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Aretha Franklin: Church, Sex and the Amazing Grace

The Queen of Soul has died and the following question acquires special relevance: what′s going on with her now? Will she live beyond the sad or happy memories that we have? Will she live beyond the unpublished recordings that will be released to take advantage of the news? For these questions we just have faith. Many European white people like me can hardly understand the interest that a woman so liberal and renowned as Aretha Franklin had for religious music. For most of us, religion is like hemorrhoids, something that is obviously always there - but you can′t talk to anyone. Aretha Franklin did not have that problem and recorded three gospel albums throughout her life: ′Songs Of Faith′ (1956), ′Amazing Grace′ (1972) and ′One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism′ (1987).

Article by Pablo Fernández from Barcelona on Sunday, January 19th 2020 ·.·★ Reading takes 19 minutes or 3772 words.


Three gospel recording is much more than what the majority of the people have done for their own gods, but it′s still not much if you compare it to the initiatives of other musicians of her own time like Billy Preston, James Brown or even Elvis Presley. Elvis gave voice to the nearly 90 religious songs published in 2000 by RCA Recording under the name of ′Peace in the Valley′. We know that all these musicians raised in the evangelical churches were not offering cult to the throne of that lord of the underworld and judge of the dead called Osiris. Osiris would now contemplate Anubis weighing their works with his jackal′s head, while the monstrous Ammyt waits for Aretha′s results. In that case the weight of the records should help but these musicians made him confident in the throne of grace of the Lord Jesus Christ! Right?

Religion and slavery in Africa

The desire of the industry to grow its profits is not an invention of modernity. Shortly after the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1790, this young country already had 697,681 slaves trained to support its workforce: which actually made up 19% of the total population! 305,326 of these people had been sent from Africa segmented into four main product categories: men, women, boys and girls. The handwritten records with the description of their prices now can take your breath away. Note that less than 4% of African slaves were sent to the United States of America. The remaining 96% was bought by the rest of the powerful countries of the time such as England, Portugal or Spain. All countries of Christian tradition.

If we go back to the 8th century, we will discover that the Transaharan trade routes had already long served the Muslim countries of North Africa to sell mainly in Europe up to 9,000,000 persons. The massacres and plunder in these villages of Africa actually go back to prehistory. Mode Baldeh, my dear friend of The Gambia, assured me when I recently visited his country, that the trade based in Europea was nothing if it had to be compared with the trade based in North Africa. Those abuses continue even today now clearly in the form of blockages of basic food products which unfortunately are considered legal business strategies for our own modern justice systems.

Roger Taylor, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, wrote in his book ′Art an enemy of the people,′ that this African population forcibly taken to North America adopted the Christian religion as a way to go unnoticed for their masters. He says that in their private lives they continued to maintain a way of life more honest with their true beliefs. The author tries to explain the paradox of the coexistence of two musics as confronted as Gospel or Blues - but his explanation seems too simplistic. In fact sources of the time speak of whites who avoided baptism to slaves for fear that they might lose some power over them.

There are also written records of the Anglican missionaries. Missionaries sometimes found themselves unable to teach slaves to abandon amulets, polygamy or ′ring shout′ - which they called ′idolatrous dance.′ The Islam that reigned in Africa had not been able to completely wrench the shamanism inherited from the cult of Phoenician deities such as Tanit or Ba′al - which required from their worshipers sacrifices of animals or even people. It is not nonsense that many slaves found more attractive in Christ, this new God who was able to suffer, liberate and do it for free, regardless of one of your many mistakes or sins. A black and blind pianist named Ray Charles showed that you have to go beyond appearances. While overcoming an unexpected religious awakening he turned a Gospel song into a Blues and the industry called it Soul.

The preacher′s family

Slavery had been officially abolished 50 years before in 1915. Willie Walker then paid with part of the fruit collected to the owners of the land he worked when he met Rachel, who gave Clarence her womb that same year . Clarence only remembered his father teaching him to greet, just before leaving his family forever. He was then four years old and adopted his stepfather′s surname Franklin. Only 12 more years were needed for him to start working as an itinerant preacher and the success he acquired led him to be a recognized pastor of the “New Bethel Baptist Church” in three major cities such as Memphis, Buffalo and Detroit.

His preaching recorded and broadcast on the radio earned him up to $ 4,000 per performance and the pompous nickname of the ′Voice of the Million Dollar.′ The success that C.L. Franklin reached as a preacher was as large as the success he lacked in his personal life. His first marriage had been broken in less than two years for unknown reasons and his second marriage to Barbara Siggers, Aretha Franklin′s mother, was marked by his continued infidelities. The best known of these occurred in 1940 with a 12-year-old girl from her congregation in Memphis called Mildred Jennings, who gave the pastor a son named Carl Ellan.

Barbara Franklin, who was Aretha′s mother, was identified by Mahalia Jackson herself as one of the best Gospel voices in the entire country but she left her artistic career to carry the surname of C.L. Franklin. She gave him four other children: Aretha Franklin, Emma Franklin, Carolyn Franklin and Cecil Franklin and all of them traveled to support the logistics and the backing vocals of their popular father′s performances. Barbara Franklin was unable to fix the relationship with her husband so she returned to her mother′s house in New York where she began working in a music store, while studying nursing from 1948. Aretha Franklin was not able to see her mother except during the summers from then on until he died of a heart attack with 34 years.

