The passing of legendary artist Aretha Franklin has elicited an outpouring of praise from around the world, including in both mainstream and music-centered journalism outlets. Everyone from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork, the Detroit Free Press and Waco’s own Tribune-Herald have paid tribute to the “Queen of Soul” since her death from pancreatic cancer last week at the age of 76. Baylor’s own Bob Darden, the inspiration behind our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project (BGMRP), offered his reflections on Aretha’s legacy in two major pieces featured in Christianity Today and Vox.
“Aretha Franklin matters in a way that few artists have ever mattered and fewer still may ever matter again,” Darden told me via email. “In my opinion, she uniquely combined the sacred and the profane and thus made music that spoke to all people.”
For the BGMRP team working with the digital collection from within the University Libraries, the connection between Franklin and the project is both specific and historic: Aretha was the daughter of the Reverend C.L. Franklin, a man associated both with the BGMRP and its spin-off, the Black Preaching Project. While Aretha’s gospel recordings in the collection number fewer than ten, her father has a larger presence with 26 recordings digitized and included in the collection.
Rev. Franklin’s long career and importance to the black church shaped Aretha’s early life and, later, her legacy. Aretha “was a child of the black church, steeped in the Baptist sermons of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, mentored by Clara Ward, and taught piano by the Rev. James Cleveland,” Darden said. “She knew all of the old hymns and spirituals. And more than once, she stopped her concerts to preach to the adoring crowds of mostly white faces.”
Her fans … knew that sometimes you need Sunday morning to forgive Saturday night.
Aretha’s connection to black gospel music and her roots in it weren’t always appreciated by other gospel artists. “At Mahalia Jackson’s funeral, Franklin sang Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” Darden said. “A gospel legend, the flinty Sallie Martin, was furious: ‘Worst thing I ever heard … a nightclub singer at a gospel singer’s funeral.'”
“Her fans knew that Aretha wasn’t perfect, and that made them — and me — love her more,” Darden said. “They knew that sometimes you need Sunday morning to forgive Saturday night. And they also knew that she meant every single word she sang.”
The importance of music to Franklin’s life cannot be understated, but we’ll leave it to Bob Darden to offer his evaluation: “For Aretha Franklin, a song, be it soul music or a classic gospel song, wasn’t just a combination of lyrics and chords, it was a living thing, it was a performed page from her biography. She sang the songs because she believed them.”
Learn more about the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at www.baylor.edu/lib/gospel.