The Shed’s cuttings collection, now going proudly digital, includes an interesting obituary of Erma Franklin, sister of Aretha, written by Spencer Leigh and published in The Independent 14.9.2002.
It goes to Online & Off, the Shed’s store of music programmes you could make, with YouTube connections to be going along with. Except sometimes, like now, we haven’t yet got round to the links but would be happy to get yours. See more Online & Off productions at
The Independent’s online library has some holes in it and The Shed had to type this torn cutting out, slightly imperfectly, but the gist is there of a good story about the brothers and sisters from singing families who never quite made it. The Independent piece offered a host of archive possibilities in its discussion of Erma and the other Franklins. The Shed, of course, can only come up with Johnny Cash’s brother, Tommy, but the discussion is to be resumed.
Here’s the rough transcript …
Many of America’s soul singers come from large gospel-singing families and, behind the superstars, there are relations who almost made it. Whitney Houston’s mother Cissy and her aunt Thelma had solo careers in the 1960s, Dionne Warwick’s sister Dee Dee made many fine records and Aretha Franklin was so exceptional that she overshadowed the work of her sisters, Erma and Carolyn.
The minister Clarence L. Franklin, known as C.L, and his wife Barbara had their first child, Erma, on 1 January 1938 in Shelby, Mississippi. The pastor regularly sought new pastures and Aretha was born in Memphis in 1942. The following year, in Buffalo, New York, Erma made her singing debut at his church. Franklin’s wife, having borne six children, left him in 1948, but died only four years later.
As the minister had to raise the family on his own, it was easier to settle in one place, namely Detroit. Through a series of albums for a local label, he became known as the “preacher with a million-dollar voice” and was soon commanding several thousand dollars for out-of-town appearances. Franklin was such an impressive preacher that nurses would be on standby to revive parishioners who fainted or fell into a trance.
Such noted gospel singers as Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland spent time at Franklin’s home, which had a profound effect upon his children. They formed a family group to sing in his New Bethel Baptist Church but childhood squabbling meant that it was short-lived.
Erma formed the Cleo-Patretts, who won a singing contest as the best new group in the State of Michigan. She later commented:
“My musical influences were what we called the flat-footed gospel singers. They dind’tneed any routines or other musical gimmicks to get over; they just stood flat-footed and tore the house down. Naturally, I love Aretha but those flat-footed singers influenced me the most.”
In the late 1950s, Berry Gordy, owner of the new Tamla-Motown label, wanted to groom Erma as a recording artist. However, her father persuaded her to continue with her education instead and she graduated in business administration and secretarial science. While she was studying, Berry Gordy wrote All I Could Do Was Cry … (bit torn out here) but gave it to Etta James.
(Bit more missing here about how Aretha went for an audition with Columbia and started to sing with Lloyd Price and his Orchestra …)
In 1967 Erma Franklin was signed to the Shout label by its owner, Bert Berns. Berns, whose songwriting credits include Twist and Shout and Hang On Sloopy, gave her an intense soul ballad, Piece Of My Heart. Although not a hit, the single was nominated for a Grammy as Best Female Rhythm and Blues Performance of the Year, but she lost to Aretha with Chain Of Fools. Ironically, Erma and Carolyn sang the backing vocals on Chain Of Fools and other contributions include Do rRght Woman, Natural Woman and the “sock it to me, sock it to me” chant on Aretha’s cover version of Otis Redding’s Respect.
Despite another excellent single, The Right To Cry, Erma’s own career faltered with the early and somewhat mysterious death of Bert Berns. The label folded, Erma went to work in computer programming and Piece Of My Heart was taken up by Janis joplin.
In 1969 she had minor success with Gotta Find Me A Lover, which became a Northern Soul classic, and she recorded an album, Soul Sister, in 1970. She played European dates but most of her work was singing background for Aretha or recording commercials.
The family had two tragedies in the mid-80s. Her father died after being shot whilst taking part in a civil-rights campaign(!) and her sister Carolyn, who had written Angel and Ain’t No Way for Aretha, died the following year. She sang on Aretha’s tribute album to her father, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptist, and the two sisters performed songs of their childhood on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
* Erma Vernice Franklin died Detroit 7 September 2002.