Our recent glimpse of Tony Scherman’s biography in progress, I Gave My Heart and Soul to You: The Triumph of Aretha Franklin, told the story of how, when, where, and with whom one of 20th-century pop music’s towering geniuses recorded her signature song, “Respect”. This second excerpt takes us back to Genesis, as it were. “Aretha: Preacher’s Daughter” tells the story, in-depth, of a little girl’s immersion in the music of the Baptist Church.
The Reverend C.L. Franklin‘s house had many musicians: the gospel, blues, and jazz stars that Aretha Louise’s father, a nationwide celebrity and Martin Luther King’s close friend, liked to collect. Aretha was weaned on music, a gospel prodigy who tore up her daddy’s Detroit church, where she recorded her first album, Songs of Faith, at 14. The music of the Black church was a lifelong source of nourishment for Aretha, arguably the richest. As author and producer Anthony Heilbut, our leading gospel authority and the singer’s friend of many years, said to me recently, “traditional gospel died with Aretha.”
And began with a whorehouse piano player. “Aretha: Preacher’s Daughter” is also a thumbnail history of the music itself, from its surprisingly recent birth through Aretha’s early years. It’s an extended dive into chronically under-recognized music whose greatest singers’ technique rivals those of any genre, including opera (as Lady Soul herself would famously prove one 1998 evening, before an audience of millions—but that’s a story for another day).
“Aretha: Preacher’s Daughter,” it is worth noting, overlaps with Disney/National Geographic’s upcoming eight-part miniseries Genius: Aretha starring Cynthia Erivo. The show is bound to be fascinating. Let’s see how the two versions differ, as they undoubtedly will. “Preacher’s Daughter” also supplements and deepens Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s recently aired PBS documentary The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, and Gates’ accompanying book. Events have occasionally been rearranged for clarity and momentum’s sake.
“Listen at her! Listen at her!” a male churchgoer calls out over the undercurrent of appreciative murmurs and amens. To a member, New Bethel Baptist’s congregation about busts with pride over Reverend’s daughter and her God-given talent.
“It ain’t no harm to moan!” the girl half shouts, half sings over her rolling left-hand chords and right-hand arpeggios—she’s a piano prodigy, too. Leaving the melody behind, she launches into a fervent moan, worrying it up and down the blues scale, bearing down so hard that her child’s voice cracks, to finally reconnect with the song proper.
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Erma and Carolyn, the oldest and youngest of the Reverend’s three daughters, are gifted, but middle sister plays in another league, vanishing ecstatically into the music, letting the notes follow their own logic, a preternaturally self-assured improviser who starts a phrase everywhere but on the beat, just like a jazz singer; who slides up to a note rather than singing it outright, and whose spectacular melisma bends and shapes a single syllable across two, three, many measures.
“She was the baddest baby singer you’ve ever seen,” says Inez Andrews, one of Aretha’s gospel mentors. “This baby would outsing the young, the middle-aged, the old, the crippled, the blind.” Where could a 14-year-old have acquired such gravitas, passion, and sophistication?
Remarkable is hardly the word for Clarence LaVaughn Franklin (“C.L.”, himself touched by genius. The son of sharecroppers, born on a plantation outside of Indianola, Mississippi in the Delta in 1915, Clarence Franklin was saved at 14, a Baptist circuit rider at 18, led his own Memphis congregation at 23, and, by the time he was 45, was Black America’s most famous preacher. Pastor of the 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, his sermons broadcast cross-country. His tremendous accomplishments notwithstanding, what he was proudest of “is that I had the guts and initiative to extricate myself from a life that led nowhere,” from captivity on a cotton plantation to nationwide celebrity and a mansion in one of Detroit’s prosperous colored communities (against the prototype of the up-from-nothing R&B singer, Aretha grew up solidly bourgeois).