3/28/13 - teenage sensation aretha franklin

In today's encore selection - the black neighborhoods of Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s were teeming with teenaged musical talent—Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams and others. Most passed through the doors of the 4,500 seat New Bethel Baptist Church, pastored by the "flashy bon vivant" Reverend C.L. Franklin—so high-profile that he merited mention in Time magazine. In the decades leading up to the 1950s, more blacks from the South had poured into Detroit—filling churches like Reverend Franklin's—than any other Northern city, seeking the solid-paying jobs of the automobile industry. The young singing star of Reverend Franklin's church, a touring gospel star by the time she was fourteen and an object of fascination for teens in the neighborhood, was his daughter Aretha:

"While Aretha was discovering her vocal capacities on the altar of the New Bethel Baptist Church, the surrounding Detroit neighborhood was humming with music of all sorts. Otis Williams recalls hearing wonderful things about that little Franklin girl who had people in awe of her voice when she sang on Sundays. In 1964, Williams became world-famous as one of the Temptations. A skinny little neighborhood girl named Diane Ross joined two school friends, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, and together they became the Supremes. (When she became famous, Ross changed her name from Diane to Diana.) Friends of the Franklins, the Robinsons, had a little boy named William, and he was interested in becoming a pop singer. Everyone called William by his nickname, 'Smokey.' ...

"According to Smokey Robinson, 'When Aretha was a child she could go to the piano and play—nearly like she plays now! None of the rest of us could just go sit down and play the piano and sing like that!'

"Aretha remembers all of these singing stars as kids in the neighborhood with little more than their dreams and their vocal talent. 'I didn't really know Diana,' she reminisces. 'On my way home, I would see her from time to time. She was screaming off the back porch one night at somebody, and I said, 'Oh, that's that Diane Ross girl.' Smokey and I—our families had been friends going back till I was nine, ten years old. Smokey would come over with his group [The Miracles] to rehearse. Erma and I used to love the Flamingos. We did 'I Only Have Eyes for You.' We knew all the Flamingos' dance routines, so when Smokey was trying to put something together for the Miracles, we showed him what we knew. That was probably one of their first bits of choreography. And we did it gratis!"

"Music industry executive Billy Davis distinctly remembers that era in Detroit. 'In hindsight, there certainly was a lot of young talent who was inspired by each other,' he recalls, 'and inspired by groups like the Dominoes, the Four Buddies, Ruth Brown, the Ravens, and groups who gained their popularity in the mid-fifties. Independent record labels began to spring up, because all this talent was there. It was easy to put out a record in those days, and very cheap. In 1956, with $500 you could record it, press it, and take it around to your local stations and get it played. Within two or three weeks you might have yourself a hit. It was very active and alive and inspiring. You could discover a talent one day, have them in the studio within a week, and have a record out and on the air within two weeks. It was an exciting time in Detroit.'

"Before Motown Records was founded, and made million-selling stars out of the Miracles, the Supremes, and the Temptations, the local musical marvel was clearly Aretha Franklin. Don Davis, who grew up to own a recording studio in Detroit called United Sound ... remembers those days, when all eyes were on teenage Aretha. 'We spent an awful lot of time as kids in Reverend Franklin's church,' says Don. 'Those Sunday nights, when he would finish preaching, we would listen to little Aretha up on-stage, and she'd turn the whole church on its cheek. Man, we'd look forward to that!' "


Mark Bego


Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul




Copyright 1989, 2001, 2012 by Mark Bego


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