The Man with the Million-Dollar Voice
The Mighty but Divided Soul of C.L. Franklin
In some ways, Reverend C.L. Franklin is the real superstar in the family.
—Anthony Heilbut, The Gospel Sound
The little boy’s name was Clarence. His first memory of his father was of Willie Walker coming home from the war. His last was of Willie’s back. Goodbye for good. Clarence was three, maybe four. Nobody knew where Willie went. Or where he came from. He just showed up one day and began courting Rachel Pittman, whose family lived near Indianola, Mississippi, the Sunflower County seat. On January 22, 1915, Rachel gave birth to a boy. She named him Clarence, Clarence LaVaughn Walker.
Willie worked as a sharecropper until he was drafted to fight in the war. It’s thought he was stationed in France, where blacks were citizens. When he returned, Willie could not abide Mississippi, where ten blacks were lynched each year.
They had a hunting season on the rabbit.
If you shoot him you go to jail.
The season was always open on me.
Nobody needed no bail.
—Roebuck “Pops” Staples, “Down in Mississippi”
Left alone with two children (Louise arrived in 1916), Rachel remarried in 1919. Her new husband was Henry Franklin, a sharecropper from Doddsville, another Sunflower County town, twenty miles north of Indianola. Franklin adopted Rachel’s children. Now the boy had a different name, Clarence LaVaughn Franklin.
Sunflower County is near the center of the Mississippi Delta, an ellipse-shaped plain that runs 250 miles north–south, Memphis to Vicksburg, and holds some of the world’s most fertile soil. Along the Delta’s western flank and paralleling the great brown river run the 61 highway and the Illinois Central Railroad, side by side, the one reaching to Minnesota and beyond, the other to Chicago.
The Franklins’ cotton field ad-joined the railroad tracks. Picking or sowing, Clarence watched the Illinois Central’s famous Chicken Bone Special carry migrants north to the Promised Land. As he would recall:
Just across the railroad track was the 61 highway. And it was meaningful to me to see the trains coming from Memphis en route to New Orleans and Jackson. The people would be waving out of the windows at us in the field. And cars going down the highway with different license plates from New York and New Jersey and the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Connecticut, and wherever. It gave me a deep longing to someday see these places where the cars came from, where the trains came from, and where the people on the trains came from.
Out on Highway 61, heat waves hover over the blacktop. Now and then an alligator snapping turtle lumbers across the road. In the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Delta, blacks outnumbered whites three to one. Economically dirt-poor, the black population was culturally rich. A few miles north of Indianola lay the ten-thousand-acre Dockery plantation, home, to the extent that he had a home, of the rounder Charley Patton, the first great practitioner of the Mississippi Delta blues style.
The half decades before and after Patton’s death in 1934 were the golden era of the Delta blues, when Big Joe Williams, Rice Miller (the “second” Sonny Boy Williamson), Robert Johnson, Son House, and others plied the Delta and often rode the blinds clear out of it. The most restless traveler, young Robert Johnson, had more than a touch of genius. A guitar innovator and a genuine poet, Johnson represents folk music at its highest level.
Another great expression of Southern black folk culture was the sound of the church, both choir and preacher. Minister and bluesman excoriated one another. To the preacher, the blues singer was a hopeless reprobate; to the blues singer, the preacher was a hypocrite, a sinner man feigning righteousness. As a young man, Son House “churchified” and took steps toward the ministry. It didn’t take. De-churchified, he picked up a guitar and wrote several very funny swipes at the man of God, including his classic “Preachin’ Blues”:
I’m gonna get religion, gonna join the Baptist Church.
I’m gonna get religion, gonna join the Baptist Church.
I’m gonna be a Baptist preacher, so I won’t have to work.
Oh, and I had religion, Lord, this very day. Oh, and I had religion, Lord, this very day.
But the womens and whiskey, well, they would not let me pray.
The irony was that minister and blues singer drank from the same well. Beneath the surface, gospel music and the blues are kissing cousins. Before he was saved, Thomas A. Dorsey, the composer of gospel’s best-known song, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” was Georgia Tom, whorehouse piano player and the composer of such smutty blues as “It’s Tight Like That,” a seven-million-selling hit in 1928. Blues and gospel were “the same feeling, a grasping of the heart,” said the erstwhile Georgia Tom. “Blues is as important to a person feeling bad as ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ I’m not talking about popularity; I’m talking about inside the individual… When you cry out, that is something down there that should have come out a long time ago. Whether it’s blues or gospel, there is a vehicle that comes along maybe to take it away or push it away.”
Dorsey’s take on the matter notwithstanding, the cheek-to-cheek, Saturday-night-and-Sunday-morning similarity of the black folk tradition’s sacred and profane music made a number of people, including blues singers, nervous. “He’s got the blues he’s cryin’ sanctified,” complained bluesman Big Bill Broonzy about Ray Charles. “And I know that’s wrong. He should be singin’ in a church.”
