Person: Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin is the daughter of a minister. According to her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, she “inherited” the tradition of Gospel music. As a young girl, Aretha moved with her family to Detroit, Michigan. Her father had been hired as the pastor for New Bethel Baptist Church. Aretha, along with her siblings, would sing every week in the choir at her father’s church. In 1956, at fourteen years old, she released her debut studio album. It was a Gospel record titled Songs of Faith.
At eighteen, however, Aretha Franklin decided to “cross-over” from recording Gospel to popular music. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of Sam Cooke, a member of the Gospel group the Soul Stirrers, who had released his first Pop single in 1957. Her transition from singing about God for a faith-based audience to singing about secular topics (love, romance, heartbreak) was a sensitive one. But her father supported her decision, and in 1960, Aretha moved to New York City to record with Columbia Records.
While at Columbia, Aretha initially recorded a range of styles, including show tunes and popular jazz standards. When she moved to Atlantic Records, however, much of her Gospel heritage resurfaced. As she achieved success as a R&B performer, the Gospel in her performance style would become a defining characteristic in an emerging Soul sound, including her commanding vocals, heightened emotions, and the frequent use of “call-and-response” arrangements between Aretha and her backup singers. All of this is evident in her recording career at Atlantic Records during the late 1960s, including her release of “Chain of Fools” in 1967.
Places: Detroit, Michigan & New York City
At the time of Aretha Franklin’s childhood, Detroit, Michigan was experiencing a major growth in its African-American population, largely spurred by the second wave of the Great Migration which began around the Second World War. Blacks in the South were moving to Northern industrial centers in search of opportunities and jobs. Between 1941 and 1943, more than 50,000 African-Americans moved to Detroit alone. They brought with them traditions from their own communities, including Southern Gospel music. Reverend C.L. Franklin’s 2,500-seat church was growing rapidly during that time, as new African-American residents sought not only centers of faith, but centers of community.
When Aretha was 18 years old, she moved from Detroit to New York City, carrying with her the Southern Gospel traditions that had been a mainstay of her childhood. In the late 1960s, when she was recording “Chain of Fools” at Atlantic Records, her recording career seemed to tap deeply into her Gospel roots. As her producer at Atlantic, Jerry Wexler, once said, “There’s a much stronger influence of Gospel in contemporary Rhythm and Blues, or Soul music, than there is of Blues.” Certainly, Aretha’s catalog reflects this close relationship.
Through the lens of “Chain of Fools,” we can examine the influence of Gospel music and black style on the mixed-race audience of the 1960s. During the Civil Rights movement in particular, music became a space where ideas and preconceptions about race could be called into question. As African-American comedian Dick Gregory said in reference to Aretha Franklin’s prominence on the radio, “You’d hear Aretha three or four times an hour, you’d only hear King on the news.”
- 1940 – 1970: THE SECOND GREAT MIGRATION – More than five million African Americans moved from the rural South to the industrial centers of the North, Midwest, and West.
- AUGUST 1963: MARCH ON WASHINGTON – Several hundred thousand Americans participate in the historic Civil Rights march, which features not only Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but also musical performances by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
- JULY 1964: PRESIDENT JOHNSON SIGNS CIVIL RIGHTS ACT – The landmark legislation outlaws racial discrimination in employment and racial segregation in public places, ending the “Jim Crow” era.
- JULY 1967: ARETHA FRANKLIN RELEASES “CHAIN OF FOOLS” – The song showcases Aretha’s roots in Gospel music and goes on to garner her a Grammy award for Best Female R&B Performance in 1969.
- APRIL 1968: MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. ASSASSINATED – The civil rights leader, who’d galvanized a movement with his calls for nonviolent resistance, is shot to death by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. Dr. King was 39. Aretha Franklin sings Dr. King’s favorite Gospel hymn, “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” at one of his memorial services.