Heavenly Voices

Good morning. It’s Friday, August 17. Fifty-eight years ago today, a slender 18-year-old preacher’s kid from Detroit was trying her hand at pop singing in Columbia Records’ 30th Street studios in New York. This wasn’t Aretha Franklin’s first foray into professional music. At 14, she’d released an album of gospel songs, including “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” a favorite hymn of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

As her teenage years progressed and the 1950s became the 1960s, Aretha Franklin’s musical interests expanded as Sam Cooke and other artists helped fuse gospel music, jazz, and rhythm and blues into a new American sound.

Her first name was in itself memorable, but it was that voice that prompted famed Columbia Records label executive and talent scout John Hammond to describe Franklin as “the best natural singer I’d heard since Billie Holiday.”

Yet, Columbia execs could never quite figure out how to harness this great voice, or maybe a better way of saying it is that they couldn’t quite unharness the natural talent that went with the voice. Aretha Franklin released nine albums for Columbia over the next seven years, but none of them really took off. In 1967, she went to Atlantic Records, however, where she immediately began cranking out Top 10 hits.

One of them was a reinterpretation of Otis Redding song. You know it well.

“Aretha’s inspired take on Otis Redding’s ‘Respect,'” said music writer Lou Papineau, “was a rallying cry and a revelation.”

That was an interesting choice of words, “revelation”.

Aretha Franklin is remembered this morning, and rightly so, as the “Queen of Soul.” But when she came along another black singer was known as the “Queen of Gospel Music.” The other “queen” was Mahalia Jackson, and her legacy remind us of the indispensable role music played in the civil rights movement.

The energy of that movement came from Protestant churches, mainly those American church with black majority membership, and wherever those congregations gathered — in the Deep South or at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church where Aretha’s father, C.L. Jackson, was the pastor — music galvanized the faithful into seeking righteousness not just in heaven but here on Earth.

Mahalia Jackson often accompanied Martin Luther King in his ministry. She was there on the National Mall in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963 for the “I Have a Dream Speech” — and had a role in it. It was Jackson who shouted to King as he took the podium, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”
This clip is from a church in Chicago in the mid-1960s where she leads the congregation in “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,” a 19th-century gospel spiritual sung by slaves. “I think I can say concerning this great gospel singer in our midst — our dear friend, my great friend Mahalia Jackson — that a voice like this comes only once in a millennium,” King said.

A nice compliment, but Jesus said there are many rooms in heaven, which suggests there are many wonderful voices there, too. King often asked Jackson to sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at his rallies. This song, performed by Aretha Franklin on her first album, was written by Thomas A. Dorsey, “the father of black gospel music.” King loved it so much, he also asked Jackson to sing it at his funeral if he proceeded her to the promised land. Moments before he was martyred, King implored saxophonist Ben Branch to play it “real pretty” at their next rally.

Jackson did indeed sing “Precious Lord” at the Rev. King’s funeral, and Aretha Franklin performed it at a memorial service for King. She sang it at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral, too. I’ve been playing it all morning, and hope someone sings it, or one of her other gospel songs, at Aretha Franklin’s own funeral.

If you don’t know the hymn, it starts, and ends with this verse:

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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