Sample text for Aretha : from these roots / Aretha Franklin and David Ritz.
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The biggest heartthrob of my teen years, though, wasn't to be found in the roller rink or the halls of Hutchins Junior High. He was to be found in church. He was a singer and a star, one of the finest brothers ever to grace New Bethel. When I first saw him, all I could do was sigh; my unspoken response as I looked back over my shoulder was, Oh my God--who is that?
When I saw him and his brother L.C. coming down the aisle for that evening's program, I got happy long before the singing started.
I'm talking about Sam Cooke.
The Soul Stirrer
It must have been around 1955 or '56. Daddy was backing the presidential candidacy of Governor Adlai Stevenson. Daddy was a staunch, lifelong Democrat, as am I. But back then, when I was a girl growing up on the North End of Detroit, politics were way over my head, while music hit me right at home.
I loved the secular music played by Rocking with Leroy--Little Willie John, the Flamingos, the Moonglows, and the Spaniels. But it was at Daddy's church that another sound and sight really rocked my world. It was during one of the gospel programs at New Bethel that I was introduced to the Soul Stirrers. One Stirrer stirred me more than the rest.
Some men can sing, charm, and shine; some are easy with their good looks, others radiate confidence. Sam had all of this and more--the personality of a prince and a voice to match. He was one in a million. Yet for all his abundant talent, he exuded simple humility, the sign of a great person. He treated everyone with respect. His manners were impeccable. Sam was in a class by himself.
I had heard the Soul Stirrers, on record and the radio, before that evening I saw them in church. Male quartets were a major part of the golden age of gospel. The great groups like the Swan Silvertones produced great lead singers like Claude Jeter, who, along with Ira Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds and Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales, were monuments of pure gospel power. Beyond the enormity of their voices and the mastery of their technique, the groups they led had a new and spirited style. Rather than robes, the men might wear matching green or blue or even gold suits. They had their own kind of choreographed steps. They were servants of God, to be sure, but they were also showmen.
Among the great groups of gospel, the women, by contrast, wore lavishly colorful robes and sometimes dress suits, like Ruth "Baby Sister" Davis of the Davis Sisters--Jackie, Audrey, Alfreda, and Curtis Dublin--a very powerful and spirit-filled group, and Dot Love and the Gospel Harmonettes, whom I particularly liked. I also considered Jackie Verdell of the Davis Sisters one of the best and most underrated female soul singers of all time. It was through Jackie that I learned the expression "Girl, you peed tonight"--meaning you were dynamite. Several nights Jackie sang so hard she literally had a spot or two on her robe from peeing. Singing far too hard, I also peed here and there in the early days; I quickly realized no one should sing that hard.
Sam Cooke never sang too hard. He sang hard occasionally, though, and when he did you were in for the best time of your life. Later, of course, Sam would become a major crossover star in the world of pop. But to hear him during his gospel days was a special thrill. His biggest hits were "Nearer to Thee," "Wonderful," and "Touch the Hem of His Garment." As I mentioned, I established myself by singing my first solo in church, "Jesus Be a Fence Around Me," because I loved the Soul Stirrers' version so much.
Sam was love on first hearing, love at first sight. That Sunday evening he and L.C. were outfitted in dark-brown-and-blue supersharp trench coats that had a foreign intrigue about them.
Sam was certainly an inspiration to me. I was so influenced by him that Daddy told me to stop emulating Sam and instead express my own heart and soul. I'm so thankful today for my father's advice.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Franklin, Aretha, Soul musicians United States Biography