Aretha Franklin′s education

Barbara Franklin was sadly accused of abandoning her family like so many other women who were systematically mistreated under the indifferent eyes of their neighbors. Aretha Franklin had four children from four different men, the first of them had him at 12, apparently from one of his schoolmates, and the second at 14 - that is when he records his first gospel record. When they were not on vacation with their mother Barbara, Aretha Franklin and her siblings were dedicated to attending to her father′s many guests, who took turns helping them. Among them was Martin Luther King Jr. - with whom his father was planning the peace march in Detroit on June 23, 1963.

There were also many musicians among the guests who gave Aretha the inspiration to sing popular music, such as Sam Cooke, James Cleveland or Clara Ward. Clara Ward also maintained a romantic relationship with her father, until he was shot twice during a robbery on Sunday, June 10, 1979. Aretha Franklin′s decision to start a career in R&B music, rather than continuing in which she had already started in the Gospel, was not supported by all the members of the church but she had the support of his father and everything else did not matter much to her. It was not a novelty that many musicians like Little Richard, Otis Redding or Sister Rosetta Tharpe had left Gospel music to adopt a professional career in popular music.

The Sweet Inspirations, the accompaniment group that she used just 50 years ago for the recording of classics like ′I say a little prayer′ or ′Chain of fools′ also came from the Gospel industry as we saw in the article of Whitney Houston. When she recorded and published ′Amazing Grace′ in 1972, Aretha Franklin had merits and ample success to justify her decision. His own father assured that Aretha Franklin had never really left the church, but it is not well known if because said that because it was true or because he wanted it to be true.

Jesus is the great absentee in the album ′Amazing Grace′. The cover picks her up in a state of glory, barefoot and in a traditional African dress. It is true that the title of the recording makes a reference to a classic Christian hymn but a hymn clearly linked to the tragedy of slavery in the United States of America so the album had all the keys he needed to become a sales success. Aretha Franklin was the first female name appears in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and received hundreds of additional awards and recognitions as UK Music Hall of Fame or even the religious GMA Gospel Music Hall of Fame. His first great success, however, is due to Otis Redding.

The inverted respect of Otis Redding

Otis Redding was born in Dawson, Georgia. His father alternated different jobs in agriculture or at the Robins Air Force Base but on weekends he was also an itinerant preacher. Otis Redding kept fond memories of when he went with his parents to Sawyer′s Lake in the city of Macon, to hear Afro-Caribbean jazz songs like ′Run, Joe′: ′Dad and mom played it for me again and again′ - he remembered much later - “I loved that! haven′t stopped playing music since then. ” Otis Redding started singing in the choir of the church ′Vineville Baptist Church′ and with 10 years already played the guitar or piano - this, of course, until he met his neighbor Little Richard, whose father was also a preacher.

Otis Redding′s mother had to face the support of the family when her father became ill and Otis Redding himself accepted all kinds of jobs until he had his first child, when his wife had just reached the age of 16. His intention with the song ′Respect′ was to write the plea of ​​a man in charge of bringing the money home, proud of having done his part and hungry for his wife′s respect. It is not that it was a bizarre plea on that time but when the song passes into the hands of Aretha Franklin, however, it is the woman who asks for respect and the impact it had on the audience was simply sublime. The Aretha Franklin version automatically reached number 1 of the US Hot R&B Songs and the generic US Billboard Hot 100 lists during 1967. The small changes that Aretha Franklin made to Otis Redding′s song were like dynamite even for the movement itself of Civil Rights in which he fought!

The position of a black woman was clearly difficult in the United States of America. Only 38% of women were paid for her work in 1960 and the sectors were limited to nursing, education or the secretariat. When someone asked the dean of a medical school if there were free places, he replied: “Sure! We keep women away, whenever we can!”. Additionally the black woman was also discriminated within the Civil Rights or, at best, relegated to operational tasks of the flight. Aretha Franklin did it that way during her whole life. In the words of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Aretha Franklin had greatly supported the movement in silence during the campaigns, helping even with money when Martin Luther King Jr. was ruined.

What you want, honey, I already have it
What you need, don′t you know that I already have it?
All I′m asking for is a little respect when you get home
(Just a little) Hey honey
(Just a little) When you get home
(Just a little) Knight
(Just a little)

Gospel stories to be afraid in the night

Not all musicians left the church and in fact some have been singers and preachers at the same time as Little Richard, Solomon Burke or Al Green, the author of many romantic hits like ′Here I Am (Come and Take Me ) ′,′ Let′s Stay Together ′or′ Let′s Get Married ′. Aretha Franklin fired to Al Green on one of her tours as he himself confessed, for insisting on leaving the stage to greet the girls while acting. One of those many girls became especially known. Mary Woodson White, a married woman who had become Al Green′s lover, asked the singer again to marry her on the night of October 18, 1974. Al Green refused again and calmly decided to take a bath while she was cooking dinner. Mary, then, while he was still in the bathtub, spilled the contents of the boiling pan over him, exchanged the pan for his Revolver .38 Special weapon and finally took his life with the gun.

