Musical family helped launch Franklin’s success

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News
Gospel singer Aretha Franklin sings "He'll Understand, He'll Say Well Done" during the funeral of Army Specialist Anthony Riggs in 1991.

Since the 1960s, Aretha Franklin was known as the Queen of Soul on all corners of the earth. But for years before that, she was overshadowed by her famous father. It was as “Rev. Franklin’s daughter” that she was introduced to the gospel world, and then to the music world when she became a professional singer.

C.L. Franklin, born in Mississippi in 1915 (he died in 1984 in Detroit), was a star, considered to be the greatest black preacher of his generation. He invigorated Baptist congregations in Memphis, Tennessee, and Buffalo, New York, before coming to Detroit in 1945 to take over as pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church.

The church was located in a converted bowling alley on Hastings, in the middle of the east-side black entertainment district known as Paradise Valley.

Many of Franklin’s most famous sermons, including “Dry Bones in the Valley” and “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” were released as spoken-word recordings on 78 rpm records and sold by the thousands, thanks to distribution beyond Detroit, in the South and Midwest. The discs also were popular on gospel radio shows in Detroit and beyond.

The pastor had a strong singing voice, and most of his sermons were spoken and sung. Aretha’s mother, Barbara, who died in 1952, was also said to have had a beautiful singing voice, much like gospel great Mahalia Jackson’s.

Rev. C.L. Franklin, 1965.

The Rev. Franklin quickly became active in Detroit politics and in the local civil rights movement. He was a handsome man and cut a suave figure on the local scene. Barbara Franklin stayed in Detroit for only two years, and departed somewhat mysteriously in 1948, for her native Buffalo.

Singer Ruth Brown, who toured with C.L. Franklin on the gospel circuit and was a frequent guest at his Detroit home, wrote in her autobiography “Miss Rhythm”: “This man’s cloth was silk and I mean made to measure. He sported a ‘konk’ (the straightened, pompadour hairstyle favored by 1950s R&B musicians) and was tall, fine-looking and very, very suave.”

All three of Franklin’s daughters took piano lessons and sang. While Aretha was the child prodigy in church, oldest sister Erma went out on the road as a rhythm and blues singer with Lloyd Price and other stars of the ’50s. Erma recorded the original “Piece of My Heart” in 1967, scoring a Top 10 R&B hit with it. She ended up competing with her sister when she was nominated for a Grammy for the song (Aretha won for “Respect”). The song became a hit again when Janis Joplin recorded it.

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Younger sister Carolyn was signed to RCA Records in the 1960s and had modest success with “It’s True I’m Going to Miss You” in 1969 and “All I Want to Be is Your Woman” in 1970. Carolyn wrote songs that Aretha recorded, and both Erma and Carolyn sang backup for their sister for a time. It was Carolyn who was in the studio in New York helping record “Respect” in 1967, and she and Aretha came up with the “Sock it to me” line that helped make Aretha’s rendition immortal.

Brother Cecil was a pastor at New Bethel for three years before working as Aretha’s manager. It was a great blow to her to lose him as a confidante when he died in 1989 at age 49.

She had already endured a great loss when her father was shot and seriously injured by burglars who broke into his LaSalle Boulevard home in Detroit in 1979. He remained semi-comatose until his death in 1984. In 2015, Aretha had a public memorial service for Cecil and her dad at New Bethel.

Her sisters also predeceased her, both dying of cancer: Carolyn Franklin in 1988 and Erma in 2002.