Vaudeville bluesman or not, Dorsey was raised in the gospel church and had always been drawn to its music. In 1931, he suffered a terrible cataclysm when his wife died in childbirth and the baby the next day. Overcome with grief, Dorsey wrote “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, which remains gospel’s most beloved song.
Dorsey all but jumpstarted the genre. Much more than a songwriter, he tirelessly publicized the new sound, starting gospel’s first music-publishing company, founded the annual National Gospel Convention, the new genre’s energy center, and mentored many of its greats, including James Cleveland—only one generation separates Aretha Franklin from the Father of Gospel. In the Thirties, Dorsey was so closely identified with the music that new gospel songs were called “dorseys”.
Reverend Dorsey never really abandoned the blues. His stroke of genius, rather, was to set his own inspirational lyrics to the blues’ three chords and stomping boogie-woogie piano. For Dorsey, as for C.L., blues and gospel were “the same feeling, a grasping of the heart. I’m talking about inside the individual. The blues is as important to a person feeling bad as ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ When you cry out, that is something down there that should have come out a long time ago.”
Dorsey’s was precisely the reverse of a later innovation, when Ray Charles replaced the words to the gospel song “It Must Be Jesus” with a set of highly suggestive lyrics (“She save her loving early in the morning just for me”) but kept the chord progression, the very melody, to emerge in 1954 with his first big hit, “I Got a Woman” and kick the still-new genre rhythm and blues into high gear. No gospel, it’s fair to say, no R&B. Jerry Wexler, who gave the latter its name in the 1940s as a Billboard reporter—and produced most of Aretha’s great albums—came to regret his neologism; “rhythm and gospel”, Wexler decided, better captured the new music’s spirit. Georgia Tom and Brother Ray have surely crossed paths in Heaven, headed in opposite directions but meeting in the middle, conjoined and opposed.
During gospel’s classic era, 1945 to 1960, performers largely fell into two groups: soloists (Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, and Marion Williams—to these ears, the latter was Aretha Franklin’s equal, if not superior, in technique and conviction), and quartets, as these mostly male aggregations of four, five, and six were known: bass, baritone, one or two tenors, and the lead, who freelanced over the others’ close harmonies. The finest leads, including the Dixie Hummingbirds‘ Ira Tucker and the Swan Silvertones‘ Reverend Claude Jeter (whom one can hear on Paul Simon‘s 1973 song “Take Me to the Mardi Gras”), were technical wizards.
While some —Jeter, Rebert H. Harris, or the untested 19-year-old who replaced Harris in the Stirrers, Sam Cook (the “e” came later)—sang creamy-smooth, most sang hard-gospel style, hoarse, perfervid, homewreckers. The razorlike screams of Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales or Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi gave birth to those of the soul music superstar Wilson Pickett (formerly of the gospel-singing Violinaires). To the apothegm “no gospel, no rhythm and blues”, one might well add another: “no quartet, no soul,”, as R&B was largely known after the mid-’60s.
The great gospel singers never sang a song the same way twice. Classic gospel was just as improvisational as jazz, but while the jazz soloist navigates at his peril through a revolving door of complex, stacked chords, gospel singers can linger for seemingly eternity over the merest handful of simple triads. In her 14-year-old’s “Precious Lord”, Aretha takes more than six minutes to work her way through two verses and three chords. The R&B Aretha’s extensive improvising, rare in Top Forty pop, was as much a product of gospel as it was of her early ’60s jazz singing.
Before Sam Cooke, gospel’s 1950s heartthrob, went pop, few of the genre’s stars crossed over. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a nasty blues-based guitarist, and the jazz/blues great Dinah Washington were exceptions. Constantly solicited by pop impresarios but true to her God, Mahalia Jackson turned them all down, although Miss Halie shook her hips like a chorus girl and swore like a sailor. When she allowed as how Clara Ward’s straitlaced mother Gertrude “think her pussy just for peeing,” Miss Gertrude came right back: “Well, Ma-hay-lee-ah, I’ve birthed three children. You ain’t had none. So I guess I must know somethin’.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, largely through James Cleveland’s efforts, gospel shifted emphasis from quartets to choirs. (Aretha chose the format for Amazing Grace, where a splendid choir backs her.) Traditionalists consider choirs’ close arrangements a dilution of the naked passion of the quartets and soloists. Even today, the old guard keeps Cleveland at arms’ length. “[T]he Golden Age of soloists, groups and quartets died on his watch,” Heilbut writes. However, his disapproval is qualified: “If anyone had the credentials to kill his parents, it was Pilgrim Baptist Church’s favorite son.” Pilgrim Baptist Church is where James Cleveland cut his musical teeth. Its minister of music? Thomas A. Dorsey.
Being her father’s favorite was a mixed blessing. C.L. brought his overweening ambition to bear on a little girl, pulling six-year-old Aretha out of bed at two in the morning to show her off at the living-room piano to his friends. Aretha craved his attention and approval. “She had such an attachment to her father, she would do anything to please him,” said Jo King, a later associate. Aretha’s brother Cecil got it wrong or wanted family secrets kept when he recalled that “Dad did everything in his power to make Ree feel secure.”
During their mother’s years in Buffalo, New York, C.L. eventually allowed the children to spend idyllic summers with her. In 1952 came devastating news. Barbara, only 34, had suffered a fatal heart attack. Ten-year-old Aretha was the most stricken of the children. “It’s one thing to have your mama move out of the house,” a later friend said, “it’s another to have your mama die of a heart attack as a young woman.” Aretha was unable to talk for weeks. C.L. was afraid that she wouldn’t recover.
As rich as her childhood was musically, Aretha was emotionally starved, even damaged. How much was the yearning for God’s grace so powerfully expressed in those early recordings a yearning for C.L.’s easily withdrawn approval, and for the mother stolen from her? Aretha struggled with depression throughout life. “I don’t pretend to know the sources of her anguish,” said Wexler, “but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”
It was obvious to the R&B singer Hank Ballard, who had a brief affair with a 19-year-old Aretha, that her father dominated her, and that due to the resulting “low self-esteem, she was really into a lot of pain and shit.” Music was heronly escape. And sex. Sexually active before she was out of childhood, Aretha was a mother at 12, at 15, and a third time at 21.
Clarence, she named her firstborn, Clarence LaVaughan.
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——————, Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. Little, Brown. 1986.
Heilbut, Anthony. The Fan Who Knew Too Much. Knopf. 2012.
———————. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. Simon & Schuster, 1971, updated 1997.
———————, Interviewed by Tony Scherman, 16 and 17 August 2020.
Moore, Alan F, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Blues and Gospel Music. Cambridge University Press. 2002.
Reagon, Bernice Johnson, ed. We’ll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers. Smithsonian Institution, 1992.
Ritz, David. Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. Back Bay/Little, Brown. 2014.
Salvatore, Nick. Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, The Black Gospel Church,
Scherman, Tony, ” The Man With the Million-Dollar Voice.” The Believer. July/August 2013.
Titon, Jeff Todd, Give Me This Mountain: C.L. Franklin, Life History and Selected Sermons. University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Wexler, Jerry, Rhythm and the Blues: A Life In American Music. Knopf, 2012.