On the second night of the live recording of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel double album Amazing Grace in a Los Angeles Church, her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, made an appearance.
Likely one of the most famous pastors in Black America at the time, the reverend took a moment to tell a story about his own famous daughter. He told the congregation about bumping into a woman at a Detroit dry cleaners. The woman had seen his daughter Aretha on television the night before and told the reverend the performance was decent.
“But I will be glad when she comes back to the church,” the woman said.
Franklin had the perfect response that ultimately captures the breadth of Aretha’s career in music: “Listen, baby. Let me tell you something. If you want to know the truth, she has never left the church. All you have to do is have something in here, and the ability to hear, and the ability to feel, and you will know that Aretha is still a gospel singer.”
It is a fitting story and reminder of Aretha’s deep and perennial connection to the church and gospel music. Indeed, for the legend who passed away in her Detroit home on Thursday, it was in the church of her father, Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where she found her voice singing alongside her sisters Erma and Carolyn.
It was the church that gave the Queen of Soul her soul.
“I didn’t cross the line” from gospel to pop, Aretha told the late Gwen Ifill in 2015. “Gospel goes with me wherever I go. Gospel is a constant with me.”
It is no wonder then that Amazing Grace— backed by the incomparable Southern California Community Choir — was also Aretha’s best-selling album, and one of the most commercially successful gospel records of all time. And as Marc Lamont Hill put it, Amazing Grace became the “soundtrack to so many Sundays in Black America.”
Gospel artists like Fred Hammond remember the album, and Aretha’s voice, as part of the very fabric of their upbringing.
“My mom played this album Sunday’s b4 Church/Sunday school,” Hammond said in an Instagram post following the singer’s death. “I was just a kid and I loved it musically. But now I know why a mother raising 3 boys in #Detroit played it so much. The #queensinfluence”
While Aretha was looking to the late great Queen of Gospel Mahalia Jackson as her musical influence (and also being mentored by Clara Ward of the famous Ward gospel singers of Philadelphia), gospel artists like Hammond, Yolanda Adams and Erica Campbell had their eyes on Franklin.
“Aretha Franklin has had a profound impact on the Gospel music genre,” Erica Campbell told ESSENCE in a statement. “I loved her. She gave us hope of reaching the world with our voices the way she did.”
Campbell recounts receiving a call from Franklin to produce for her — asking Campbell, her husband Warryn, and sister Tina to create something similar to Mary Mary’s 2008 hit, “God in Me.” Though the song never happened, Campbell remembers how big of a compliment it was to even be considered.
“She was supportive and reached out personally when she liked your music,” she said. “Many of us [in the gospel community] had relationships with her.”
Campbell added: “Our hearts are broken but she left an amazing roadmap to sing songs for the world (not just the church) with everything in your soul, to be authentic and to handle your business. She had the most magnificent voice and there will never be another.”
And although we may have lost one of the greatest and most soulful voices of our lifetime — likely ever— the Rev. Jesse Jackson perfectly explained to CNN how Aretha’s voice would live on.
“The Earth lost a lot of music today,” he said, “and heaven must be excited because it has a new lead singer for the gospel choir.”
Rest in power, Aretha.