Aretha: A Mini-Multi-Ethnic History Lesson

by Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved

Aretha is/was international and global and pro-Black and pro-people of color long before those phrases became buzz words. But you already know Aretha. She’s part of the soundtrack of my/your life. If you were paying attention, you know about her activism, her once offering to pay Angela Davis’ bail; and the hurt in her voice at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral.  My Dad was there. When he got home he said, “This is the only time I’ve ever heard Aretha sound so destroyed.”  But let’s consider the setting at Atlantic Records that nurtured her after her dad, the Reverend C. L. Franklin decided that Aretha’s voice was as secular as it was sacred; that her piano-playing was as inventive as anyone out there. I always, always wanted Aretha to make an instrumental album of nothing but her on piano, but I digress…

Ahmet Ertegün, our brother from Turkey, along with Jerry Wexler, founded Atlantic Records with the mission to produce some of the best Rhythm and Blues and Soul music ever. They succeeded. Not long after they made Ray Charles a household name, they signed Aretha Franklin, who reigned as Queen on a record label that had no shortage of music luminaries: Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, The Drifters, The Spinners, The Pointer Sisters, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, The Bee Gees, and the list goes on.  The early days for Aretha consisted of recording sessions with musicians, the majority of whom were young white men from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a tiny town that still does not have 15,000 residents. The Black brothers in the band grew up with Rhythm and Blues, but these white musicians took a turn toward the Blues and Soul Music and never, ever looked back. These cats backing Aretha produced some of the most poignant, memorable, timeless, and soulful music in the twentieth century.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Arif Mardin served as Aretha’s principle producer for over two decades at Atlantic Records. Mardin, another musical genius from Istanbul, Turkey impressed the hell out of Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones, so much so that after meeting these two Black American musical giants in 1956 after a State Department-sponsored concert, he became the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Scholarship at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. After Mardin graduated in 1961, he went to work for Atlantic Records. Aretha acknowledged him as the positive turning point in her career.  Together they churned out the hits all of us already know.  He produced that incredible gospel album “Amazing Grace” that everybody still talks about, and still plays.

So what is my point?  Well, the whole concept of globalization has always existed in music and the arts; and it, for damned sure existed with Aretha; and for people of color.  That multi-ethnic colored world that some white folks fear, the one that seems to be suddenly upon us has always been here.  You’ve been grooving to it, remember?  But know this: I don’t just know my people when I see them; I know them when and where I hear them. Marinate on that for a while. Rest in Paradise Queen of Soul, Aretha Louise Franklin.

Copyright © Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

This blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this or any blog authored by Leslye Joy Allen, or any total or partial excerpt of this or any blog by Leslye Joy Allen must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.


2 thoughts on “Aretha: A Mini-Multi-Ethnic History Lesson

  1. Nice! Not sure if you want mention her rhythm section and conductor while I was with her. Bill Eaton (Conductor) Richard Tee (piano ) Leon Pendarvis (piano) Cornell Dupree (guitar) Gordon Edwards (bass) Bernard Purdy (drums) Wally Gator. (Drums)

    These guys formed a band called “Stuff” and play together for quite a while. I love these brothers… they were HOT and the often did studio work with Aretha as well as tours.

    Between you and I , sometimes she just didn’t feel like going to a session which often would be on a Sunday in Jersey (Time and half for the musicians). Ahmet would call me and ask where she was, what tie she would arrive… she may have just called me and told me that she wasn’t going. Ahmet would curse me out. “YOU ARE SUPPOSE TO MAKE SURE SHE GETS THERE!!!!” It cost a lot to cancel those sessions on a Sunday. I worked everyday . There are very few days off when you are a personal assistant. Anyway I regret none of it and am writing about it.


    Create A Beautiful Day!


  2. I’m very familiar with this period in Aretha’s history. I know ALL of the musicians you named and I am a huge, huge Richard Tee fan; I can tell his piano-playing in a New York minute, God Rest His Soul. As the friend/sister of more than a few entertainment managers, what you described is too familiar. And let’s be real. Aretha had a lot on her plate. People forget about her being the daughter of the Reverend C. L. Franklin, her mother’s abandonment of the family, her moods, and all the etceteras. And Personal Assistants take a lot of sh*t. Anyhow, I look forward to your telling your story. Keep me posted.

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