Aretha Franklin, who died today at 76 after on-off health issues, was descended from musical royalty that determined the direction of her life. Though born in Memphis, daughter of Mississippi Delta-born Reverend C. L. Franklin, she made her name in Detroit, where her father became a per-eminent African-American preacher and social activist, his sermons so charismatic some were released on record. Realizing his daughter's talents, he supported her desire to sing, so much so that she made her first gospel album at 14, for JVB Records, the same label that released his own sermons.
It's impossible to hit everyone's favorites here, so I've tried to honor history with some memorable live performances.
The late June Foray who died Wednesday at 99 stands as one of America's greatest and most beloved voice actors. The Massachusett native, born June Lucille Forer, would have turned 100 on September 18. Her radio career began when she was 12 and did her first radio apperance, and she wrote and hosted a children's show, Lady Make Believe, at WBZ in Boston before her family moved to Los Angeles in 1935.
In Hollywood, network radio work came over the next decade. She'd work with some of the biggest names in entertainment during that time, from Jimmy Durante to Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and Stan Freberg and remained in demand into her mid-90's voicing countless cartoon characters. She did her final part in 2014. A 2015 vehicle crash ended her distinguished career.
For all his years of political comedy and talk shows, Real Time's Bill Maher had a far broader background.
Elvis Presley appeared as a guest on NBC's The Steve Allen Show on July 1, 1956. Allen's Sunday night variety program was up against CBS's top-rated Ed Sullivan Show that blended comedians, musicians, acrobats, singers, animal acts and so on. Elvis may have been exploding across the nation, but unlike the Dorsey Brothers and Milton Berle, Sullivan refused to book Presley, though he'd already had rockers on the program including Bo Diddley and obscure rockabilly Joe Clay.
Half a century ago, Aretha Franklin was a vital new voice in jazz. Her R&B days were looming ahead.
These three clips show her about 1964 in appearances she did on on the now-legendary Steve Allen "Westinghouse Show," a late night syndicated show that competed with Johnny Carson for a few seasons (seen locally on KDKA at 11:30). Allen's madcap, anarchic nature on the show influenced among others, Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Harry Shearer and David Letterman, who adapted some of Allen's stunts to his NBC show.
Aretha had been discovered a few years earlier by John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive and producer responsible for discovering Billie Holiday, Count Basie, jazz guitar innovator Charlie Christian and Bob Dylan (he'd later discover Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan). He saw her as primarily a jazz artist at the time. Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, would take her in a funkier direction a couple of years later.
Allen, a so-so jazz pianist, gave jazz mainstream TV exposure it didn't otherwise receive at the time. Accordingly, he had a terrific band on his show, led by Donn Trenner. One of its better known members was guitarist Herb Ellis, seen behind Aretha chonking rhythm on his Gibson ES-175. "Won't Be Long" demonstrates her powerful blues delivery, and she does well on the others, both pop standards.
"Won't Be Long."
"Lover Come Back To Me." Her Columbia Dinah Washington tribute album Allen displays before the song confirms this was '64.
"Rock A Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody" Herb Ellis again playing hot in the background.