One spring day in 1958, I went to a concert at Brooklyn’s Washington Temple Church of God in Christ and witnessed Aretha Franklin’s first known performance in New York. The audience was audibly excited, there to hear Rev. C.L. Franklin, the king of the Baptist church who, thanks to the dozens of sermons he had recorded, was at the time the most popular pastor on wax. But the reason I, a 16-year-old Jewish boy from Queens, had come to Brooklyn was Franklin’s 15-year-old daughter, Aretha, billed as making her New York debut.
By that point, I was a devoted gospel fan. Thanks to my tolerant parents, I had traveled from Forest Hills to Harlem’s cynosure, the Apollo Theater, to hear the great gospel groups: The Famous Ward Singers, led by Clara Ward and Marion Williams, and The Famous Davis Sisters, led by Ruth Davis and Jackie Verdell. Williams and Verdell had told me to have an ear open for “a child named Aretha,” as Clara’s mother, Madame Gertrude Ward, called her. “She’s Rev. Franklin’s daughter; don’t speak much, but don’t start her to singing!”
On that day at the Washington Temple, the Davis Sisters opened the bill and rocked the church. A little person named Miss Sammie Bryant sang a rendition of “I’ve Got a Home Eternal in Heaven,” a powerful 16-bar Baptist blues, that had women and teenage boys collapsing all over the building. The church, however, did not go berserk when Rev. Franklin’s daughter performed. She sat at the piano, playing chords she had learned from her father’s minister of music, James Cleveland, her eyes stabbed shut, making -- in the gospel vernacular -- “ugly faces.” She only rose from the bench to begin the holy dance, famously known in black and white Pentecostal churches as “the shout,” after having elicited hollers and moans from her listeners.