Photo: Public Domain / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Aretha Franklin and Black Music Power

Aretha Franklin’s superior soul albums, ‘Spirit in the Dark’ and Young, Gifted and Black’, see her stepping up to the ’70s Black Power movement.

Spirit in the Dark
Aretha Franklin
24 August 1970
Young, Gifted and Black
Aretha Franklin
24 January 1972

With Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on 4 April 1968, the Black freedom movement veered sharply—in fact, it had already been turning—from Dr. King’s integrationist nonviolence to the credo that the disillusioned, and heartbroken, King protégé Stokely Carmichael gave its name: Black Power. Dr. King’s Gandhian insistence on overcoming racism with love gave way to a virtually movement-wide call for self-defense and self-determination “by any means necessary.”

Black artists, from painters to playwrights, jazz virtuosi to R&B superstars, were looking inward, not psychologically, but towards a collective Black essence they strove to articulate. First cautiously, then ardently embracing her Blackness, Aretha Franklin cleaved not merely to funk but to the gospel sound of her childhood, which Blacks were rediscovering as their most enduring, resilient, and joyful musical expression. Aretha loved her some Swampers, the Southern white boys who’d helped her turn pop music upside down with “Respect”.

But the Alabamans came to be replaced, first bit-by-bit, then whole hog, in the studio and in concert, by the core of equal parts ass-kicking and sophisticated Black musicians who backed her on Aretha Live at Fillmore West in 1971, Young, Gifted and Black and Amazing Grace in 1972, along with Spirit in the Dark, from 1970, the records that exemplified Black Power, Aretha-style. Ladies and gentlemen, Black to the future. 

Disney/National Geographic’s third annual installment of its Genius miniseries, Genius: Aretha (the first two were about Einstein and Picasso), starring Cynthia Erivo, releases Monday, 21 March. Shall we compare versions? Events in this excerpt from the forthcoming book, I Gave My Heart and Soul to You, have occasionally been rearranged for clarity’s and narrative momentum’s sake. 

Among Black Baptist preachers of the 1950s and ’60s, only one outranked Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, in stature and popularity. Martin Luther King not only took special pleasure in C.L.’s Sunday-night broadcasts but put them to practical use. When tempers flared at King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s strategy sessions, he stopped the meeting and tuned in to Radio WLAC Nashville, and everyone, good Baptists all, sat listening to Frank whoop.

“Martin loved C.L.,” said a mutual friend, Reverend Billy Kyles; Frank, Kyles said, was King’s “favorite preacher”.  A gospel singer of note as a young man, Kyles traveled with C.L. Franklin’s Gospel Caravan as one of the Maceo Woods Singers—but is more deeply etched in history as one of the last two people—the other was Dr. King’s best friend and chief lieutenant, Reverend Ralph Abernathy—to see King alive on the Memphis balcony.

Although she would never, under pain of death, have given a political speech, Dr. King’s favorite singer made herself as available as she could to sing at his rallies and marches. When the mayor of Detroit declared 16 February 1968 Aretha Franklin Day, a beaming King bounded from the wings to give Aretha a big kiss and an award for her work with the SCLC.

 It was the last time she would see him alive. One night at just about this time, King, after guest-preaching at C.L.’s Bethel Baptist Church, sat in his old friend’s living room and said,  “Frank, I will never live to see 40.” He was 39 when he was murdered on 4 April.

Aretha is often misreported as having sung at King’s funeral in Atlanta. She was there, but singing was beyond her. She did sing three weeks later, at a nationally televised memorial in Memphis. Almost grossly overweight under a massive wig, eyelashes dripping mascara, she leaned into a bank of network microphones to sing “Precious Lord”, abandoning words and melody to sermonize, startling a mostly white TV audience that knew nothing of her gospel past.

“You got to help me today,” she cried, “my heart is broken, there’s trouble in my home. I know that you’re here, you’ve shown me that you’re here,” the performance a catharsis not just for millions of Americans, but for Aretha’s grieving self.

When King died, the movement’s fragile alliance of militants and nonviolent integrationists of both races came unglued. The seasoned civil rights workers, committed to nonviolence, spoke a different language from Black Power’s revolutionaries, who carried guns and were leery of Whites.  

The same severed alliance was tearing rhythm and blues music apart. Memphis’ Stax Records, whose recording studio was even busier than Fame Music, had been integrated since its earliest days; half of Stax’s legendary house band, Booker T. and the MGs were half White, half Black. The day after King was shot, the MGs’ White bass player, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and his wife drove over to Stax to pick up his instrument to find angry Black Memphians milling around. 

The Stax songwriter (and later multiplatinum artist) Isaac Hayes and a few others came out to make sure the Dunns weren’t in danger. “All of a sudden these cop cars pull up,” Dunn recalled, “and cops jump out and pull out their guns. They thought these black guys were gonna hurt me and June. Pulling them shotguns on Isaac. Well, it was our fault because we weren’t supposed to be in that part of town, they had helicopters flying around, this was an area that was suddenly off limits to whites, but this was where we lived and worked. Having to go down and face that—I mean, the cops jumped in because we were white—makes you feel like shit.” “Everything,” June Dunn said, “changed at Stax.” A few months later, Booker T. and the MGs broke up.