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Queen in waiting

The undisputed Queen of Soul has left us. She’ll never be replaced. But before her reign blossomed, Aretha Franklin spent her earlier years recording gospel and R&B cuts in a treasure trove of sassy performances that hinted at the greatness to come…


Soul legend: A 21-year-old Aretha Franklin in 1963
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Aretha Franklin’s magnificent musical legacy spanned more than 60 years, encompassed a wall full of gold records, and transcended any and all idiomatic boundaries. Atlantic Records dreamed up the name of ‘Lady Soul’ as the title of one of her biggest-selling albums, and the regal sobriquet fit the diva like a mink-lined glove. Her sanctified pipes were and remain the gold standard of soul music.

From her birth in 1942, Aretha Louise Franklin seemed destined for a life in music. Her father, Reverend CL Franklin, was a rising star in the Baptist church ranks due to his deeply inspiring sermons: so gripping was the reverend’s trademark vocal squall that it influenced blues singer Bobby Bland, who replicated it in his hair-raising 1958 hit Little Boy Blue.

“The style that I listened to and got the idea to do, that was from Rev. CL Franklin,” said the late Bland. “I was listening to a cut of his, The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest. That squall that I do, that’s where I got it from.”

In 1944, Rev. Franklin moved his family to Buffalo, New York, to preach there. Two years later, there was a final relocation to Detroit, where the reverend took over the pulpit at New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings Street and quickly became the Motor City’s leading black minister. The Franklin household also included two more future hitmakers, Aretha’s older sister Erma and younger sibling Carolyn. Six-year-old Aretha was shattered when her mother left and went back to Buffalo, but she and her family visited her during the summers. Shy Aretha subsequently poured her heartbreak into her music, developing an advanced piano technique without formal training that left visitors stunned.

Rev. Franklin was a flamboyant presence inside and outside the church. African- American celebrities were frequent guests to the family residence; Aretha was exposed to the piano magic of jazz legends Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson as she grew up. Top gospel groups stopped by often; Sam Cooke, then fronting The Soul Stirrers [see Vintage Rock 37], became a particularly good friend of Aretha’s. Clara Ward of The Ward Singers is reported to have been a longtime girlfriend of the Reverend’s, her sanctified piano strongly impacting Aretha’s own. James Cleveland was another of her musical mentors (he lived at the Franklin home while serving at New Bethel). The girl’s voice was simply a gift from on high. From day one, Aretha was identifiably Aretha.

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