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Aretha Franklin straddled fence between sacred and secular

Dear Editor,

Unless you have been living under a rock, you’d know about the passing of American rhythm and blues icon Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. Franklin died of pancreatic cancer. She was 76. Many noted celebrities and entertainers such as Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson have paid tribute to the fallen Motown icon. Franklin is considered one of the 100 greatest singers and artists of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

In 1987 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2005 she was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame. She was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by then U.S. President George W. Bush. The U.S. Congress aims to posthumously award Franklin with the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal.

Franklin sold a staggering 75 million records worldwide. Songs such as “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man,” “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think”, “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Natural Woman,” “Precious Memories,” “How I Got Over,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Spirit in the Dark,” “Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Amazing Grace” were all recorded by her and were smash hits. Bridge Over Troubled Water is the song penned by the noted folk duo Simon and Garfunkel.

Amazing Grace is the title of Franklin’s live recording, which was done in the early 1970s, in collaboration with the legendary gospel artist James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. The album sold two million copies, and earned Franklin a Grammy in 1973. She also won an additional 17 Grammys during her six decades in the music business. Amazing Grace has been dubbed the greatest gospel album of all time. No other live recording gospel album has outperformed it in terms of sales, despite it being 46 years old.

Like the late controversial African-American guitarist and singer Rosetta Tharpe, Franklin straddled the fence between the sacred and the secular; between gospel music and secular music. Tharpe was far more daring, though. She would eventually become a fully fledged secular musician without the slightest moral apprehension. Today, Sister Tharpe is dubbed the “Godmother of Rock and Roll.”

Regarding Franklin, her secular exploits didn’t seem to bother the African-American church, as Sam Cooke’s involvement in soul music did in the late 1950s and early 1960s. According to Steve Turner’s “An Illustrated History of Gospel Music”, the African-American church interpreted Cooke’s untimely death in December 1964 as divine retribution for abandoning gospel music for the lucrative secular music industry. Many of them viewed his departure from the Soul Stirrers in 1957 as outright abandonment of the church. Whatever latitude was extended to Franklin apparently was not given to Cooke, despite rumors that her entry into the secular music industry was due to the influence of the former Soul Stirrer. She pursued a career in pop music at age 18.

A year prior to Cooke’s departure from the Soul Stirrers, Franklin recorded her first album, Songs of Faith, which is gospel. She toured with the prominent gospel group around this time. The Soul Stirrers was as popular as the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Touring with the Soul Stirrers exposed her to massive audiences.

Franklin started singing in New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit at a very young age. Her father, the Rev. Clarence L. Franklin, served as pastor.

The elder Franklin was the Bishop T.D. Jakes of the 1950s and 1960s, who was known as the man with the “million dollar voice.” His celebrity status afforded his daughter the privilege of meeting many notable African-American figures such as Mahalia Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Wilson, Inez Andrews, Albertina Walker, Sam Cooke and Clara Ward, of the Ward Singers fame.

Mahalia Jackson was her role model. She sang at the Queen of Gospel’s memorial service in 1972. As for Ward, her song “How I Got Over” is one of the songs recorded on Franklin’s Amazing Grace album. Thomas Dorsey’s famous negro spiritual “Precious Lord” was also recorded on the album. This was the spiritual Franklin sang at Jackson’s funeral.

Interestingly, there were rumors that Ward and the Rev. Franklin were intimately involved, as per gospel historian Steve Turner. His alleged philandering contributed to the deterioration of his marriage to Aretha’s mother, Barbara Siggers Franklin, who also was a gospel singer and pianist.

The Franklin home was deeply embroiled in turmoil. Although they subsequently separated, they never divorced. Mrs. Franklin died in 1952 of a heart attack. She was just 34. Her estranged husband died in 1984 at age 69 – a victim of a gunshot wound he received in 1979 during what was believed to have been an attempted robbery.

As for Dr. Martin Luther King, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference received much-needed financial assistance from Aretha Franklin during the 1960s. She also toured with him. She sang at his funeral. She also sang at the funeral of Rosa Parks.

Franklin also assisted the Black Panthers and the controversial Angela Davis. Despite attaining wealth and celebrity status, she never forgot her African-American heritage, even though it may have been financially convenient to do so during the civil rights era.

Franklin’s remake of Otis Redding’s “Respect” became one of the anthems of the struggle, as was the case with Sam Cooke’s “Change is Gonna Come”. Her involvement in the civil rights movement as a famous entertainer was not unique, however. Other notable entertainers such as Harry Belafonte, James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, the Staple Singers and Nina Simone were all actively involved in the struggle. That said, the Motown legend rubbed shoulders with many movers and shakers of the civil rights movement.

Franklin, in my opinion, was not as secular as Rosetta Tharpe, who, by the way, also flirted with gospel music at a young age. But neither was she as sacred as Mahalia Jackson. Franklin stood squarely between the two. Despite her compromise with the secular realm in the entertainment industry, the church seems to have accommodated Franklin, to a degree it has done for very few gospel artists.

– Kevin Evans

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