Here’s what you need to know about events celebrating Aretha Franklin’s life and musical legacy.
To use phrasing common in the black church, her daddy made it plain.
On Aretha Franklin’s best-selling album, “Amazing Grace,” the revered Rev. C.L. Franklin said, “If you want to know the truth, she has never left the church.”
At the time, his words were intended to silence critics who frowned upon Aretha Franklin’s decision to begin singing secular music.
But Rev. Franklin’s prophetic words, spoken during the 1972 recording, also go a long way in explaining why gospel music remained a constant force and source of comfort throughout Aretha Franklin’s life, even as she reigned as the Queen of Soul.
And many of today’s top gospel artists credit her soul-stirring style and passion for the music with inspiring them.
“I used to sing her songs all the time at concerts and talent shows,” said Vanessa Bell Armstrong, whom people used to call “Little Aretha” when she was growing up in Detroit. “I wanted to be Aretha until I realized there’s only one Aretha Franklin. I had to figure out how to have her in me, but be myself.”
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Twinkie Clark of famed Detroit gospel group the Clark Sisters said Franklin was “the greatest female vocalist in the world.”
“Me and my sisters got a lot of our riffs and runs from her. The way she did her moans and groans, we’d do the same way,” Clark said. “The way she’d improvise and ad lib, hit high notes, then go all the way down and hit low notes, we listened to all of that. Our mom (gospel music pioneer Mattie Moss Clark) taught and trained us, but Aretha was our greatest influence.”
Rev. Marvin Winans, of the Grammy-award winning group the Winans, said he cherished Franklin’s fire for the genre.
“Even her moans were heartfelt,” said Winans, pastor of Perfecting Church on Detroit’s east side. “She knew how to make that voice work. Aretha had a way of grabbing a lyric, singing off the beat and yet being right on top of it. She gave it her all and it made you try to give it your all.”
He especially admired Franklin’s appreciation for the old hymns of the black church.
“She had an ability to take an old hymn, spice it up and make it relevant today,” Winans said.
Deborah Smith Pollard, author of “When the Church Becomes Your Party: Contemporary Gospel Music,’’ (Wayne State University Press, $26.99) and co-host of a Sunday morning gospel show MIX 92.3 FM, said it’s a fitting tribute to Franklin’s love of gospel music that her best-selling album is a gospel CD, “Amazing Grace,” recorded in with Rev. James Cleveland.
Franklin’s abiding affection for gospel music was evident in the fact that she sang it even during pop concerts. She offered an 11-minute rendition of the gospel classic, “Precious Lord” during her final Detroit show in 2017.
Franklin annually hosted gospel concerts at New Bethel Baptist, located on a stretch of Linwood Avenue renamed in her father’s honor. On Monday, the church will host a gospel concert celebrating her life. It will be free to the public — as her gospel concerts there always were.
“Oftentimes, people who start in gospel start singing pop and then that’s what they did,” said Pollard. “Aretha was one of those rare people who did both and very often in the same concert. Whatever she sang, she had an audience for it, and often it was the same audience.”
Gospel singer Vickie Winans said she used to joke with Franklin about how she smoothly transitioned from singing a secular song into a gospel number.
“Girl, you got to tell me whether we in church or in the bedroom,” Vickie Winans said she’d tell Franklin. “One minute we’re riding on the ‘Freeway of Love’ and the next minute, ‘Jesus, Oh Jesus.’ I’d say, “Wait a minute? Is Jesus on the freeway?’ She would just laugh and say, ‘Girl, I can’t help myself.’ “
Indeed, she couldn’t help but sing gospel music, say those who knew her.
“I don’t care where she was, if the spirit hit her, she was going to start ministering in song,’’ said Gloria Ridgeway, a background singer for Franklin, who along with her sisters, sang with her in the movie “Blues Brothers 2000.” “We were all raised in the church too, so it was always a treat for us to fall right in and sing gospel with her.”
“That’s really who she was, a gospel singer,” Ridgeway said. “It didn’t matter what genre of music she was singing, you could still feel and hear gospel music in it because whatever she did, she did from the heart and soul.”