Phonographs had been penetrating the Delta since the late teens, and the Franklins owned a windup floor-model Victrola. Clarence, who had singing talent, loved the blues; coming in from the fields at night, he listened to Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and others. He also liked the fire-and-brimstone preacher J. M. Gates, pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist in Atlanta, whose two hundred recorded sermons routinely outsold the best-selling blues ’78s.
Feeling the era’s northward tug, the Franklins left Sunflower County in 1925, but made it only fifteen miles north, to Cleveland, in Bolivar County. Clarence and his mother attended St. Peter’s Rock Missionary Baptist Church, and in 1929, fourteen-year-old Clarence was baptized in the Sunflower River. He never graduated from grade school but could read, and pored over his Bible every chance he got.
At sixteen, he was deeply affected by the commanding preaching of an eminent visitor to St. Peter’s Rock, Reverend Benjamin J. Perkins, president of the Mississippi branch of the three-million-member National Baptist Convention. Then and there, Clarence felt the call to preach. Working the fields, he preached to the sky, preached to the birds, preached to his mule. He had a vision. A plank on his wall at home caught fire and a voice called out, ordering him to preach the gospel. Within two years, the eighteen-year-old was a working Baptist preacher, if only a circuit rider, riding a Greyhound between communities that lacked their own minister.
In 1936, Clarence married Barbara Siggers, a nineteen-year-old from nearby Shelby, and adopted her infant son, Vaughn. Everyone agreed that Clarence Franklin, now twenty-one, was a fine young preacher. Blessed with tremendous energy, he was also highly ambitious, not only for ministerial success, but for knowledge. One of Clarence’s many later nicknames was “the Rabbi,” for his love of learning.
In 1937 or ’38, Rev. Perkins invited Clarence to guest-preach at Perkins’s First Bungalow Church in Memphis. Impressed with the young man, First Bungalow’s parishioners hired him—to Clarence’s disappointment, as a mere circuit rider. But in 1939, C.L., as he now wanted to be called, was offered his first full-time pastorship, at Memphis’s New Salem Baptist Church. Young Rev. Franklin had managed to get himself and his family out of Mississippi.
Between 1930 and 1940, the farm population of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas was halved as machines replaced workers. Memphis was swamped with newcomers, 70 percent of them African American. The city was now America’s blackest, with Negroes accounting for 40 percent of its three hundred thousand residents. Their expectations high, the migrants were in for a surprise. “You have a bunch of niggers teaching social equality,” said E. H. “Boss” Crump, ruler of the Memphis political machine from 1909 until his death, in 1954. “I am not going to stand for it. I’ve dealt with niggers all my life and I know how to treat ’em.”
New Salem Baptist was just off Beale Street, the hub of Negro America, “a place of smoking, red-hot syncopation,” wrote one Memphian. Beale and its environs teemed with shops, theaters, tap dancers, cocaine dealers, pimps, and whores.
Raffish or not, Memphis’s black population supported more than its share of distinguished religious men, including C.L.’s patron, Benjamin Perkins; W. H. Brewster, one of the great gospel composers and the pastor of East Trigg Baptist (where, in the early to mid-’50s, a good-looking white boy stood in the back, careful not to disturb anyone, listening raptly to the music); and another composer of gospel classics, Lucie Campbell.
C.L. didn’t do any composing, but as we already know, he was a fine singer. “Some things that you can’t say, you can sing,” he liked to tell his congregation. “Isn’t that so?” “Occasionally [C.L.] would sing in a huge, thrilling baritone,” writes gospel music authority Anthony Heilbut; “years later, Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy became road champ mimicking the Franklin roars.”
Barbara Franklin was an even better singer than her husband, according to a new friend of the family's who knew a bit about gospel music: Mahalia Jackson, who called Barbara “one of the really great gospel singers.” She never recorded, apparently content to stay in C.L.’s shadow and raise their children: Erma, born back in Shelby, Mississippi, in 1938, and three more, born in Memphis in rapid succession: Cecil, the oldest; Carolyn, the youngest; and in between, born on March 25, 1942, Aretha Louise.
C.L. was on his way up, his reputation spreading throughout the mid-South. “Preachers young and old studied Franklin’s sermons, imitating his pacing, his growls, and his cadence,” writes the historian Nick Salvatore in Singing in a Strange Land, his well-researched Franklin biography.
Around this time, C.L. was dubbed “King of the Young Whoopers,” an appellation that bears ex-plaining. In Memphis, Franklin immersed himself in the hoary African American preaching style known as “whooping.” The whooped sermon is divided in two, the first part intended to appeal to the congregation’s intellect, the second—the whoop proper—to its emotions. In a practice hearkening back to antebellum days, when the preacher was often illiterate, the modern whooping minister works without a text. Whooping, in other words, is another instance of a major black performance style born of deprivation: improvising.
