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The Enlightening Story Of C.L. Franklin

She was the “Queen of Soul.” He was “The Black Prince.”
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.
“The two of them had a mutual admiration society. He was prouder of her than he could possibly express,” Salvatore says.
If you want to understand Franklin, start with her father. The two had similarities that went beyond their soulful voices.
They both demanded respect
If one thing was associated with Aretha Franklin other than her voice, it was her purse.
“It didn’t matter where she sang or who she sang for, she took her purse onstage. Even when she performed before President Obama at the Kennedy Center, she laid her purse atop the piano.
She did it because she insisted on getting paid in cash first. After getting her money, she’d stuff stacks of hundred-dollar bills inside and carry the purse onstage so she could keep an eye on it.
“She carried it everywhere. That purse became a symbol,” says Martha Simmons, co-editor of “Preaching with Sacred Fire,” an anthology on black preaching. “It just endeared her to so many women. Her attitude was, ‘I don’t care about no singing for the queen or some great hall, y’all watch my purse.’”
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.
They refused to stay in their lane
It was one of the most remarkable moments in Franklin’s career. Luciano Pavarotti was expected to perform at the 1998 Grammy Awards when the famous tenor called in sick with a sore throat. Someone needed to fill in for him.
Enter Franklin — and her purse. She could have stuck with one of her classic R&B songs, but she decided to sing one of Pavarotti’s signature arias, “Nessun Dorma.” She nailed it, even hitting the song’s celebrated high notes. Some critics later said she somehow made “Nessun Dorma” her own.
Franklin’s performance illustrated one of her gifts. Her voice couldn’t be confined to any genre. It went wherever she wanted it to, as Matt Thompson described in a tribute in The Atlantic:
“Her producers would discover that Aretha didn’t have to forsake or fuse anything; she was not required to pick a lane — secular or gospel, pop or soul. Her talent simply didn’t work that way.”
Neither did her father’s.
C.L. Franklin became one of the most admired preachers in the 20th century because he blended so many elements in the pulpit. He took the moans and cadences from blues music he heard in the Mississippi Delta, mixed them with political activism, tossed in some fancy biblical exegesis and topped it off with “whooping,” a form of black preaching where the pastor uses rhythmic vocal pyrotechnics to bring the sermon to a celebratory end that elicits an emotional response from the audience.
In the parlance of the black church, C.L. Franklin blended “learning and burning.”
“He was the master of the mixed sermon,” says Walton, the Harvard professor and author of “A Lens of Love: Reading the Bible in Its World for Our World.”
“He was, ‘I’m going to give you something intellectual, I’m going to put some dessert on it, and then I’m going to shout you out of this place,” Walton says.
If you think his daughter had her operatic moment, so did her father — virtually every Sunday, says Simmons in “Preaching with Sacred Fire.”
“Whooping can be thought of as parallel to great opera,” Simmons said. “The tonality enhances the beauty as well as the depth of impact. The hearer is more readily caught up in the sermon, as one may be caught up in the dramatic power of opera.”
C.L. Franklin was one of the first to encourage his daughter to go into any lane she wanted. It’s easy to forget, but Aretha Franklin made a daring move when she crossed over from gospel and decided to record R&B. During the early 1960s, gospel artists were often forced to stay in the pulpit. You can’t serve two masters, people said. When Sam Cooke switched from gospel to R&B, many fans were angry and felt betrayed.
The average preacher might have insisted his daughter stay in gospel. But not C.L. Frankin. He called her a “stone cold singer” who would infuse the black church into any song she performed.
“He himself lived in multiple worlds. He loved B.B. King. He loved Ray Charles. Jazz folks came constantly to his house,” says Salvatore.
Some say C.L. Franklin lived too deeply in multiple worlds. He separated from Franklin’s mother and never remarried. He had frequent dalliances with women. There were rumors of drug use, heavy drinking. He even once fathered a child with a teenage parishioner, says Simmons.
“He absolutely had a dark side,” she says. “The stories are everywhere about the amount of drinking he did, multiple relationships and certainly the underage parishioner he impregnated — that was his lowest point. It was horrific.”
Simmons believes some of that dark side came from how C.L. Franklin compensated for his rough upbringing. He was self-conscious about his lack of education, his “oppressive” upbringing in Mississippi, even his skin color, she said. The clothes, the flashy cars — it was like he was determined to never again be that poor black boy growing up in Mississippi.
“He had a lot to outrun,” she says. “How do you outrun being poor, not getting a college education, being dark skinned and looked down on by your own people? His trying to outrun some of that led to some of his excesses.”
They spoke to people from their ‘inners’
Chuck Rainey, a bass player who performed with Aretha Franklin, tells a story in The New Yorker about an unusual exchange he once had with the singer.
He said Franklin’s voice was so riveting that she would sometimes knock her band off the beat. He said she came to him one day, held his hand and told him:
“Chuck, don’t listen to me too intensely. I know what I do to people. I need for the bass to be where it is so I can sing.”
Franklin had what some people call “soul.” It’s that ineffable quality some singers have. They might not have the most melodious or technically perfect voice, but when they sing people feel it. Ray Charles captured that quality when, while describing Franklin’s singing in Salvatore’s book, he said, “She always sang from her inners.”
So did her father.
Go to YouTube and listen to C.L. Franklin’s sermons. You hear a man who knew how to preach from his “inners.” He didn’t just holler, he connected emotionally with people.
C.L. Franklin’s ability to connect wasn’t just charisma; it was craft. He worked for years on his preaching, refining sermons, listening to other preachers and creating an ongoing workshop in his home where he invited more educated preachers to critique his sermons.
Simmons says he was a master of using metaphors and relating messages to current events. He redefined sermons that had long been preached by other black pastors, such as “Dry Bones in the Valley.”
“He would tell you a story and he would sit you into that text,” says Walton, the Harvard professor. “And when you listen to it, it’s not enough to read it — you feel like you’re literally there.”
C.L. Franklin did for certain popular sermons what his daughter did for Otis Redding’s original version of “Respect”– she made it hers.
“When he did the ‘Dry Bones’ sermon, no one else really wanted to try to do the ‘Dry Bones’ sermon again,” Simmons says. “After you heard C.L.’s version, you didn’t really want to hear any other version if you are a fan of whooping.”
His sermons connected with his listeners so much that he became a recording star before his daughter. He recorded at least 70 albums of sermons that were sold in the 1950s and ’60s. Some are still sold on the Internet and at religious and denominational conferences today.
“In the late ’50s and ’60s, you could go into any record store in the black community across the country and buy C.L. Franklin records,” says Salvatore.
Despite his triumphal life, C.L. Franklin’s ending was tragic. One summer evening in 1979, a group of burglars tried to enter his home. He confronted one with a loaded gun he kept there. Shots were exchanged. He was wounded in his right knee, but another bullet ruptured an artery in his right groin. He lingered in a coma for five years before dying in 1984.
His voice lives on, though. Simmons says he is “the most imitated African-American preacher in history.”
“When it comes to the world of black preaching, all roads go back to C.L. Franklin,” says Walton.
And when it comes to the world of Aretha Franklin, all roads lead back to her father.
Walton says that when he delivered a benediction at the Harvard ceremony where Franklin was honored, she burst into tears on stage as he paid homage to her father.
“She was the ‘Queen of Soul’ to the world, and she was in so many ways. She had entertained presidents and popes and kings and queens,” he says. “But she was always very clear that she was proud to be the daughter of the Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin. She had no problem still being recognized that way.”