first child. It is still a mystery as to whom was the father. Many believed it could have been her own father whose name she gave to the child. The only response Aretha would give about the question was “It must have been one of the boys at school”. This was a pattern that would last. Aretha never had a long – lasting relationship with any man.
Her first relationship with a husband was with Ted White. Ted was a notorious Detroit pimp. He recognized the talent in Aretha and became her manager. It was his idea to have Aretha leave Columbia and find a label conducive to her gospel/rhythm and blues roots. He cut a deal with Atlantic records and funded the costs with his ill-gotten profits from his street hustles. It was at Atlantic that she met Jerry Wexler and he took her to his recording studio – Fame Records in Muscle Shoals, Ala. The supporting band would be members of the “Memphis Horns” who help build the Stax Records empire.
It was there that Aretha found her voice. The first album was entitled “I Never Loved a Man” and it was certainly allegorical. Ted White was abusing her. One day she showed up at the studio with a black eye. The guys of the Memphis Horns had become very attached to Aretha. They approached White and warned him that if Aretha ever shows up with another mark on her body they will kill him and disappear his body into the Alabama swamps. He would eventually leave Aretha. Apparently, he still lives at the age of 91.
“I Never Loved a Man” turned out to be one of the greatest albums ever recorded. It was the beginning of a fantastic career. One of the singles on the album was “Respect”. It was a remake of an Otis Redding hit. It took off to the top instantly and remains a favorite to music fans around the world regardless of the genre. As Otis Redding remarked to Wexler, “That gal done took my song!”
That became a very common event when Aretha would take a previously released song people would remember her version and forget the other versions. Great songs like Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” would soon be remembered mostly for Aretha’s version. Regardless of the genre, Aretha would show why she was the “Queen of Soul”. Even the deep blues song of B.B. King, “The Thrill is Gone”, would be taken to another level when Aretha recorded it. I first heard her version one night on a Detroit radio station in 1971. I spent decades trying to get a copy of it, but it was so elusive. Thankfully, with all the mourning and remembrance of Aretha after her recent death, YouTube has put it into their catalogue along with dozens of long ago Aretha tunes. Go to YouTube and check it out. I cried when I heard it again after all these years. It’s like what Otis Redding said – she took a song from B.B. King.
Jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, soul and everything else. Oh, you wonder about gospel? Her live Gospel album entitled “Amazing Grace” is the greatest selling Gospel album ever recorded. The song “Ain’t No Way” was the best song you could use to dance with a pretty lady. She would seem to melt into your arms as the words of the song were played.
Aretha Franklin was indeed the greatest. Sadly, she could not find a long – lasting love. She had four children who loved her dearly. Her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, seemed rather promising. But one day she would come home and find him in bed with another person – allegedly her oldest son!
She died single but was loved dearly by the entire world. Thanks for all the memories and rest in peace my beautiful sister. St. Peter had a fantastic moment when you showed up to the “Pearly Gates”.
Harry C. Alford is the co-funder, president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce ®. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: email@example.com