Whooping is much older than our antebellum years—its origins lie centuries back, in West African expressive styles. “The whooped sermon’s emphasis on the sacred word as performed, as opposed to simply spoken or read, had roots deep in black oral traditions from the slave era that still echoed African influences,” says Salvatore.
The earliest written description of whooping, or something quite like it, comes to us from a British traveler, Sir Charles Lyell, who in 1846 visited a service at the First African Church in Savannah, Georgia. Fortunately for us, Lyell took notes, which indicate that what he heard was a version of “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” a century later C.L. Franklin’s most popular sermon.
Although many modern black churchgoers consider whooping a remnant of the bad old days, when preachers relied on melodrama to connect with uneducated parishioners, and others complain that it is more entertainment than religion, the practice has survived into the twenty-first century.
The whooped sermon usually begins with a Bible passage, from which the preacher takes the day’s theme. The sermon’s first half, usually a narrative, is delivered in a relaxed, conversational tone. C.L. had his own, trademark blend of cultivated and down-home.
Having given his audience an intellectual grasp of the sermon’s lesson, the preacher whoops it home. His voice rises in pitch, volume, and intensity to a hoarse chant that falls into a set rhythm and a single musical key. He is singing his words now—and groaning, howling, screaming them. Prowling the sanctuary (C.L. kept a handheld mike on the pulpit for such walk-arounds), whipping the members into a frenzy. Inevitably, some go into paroxysms, and ushers or white-suited nurses rush over to attend to them. Throughout the sermon, parishioners answer the minister with shouts, whipping him up. The practice of call-and-response, deeply rooted in black expressive culture, is vital to whooping, with congregation and preacher working to elicit each other’s deepest emotions and strongest responses.
Having delivered the Word, the minister calms back down, “amen”s the congregation, and the exhausting, cleansing ride is over.
Among twentieth-centurywhooping preachers, C.L. Franklin was one of the greatest—the greatest, many say. In any case, it’s only proper to provide a taste of an actual C.L. Franklin sermon (keeping in mind that a transcript is but a pale simulacrum of the spoken, sung, chanted, shouted, screamed—thing). I’ve truncated it, too, of course; an unabridged transcript would run for pages. So here is one of C.L. Franklin’s best-loved sermons, “What Must I Do to Be Saved.” The source is My Favorite Sermons, one of Franklin’s seventy-five albums.
We call your attention to the Book of Acts, the sixteenth chapter and the thirtieth verse. Let me read the twenty-ninth and thirtieth. “And he called for a light, and spring in and came trembling, fell down before Paul and Silas and broke them out, said, ‘Sirs, what must I do… to be saved?’”[The congregation is already murmuring, a few members shouting, “Tell it!”] A jailer addresses his prisoners: “Sirs, what must I do [Yes!] to be saved?” [Yes!]
Isn’t that an unusual inquiry for a jailer to be asking his prisoners? A subject of this kind, being as paradoxical as it would ordinarily appear—one would wonder what situations, what group of situations, came into play [Yes, that’s right!] to bring into focus a reversed thing such as this. [Oh! Mmm!] Ordinarily it would seem that the prisoner would be the one who is concerned about his deliverance. His salvation. His redemption from his situation. But on this occasion, the thing is in reverse. The jailer is inquiring of the prisoners, “What must I do… to be saved?” [Amen! That’s it!] This is indeed a striking question. A question such as this emanates from a confused heart! A frustrated mind! Questions such as this come from the mind and soul of a man who have reached out and have searched out! A man who needs love! A man who feel desperate! And who know no other way to turn! And no one else to whom he can go!
The members are already murmuring, a few shouting, “That’s right! Amen! Tell it!” C.L.’s rich baritone grows louder and turns hoarse. The members know what’s coming. They’ve heard C.L. whoop a hundred times, and every time feels new.
The preacher divides his sentences into four- and five-word lines—blank verse, chanted to a rhythmic beat and in a single key, and punctuated every few lines by howls, emphysemic-sounding gasps, and souped-up hums. We’re in the eye of the whoop. C.L. interrupts his chanted verse every few lines to scream like a chain saw. (C.L. was up there with the world-class screamers: Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, and James Brown.) C.L.’s shouted sermonizing shows how porous is the line between sacred and profane, preacher and bluesman. Soul man, man of God, what real difference does genre make?
C.L.’s voice suddenly drops steeply in volume. As strong as he is, exhaustion is setting in:
As I close tonight,
if you’re inquiring,
“What must I do?”
Ask the Lord
to help you mmmm.
Ask the Lord
to guide you—
Reaching deep inside, C.L. pulls out a few final screams, lowering their volume and intensity from a deafening racket to speaking level:
Ask the Lord!