Rev. E.L. Branch, who served as an associate minister under Rev. C.L. Franklin, recalled attending one of Aretha Franklin’s last concerts at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. He said Aretha went directly from a secular song to singing “Old Ship of Zion.”
“It was as if at that moment her audience became her congregation,” Branch said.
“Gospel was so deeply rooted in her, she couldn’t help but go there,” said Branch, pastor of Third New Hope Baptist Church on Detroit’s northwest side.
Those roots ran deep in the Franklin household. She started singing at New Bethel Baptist Church when she was barely tall enough to be seen on the pulpit. Her first road trips were with her nationally famous father, whom she adored.
He often hosted great gospel and secular singers in their home, including gospel pioneers Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and Sam Cooke, who also started as a gospel singer.
One of the nation’s premiere gospel singers and arrangers, the late Rev. James Cleveland, served as minister of music at New Bethel and lived in the Franklin home for a few years. Known as the King of Gospel, he is credited with teaching it to a young Aretha Franklin.
Eugene Rogers, director of choirs and associate professor of conducting at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said when Aretha Franklin sang gospel, she had complete strength, confidence and vocal control. She had a unique ability to hold a note long at every range she sang — from the very high to the very low.
And, she had a way of singing gospel music that let the listener know her goal wasn’t to entertain; it was to deliver the message.
“It was as if she channeled the Holy Spirit,” he said.
Franklin’s impact on gospel music will be everlasting, he said.
“She will always be one of the top gospel artists ever,” Rogers said. “Any gospel artist coming along, if they’re serious about doing their homework, they have to study Aretha Franklin. It’s like you can’t be a classical artist without studying Bach and Beethoven. You can’t call yourself a gospel artist if you haven’t studied Aretha Franklin.”
The Gospel Tribute to Aretha Franklin
With Evelyn Turrentine-Agee, Dorothy Norwood, Laura Lee, Dorinda Clark-Cole, Douglas Miller, Esther V. Smith and the Aretha Franklin Celebration Choir
Hosted by Rev. Robert Smith Jr.
6 p.m. Mon.
New Bethel Baptist Church
8430 CL Franklin Blvd., Detroit
Vanessa Bell Armstrong is a gospel singer who Aretha Franklin invited to sing at gospel concerts she presented at New Bethel Baptist Church.
“Aretha almost came between me and my religion. One day, when I was about 9 years old, my daddy (a preacher) asked if I was saved? I said, ‘No sir.’ He asked why. I said, ‘Cause I like to listen to Aretha Franklin.’ We were Church of God in Christ. I didn’t think I could be saved and listen to Aretha. But I was willing to put her up over my religion. My father said, ‘Awww, is that all?’ He let me know I could love all Aretha’s music and still be saved.”
Vickie Winans, who would become a neighbor and friend of Franklin’s, recalled the first time Franklin called her out of the blue.
“She said, ‘Hello, this is Aretha.’ and she started talking, but I stopped her. ‘Hold up! This is who?’ She said, ‘Aretha.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right, you’re Aretha and I’m Beyonce. Who is this, for real?’ When I realized it was really her, I was shaking in my shoes. I started crying.
“She said, ‘The reason I’m calling is I want you to be in my movie. And I’m calling you myself (because) I got to make sure I got you.’ ”
Sande Rose sang in choirs backing Franklin with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and at the Super Bowl.
“After we (the St James Baptist Church Adult Choir) sang with her at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at a Christmas concert, about eight to 10 of us were asked to meet her in the studio to record with her. At the time she had a hit called, “So Damn Happy.” I had it in heavy rotation. I loved that song. So when we went to the studio I gave it to J.D. (Jimmy Dowell, minister of music at St. James) and asked him to take it to her and ask her to sign the jacket cover. He came back and said, ‘She said, “If you want it signed, you better come in there ask her yourself.” ‘ So I went into the control room and asked her. I was so nervous, but she was just so very gracious and down-to-earth. I had it framed. I still have it. Aretha was anointed to sing. Even if she covered someone else’s song, she made it her own. The octave and range she had was just phenomenal. But number one, she was a home girl.”
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