Celebrating Aretha Franklin’s Gospel Legacy
Aretha Franklin’s indelible mark on sacred and secular music will be felt forever. She is now immortalized as “The Queen of Soul“, but she was much more than that. She was the Queen of Crossover and in this article, let’s take a didactic look at her career that poignantly defined crossover music.
Much like her predecessors Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, she enjoyed success of international church and secular audiences. However, unlike either of them, she achieved a level of success in each genre that never put either at odds with the other. Her sound was the amalgam of sanctified soul. Her career possessed dual roles: she reigned as “The Queen of Soul”, but always made true the saying: “you can always come home!” She was a regular visitor and came home to gospel quite often. As her star shined brightest, the world heard her undeniable roots of the church.
Music needs a label for the sake of commerce, or so it seems. “Labels” or genres point you toward the music you like, the sound you identify with. But what happens when the sound you identify with is singing a song you don’t?
This was the appeal and mystique of the late Ms. Aretha Franklin who became one of the world’s greatest talents and a national treasure at home. Of all the things she became, including the undisputed Queen of Soul, she was always a church girl. Her father’s name is still synonymous with gospel preaching and her playing and singing ever reminiscent of days and nights at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
“Gospel goes with me wherever I go. Gospel is a constant with me.”
Truly, the sound of black gospel traveled with the Queen everywhere she went and was the strength behind her trademark sound. She left the church so to speak but never left her faith telling the late Gwen Ifill in a 2015 interview “my faith always has been and always will be important to me.” Though we still wrestle with the paradoxical path of saints singing secular songs, Aretha Franklin rose above it all. She took gospel stylings at the mic and piano to heights never before seen and to audiences never before reached. Her fathers words rang true in that she sang before Kings, Popes and other world leaders, and did so with so much because of and with her father’s blessing. It’s not implausible to surmise that her critics’ overwhelming respect for her father outweighed their opinion of her career choice.
Bishop Paul Morton was great friends with Aretha Franklin and has encouraged his son PJ Morton in a similar way Rev. CL Franklin encouraged his daughter. His son has written and produced gospel music for a bevy of artists including Bishop Morton but has found his truest voice singing secular music. One could assume that Bishop Morton would be juxtaposed by his son’s music, but he is not. In fact, he encourages his success, telling the On the Record podcast earlier this year:
When he said he wanted to do secular music, he said “I will not make you ashamed, I know your standard, I’m going to keep it clean and please trust me. I’m going to do it right!” To me, that’s what’s important and that’s where he got me, he said: “Dad, God is love. If God is love, why can’t I sing about love? If love is bad, why does God tell us to love?” So, he got me there and that was the truth and that’s why I really back him as it relates to what he does.Bishop Paul S. Morton
She was truly the Queen of Crossover, never not a part of the church. Not a prodigal, but a promulgator because everywhere she went, people were blessed by her gift. She was released to secular music with a light that she let shine as best she could. Her success in secular music was often celebrated in the church as well; she belonged to the church as much as church belonged to her. Over the span of her 60+ year career, she successfully did what so many artists try to do-live in the balance of what is sacred and secular. It’s not for the faint of heart or spirit, as many succumb to the various vices that haunt the entertainment industry. Her troubled past and life was chronicled in David Ritz’ 2014 biography “Respect” which shed a light on the darkness in her life.
It was that same darkness that spurred the creativity we know and love. Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records had this to say about the Aretha we didn’t know: “I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows. Anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura. But the Queen didn’t need to reveal her secrets or talk about her deepest moments of anguish and joy. It’s all there in her singing, plain as day for everyone to hear.”
None of us are without our own level of personal trials and challenges and not even the reigning queen of soul was exempt. Her ability to rise above and conquer those challenges are also part of what endear her to generations of fans, worldwide. Her inspiration was far reaching and blazed the trail for countless artists who would later grace the world’s stage, with the church as their training ground. The likes of Whitney Houston, Fantasia, and Jennifer Hudson all come to mind.
Aretha Franklin inspired artists like Shirley Murdock and Judy Cheeks who also got their start in church and found immense secular success. The singers took to social media to share a tribute to the Queen and pay homage to her legacy.
“How can I be selfish right now? The most amazing and most talented singer/musician of all time has earned her crown and her wings. I have been blessed by her unselfish obedience to the call on her life my entire life…we have all been touched by God’s love every time she sang a note…We have so much of her still here…We will miss her physical presence, but the gift God gave through her will be here forever…Rest in heavenly peace my Queen…” -Judy Cheeks
“Thank you Queen Aretha Franklin, for being such a prominent piece in the tapestry of my life and career. I attended your master class, as a little girl while sitting next to the hi-fi, under those big air traffic controller looking headphones, eyes closed and mimicking your every note. I was profoundly influenced by how you sang from the depths of your soul.