He’s able to help you tonight!
Reason I know about it,
in my own confusion
I have gone to the Lord so many times
and I want you to know it’s always help me.
He’s always done things for me.
Never turned his back on me.
Never is too early.
Never is too late.
And backing away from the pulpit to a scattering of “amen”s, C.L. winds it up until next Sunday.
Because of the increasing prestige C.L. brought their church, New Salem’s members chose to overlook a painful and increasingly obvious fact: their beloved minister was no saint. In this he was not so unique—as we’ve seen, preachers’ entanglements with female parishioners made them the butt of sardonic humor. New Salem’s parishioners did their best to excuse him. “He’s only a man,” they said. In 1940, C.L. fathered a child with a thirteen-year-old parishioner. The notion of the strapping young pastor forcing himself on a young girl finally angered more than just a few New Salemites, as did the reverend’s failure to address the congregation about his disturbing lack of self-control. He refused as well to acknowledge his child, waiting a decade to beg from the pulpit for divine forgiveness—yet in a highly general way, with no allusions to the miscreant act he would never be able to sweep away.
Oh Lord, Lord, when I go back through my life I’m doing wrong all the time. I bow down and tell you, “Lord, would you give me strength to overcome my weaknesses?”
When the Franklins left Memphis in 1944, more than a few New Salem congregants were relieved.
In 1945, during a brief tenure at Friendship Baptist in Buffalo, New York, C.L. was invited to address black America’s largest religious gathering, the annual National Baptist Convention. C.L.’s sermon was a de facto audition for a plum job, the pastorship of Detroit’s 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist.
C.L. chose a difficult, abstract subject, “Immortality,” considered an audacious choice for a young, still-inexperienced preacher. The elders doubted that this audacious neophyte could bring it off. Clearly, they whispered, this Franklin was in for years of embarrassment.
But when C.L. brought his sermon home with one of his mighty whoops—nothing out of the ordinary, nothing more than what he pulled off every Sunday—the most skeptical elders were virtually stunned.
“The biggest surprise of all,” wrote Rev. J. Pius Barbour, an authority on Afro-Baptist sermonizing, in the National Baptist Voice, “was the sermon of C.L. Franklin. He almost paralyzed the convention with logic and history and thought. For twenty minutes he preached as if he were in Harvard Chapel, and just as the people were gasping at this profound treatment of the subject, he switched gears and threw on that Mississippi whoop and broke up the Convention. There is no doubt about it… He is a perfect mixture of profound thought and emotional power.”
C.L. all but walked out of the convention with the New Bethel job, and six months later, after giving a trial sermon, he received a formal offer. The Franklins headed for Detroit.
In 1910, Detroit’s African American population was under six thousand. By 1930, the final year of the first Great Migration, it had jumped to one hundred and twenty thousand. Readily finding work in the booming automobile industry, protected by an institution new to them—the union—Southern black migrants made good money for the first time in their lives.
On the other hand, Detroit was deeply segregated, “the largest Southern city in the United States,” said the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s biggest black newspaper.
The stream of newcomers headed in large part for the neighborhood known as Paradise Valley. Hastings Street, the Valley’s main concourse, jumped all day, all night, all week. “Everything you wanted was on that street. / Everything you didn’t want was on that street,” sang the bluesman John Lee Hooker, like his audience, a Delta migrant.
New Bethel Baptist, the Franklins were surprised to find, was on Hastings, this street of iniquity. C.L. was set on installing his family in middle-class environs, so the church paid for an imposing six-bedroom near mansion on Boston Boulevard, a prosperous black community two miles from the Valley.
C.L. made sure that a piano arrived promptly. Daughters Erma and Carolyn were talented, but the middle daughter, whom everybody knew was C.L.’s favorite, was beyond merely talented. She was playing piano at five and soloing in New Bethel’s choir at nine. At fourteen, she recorded an album in the church, Songs of Faith. Deeply soulful and technically astonishing, it only occasionally sounds like the work of an early teenager. Songs of Faith was the first album by—you know who—C.L. Franklin’s daughter Aretha.
Aretha Franklin grew up “lonely and repressed, with little apparent emotional outlet save for the church,” writes the music historian Peter Guralnick. The future Supreme Mary Wilson, who lived near the Franklins and whose family attended New Bethel, disagrees. Aretha and Mary were roller-skating pals, and down at the Arcadia Rink, Aretha “would whiz by,” remembers Mary. “She didn’t just skate, she bopped.”
