Church roots fueled fiery, gospel-tinged voice

“Each time I go to sleep, I pray like Aretha Franklin.”

That line, the hook of “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin),” a 1985 dance floor hit by British blue-eyed soulsters Scritti Politti, pretty well sums up the appeal of the Queen of Soul — a recognition of her direct line to both the Man Upstairs and the human heart. It’s an appeal that extends to devout nonbelievers (like Scritti main man Green Gartside) as well as those who share Franklin’s spiritual roots.

“Even though she’s only done a few gospel albums, the feel of the church is there whenever she gets up to sing,” says BJ Stone, director of gospel programming at Sirius Radio. “She always moves the soul — go back to songs like ‘Dr. Feelgood.’ If you listen to that, it’s almost like she’s taking you to church. Same with what she did in ‘The Blues Brothers.’ It’s secular, but it’s like church.”

Franklin will be part of a gospel celebration on Sunday’s Grammy telecast and tonight, when she is honored as the MusiCares person of the year. Greats from gospel (Shirley Caesar, Bebe & CeCe Winans) and jazz (Herbie Hancock, Roy Hargrove) plus young R&B stars (Anthony Hamilton, Fantasia, John Legend) will be among those paying tribute to her.

“I’ve heard a lot of great new gospel (acts), but I prefer the traditional,” Franklin tells Daily Variety. “I appreciate contemporary gospel but it’s nowhere near as good or meaningful. I’m not used to seeing a lot of boogeying (from gospel singers), and some are boogeying so hard you can’t tell it’s gospel. I came along when gospel was gospel.”

Franklin was enveloped in song when she was still a toddler, thanks to her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, surrounding her with friends like Dinah Washington — whose ability to balance the sacred and the worldly clearly had a profound effect on the budding vocalist — and, perhaps most significantly, gospel legend Clara Ward, whom Franklin paid homage to on “Amazing Grace,” her classic ’70s collaboration with James Cleveland.

It’s not unusual for an artist to move back and forth between those two worlds — Al Green has done it, as have country performers such as Ricky Skaggs. But few have shown the effortless ability to bring the realms together with the alacrity of Franklin, who began that fusion as early as the 1967 smash “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You,” on which she brought Ward’s gospel moan to pop radio stations around the country.

“She’s certainly found a way to bridge two very different worlds, but she’s a gorgeous, pure soul, and I don’t think she stops and calculates for one minute,” says producer Phil Ramone, who worked with Franklin on her 1998 disc “Here We Go Again” and is producing tonight’s gala.

“I’ve never heard her preach from the stage, but when her voice, those drums and that organ get going, there’s no denying the spirit. She brings the feeling you get from a Baptist church to everything she does. Go back to her version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ which also reached that spiritual peak.”

Franklin is the first performer to receive the MusiCares award who is not equally known as a songwriter and a performer. Franklin wrote only a handful of her legendary hits — “Spirit in the Dark,” “Rock Steady,” “Call Me” and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” among them — and has mostly been known for putting an indelible stamp on a song.

“This was something a little different,” says Recording Acad prexy and CEO Neil Portnow. “For the telecast, we wanted to do a fair homage to the honoree, and gospel has not been done in a while. Lo and behold, we have Aretha and Mary J. (Blige) How much fun do you want to have?”

Phil Gallo contributed to this report.

SINGING ARETHA’S PRAISES

“Aretha Franklin continues to move me like no other performer. I still get goose bumps thinking of her performing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ at my first inaugural ball 15 years ago. As a performer and humanitarian, she has inspired people all over the globe, and her incredible talent, dedication and innovation is a gift to us all.”
Bill Clinton, former U.S president

“No one has done more to define the meaning of soul music than Aretha Franklin. Her music has been a soundtrack for our lives, a source of comfort and rejoicing.”
Oprah Winfrey, Harpo Films

“Aretha Franklin, more than any other singer, has enriched our collective soul through her music. She combines the best of the secular and the sacred, respecting her roots in the church. She gives new meaning to the term ‘national treasure.’”
Julian Bond, chairman, NAACP

“Anything great that is said about Aretha is never a cliche.”
Bill Cosby, comedian

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