Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, The Supreme Preacher
Frank, as everyone, parishioners included, called him, was a master of the incantatory folk preaching style known as whooping, whose roots lie deep in the Black oral traditions of the antebellum South. An embarrassment to many churchgoers today, who consider it a carryover from the bad old days, whooping has nonetheless survived into the 21st century.
The whooped sermon is, in every respect, a performance. Starting from a spoken text (his’ chance to show off his substantial self-acquired erudition), it gathers intensity, rising finally to a hoarse, rhythmic chant that stays in one musical key, punctuated by groans, emphysemic-sounding gasps, and buzz-saw screams (C.L. was up there with Ray Charles, James Brown, and other world-class screamers), the preacher working the gathered into a frenzy, a few inevitably falling out, attended to by ushers and even nurses, to leave the members exhausted, cleansed, and ready to face another damn week in the white man’s world.
In 1953, anxious to be heard beyond New Bethel’s walls, C.L. arranged for Detroit’s leading Black radio station to broadcast his sermons. The show was a hit—”the people seemed as it were to come out of the ground,” said the headliner. Crowds gathered outside New Bethel, and the police had to reroute traffic.
Thinking still bigger, C.L. bought time on a Memphis station whose signal spanned the mid-South, and finally on Nashville’s 50,000-watt WLAC, which reached across the continent at night. Serving time in a juvenile detention center in Toccoa, Georgia, a teenaged James Brown listened avidly, as did a three-sport high-school athlete in Greenville, South Carolina named Jesse Jackson.
Eager to cash in on his radio audience, C.L. started recording his sermons for Chess, America’s top blues and R&L label, home to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson. and Chuck Berry, releasing over 70 albums, more than one of them million-sellers.
C.L. had always liked blues. “There were some people, church people, who didn’t understand that blues was part of their cultural heritage,” he said. Indeed, his shouted sermonizing showed how porous was the line between preacher and blues singer, man of God and the Devil’s right hand. When the R&B star Bobby “Blue” Bland lost his scream, he studied C.L.’s celebrated sermon “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest“, coming up with his trademark “squall”, a distinctive (some say revolting) snort, modeling a rhythm and blues vocal technique on Reverend’s sermonizing.
C.L. was a fine singer himself, but Barbara Siggers Franklin outsang her husband, said a family friend who knew one or two things about gospel music. To Mahalia Jackson, Barbara Franklin was “one of the really great gospel singers.” Barbara never recorded, evidently content to stay in C.L.’s shadow and raise his children.
“The Man With the Million Dollar Voice” had another nickname: “The “Jitterbug Preacher”. C.L. never said no to a walk on the wild side. From his alligator shoes to his brilliantined conk, he was a slick, player, sobersided pastor and midnight mover, a hard-drinking, pot-smoking serial seducer. It may well have been C.L’s womanizing that finally caused Barbara to move across Lake Erie to Buffalo and leave her family after a dozen years. The urge for going must have been strong indeed; Barbara was by all accounts a devoted mother. The children, of course, experienced it as abandonment. Erma was ten, Carolyn four. Aretha Louise was six. “I’ll tell you what kind of a child Aretha was. She was a traumatized child,” a family friend said.
For all of her father’s gaping flaws, Aretha Franklin could not have asked for a brighter musical beacon. (She inherited his divided soul, too, the tug between the Lord and Dr. Feelgood.) “She’s got her father’s feeling and passion,” said no less an authority than Ray Charles. “When C.L. Franklin, one of the last great preachers, delivers a sermon, he builds his case so beautifully you can’t help but see the light. Same when Aretha sings.” When someone asked C.L. if he’d ever sat down with the girl and taught her, he said, “No. But she heard me.”