The passing of the legendary Aretha Franklin on August 16, prompted scores of admirers – from recording artists to musicians to U.S. presidents – to offer tributes and memories of her impact on the world.
But before she became known as “The Queen of Soul,” Aretha was a strong believer in God and expressed her faith through her music.
The Rev. Dr. Melvin V. Wade, Sr., pastor emeritus of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Los Angeles, was close to Aretha’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and remembered that the singer had strong faith even as a child.
“She was raised in the home of perhaps the most dynamic preacher you will ever hear and she made it clear that he taught her much. Before she started singing pop music, she traveled with him for revivals,” recalled Wade, who was also friends with Aretha’s brother, Cecil.
Describing Aretha as “very kind every time I saw her,” Wade said his most precious memory was her performance at his church.
“In 1976, I invited her father to Mount Moriah and he preached about “Dry Bones in the Valley,” Wade said. “Right after that, Aretha sang ‘Precious Lord.’ It was Father’s Day and I’ll never forget it!”
Annette May Thomas, a prominent pianist, vocalist and business manager of the great Rev. James Cleveland, became friends with Aretha as a teenager. Their fathers, the Rev. Franklin and Brother Joe May, headlined gospel caravans around the country and both girls performed with their dads.
“Aretha was gracious, down-to-earth and appreciative of life. She was truthful to everything she was doing. She didn’t have to put on any airs of any kind,” recalled Thomas. “There were times when her dad asked her to sing ‘Never Grow Old’ and she would start singing and playing, then I would play and she’d stand up with the microphone and sing.
“In fact, the only thing I’ll ever regret is that we were talking about doing a recording that would be a tribute to our fathers – she and I and Mavis [Staples]. But, she got ill and we never got to do it.”
In 1972, Aretha released “Amazing Grace” with the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. The 2-disc set garnered a Grammy award and is still the top selling live gospel album of all time.
Thomas, who arranged for the recording to occur at New Temple Baptist Church on 87th and Broadway in Los Angeles, said, “We did four or five days of rehearsing and the album was recorded live over two nights.”
Commenting on the album’s impact, veteran gospel broadcaster Paul Kidd, Jr., noted, “Since the debut of ‘Amazing Grace’ and the years that followed; no one could do a gospel song like Aretha Franklin. It seems that either on my local radio show or on my international show, there were daily requests after requests to play that song. Everyone wanted to hear that iconic voice whose passionate soul-stirring delivery could speak a personal message directly to every heart and soul.”
As for Aretha’s legacy, Wade firmly believes that her music will endure. “She was one-of-a-kind. She never lost her faith or her gospel roots. She will be remembered as number one. Her voice was very unique. I don’t know anybody who has impacted secular or religious music any more than her.”
Echoing those sentiments, Thomas shared, “I hope the world will continue to play her music because it is very inspiring. Remember that she gives a message that you could understand, whether talking about a lover or talking about Jesus.”