Aretha Franklin’s One Faith

As her father once said, Aretha was still a gospel singer.
Aretha Franklin’s One Faith
Image: Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty images

Today’s homecoming of Aretha Franklin prompted me to pull out her legendary double-CD live set, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism from 1987. While the live Amazing Grace set (1972) is the justly more famous, more satisfying collection, One Lord has moments of transcendent beauty and power, including her 10-minute tour de force with Mavis Staples on “O Happy Day.”

One Lord also features “I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long,” written by her long-time pianist and collaborator, the Rev. James Cleveland, and sung as a duet with the last of gospel’s old school shouters, Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy.

With the passing of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, Ligon was probably the last soul singer who could toe-to-toe with Franklin on any stage. And yet, “I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long” begins as a ballad, each artist taking a verse, singing softly and gently, more like a prayer than a shout:

I’ve been in the storm too long
I’ve been in the storm too long
Lord, please let me
Have a little more time to pray

I’ve been in the storm too long
I’ve been in the storm too long
Lord, please give me
I need a little more time to pray

Eventually, in the true gospel (and black preaching) style, the old dictum, “start low, go slow; rise higher, catch fire” kicks in and the two old friends let ’er rip for eight glorious minutes.

As I listen to the words again, I hear something of the essence that made Aretha Franklin not just the “Queen of Soul” but one of those few artists who, through the sheer force of her talent, Changed Things.

Although not as publicly active in the civil rights movement as Mahalia Jackson or Staples, Franklin was revered in the black community, particularly from the mid-’60s through the early ’70s. Along with Redding, Pickett, Nina Simone, and others, she was at the forefront of the “soul music” era, that particularly rich, inventive period when gospel music and R&B fused to create music powerful enough to be both danceable and culturally significant.

With Atlantic Records and paired with a sympathetic group of (mostly) white Southern musicians, Franklin released one of the most musically and socially influential series of albums of all time: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), Lady Soul (1968), Aretha Now (1968), and Young, Gifted and Black (1972). In them, the songs—“Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” “Think,” and others—focused a movement, empowered young black Americans, and brought millions of white kids like me out onto the dance floor.

She arranged and played piano on her best songs, utilizing the musical lessons learned by listening to her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, preach, sitting beside gospel great Clara Ward and sharing songs with piano prodigy Cleveland. Each song she recorded brought a deep gospel sensibility. And unlike other gospel artists who were “punished” by gospel audiences for their secular success, Franklin moved easily between the two worlds. “If you want to know the truth,” her father once said, “Aretha has never left the church. If you have the ability to feel, and you have the ability to hear, you know that Aretha is still a gospel singer.”

Franklin eventually left Atlantic Records for Arista, where she had a number of pop hits over the next 20 years, but nothing to compare with “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You.” She was music royalty by then, of course, and remained a supreme superstar in the industry. At Martin Luther King’s funeral, Jackson and Franklin both sang. When Jackson passed a few years later, it was Franklin who was asked to sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

In recent years, her health failing, Franklin made fewer and fewer public appearances, gave virtually no interviews, and recorded less and less. At one of her last public performances, a noticeably thin Franklin asked her hometown Detroit audience to pray for her.

I’ve been in the storm too long
Lord, please give me
I need a little more time to pray

Younger music fans may wonder at all of the fuss. Why this artist? The best way to answer is to play the clip from the 38th Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, DC, from December 2015. With then-President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama in attendance, the evening’s honorees included the legendary songwriter Carole King. King is clearly overjoyed when Franklin sits down to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.” The performance, which has millions upon millions of viewings on YouTube, is electrifying, bringing everyone in the audience to their feet and weeping tears of joy. Franklin’s rare combination of emotional transparency and gospel-fueled virtuosity has rarely, if ever, been equaled. Musicologist Wilfrid Mellers once described Franklin’s performance of “Amazing Grace,” by writing that it “hints at ‘mysterious’ incandescence.”

Perhaps not mysterious, though. Franklin’s life, despite all her later success, had not been easy. Her mother was rarely in her life, and her father’s popularity took him on the road much of the year—not to mention the insistent demands that daily face the pastor of a major church. She had two children at a young age, both out of wedlock, and suffered through a series of bad marriages and abusive relationships. Her early Columbia albums, though listenable, never found an audience. And, as too often is the case, as her sales eventually declined, so did her health.

But standing before the frenzied Kennedy Center audience, singing from somewhere deep inside the pain, Franklin tapped into the gospel music of Jackson and Ward, into the sanctified sermons of her father, into a lifelong belief in one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and came out triumphant and redeemed on the other side.

In my mind, the other highlight of One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism is the best-known composition from Ward, her surrogate mother, “Surely God is Able”:

As pilgrim we, we sometimes journey.
We often know not, which way to turn
But there is one, who, knows the road.
Who’ll help us carry, who’ll help us carry
your heavy load

In the end, it’s called faith. It’s how we get over. It’s how we survive the storms. It’s what sustains us, carries us, through the uncertain journey.

Aretha Franklin often couldn’t live by the words she sang. But she sang the words anyway and believed them, too.

Robert F. Darden is a professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor University, where he is also founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. He is the author of more than two dozen books, including People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2005).

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