‘He was a motivator, an innovator’: The Chicago pastor who helped Aretha Franklin find her voice

A new biopic of Aretha Franklin’s life sheds light on her mentor Rev James Cleveland, who pulled the singer out of her darkest moments. Nadja Sayej looks at the life of the man who helped her along the way

Wednesday 11 August 2021 06:33
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“Music will save your life,” said Rev James Cleveland to Aretha Franklin, who was just nine when her mother died of a heart attack in 1952. The Chicago pastor and gospel musician sat before a piano with the future star, teaching her some of her first gospel songs. She would come to see him as one of the biggest influences of her life.

This touching moment is recreated in the new biopic about the soul singer, Respect, out in cinemas on 13 August (the film is out in UK cinemas 10 September). Starring Skye Dakota Turner as a young Franklin (as an adult, she’s played by Jennifer Hudson) and Tituss Burgess as Cleveland, it is not a wide-spanning career retrospective – there’s the Genius: Aretha docuseries, and other films, for that. Instead, it focuses on how Franklin found her voice in gospel, time and time again. And on how Cleveland was the one by her side while she did that.

He might be remembered as the King of Gospel, but Cleveland wasn’t a superstar like Franklin. As her musical mentor, he always showed up in her life at the right time, teaching her that music could indeed save the Queen of Soul.

When Franklin was 29, she was already burnt out. She had recorded nine albums for Atlantic Records in four years. Her marriage to Ted White was falling apart. Her drinking was getting out of control. Cleveland helped provide a safe and private musical space for Franklin in his church, where she used his choir to rehearse for her upcoming album. In the film, they sit in the pews together. She cries and he offers comfort.

Franklin first met Cleveland when she was a child. He was a friend of her father, who was for decades the pastor of a baptist church in Detroit. When Cleveland became the choir director there, he was living with the Franklin family in their Detroit home.

Cleveland took Franklin under his wing, teaching her how to sing and play piano. He helped her sing gospel at church, and acted as a guiding light after her mother died. “She’s not trying to take anyone’s place; people are so hungry to try and hear her interpretation of gospel,” Cleveland once said of Franklin’s voice. “It makes her more at ease because there is no competition.”

It wasn’t just Franklin, though. Cleveland focused on providing a vision for many young musicians. In 1967, he founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America, an annual convention that brings together gospel singers from across the world, which is still going strong today, over 50 years later.

“Young folks have talent but nowhere to get instructions on how to put that talent to work,” he once explained. “I thought, ‘How could we help upgrade the music in the church and bring education to the youth, since there’s no formal training in the schools?’”

Having grown up during the Great Depression, Cleveland didn’t have an easy childhood himself. He was born in 1931 to a poor, religious family in the South Side of Chicago. His grandmother encouraged him to join the choir at the Pilgrim Baptist Church. There, he was mentored by the choir director, Thomas A Dorsey, who is now remembered as the “father of gospel” and helped carve out the 20th-century modern blues and gospel sound. Cleveland sang at the Pilgrim Baptist Church as an eight-year-old child, but his voice didn’t really stand out until he hit puberty as a teenager, when his raspy voice became his trademark (he called it “a foghorn”).

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He sang in a variety of gospel groups in the 1960s, including The Cleveland Singers and The Southern California Community Choir, until he started his own ministry in 1970, and took a step back from the stage to focus on the piano, composing and songwriting. As a Baptist minister, pianist, composer and producer, he wrote and arranged over 400 gospel songs.

He made a breakthrough in the music business writing songs for gospel singers like Roberta Martin, whose work he studied as a child. “My folks being just plain, everyday people, we couldn’t afford a piano,” he said in an interview with The Gospel Sound magazine. “So I used to practice each night right there on the windowsill. I took those wedges and crevices and made me black and white keys. And, baby, I played just like Roberta [Martin]. By the time I was in high school, I was some jazz pianist.”

Some gospel musician, too. He won multiple Grammy Awards for his gospel albums, including 1998’s Having Church. His songs were soulful, timeless and with a wide variety of collaborators, proving he was never alone. The church community was always with him. Take “God Can Do Anything But Fail” and “Lord Do It”. Both have a booming choir serenading in the background amid gospel hoots and hollers, which echo alongside a jazzy organ. Today, he’s credited with creating the modern gospel sound.

Rev Marvin Winan, who led a group called The Winans, said that Cleveland wasn’t a great vocalist but knew how to interpret a song. “James could make you see the song,” he said.

He could make the world see Franklin’s talent, too, especially when he produced her gospel album Amazing Grace in 1972, which was recorded at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

It was that January of 1972 that Franklin turned to Cleveland for help. In the film, the scene captures Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) drinking alone in her mansion when the spirit of her mother comes to visit her, embracing her as she prays. Cut to the next day: she is cleaning alcohol bottles around her home. She then visits Cleveland in his church, asking him to lead a choir for a gospel album. Sure, she always wanted “more hits” as a star, and gospel was a big risk in pop music, but making this album with Cleveland helped her get back in touch with her own soul. As her brother, Cecil Franklin, recalled in David Ritz’s book Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin: “Her soul was craving the spirit. Her heart was crying for it.”  Funnily enough, Amazing Grace became her best-selling record of all time.

It was a critical time for black Americans, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X still fresh in the minds. The album was a sort of healing. “Aretha helped lead us back to God – the only force for good that stays steady in this loveless world,” said Cecil, “so I’d call it historical.”

It was soulful, but not preachy. The album’s executive producer, Jerry Wexler, was an atheist. He said the album “relates to religious music in much the same way Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel relates to religious art. In terms of scope and depth, little else compares to its greatness.”

Cleveland died in 1991 at the age of 59 from heart failure. In the year leading up to his death, respiratory problems had left him unable to sing. But on the last Sunday before his death, he addressed his congregation during mass at the Cornerstone Institutional Baptist Church. According to the Los Angeles Times, he told them: “If I don’t see you again and if I don’t sing again, I’m a witness to the fact that the Lord answers prayer. He let my voice come back to me this morning.”

After his death, Franklin said: “James was probably the most significant factor on me musically in terms of my early piano stylings. Anyone who heard him, you were touched by him. He was a motivator, an innovator. He leaves the greatest legacy.” Franklin herself died of pancreatic cancer in 2018, at the age of 76.

Legendary Motown singer Marvin Gaye once summed up the impact of Amazing Grace: “I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Amazing Grace is Aretha’s singular masterpiece,” he said. “The musicians I respect the most say the same thing. It’s her greatest work.”

It might not have happened without James Cleveland.

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