I remember getting in trouble as a nine-year-old, for singing “Dr. Feelgood” with too much feeling, according to my Mother! But most of all, with all your success, you showed me that I could stay connected to my Gospel roots and relationship with God while sharing my gift with the whole world! You were a gift from up above and now the heavenly choir has been blessed with the gift of a new soloist!” -Shirley Murdock
A testament to her unyielding connection to the church, A. Jeffrey Lavalley of the New Jerusalem Full Gospel Baptist Church recounts his experiences accompanying the Queen of Soul in this interview for ABC 12 in Flint, Michigan. He is one of gospel music’s profound songwriters and several of his song has become standards in the church and long-standing memories for singers who sharpened their skills in the church choir. He had this to say when asked about Aretha Franklin: “Aretha’s ability to blend gospel and R&B was unique. She could easily slip from one genre to another without missing a beat. She was born to do what she did—sing. Be it classical, soul, pop, jazz and/or gospel, Aretha was simply born to sing.”
She never shied away from her gospel roots, regardless of the genre or content of the song. Gospel shined through in her singing and playing. Ronnette Harrison, a singer and musician in DC had this to say about Franklin’s influence: “Aretha Franklin is such an inspiration as an artist. Her ability to fluidly weave between various genres of music and execute each of them with precision & soul was unmatched. As a female pianist & vocalist myself, I looked up to her. There will NEVER be another Aretha Franklin.”
Throughout her career, she was known for her originals as well as covers. Once she sang a song, it was hers. She didn’t have to be a song’s author to be its owner. Upon hearing her now world-famous cover of “Respect”, Otis Redding remarked: “she done took my song”. She embodied the essence of masterful songwriting and in her touch were all the craftsmanship of hit songwriting. Perhaps eclipsed by the Redding classic, other Franklin signature covered, popularized and re-popularized by Franklin were “Natural Woman” and “You’ve Got a Friend” (Precious Lord) by Carole King, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Until You Come Back to Me by Stevie Wonder.
Rena Scott whose current single is the latter said this about Franklin: “Aretha was my musical Idol and Mentor. I loved her so much I started in a Baptist church like she did in Detroit, Michigan. I started singing when I was 12 years old, I listened to every Aretha Franklin song she ever recorded. I wanted to be just like her. I got an opportunity to work with her in 1978 singing background at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Pine Knob resort in upper Michigan. She invited us to her home and cooked for us. She then flew us to Southern, California to do background on her upcoming album. I didn’t want to leave her side. I just looked at everything she did. That was one of the best moments of my life to sing with my Idol Aretha Franklin. I will always love you Aretha.”
Aretha Franklin was one of the church’s greatest exports and though her fame was achieved on a larger scale as a secular artists, she was always welcomed home. It was never strange to see Ms. Franklin in a church in Detroit. In 1994, at the death of their mother, The Clark Sisters tapped her to sing during their mother’s funeral- a legend in her own right, the late Mattie Moss-Clark. Some of her greatest gospel work came alongside the late Reverend James Cleveland and their friendship extended well beyond the sanctuary and bandstand.
Their work was quintessential and the 1972’s double platinum release “Amazing Grace” recorded at Rev. Cleveland’s church and backed by his choir still stands as Franklin’s top selling album, replete with classic renditions of “Precious Memories” and the title track have proven timeless.
“The relationship my dad had with Ms. Aretha was far more than a working relationship, it was a genuine FRIENDSHIP! I will always cherish the wonderful things she said about my father when she called me after his passing! I will never forget attending her son Eddy’s wedding with my dad at her home in California! I can honestly say she’s the reason I took a liking to quiche! Ms. Aretha could sing and cook! I’m going to miss her, but I’ll never forget her! She’s resting in heaven with her father and mine!” -Lashone Cleveland
The one thing I admire about Ms Franklin, was she always stay connected to the church & to her heritage of the church & to the artists that help shape her, like James Cleveland & Ms Clara Ward who was her major influence in gospel & music…she always cherished the icons before her & reminded the new generation to embrace their work, just like she did. -Archie Swindell, Radio Veteran
She never had to be anyone else, on or off stage. She was true to herself regardless of the circumstance and the world got beautiful music because of it. As a musician, a consummate professional and she surrounded herself with much of the same. “Amazing Grace” was replete with world-class musicians, singers and talent all around. A band comprised notables such as the King of Gospel, the Reverend James Cleveland, Chuck Rainey on bass, Cornell Dupree on guitar (you know his famous guitar riff on the intro of “Respect”), Pancho Morales on percussion and Bernard Purdie on drums. On her 1987 release “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism”, Rev. Thomas Whitfield joined on organ, punctuating a stout appreciation for musicality and excellence in performance.
Producer, composer and musician Sanchez Harley shared this admonition from the Queen: “Sanchez, perfect is not perfect” Words of wisdom spoken to me by Ms. Franklin. I bless God for the special and treasured blessing of choosing me to be just a small part of her musical legacy. The greatest voice of “our time” is not adequate. “The greatest instrument “of all time” is more appropriate. Thank you, Ms. Franklin for sharing your extraordinary gifts unselfishly with the world.” -Sanchez Harley
Aretha Franklin’s Gospel Discography:
“Never Grow Old”-1956, JVB/Checker Records
“Amazing Grace”- 1972, Atlantic Records
“One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism”- 1987, Arista Records
Our rose will forever be a rose, put some respect on her name. She’s the Queen of soul, crossover and the hearts of music lovers everywhere! Funeral plans are still developing, here’s what we know.