…and Why It Took Nine Albums To Score Aretha’s First Hit
Aretha Franklin sat at a piano in her father’s church, just days after her mother’s death. She was just ten years old and about to make her first ever public performance. There were two thousand people in the congregation waiting to hear this recently bereaved child play the piano and sing. She had been crying her eyes out all week.
Simon Cowell eat your heart out: Aretha had the greatest ever back story, way before X-Factor.
After pausing for a minute, she sang “Jesus Be A Fence Around Me”, a song that Sam Cooke had sang as lead singer of the Soul Stirrers.
It all came pouring out. All her pain. All her grief. And not for the last time, when she was suffering the most trauma in her life, Aretha would produce one of her finest moments.
The maturity and pain you hear in Aretha Franklin’s voice comes from bitter experience. Two teenage pregnancies, a religious background, parents who both had children by other partners and a mother who moved out when Aretha was six years old and who died of a heart attack just four years later.
It rather brings into sharp focus some of the less tragic X-Factor back stories.
“What’s that? Your nan’s got angina and can’t come to see your audition? Do you not realise what Aretha Franklin had to go through? That’s what you’re up against! Now go away and come back when something *really* bad happens….”
Aretha Franklin grew up the daughter of a preacher man, at a time when RnB music was evolving from its gospel roots, leaving the church behind.
Her father was not just any preacher man. The Rev CL Franklin was a big cheese. A liberal minister who preached about black pride before James Brown. A peer of Dr King, he was a charismatic genius and a man B.B. King called the “bluesman’s preacher” – a holy man who didn’t treat the blues players as enemies of the gospel.
There was a lot of suspicion about RnB in the church. Take Jesse Belvin. He wrote Earth Angel, that song you’ll know from Back to the Future. He and his wife were killed in a car crash and people said it was because he’d left the church to write RnB.
That his driver had a history of being drunk and falling asleep at the wheel was irrelevant…
“See?” said Marvin Gaye’s dad (also a minister) to his son when Sam Cooke was shot. “See what happens when you displease God”.
That’s right. Marvin Gaye’s dad said that.
Aretha was a child prodigy. From age seven she would learn complex church chords on her father’s grand piano in the living room. Guests including Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Elllington would visit and play at parties. They almost didn’t need to play records at Rev Franklin’s house, they just called up the people who played on them. The young Aretha would look on, soaking it all in, and, when the parties had finished, immersed herself in her record collection. Before long, Aretha could hear a song once and play it back on the piano straight away, note perfect.
Aged 12, Aretha would join her father on his preaching tours, singing and playing piano before and during her father’s incendiary sermons. Here she was was exposed to a promiscuous culture (at one point on tour her father found her in Sam Cooke’s motel room – she insisted it was all innocent, a story not corroborated by Etta James or Sam Cooke) and she would fight over the same men with her sister Erma.
It’s hard to imagine how she must have felt when she fell pregnant aged just 13. A religious background, a strict parent. No mother. Thankfully her father was understanding. Her son, Clarence, was looked after by the family, and Aretha went straight back to school.
That first experience might have made her second pregnancy, aged 15, easier to bear, but perhaps not. This time she did drop out of school, not just to look after her second child, but also to join her father’s out of town services.
An important moment in Aretha’s life came when Sam Cooke performed on the Ed Sullivan show in 1957 – when Aretha was fifteen. Cooke helped the Franklin sisters see the attractions of the world outside of the church. Aretha adored Sam. He had transitioned from gospel singing to more worldly concerns and was being noticed by mainstream America.
Aretha’s sister Erma even bought a dress especially for the TV show, just in case Cooke might see her through the screen…
We’ve all done it…
As she turned 18, there was talk of Berry Gordy at Motown being interested in signing Aretha, but in 1960 she signed to Columbia Records at her father’s recommendation.
Yet it is remarkable to note that Aretha was at Columbia for six years and eight albums without a single hit song.
Her voice may have been amazing, but Columbia perhaps saw her as a rival, and then successor, to Dina Washington, especially after the latter’ untimely death in 1963. Indeed, Aretha recorded a tribute to Washington in 1964.
Aretha was singing beautifully, but her material was all a bit polite, looking to attract a sophisticated jazz loving crowd, and a long way from the passionate singing Aretha would perform in church.
As Etta James said “Aretha’s Columbia s– wasn’t black enough for blacks and too black for whites…Columbia didn’t know nothing about crossing over.”
Whilst Etta James was reaching the upper echelons of the charts with “At Last”, Aretha’s version of “Lucky Old Sun” made no impact. It didn’t hurt Etta James that her record label, Chess, knew how to reach a black audience. Columbia had no such idea.
It’s worth a listen to some of those early Columbia recordings. They are very different from what followed.
Here’s a playlist of Aretha’s songs on Columbia that I have cherry picked for you.
Eight albums in five years, some great performances, but no hits. It was 1966. Since Aretha had signed with Columbia, Kennedy had been shot, the Beatles had conquered America and Dylan had gone electric. The times they were a-changing. There was a war in Vietnam, and both civil rights and women’s rights were being fought for.
This was no time for gentle jazz-tinged torch songs. It was time for flaming-torch-and-pitchfork songs. It was time, in short, for Aretha to make her mark, and capture the mood of the times. We’ll see how that came about in the next post.
Meanwhile, back in 2016, I had a bet / scientific experiment with a friend to see who could buy Aretha’s albums on Atlantic Records for the least money. (you can read part 1 by clicking this link). I would buy in shops and record fairs and my friend Chris would buy online.
I had travelled to a number of shops across the UK, but the UK didn’t seem overstocked with Aretha Franklin LPs.
I asked a couple of dealers why her records were a bit tricky to track down.
“RnB collectors tend to buy singles” suggested one, “so there’s less call for the albums – if you do see them they won’t be silly money”
“Her albums do come in, but they get snapped up quite quickly” offered another, not entirely consistently with the first guy.
I carried on digging.
The albums on Columbia were easier to find, as is always the way with records you don’t actually want. Also freely available and veritably clogging up record stores across the land, it seemed, were Aretha’s mid ’70s to mid ’80s work, the latter in the bargain bins.
I did find one late sixties release early on though. A single, on Atlantic, of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. It was £1.
In a charity shop a week or so later, I found a lovely Atlantic sleeve housing a Carole King single (coincidentally: after all, King co-write the Aretha track) so I picked that up for 50p and swapped the sleeves around so the Aretha one matched.
I re-doubled my efforts and crossed my fingers Chris hadn’t already snapped everything up on eBay.
Next time: the making of Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man The Way That I Loved You”