by Michael Eric Dyson – August 19, 2018
In 2015, Aretha Franklin invited me and a few others to join her in Philadelphia as she sang for Pope Francis. I was certainly thrilled to see the pontiff up close. But, I must confess, after many years of friendship, I was still more excited to watch the Queen of Soul. Even at 73, Franklin could trap lightning in her mouth at a moment’s notice and shout down fire to earth.
Just the mention of Aretha Franklin’s name conjured transcendent sonic fury. She came to it honestly. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was one of the most storied preachers of his day. His rhetorical genius made its way onto dozens of recordings that were treasured possessions in many black homes.
I grew up in Detroit, where the Reverend Franklin lived, but I first sampled the minister’s words on my grandfather’s Alabama farm. I was barely 6 years old and I sat, transfixed, by the record. Franklin was a down-home preacher whose sermons showcased his earthy squall, which could resolve in dramatic whisper. He was a master of the chanted sermon, where words are put under pressure of music and speech bursts into song.
The young Aretha learned from her father and turned into a gospel wunderkind.
If Aretha got her gift from her father, I inherited my love for Aretha from my mother. When she migrated to Detroit from Alabama in the mid-1950s, my mother frequented the New Bethel Baptist Church where C.L. Franklin held forth every Sunday.
She told me how, after the Reverend Franklin mesmerized the congregation with his poetic homilies, his teenage daughter would rise behind him to ratchet up the spirit. Her uncanny aptitude was so compelling that the congregation knew that greatness and the Spirit rested in double portion on this fearless young woman. One can hear her gargantuan gift on her first gospel recording, at age 14, “Never Grow Old.”