If Aretha did grow up unhappy, her relationship with C.L. would have played a major role. The favorite child bore the weight of a demanding father’s expectations and constant, intrusive attention. Aretha craved C.L.’s approval. “[She]… would do anything to please [her father],” said a later friend. It was far from a healthy relationship. But as a performer, Aretha couldn’t have asked for a better teacher and model than the Rabbi. The tonal variety, for instance, that he wrung from his big voice found an echo in Aretha’s virtuosic shading. No less an authority than Ray Charles saw little difference between the two Franklins’ styles. “She’s got her father’s feeling and passion,” said Brother Ray. “When C.L. Franklin, one of the last great preachers, delivers a sermon, he builds his case so beautifully you can’t help but see the light. Same when Aretha sings.”
C.L. was advancing in all directions. “The Man with the Million-Dollar Voice,” a sobriquet he had recently acquired, had a remarkable ability to cross lines—economic, religious, political—attracting lawyers, business owners, and other members of Detroit’s black elite—while cultivating friendships with hookers, drug dealers, jazz musicians, and other demimondaines.
C.L. never said no to a walk on the wild side. A consistent substance abuser, he was arrested late in life for marijuana possession and drunken driving. And if “raising money in church is an art,” as he liked to say, C.L. was a skilled con artist, pocketing a healthy percentage of the donations he solicited from the pulpit. In 1967, he would be convicted of tax evasion and ordered to pay $25,000, or $174,000 today.
Yet when New Bethel’s pastor was only thirty-five, his parishioners voted him lifetime tenure. If some were dismayed by his behavior, most of them agreed that this was a gifted and generous man. Fresh arrivals in overalls, for instance, overwhelmed by the big city, were always welcome at New Bethel, even at the aristocratic Franklin residence on Boston Boulevard. C.L. fed them and worked the phone: “Listen, I got some people here need a place to stay!”
In 1948, most likely fed up with C.L.’s womanizing, Barbara Franklin suddenly left her family and went back to Buffalo, where her mother lived. The urge for going must have been strong; Barbara was by all accounts a devoted mother. Her replacements were Rachel and Henry, C.L.’s parents, and a revolving door of “aunts”: housekeepers, occasionally Miss Mahalia and an-other gospel superstar, Clara Ward, and any number of C.L.’s squeezes. In an era when a divorced mother routinely received custody, Barbara never even applied for a divorce, a likely indication of C.L.’s power in the family.
Handsome and suave, a Motor City celeb, C.L. was rarely rejected by any of the many ladies he pursued. “There is only one Lord Jesus in my life and that’s you,” wrote an admirer. “My love for you is now and forever, my darling Frank,” wrote another (“Frank” was another of C.L.’s multiplying nicknames).
The preacher preferred brief liaisons to sustained—he didn’t want a soul mate, he wanted adulation. Still, even C.L. Franklin occasionally failed to please a lady. He spent so much time with the mother of the future poet Al Young that the boy asked his mom if she and the Reverend were engaged. “All right, you asked, so I’ll tell you,” she said. “You’re old enough now. I couldn’t marry anybody like that. He spends Saturday night with me. Then, at the crack of dawn, he would hop out of bed, shove his little bottle of whiskey in his coat jacket and say, ‘Oh, Mary, I have to preach.’ Al, I just couldn’t marry anybody like that.”
“The Man with the Million-Dollar Voice” was also the “Jitterbug Preacher,” no true man of God, it was bruited, but a libertine and a publicity hound. The mistrust extended to C.L.’s personal style, his silk double-breasted suits, alligator shoes, diamond stickpins, flashy rings, expensive watches, and conked hair. (The brilliantined conk, although still worn by many celebrities—Nat “King” Cole, Sugar Ray Robinson, Chuck Berry, a young Sam Cooke—was considered déclassé by middle-class blacks, a gangster look. The young Malcolm X, for instance, a drug dealer and thief known as “Detroit Red,” was proud of his reddish conk.)
One thinks back to a teenaged Clarence behind his mule, watching the automobiles whiz past with their Northern plates and yearning to escape the Delta. “My greatest personal achievement,” he would later say, “is that I had the guts and the initiative to extricate myself from a life that led nowhere.” Was the ministry just a means of advancement, of satisfying a poor boy’s thirst for prestige? Listening to his sermons, one can’t avoid the conclusion that C.L. was a believer. A hustler devoted to spreading the word of the Lord.
Compassionate but hardened, cosmeticized yet mule-real, a forty-one-year-old Franklin comes through perhaps more vividly than anywhere else in the impressions, recalled long afterward, of a sixteen-year-old named Charlie Thompson. Charlie met C.L. in the boy’s hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, while the great man was resting up before a sermon.
C.L., recalled Charlie, “had an elegant appearance” with something “regal about him.” He carried himself with a “certain little strut,” ramrod straight, but with rhythm to his walk. Charlie could hardly believe the respect and consideration Franklin gave him. “He would look you right in your eye with a smile. He gave you his total attention.”
