Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul

Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul

by Craig Werner

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An insightful music writer brilliantly reinterprets the lives of three pop geniuses and the soul revolution they launched.

Soul music is one of America's greatest cultural achievements, and Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Curtis Mayfield are three of its most inspired practitioners. In midcentury America it was soul music—particularly the dazzling stream of recordings made by these three stars—that helped bring the gospel vision of the black church into the mainstream, energizing the era’s social movements and defining a new American gospel where the sacred and the secular met. What made this gospel all the more amazing was that its most influential articulators were the sons and daughters of sharecroppers, storefront preachers, and single parents in the projects, whose genius gave voice to a new vision of American possibility.

Higher Ground seamlessly weaves the specific and intensely personal narratives of Stevie, Aretha, and Curtis’s lives into the historical fabric of their times. The three shared many similarities: They were all children of the great migration and of the black church. But Werner goes further and ties them together with a provocative thesis about American history and culture that compels us to reconsider both the music and the times. And aside from the personalities and the history, he writes beautifully about music itself, the nuts and bolts of its creation and performance, in a way that brings a new awareness and understanding to the most familiar music, forcing you to listen to songs you've heard a thousand times with fresh ears. In Higher Ground, Werner illuminates the lives of three unparalleled American artists, reminding us why their music mattered then and still resonates with us today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307420879
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/18/2007
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

CRAIG WERNER teaches African American music, literature, and cultural history at the University of Wisconsin, where he has won numerous teaching awards.

Read an Excerpt

Listen at her. Amen." Reverend C.L. Franklin's words rose up above the swell of voices that greeted his fourteen-year-old daughter as she surrendered to the moan at the timeless heart of "Precious Lord (Take My Hand)," the most tormented and triumphant of gospel classics. The quickening rhythm of the church mothers' fans beat an expectant murmur from the crowd, which gave way to joyous cries of "amen" and "tell it," and the hum of Detroit record store owner Joe Von Battle's portable recording equipment. Her fingers flowing over the keys of the battered piano, young Aretha immersed herself in a healing river of spirit and song. Closing her eyes as the spotlight glinted off the crown of her perfectly coifed hair, Aretha sank into the depths of the song she'd sung so many times beneath the bright blue cross above the pulpit of her father's New Bethel Baptist Church, nestled in the heart of Detroit's dirt-poor Paradise Valley ghetto. Crying out "Ain't no harm to moan," she flooded out a cascade of tones that lifted her five thousand listeners above the killing streets of the cities that had promised much and delivered little, and carried them back to the southern crossroads churches where many had first felt the power of the Lord.

Those who weren't caught up entirely in their own trials might have paused to reflect on the song Aretha used as her gospel chariot. It was no secret that Thomas Dorsey, the reformed whorehouse piano player whose songs defined modern gospel music, had written "Precious Lord" the night he heard that his wife and son had died in childbirth. Those who attended New Bethel would have understood that Aretha's moan bore witness to her still-fresh pain over her mother's death. Raising her face to heaven and pounding out a shattering series of chords, Aretha struggled to twist the moan back into language. "At," she began, shouting with an intensity that testified to the loving attention she'd received from the great gospel singers-Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Marion Williams-who'd helped raise her in a house where the regular visitors included Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Martin Luther King. The word stretched almost ten seconds until Aretha brought the line home. "At the river," she continued, her words resonating with a chorus of African American voices, among them Paul Robeson's "Deep River" and Langston Hughes's vision of a deep deep river flowing from West Africa and the slave markets of New Orleans into the souls of black folk as they spread across a land in which they remained pilgrims of sorrow.

Praying that his ancient reel-to-reel equipment would hold out, Joe Von Battle recognized Aretha as something special. His keen grasp of the connection between the spiritual, aesthetic, and commercial dimensions of black music led him to believe she had the potential to reach music lovers far beyond the walls of the drafty old arena or the stained glass at New Bethel Baptist. A central figure in Detroit's African American music scene who had recorded down-and-dirty R&B singers Washboard Willie, Tye Tongue Hanley, and the Detroit Count as well as C.L. Franklin's sermons, Von Battle had navigated the cross-currents between gospel, jazz, and rhythm and blues. He'd stood in Reverend Franklin's living room trading stories with Mahalia, Sam Cooke, jazz pianist Art Tatum, "Queen of the Blues" Dinah Washington, and New Bethel's talented young music director, James Cleveland. Reverend Franklin was reluctant to rush his daughter into a music business that had chewed up more than a few young black singers, but Von Battle had little difficulty convincing him to approve a series of recordings. The songs he committed to acetate on a series of Sundays in 1956 document the first steps on a path that would make Aretha one of the most deeply loved singers of her time and establish her as an American artist of the stature of Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, William Faulkner, and Duke Ellington.

