The Musicians That Nourished Aretha’s Sound
Aretha was picking at the family piano at three and taking lessons at five, which she rebelled against. (Her teacher, she complained, “had all these baby books and I wanted to go directly to the tunes.”) She never learned how to read music.
Music and musicians flowed at all hours through the Franklin home. Reverend was a big jazz fan, and Sarah Vaughan, Oscar Peterson, and Lionel Hampton were C.L. fans who attended his sermons and then gathered in his living room for all-night jams. B.B. King called C.L. “my main minister.” (The King of the Blues grew up in the gospel church himself, just outside C.L.’s Mississippi Delta hometown of Indianola.)
When B.B. came to town, he made it a point to get himself to New Bethel on Sunday nights. “Listening to Reverend Franklin’s messages, the bluesman said, “was like listening to a good song. He told stories in hypnotic cadences that called forth the power of Scripture. His sermons moved with the rhythms of his emotions, building to a climax, and leaving you renewed.” The gospel superstar Clara Ward frequented the Franklin home as well, C.L.’s on-and-off, abused lover, and the most towering gospel singer of all, Mahalia Jackson herself, took time out to diaper the baby Aretha.
Music was essential to C.L.’s ministry. In 1948, he sought out the gifted James Cleveland to be New Bethel’s choir director; Cleveland lived in the Franklin home until he was banished for helping himself to some banana pudding that C.L. had dibs on. Before his expulsion, the future “Prince of Gospel Music”, as Cleveland came to be called, was Aretha’s first mentor. Cardinal sinners or not, C.L. Franklin made sure that only the best taught Reverend’s little girl.
Just as bluegrass — its claim to be as old as the hills notwithstanding — dates back only to the late 1940s, gospel music as we know it is barely older, born in the years around 1930. Gospel’s roots, however, extend back to American slavery days and beyond. A major source is 19th-century African-American spirituals; they themselves descended from Biblical psalms and 17th- and 18th-century English hymns (“Amazing Grace” was written by the slave trader turned abolitionist John Newton). Slaves had adapted the words to many spirituals to their own circumstances.
At the turn of the 20th century, a schism occurred between the relatively staid Baptists and the more abandoned members of the new Sanctified movement. Although Baptists can reach ecstatic heights in performance, their songs are generally more solemn (“Yield Not To Temptation”, “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood”, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”,) than those of the saints, two of whose best-known songs are the blisteringly uptempo “Old Landmark” and “How I Got Over”, both of which Aretha kills on 1972’s Amazing Grace (the best of her several gospel albums, the bestselling of all her albums, and the gospel’s best-ever seller).
Saints “observe neither form nor fashion”, as one of them said. They shouted (in gospel parlance, the spontaneous dancing in the aisles of a member taken over by the Holy Spirit), fell out (collapsed), rolled on the floor (“holy rolling”), and spoke in tongues, “free to act or say whatever God wants done or said.” “Let go, let God”, the saints liked to say (adopted as its motto, of course, by Alcoholics Anonymous).
Bernard Purdie, Aretha’s early-’70s drummer, grew up Sanctified. So to her bass player, Chuck Rainey. As did Marvin Gaye, who testifies, perhaps, and perhaps not, incongruously, in the fadeout of his paean to good sex “Let’s Get It On”, announcing “I’ve been sanctified!” (Brother Marvin went to the well more than once, as per his 1963 smash “Can I Get a Witness”.)
Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey, who pioneered gospel music, made a good living in the ’20s as Georgia Tom, whorehouse piano player, leader of Ma Rainey’s Wild Cats Jazz Band (unrecognized, by the way, in August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and its recently released film version), and composer of the duo Georgia Tom and Tampa Red’s smutty blues “It’s Tight Like That”, a seven-million-seller in 1928.