In 1953, eager to be heard outside of New Bethel’s walls, C.L. arranged for WJLB, Detroit’s top black radio station, to broadcast his sermons. Often the entire Sunday-night service was aired, a holy gala featuring a narrator, the massive choir featuring half a dozen soloists, and closing the show, of course, the Man with the Million-Dollar Voice.
The program was an immediate hit. “I started preaching,” C.L. boasted, “and the people seemed as it were to come out of the ground.”
The crowds got so big that “people would be standing in the streets just to hear him preach,” recalled a New Bethel deacon, and the police had to reroute traffic. New Bethel’s vestibule was packed with people waiting for “Big Daddy” to pull up in his El Dorado and elbow his way to the pulpit, pausing to crack a few jokes. Other ministers rescheduled services so they could hightail it down to New Bethel.
The broadcast turned a profit, which C.L. pocketed. When parishioners grumbled that the money should be coming to the church, C.L. shrugged. The complaints “didn’t move me at all,” he said. According to Sylvia Penn, her good friend could turn nasty in an instant.
C.L.’s initial thought had been to use radio to boost church attendance, but the show got such an enthusiastic response that he bought time on a Memphis station whose signal spanned the mid-South. Then Nashville’s fifty-thousand-watt WLAC, which reached a thousand miles during the day and across the U.S.A. at night, picked the program up.
C.L. was a nationwide celebrity. A young gospel singer named James Brown tuned in from Augusta, Georgia; Ruth Brown, “Miss Rhythm,” a star on the R&B circuit, listened on the tour bus; and in Greenville, South Carolina, a three-sport high-school athlete named Jesse Jackson tuned in, too. A few scattered Koreans, Icelanders, and Australians claimed to be catching C.L.
A Hastings Street record-store owner named Joe Von Battle, who owned some primitive recording gear, made a deal with Franklin to record and sell the sermons. Von Battle couldn’t press enough to meet demand, so C.L. signed with Chess, America’s top R&B and blues label, the home of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Howlin’ Wolf. Before long, several dozen C.L. Franklin sermons were available. As always, the Reverend made sure that his profits came straight to him.
The Franklin children got awful news in 1952. Barbara, with whom C.L. had allowed the kids to spend summers, and who had built herself a stable and productive life in Buffalo, had suffered a fatal heart attack. She was only thirty-four. This second blow to her children was obviously many times more devastating than Barbara’s departure from Detroit. After her death, “the whole family wanted for love,” Mahalia said. C.L. did not attend his wife’s funeral.
A single father, the leader of a big congregation, a radio and recording star—C.L.’s multiple roles demanded tremendous energy. Still, C.L. took on one more challenge, which, from the mid-1950s to the mid-’60s, occupied as much of his time as all of his other activities combined.
Gospel, black America’s religious folk music, enjoyed its creative and popular peak between 1940 and 1960. Even then, gospel was beyond white America’s ken. The one exception was Mahalia, who had her own program on CBS in 1954. Every other gospel artist was shut out of the mainstream: Roberta Martin, Sallie Martin, the onetime blues star Thomas A. Dorsey, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Golden Gate Quartet, the Soul Stirrers (with their superstar lead singer, Sam Cook—he had yet to add the e to his surname and go pop), Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, featuring Marion Williams (who would win a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1993, too late for Williams to put to use—she died in 1994), and Ward herself, Aretha’s stylistic model and C.L.’s long-suffering, ill-used girlfriend.
Even in gospel’s golden years, few if any of its recording artists earned more than a fraction of what their white counterparts took in. To make a living, they had to hit the road, and in the 1930s and ’40s, the touring gospel troupe became a fixture of black life. In the early 1950s, injecting the gospel circuit with something novel, C.L. became gospel’s first touring preacher.
He hit the highway in 1953. After delivering his sermon at any number of cross-country venues, C.L. jumped into a Cadillac and sped to the next gig. Before long, he was headlining shows featuring gospel’s biggest stars, earning (and keeping, of course) four thousand dollars per sermon—an extraordinary sum for a live appearance in the early and mid-1950s.
In 1953, C.L. put his own troupe on the road, and for a dozen years, C.L. Franklin’s Gospel Caravan plied the nation’s highways and back roads, playing churches, radio, theaters, fairs, gospel conventions, anywhere they were paid. The Caravan almost always featured top stars, and some stars-to-be, fourteen-year-old Aretha, chiefly.
A typical Caravan tour lasted two weeks. You might drive fourteen hours nonstop to make the show (eventually C.L. flew, abandoning the others to bypass one Jim Crow restaurant after another, finally, in desperation, leaving the main road to find a terrible meal). Hotels were segregated, too, which had its benefits, chiefly, great partying. “When it came to partying,” said R&B star Etta James, “the gospel gang could swing all night,” especially the music’s gays and bisexuals, such as Alex Bradford, “the Little Richard of Gospel” and “the Singing Rage of the Gospel Age,” perhaps the music’s most abandoned satyr.