Twelve years later Aretha would again turn to "Precious Lord" as she and her gospel people-a few of them white-staggered beneath a burden that seemed too heavy to bear. As a mule-drawn cart carried Martin Luther King's body through the streets of Atlanta, Aretha offered up a quieter version of "Precious Lord" as a meditation on the most basic human question: how to keep hope alive in a world where the devil holds sway. Her face a twisted mask of grief, Aretha's voice illuminated the gospel vision that sustained the foot soldiers of the movement, the ordinary people whose tears, sweat, and-far too often-blood had changed America in ways that seemed impossible to all but the most audacious dreamers a generation before.

As it has done since the first cries rose up from the festering holds of the slave ships, the gospel vision sounds the central predicaments of African American history: to flee or fight white power, to affirm black identity or assimilate into the larger society, to transcend the material world or try to conquer it, to pursue innovation or preserve tradition. Giving voice to the ongoing drive for freedom that remains the beating heart of African American history, gospel-based music bears witness to the burdens of life, the same experiences that gave rise to the blues. But where the blues celebrates survival, gospel seeks redemption. Whatever its specific form—traditional gospel, reggae, soul, the celebratory moments of disco and house music-the gospel impulse reconnects individuals with powers and communities larger than themselves: God and a community determined, as Mahalia Jackson sang, to "move on up." Small wonder that gospel provided the guiding spirit of the civil rights movement that reshaped American life in the years following World War II.

For Aretha, the gospel vision and gospel music were inseparable. She'd grown up surrounded by the stars of the gospel firmament, and her earliest memories clustered around the legendary musicians who filled her father's social circle. When Mahalia Jackson sang in Detroit, she stayed with the Franklin family and "taught me things a girl should know," as Aretha recalled. "Mahalia would come in and she'd head right for the kitchen. She'd put up a pot of greens," she reminisced, savoring her memories of the down-home smells that filled her world in those days. "We'd sit around and talk. I was shy, but I guess I did have a lot of questions. Then maybe we'd sing. They were so strong, those ladies. And always there for me. She'd sing in my father's church, and I would be thrilled listening to her. And feeling so lucky she would come home, to our house." When Mahalia finished whipping up her feasts of fried chicken, gumbo, cornbread, and sweet potato pie, she never lacked for good company. Easing back into the living room with its fine woodwork, plush green carpet, and purple satin drapes, she could relax with Franklin family friends like Clara Ward, Francis Steadman, Sam Cooke, Marion Williams, and James Cleveland. Attracted by the charismatic presence of Aretha's father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, the "High Priest of Soul Preaching," the gospel luminaries mingled with jazz musicians, R&B stars, and political leaders like Powell and King. For Reverend Franklin's talented daughter, the best times were when "somebody would start toying with the piano and something would start up. There was always music in our house. The radio was going in one room, the record player in another, the piano banging away in the living room."

Like the sounds and smells that surrounded her, Aretha came to Detroit from the South. She was born on March 25, 1942, in Memphis, Tennessee, the musical crossroads of the mid-South. Best known for the freewheeling night life of the Beale Street blues clubs, the sprawling cotton market at the bend of the Mississippi River was equally well known among African Americans as the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ and the home of renowned gospel composers W. Herbert Brewster and Lucy Campbell. Migrants fleeing the backbreaking labor of the Delta filled their Saturday nights with blues consolations and their Sunday mornings with gospel exultations, both of which testified to their hard times and their enduring hopes. The Franklins would soon join the thousands for whom Memphis served as a halfway house on the journey to the killing floors of Chicago or the assembly lines of Detroit. In Memphis they occupied a modest single-story home in a neighborhood that would nurture an impressive roster of musicians including Maurice White, the guiding spirit of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Named after her father's sisters, Aretha Louise Franklin was the fourth of five children. While her brothers Vaughn and Cecil would pursue careers in the military and the ministry respectively, Aretha's older sister Erma and younger sister Carolyn would add to the family's musical legacy. Erma would enter soul music history for her superior version of Janis Joplin's signature song, "Piece of My Heart," while Carolyn would make her mark as the composer of Aretha's mid-seventies soul ballad "Angel." Together Erma and Carolyn would provide memorable backup vocals on classics from "Do Right Woman-Do Right Man" and "Respect" to "Chain of Fools."

