March 25, 1942 – August 16, 2018
I decided not to recap the commonly reported information regarding the broad musical and personal history of Aretha Franklin, who passed yesterday of complications related to Pancreatic cancer. Those details are easily accessible via various news reports and Wikipedia – although some will be touched upon here.
Instead, my essay here, has to do with my own recollections of Ms. Franklin, how she emerged on the scene as a breakthrough entertainer in pop music and the context of the times when I first encountered her music. I was a youngster of 12 when I first heard Aretha Franklin in 6th grade and her first hit on her new recording label, Atlantic records.
While Ms. Franklin or “Ree Ree” as Ms. Franklin was affectionately known to close friends, including CNN’s Don Lemon, had been recording at mega label Columbia since 1960, she had made an impression with black record buyers and had appeared on Billboard’s R&B charts frequently, including “Runnin’ Out of Fools” in early 1965. Even so, Aretha had not been able to break into the pop music charts.
Hitting the pop music charts as a black entertainer was not a slam dunk even in 1966.
Blacks had been gaining momentum, since Nat King Cole broke through in the late 40’s and Tommy Edwards was the first black artist on the Billboard “Hot 100” in 1958, with his only top 10 hit, “It’s All In The Game”.
Broadly speaking though, most black music outside of the product emanating from Detroit’s Motown labels, Motown and Tamla, remained sequestered on Billboard’s “R&B” charts.
Fats Domino had started recording in 1947 and did not break in to the pop charts until 1955, with “Ain’t That A Shame”.
That Domino recorded 21 singles which scored on the charts generally known derogatorily as the “race music” charts without crossover success, was a shame.
It was a shame especially since many radio stations would not play Domino’s recording, but did widely play Pat Boone’s comparatively insipid knockoff, which went to number one on the pop charts.
What had generally been the case prior to the arrival of Motown in 1959, was that white artists would dip into songs already recorded by black performers, remove the grit and authenticity from the music and launch them into the pop charts. One of many examples, was the early Rock and Roll number, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” originally issued by Big Joe Turner, which only snuck inside the pop charts at #22, but when re-recorded by Bill Haley and the Comets, sold a million copies and reached #7.
Elvis Presley was the most famous practitioner of this exploitation – which now has a formal name, “cultural appropriation”. Presley, for all else that could be said, had a deep respect and appreciation for black music, which is more than could be said, with few exceptions, for the music industry of his time.
Motown itself, did not have a number one pop hit until 1961’s “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes. Motown led the way in the crossover trend with groups like the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Four Tops. The distinction between the “Motown Sound” breaking into pop charts and Aretha Franklin doing so, is fairly stark.
With a few exceptions such as Marvin Gaye and the Four Tops‘ lead vocalist, baritone Levi Stubbs, label owner and executive producer Barry Gordy Jr., had taken the raw and honest sharp angled corners of the vocalists under contract to him, and sanded down the edges enough to make the singles the label released, more attractive to white record buyers’ and top 40 radio listener’s sensibilities.
Much of the material was cooler and modulated, having had the red hot intensity of its black gospel roots sublimated. Gordy felt he had to establish commercial success first before exposing whites to the ferocity and ferment of what had been considered “race music” in the post war era. It was successful, but there was still something more out there waiting for its moment. The ‘it’ was full strength, 100 proof, straight no chaser, roots inflected music from the African-American church scene and the personification of it was Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and … Aretha Franklin.
Given the fact that Aretha Franklin grew up in Detroit just a few blocks away from Smokey Robinson, who met Aretha when he was just 8 years old and she just 6, (even then, a budding prodigious musician studying piano and voice) – it would have seemed natural that Ms. Franklin would have been recruited heavily by Motown. How Atlantic records and producer / executive Jerry Wexler were able to swoop in to Detroit and sign her to a recording contract, right under Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.’s nose, is a remarkable story in and of itself.
Most accounts, including an item from one of the auto-biographies of Supremes member Mary Wilson, factor Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin – a prominent minister in Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist church as being the central decision influencer in Aretha’s choice of Columbia records over the fledgling Motown brand and later, more significantly, her move to Atlantic records, where she recorded for over a decade:
“One of the first people Berry teamed up with was Billy Davis, an aspiring young musician who was dating his sister Gwen. Davis introduced Berry to the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Each of the reverend’s daughters -Aretha, Erma and Carolyn- was known around Detroit as a great singer, but Berry and Billy were interested only in Erma. The Reverend Franklin told Berry that he should work with Aretha, but Berry didn’t care for Aretha’s singing style. Erma sang on some of the demonstration records, or demos, Billy and Berry made for publishing companies and record labels”.
Berry Gordy Jr., most likely “didn’t care for Aretha’s singing style” because, as mentioned before, Gordy’s initial concern was taking boisterous and raw gospel styled vocals and musical accompaniments and toning them way back in order to attempt to get the records played on stations that broadcast to predominantly white audiences while at the same time trying to not altogether alienate black listeners. Jackie Wilson’s early recordings on the Brunswick label were, in large part, the model for what he intended initially.