Most likely to the displeasure of the New Bethel congregation, C.L. was a big jazz fan, and a number of jazz stars were big C.L. fans. When Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington were in town, they came to New Bethel sermons and then cabbed it to Frank’s to jam until the wee hours with Oscar Peterson and Nat “King” Cole. One afternoon, Aretha, an eager young piano student, came home from school to hear what she recalled as “an especially brilliant style of music” being played on the living-room piano. It was Art Tatum, the man with the greatest jazz piano technique of his day, probably of all days.
Aretha’s daddy loved the blues, too—it was, after all, the first music he’d heard. B. B. King, who shared a hometown with Franklin—Sunflower County’s Indianola—called C.L. “my main minister.” Whenever America’s greatest bluesman was in Detroit, he made it a point “to get myself to New Bethel on Sunday mornings.” “[C.L.] spoke simply and beautifully,” King recalled, “telling stories in hypnotic cadences that called forth the power of Scripture. His sermons were musical, moving with the rhythms of his emotions, building to a climax, and leaving you renewed. He also injected strong messages about racial pride. Listening to Reverend Franklin’s messages was like listening to a good song. You felt hope.” When B.B. remarried, in 1958, he asked Franklin to preside.
At eighteen, already a mother of two, Aretha followed her crossover dreams into pop. New Salem’s congregants were disturbed. “You can’t serve two masters!” declared one, speaking for the rest. C.L. stubbornly defended his daughter’s decision. Aretha was “switching to the popular field with my permission,” he sternly told his parishioners, refusing to “frown upon popular or jazz music. Good Christian people can be involved in the popular field.”
And as mercurial as he was, C.L. never wavered in his support of Aretha. For her sake, moreover, he was willing to face down an angry congregation again and again. Years later, still obliged to support her “blasphemy,” C.L. said, “Aretha is just a stone singer. If you want to know the truth, she has never left the church.”
Aretha agreed. “My heart is still there in gospel music,” she told a Time reporter during her heady late-’60s rise to pop superstardom.
The good people of New Bethel needn’t have fretted. Aretha was abandoning neither her birthright nor them, her first audience. Since going pop, she has released two gospel albums, each twice the usual length: Amazing Grace (1972), the best-selling gospel album of all time (with a rousing sermon by none other than C.L.), and One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (1987), recorded in New Bethel with Rev. Jesse Jackson and Mavis Staples on hand.
As most likely never occurred to Aretha’s father, the argument of his adulthood between gospel music and pop was merely a replay of the schism that had exercised inhabitants of the Mississippi Delta during his boyhood, the quarrel between churchman and bluesman, between Satan and the Lord. Young Clarence had embodied this conflict, equally devoted to his Baptist faith and to Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton, doomed to hell on account of their music.
Forty years later, with his blessing (as it were) of Aretha’s decision plus his love of unholy jazz and still-unholier blues, Franklin was, with full enthusiasm, if not full clarity, deepening his lifelong entanglement in the struggle between sacred and profane music.
Yet as we’ve seen again and again, this so-called antagonism is just surface noise obscuring a deeper identity. The two Franklins, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Thomas A. Dorsey, the Staples Singers, Joe Tex, Solomon Burke, and even Charley Patton, who wrote and recorded a number of religious songs, were all much more living, walking syntheses than they were cloven spirits.
Music was the one realm where C.L. managed to heal his self-alienation, reshaping a presumably fundamental opposition into a seamless unity. When the R&B singer Bobby “Blue” Bland lost his scream, he studied his friend C.L.’s recording of “The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest,” finally lifting his trademark “squall,” a distinctive (some say revolting) snort, from C.L.’s whoop. Crafting, that is, an R&B-style vocal effect from the Reverend’s sermonizing.
But that was it for C.L.’s self-integration. His basic inner flaw, lying far deeper than music, was the ultimate self-opposition: the spirit versus the flesh, in all of its manifestations. A permanent duality marked this man: disciple of God, belittling earthly rewards, and wealthy burgher living high off the hog. Source of moral strength for a devoted following, and hustling slick. Pledged to monogamy, and famously promiscuous.
C.L. Franklin was a mighty but divided soul.
Given his status in Detroit’s African American community, it was inevitable that Franklin would involve himself in politics. In 1955, in the wake of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till’s murder, in Leflore County, Mississippi (which adjoins Sunflower), he wrote an open letter to the NAACP, arguing that it was out of touch with everyday black people. Two years later, when black members of the United Auto Workers formed a caucus, C.L. publicly supported them.