Aretha's family had carried their songs to Memphis from the Mississippi Delta, where the young Clarence LaVaughn Franklin had pastored a series of churches in and around Greenville and Clarksdale, the mythic cradle of the blues. Born January 22, 1915, in Sunflower County, Mississippi, C.L. lived the harsh reality that echoed through the music of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Unwilling to accept his place in the Jim Crow South after returning from World War I, C.L.'s father had abandoned the family. His mother remarried a caring and hardworking but illiterate sharecropper, Henry Franklin. The family moved from plantation to plantation before settling in the parched cotton fields of Bolivar County outside Doddsville. As he grew up, C.L. witnessed white supremacy's relentless assault on his stepfather's sense of self-worth. The intensely intelligent youngster perceived the obvious injustices of Jim Crow: the inadequate schools and the way the white farmers cheated his stepfather each year when the price of the cotton never quite balanced the accrued cost of food and supplies. He raged at the everyday indignities that constantly reminded blacks of their place on the fringes of humanity. Decades later Franklin rankled at the memory of being intentionally sprayed by bus drivers taking white children to school while C.L. and his friends trudged along the muddy spring roads.

Chopping cotton alongside his father in the fields next to Highway 61 and the Illinois Central Railroad line, Aretha's father dreamed of a better life as he waved back to blacks driving cars with northern plates. Walking the tracks, he hailed migrants aboard the "Chicken Bone Special" headed for the promised lands of Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit. Returning to the sharecroppers' quarters at the end of the day, he would relax listening to the blues moans of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Roosevelt Sykes as well as his favorite recorded sermon, Reverend J.M. Gates's "Dead Cat on the Line."

Although he always insisted that he never felt a conflict between gospel and the blues, C.L. Franklin's path out of the Delta led not to Beale Street but to the pulpit of Memphis's respectable New Salem Baptist Church. From his early childhood in Mississippi, he had been steeped in the spirit of the church, walking two miles to choir practice and traveling in a horse-drawn wagon to the churches where he heard the backwoods preaching style that would shape his own. When he was thirteen, he experienced a fiery vision on the wall of his bedroom. "A voice spoke to me from behind the plank and said something like, 'Go and preach the gospel to all nations,' " he later told an interviewer. "I went and told my mother what I had seen and heard." A few years later he formally accepted the call to preach after hearing an inspirational sermon by the Memphis-based Reverend Benjamin Perkins. C.L. established himself by rotating through a series of small rural churches, often serving as many as four congregations at a time. Like their blues-playing brothers and cousins, Delta preachers grappled in a highly competitive culture that required both insight and showmanship. The charisma that would propel C.L. to stardom first emerged, he fondly recalled, at Delta "preaching rallies" where four or five young ministers would deliver short sermons "trying to outdo the others" and capture the hearts and financial support of the crowd. Rivalries grew fierce, but from the beginning C.L.'s voice and flair for showmanship set him apart.

His growing reputation enabled C.L. to establish a home base in Clarksdale, although he continued to visit churches throughout the area. One day in Shelby, Mississippi, he met a young pianist and singer named Barbara Siggers. Attracted by her quiet beauty and resonant voice, he began courting her. A few months later, as a persistent rain drenched the cotton fields, they were married at the house of one of C.L.'s Clarksdale parishioners. The young couple stayed in Clarksdale for a year before moving on to Greenville and then, at the invitation of Reverend Perkins, whose sermon had set C.L. on his spiritual path, to Memphis and New Salem Baptist Church. C.L. busied himself serving New Salem and was soon pastoring a second church in the new Hollywood subdivision while pursuing studies at LeMoyne College. His young wife sang in the choir.

At home Barbara Franklin exercised an influence that was not only personal but musical. "I was young but I remember how warm and beautiful she was," Aretha wrote in her autobiography. "I was very close to her and I can't say which, if either of my parents was the greater influence on me." The legendary producer John Hammond, who would sign Aretha to her first pop music contract, remembered hearing that "Aretha's mother was one of the really great gospel singers. Aretha said she had more talent than C.L." Still, without question, Aretha's father provided the family's center of gravity. And her mother suffered in the fishbowl of life in a preacher's household. C.L.'s respectful and admiring assessment of her glossed over the difficulties faced by a talented woman in a church culture dominated by charismatic men: "People loved her. We weren't too involved with them socially; we were involved with them in terms of the church program. She got along beautifully, beautifully. She had no problem. To me, people who respect the minister's wife and encourage her, admire her for what she is doing, like to hear her sing-I don't see why she has any difficulty, although I have often heard it said that it is difficult to be a minister's wife."

Whatever his wife's hardships, Franklin had embarked on a journey that would carry him to the forefront of the National Baptist Convention. In those days "for a black boy," the illustrious African American photographer Ernest Withers explained, "growing up to be President of the Convention was like a white boy becoming President of the United States." C.L.'s first step to that end took place when he delivered the eulogy for a friend who had pastored Friendship Baptist Church in Buffalo, New York. His sermon so impressed the mourners that they asked him to fill the vacancy, an invitation Franklin eagerly accepted.

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