Aretha Franklin, on the other hand, was among the first black musicians other than jazz musicians and vocalists that had a very firm and uncompromising sense of the music they wanted to produce. She knew, going into a recording studio very specifically what the record should sound like in terms of the foundations. Her prototypes were female vocalists like Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, although she imitated neither of them.
Motown would not have been anymore of a fit for Ms. Franklin than conservative minded Columbia records had been.
What was a fit, was Atlantic. Atlantic was a record label that was a bootstrap, sweat equity endeavor founded in the early 50s by Turkish immigrants, brothers Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun who were actually hard core enthusiasts of all forms of Black music – Jazz, Blues, Gospel, vocal quartets and everything else that fit the broad classification at the time of “race music”.
The Erteguns’ first consideration was not getting rich quick, but their priority was instead, making these art forms available to a wider audience without compromising the authenticity of either the performers or the music. When Aretha Franklin first discussed a musical direction with legendary producer Jerry Wexler, he reassured her that he intended to create an atmosphere that let Franklin’s musical roots have free reign, telling a colleague at the label that “we’re going to put her back in church”. Which it is fully apparent, he did.
To that end, Wexler, (who coined the term “R&B” as a respectable substitute for the expression “race music”) and Franklin , headed South to the aptly named, “Fame” recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and got rolling with “I Never Loved A Man (the Way I Love You)” and the flipside, “Do Right Woman”. The “A” side was her first foray into the pop charts.
This, as I mentioned before, was where Aretha came on to my personal radar screen. In 1967, most communities and schools nationwide were still segregated – but pop music heard on radio stations in Los Angeles, New York and other large markets were not.
In Los Angeles, we had two pop music stations that were constantly neck and neck for top ratings, AM powerhouses KRLA 1110 and 93 KHJ. KFWB, nearby on the dial at 98, was also a contender, but dropped out of hit radio by my second year of Junior High. It didn’t matter. Kids in my area of Los Angeles in the South Bay; Lawndale where the Wilson brothers of Beach Boys’ fame were raised, Westchester – the old stomping grounds of the Turtles and Manhattan Beach where I grew up – were mostly KHJ fans.
KHJ, the oldest station in LA at the time, had begun as a religious broadcaster in the late 1920’s – a far cry from the bold sounds we heard on our pocket transistor radios and in the parent’s car (whenever we could get away with it) in the mid 1960s.
Aretha Franklin required no adjustment for me or my schoolmates. We had no established point of reference for black singers and so Ms. Franklin’s boisterous vocals and driving gospel instrumental accompaniment with a prominent bass line and solid backbeat fit right in with the aggressive sounds of white rock bands, domestic or British Invasion. Making the combination even more logical, was the fact that many of the lead vocalists in the white rock bands were consciously emulating black singers from the blues and soul genre to begin with.
Mick Jagger, Van Morrison and Eric Burdon made no secret as to where their inspirations had originated. Welsh powerhouse Tom Jones, who in my estimation, was the only white vocalist to ever really have the pipes and the instincts to successfully recreate soul music, posted this tribute to Aretha on Twitter:
Aretha, you lifted our hearts with your incomparable gifts, RIP, your party will never be over. pic.twitter.com/Zi2xTAVyBw
— Tom Jones (@RealSirTomJones) August 16, 2018
On KHJ – as you can readily see from this “Boss 30” chart from December of 1967, one might be hearing the American Breed or the Animals featuring Eric Burdon one minute and Aretha or her close friend Gladys Knight, the next – without any sense of incongruity.
The last thing on the minds of the nation’s hottest DJ’s, from at least 1964 onward, was the skin color of the recording artist. If it was hot, said something and was danceable, it was on the radio.
In the various retrospectives of Aretha Franklin, an extra dimension of her as an American music icon has emerged – Aretha as a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement. This is well reasoned. Her music was strongly inspirational to such pioneers of the movement as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., of whom she was a booster financially as well as a good friend and pillar of moral support.
Dr. King only lived to see Aretha’s early trajectory as an artist, but little did I know at the time that Aretha’s music was playing a role in the formation of my own character. As I said, the cities I grew up in were segregated. Matters were made worse by the chaos of the Los Angeles “Race Riots” of 1965 and this was compounded by the bigoted attitudes of the home I was raised in. The only exposure for myself and other adolescents of my day to another conception of blacks, was through the music of Aretha, Otis Redding, the Temptations and other classic “soul” artists of that era.
By creating visceral, uncompromising music that in no way took second place to the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders or the Beach Boys, Aretha – even if only in an intuitively spiritual way, contradicted the ugly stereotypes that so polluted the perceptions of race in that era. I feel certain that influence was not wasted on me.
And that is as special to me as her incomparable music.