His fellow ministers began to complain that he was spending too much time in public affairs. He became Martin Luther King’s ally, favorite preacher, friend (“Martin loved C.L.,” said one observer), and, especially as events closed in on King, confidante. One Sunday evening, after giving the guest sermon at New Bethel, King sat in C.L.’s basement and prophetically told his friend, “Frank, I will never live to see forty.” In June 1963, C.L. organized a march up Detroit’s main thoroughfare, Woodward Avenue; King was the keynote speaker. With 125,000 to 200,000 marchers, it was America’s largest civil rights demonstration (although it was surpassed a mere two months later by the March on Washington).
Taking the podium in Detroit, King thanked “my good friend, the Reverend C.L. Franklin,” who, in a pre-march interview, showed his growing militancy and his impatience with Detroit’s politics-as-usual ethos. The fundamental, deeply submerged roots of the 1943 riot were still present, argued Franklin. “We comprise nearly thirty percent of the population, but seventy percent of us live in substandard housing. Our demonstration will serve as a warning to the city that what has transpired in the past is no longer acceptable to the Negro community. We want complete amelioration of all injustices. This is a new leadership.”
C.L.’s political stance was complicated. A firm believer in King’s doctrine of nonviolent integration, he was nonetheless extremely cautious, working in the background and generally avoiding public statements. His reticence bothered the city’s young, militant leaders. If Franklin could “avoid being boxed in by the old-guard leaders,” argued an up-and-coming radical clergyman, “we may see a complete change in the Detroit picture, and soon.”
King’s assassination put Detroit’s civil rights movement all but out of business, replaced by more and more calls for black power, separatism, and, if necessary, violence. Almost two generations older than the new militants, with his tailored three-piece suits and conked hair, Franklin sounded and looked out of touch.
Yet his friend’s murder was already turning Franklin’s gradualism to anger. He refused to condemn the separatists; their struggle was his, he said publicly. In March 1969, he allowed the militant Republic of New Africa to hold a conference at New Bethel. The police turned out, the Republic members locked themselves inside the church, and one of the policemen was shot dead. The police opened fire into New Bethel. Amazingly, no one inside was killed or wounded, but parts of the church were shot up.
C.L. and his deacon inspected the damage. “Oh my God,” Deacon Shelby moaned. “Oh my God! They tore up our church!”
“They tore up our church!” mimicked C.L. “Shelby, we are in the throes of a revolution, a social revolution. Some people have lost their lives. And we have lost a little glass. So I think we got out cheap.”
Out of touch no longer, C.L. knew just where things stood in America in 1969. That was as far as he would go. After the incident at New Bethel, he withdrew from politics.
Long before 1969, C.L.’s nonstop activity had begun to affect his health. Preaching his strenuous whoop every Sunday, sometimes twice; crisscrossing America with his Gospel Caravan; immersing himself in Detroit politics; and always partying with enthusiasm—all of these, pursued simultaneously, aged C.L. before his time. In 1965, he took the Caravan off the road. He preached for another fourteen years, until he was sixty-four. His children long grown, he rattled around his big house (he had moved his family in 1958 to an imposing home in a fancy neighborhood), cooking for himself.
In the early morning hours of June 10, 1979, C.L. was watching television in his bedroom when burglars, having already made several unsuccessful attempts in the neighborhood, were attracted by C.L.’s stained-glass windows. As they surrounded the house, C.L. heard a noise and picked up the pistol he kept nearby. One of the burglars climbed through a hallway window and crept toward the bedroom. C.L. was waiting for him, and got off two shots, which missed. Returning C.L.’s fire, the burglar did not miss. C.L. took two bullets, in the right knee and the groin. The thieves ran, and C.L. fainted, losing blood badly, lying unconscious. Hearing the shots, neighbors arrived, found C.L., and called an ambulance. At the hospital, the doctors on duty had quickly decided that the case was hopeless, when an unidentified man shouted that this was Aretha Franklin’s father; they couldn’t let him die. Jumping back to work, the doctors managed to resuscitate C.L., but not for long. He went into a coma from which he never emerged.
C.L. lay unconscious for five years. He died on July 27, 1984. At the funeral service, held at New Bethel, the first speaker was Rev. Jesse Jackson, fresh from his presidential campaign. Franklin had given Jackson’s ordination sermon in 1968, and even before that, he had invited Jackson, a seminary student, to guest-preach at New Bethel.
“Did not our ears perk up for years before we had a television,” Jackson asked, “if we could just hear WLAC, Nashville, Tennessee, on a Sunday night? C.L. Franklin was born in 1915, fifty years after slavery and fifty years before we had the right to vote. He was born in poverty; poverty could not stop him. He was born in segregation. It was illegal for a black man to get an education. But when God wants a flower to bloom, no drought can stop it. When the eagle stirred its nest, the flower did blossom.”
During the service, hearses, limousines, and private cars stretched for twenty blocks. On the slow drive to the cemetery, ten thousand people lined Linwood Avenue. It was the biggest funeral Detroit had ever seen.
What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor