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.
Chess had just released Aretha’s live recording of an early-20th-century hymn, “Never Grow Old.” Her focus and intensity on that record epitomized gospel at its deepest, signifying that a teenager had absorbed everything that Ward, Verdell and Williams would have to teach her. Thus Aretha stepped out into the gospel world — an adolescent carrying the emotional history and vocal power of the century’s greatest singers.
Two years later, I was invited to a party held by the prominent publicist Al Duckett. Duckett had already ghostwritten Jackie Robinson’s first memoir. He was also Mahalia Jackson’s publicist, and a co-author of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first speeches.
At this particular event, he played — for the first time publicly — Aretha’s audition tape for Columbia Records. At Washington Temple, teenage nerves seemed to overwhelm her, but here she was in perfect voice — and equally perfect spirit. “Today I Sing the Blues” shines on her debut album, but the audition tape remains superior in my memory. As any traditional gospel singer will tell you, the spirit rarely shows up twice.
All through the 1950s, former gospel singers had made great records but enjoyed only modest success. So, too, Aretha’s years at Columbia Records produced many masterpieces but few hits. Only with her move to Atlantic did she become Lady Soul, and her producer Jerry Wexler famously declared that the key had been “taking her back to church.” Yet his and Aretha’s ideas of gospel were not always the same. He often recalled her isolating herself in the studio, sitting apart from the musicians, focused on something within — as gospel singers would say, “Looking to the hills from which cometh my strength.”
That’s because the rockers could not give her the particular attention she was used to in church. For most of the early Atlantic sessions, her piano had to set the tone and summon the spirit. It’s also why she was happiest in a studio when a church-trained musician like Billy Preston could give her the chords and harmonies she craved, exactly when she needed them. Any good studio musician could mimic the style, but the timing had to be, as she put it, “anointed.”
Her return to the church would produce her best-selling 1972 album, Amazing Grace. The atmosphere could not have been friendlier, as is evident in Sydney Pollack’s famously still-unreleased film of the concert. There were a few white faces (including Mick Jagger, clapping conspicuously off-time). But Wexler intended it to be a platonic ideal of church. Sure enough, there is Aretha’s father, slapping palms with his neighbors whenever she executes a particularly inspired lick. There is the tiny yet imperious Madame Gertrude Ward. Most of all, there is Clara Ward, staring at her musical daughter with something between pride and melancholy. Oddly enough, the least engaged is Lady Soul herself. When Rev. Franklin sings his daughter’s praises — “Aretha is just a stone singer” — she looks half stunned, a fawn caught in fearsome headlights.
For me, the great visual representation of young Aretha had been filmed three-and-a-half years earlier. Right after the assassination of Dr. King, she stands singing next to Coretta Scott King and the four King children. They are shell-shocked with grief; no one hollers, no one shouts. But Aretha is in perfect voice, singing the early-gospel song “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away.” None of her early idols — Clara, Jackie or Marion — had recorded the track, and so there is no prior version she must re-create or reinvent. Instead it’s all her, looking her most generous and, to me, authentic.
In 1993, Williams received the Kennedy Center Honor. She was saluted by two of her musical children, Little Richard and Aretha, who claimed for herself Williams’ greatest Ward-era hits, “Packin’ Up” and “Surely God Is Able.” Buttressed by Richard and Billy Preston, Franklin strolled the Kennedy Center aisles as if it were her daddy’s church. But it was at the 2015 Kennedy Honors that she would score the greatest triumph of her career with the thoroughly secular “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Gospel old-timers roared when she dropped her mink coat, the kind of showmanship forever identified with Williams. Anyone familiar with Aretha would remember many similar entrances, the girl quite sure of her special gift but also “stepping out on faith.”
Thus it was beautifully apt that one of her last public concerts would be held in Philadelphia, home of The Famous Ward Singers, and that it would end with her tribute to those women, recalling “how bad, and that means good” they had been. She sang one of their rockers, “The Old Landmark.” Watching it on YouTube, I was struck by her vocal strength at this late point in her career, and also by her inventiveness — utterly creatively alert, she commands her own ad-libs, bringing a totally distinct interpretation to this gospel classic.
And then she begins to testify, groaning and moaning in the manner of her father or Clara Ward. That is how this immense career ended, with Aretha still dwelling within her Ark of Safety. Gertrude Ward, Clara’s indefatigable mother, used to watch Aretha echoing her daughter — particularly in those long, drawn-out versions of the national anthem that sounded like church hymns to those who, as gospel connoisseurs might put it, “know that they know that they know.”
“Hmm,” Madame Ward would say. “That girl will live and die a Ward Singer.” And so, in fact, she did.
Anthony Heilbut discusses Aretha Franklin in his latest book, The Fan Who Knew Too Much (Soft Skull Press), winner of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Pubisher Award, and will further discuss her in When Gospel was Gospel, to be published by Yale University Press.