′The music of the church was where all our great artists grown′ says singer Mable John. ′Regardless of what they are dedicated to is jazz or whatever they sing. If we go back to its origins we discover that the one who does not have a preacher uncle has a pastor father or a missionary mother.′ Sam Cook, on the other hand, was the son of Rev. Charles Cook and one of the main members of the renowned gospel group The Soul Stirrers. Sam Cooke was also one of the usual guests at Aretha Franklin′s father′s house, until he was shot down by the motel receptionist in Los Angeles, California, where he was staying the night of December 11, 1964. The musician was trying then to pounce on the receptionist, screaming naked and accusing her of helping to hide his lover. Bertha Franklin, who ended up shooting him, was released from all guilt after the justifiable homicide verdict, which is a few words a homicide made to prevent a more serious homicide.

According to the testimony of Etta James, Sam Cooke′s body was hard to recognise. Etta James also, of course, had learned to sing in the choir, in this case in the Echoes of Eden choir of St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles, where he suffered physical abuse from his director James Earle Hines. While her mother was away at night, her drunk stepfather Sarge often played card games at home and made her get up to sing in front of her friends, forcing her with blows if necessary. The saddest thing in my opinion is that back then, what worried her the most when she was lifted was that she had urinated in bed and that they were seeing her like this in public. Jackie Wilson, Bobby Womack or Sly Stone, the list of names in the history of Gospel music extends to exhaustion, inevitably bringing to mind those words of that biblical song: ′there is not even one!′

Nina Simone and the sinful men who hide

Nina Simone knew the song ′Sinner Man′ since being a child when her mother played it during the final appeal of her evangelistic meetings. Mary Kate Waymon was a preacher and closed her meetings with this same song night after night. Music was part of everyday life in her family. When she was 12 years old, Nina Simone had already given her first classical music recital in North Carolina. Her parents were then sitting in the front row waiting to hear her when they were forced to give the chairs to white spectators. The little Nina Simone then assured that she would not start the recital until the chairs were returned to her parents. That was her!

She dreamed many years of playing classical pieces from musicians such as Johann Sebastian Bach before arriving in New York in 1950. It was not an easy task for a woman, black and poor, so while she was not able to pay her classes, Nina Simone accepted to be employed performing songs of popular music in the premises of Greenwich Village. That neighborhood boiled countercultural activity then and she didn′t want his mother to find out where he ended up so he did it under a pseudonym. Providence wanted that among many other things, those hippies put into fashion the same old religious song that she knew well, called ′Sinner Man′.

Nina Simone was listining to the radio when they reported the attack on the church in Birmingham, Alabama, where the lives of four black girls were taken forever. ′All the truths that I had refused to accept for so long were raised to slap me ... in the language of the church, the truth came to me and I gave myself to her!′ Her husband found her an hour later in the garage trying to build a gun and when he told her that she knew nothing about killing but making songs, then she sat down to wrote ′Mississippi Goddam.′

Nina Simone had serious problems with personal relationships until she died in the south of France in 2003 and, for some reason, she seemed to find some comfort when performing this song precisely to close her performances night after night.

′Oh sinful man, where are you going to hide?
Sinful man, where are you going to hide?
Where are you going to hide?
Throughout the day ”

′Lord, don′t you know that I need you?
Lord, don′t you know that I need you?
Don′t you know that I need you anymore?
Power, Lord! ”

The account that has already been paid

Franklin James Fisher who is a member of the dance-gospel-experimental group Algiers and who has signed one of the best albums of 2017 according to MondoSonoro, jokes sometimes with his friends ensuring that if there are so many white atheists it is because in their churches there is no good music. Maybe he′s right! Aretha Franklin, however, recorded ′Songs Of Faith′ being 14 years old, when her speech differed little from her father′s. He recorded ′Amazing Grace′ being 30 years old, when his speech was so full of his time that he barely found the opportunity to talk about anything else. He finally recorded ′One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism′ being 45 years old, when his speech was so full of the basic principles of the gospel that he could barely be heard. When she left this world, being 76 years old, she didn′t have much more to add.

Having passed through all ages of women must have very few advantages, but there is one that can stand up! Those who met at the ′New Bethel Baptist Church′ on August 17, 2018 spoke of her as an especially discreet, calm and confident Aretha Franklin. She had the attitude of someone who has known and spoken enough. Perhaps she had understood that it is not our many words and deeds that bring us closer to the truth and that it was time to trust more in that human God, Christ. Jesus was the person who, having also suffered, having already died and risen, had the determination and the power to protect her regardless of any of her many successes or mistakes. As she sang herself ...

“Jesus hears all the prayers
He understands everything we are
He takes care of his children
He understands everything we are
On the streets, in homes, in jobs
Ohhh Oh Father
He takes care of his children ”

This is an short translation of the original article published in Spanish by Entrelíneas: Revista de Arte as Aretha Franklin: La iglesia, el sexo y la gracia admirable


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