Her voice transformed music. His “whooping” changed preaching.
And while classics such as “Think” and “Chain of Fools” became her signature songs, his sermon on “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest” became such a pulpit hit that it was added to the Library of Congress.
No tribute to Aretha Franklin would be complete without citing the massive impact her father, the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, had on her. He shaped her sound and style; some say he had the most profound influence on his daughter’s life.
C.L. Franklin was a superstar before his daughter became one. His unique style of preaching drew such a wide audience that his sermons were sold in record stores, and pastors around the nation rescheduled their Sunday evening services to avoid competing with his popular radio show. One preaching critic described his voice as “explosive and filled with a river of music.”
“From when she started touring with her father until the day she left this earth, she was always C.L. Franklin’s daughter and she was proud of that,” says Jonathan L. Walton, a Harvard University religion professor who befriended Franklin when Harvard awarded her an honorary degree in 2014.
At the peak of his popularity in the 1950s, C.L. Franklin commanded $4,000 an appearance. By comparison, Elvis Presley received $7,500 for an appearance in 1956, says Nick Salvatore, author of “Singing in a Strange Land,” the definitive biography of the late preacher.
C.L. Franklin spotted his daughter’s musical gifts early and arranged piano lessons for her. He would later encourage and defend her decision to move from gospel to pop.
Franklin carried the purse because she had seen so many black musicians get ripped off. Demanding money up front was her way of demanding respect; she wasn’t going to play the part of the naive black artist taken advantage of by unscrupulous white promoters.
Her father demanded the same kind of respect in a time and place where it could have gotten him killed.
C.L. Franklin was born in rural Mississippi to a poor sharecropper’s family. He lived in the belly of the beast; he later said he experienced “segregation in the raw.” When he was a young man, he said, a mob of whites in a nearby county abducted a black man for some imagined slight. They publicly tortured him for seven hours and then burned his still-breathing body. This is the world he knew.
Yet C.L. Franklin built a life in defiance of that kind of terror and humiliation. He demanded respect, and it came in many ways.
People often talked about his daughter’s regal style of dress: floor-length furs, “fierce red lipstick,” the elaborate hats she wore like crowns. But her father dressed like royalty first. He wore tailored suits, alligator shoes and diamond stickpins, and he always rode in a late-model Cadillac (usually driven by a church deacon).
And he acted like royalty, even if it endangered his life.
Once when his Cadillac broke down in a Southern city, a group of white toughs encircled him, calling him boy and teasing him, Salvatore recounts in “Singing in a Strange Land.”
“Instead of responding, he walked through the mocking crowd to an auto dealership and brought a brand new car and paid cash for it on the spot,” Salvatore notes.
C.L. Franklin’s material excesses would be easy to caricature today — just another money-grubbing pastor, some might say. But his sartorial style sent a message to his parishioners — don’t take a backseat to anyone — and he backed it up with his civil rights activism.
Before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his “I Have a Dream” speech at the iconic 1963 March on Washington, he gave it two months earlier at a massive civil rights rally in Detroit — organized by C.L. Franklin. King was a close friend of the pastor, who often raised money for King.
Before the Rev. Jesse Jackson told people “I am somebody,” C.L. Franklin was preaching a similar message of uplift to the auto workers, Southern migrants and other blacks wounded by segregation who came to his New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
“If there was a theme in his sermons, it was ‘you are somebody,’ ” Salvatore says. “But he was not only preaching you are somebody. He was preaching that there are people who want to make certain you never become somebody.”
Aretha Franklin didn’t absorb that fierce sense of self-belief from just listening to her father. She saw it reflected in the black celebrities who stayed at her childhood home.
C.L. Franklin was no dour minister. He was the consummate party host who drew some of the biggest names in 20th century black America to his plush home in the exclusive LaSalle Boulevard section of Detroit. The singer Sam Cooke would drop by and muss Franklin’s curly hair when she was a girl. The gospel great Mahalia Jackson was such a frequent visitor that she would often go into the family’s kitchen to put on a pot of collard greens soon after arriving.
Franklin grew up surrounded by black excellence. Musicians like B.B. King, Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughn often came by. Aretha Franklin’s childhood friend was singer Smokey Robinson. It was no accident that Motown records came out of Detroit. The city was a magnet for black artists, and C.L. Franklin and his New Bethel Baptist Church were among its star attractions.
In many ways, he was the prototype of black celebrity pastors long before the Rev. Ike and T.D. Jakes came along.
“He was a pop icon before we had pop icons,” Simmons says.