Aretha was shaken. The fervent applause of the Apollo audience did nothing to convince her that she’d done well, that her nervousness wasn’t on display for all to see. Oh, she could sing, she knew that alright, but moving around the stage, that was beyond her. Standing alone, off-stage, Aretha put her head down, a picture of low self-esteem and fear. She was 18.
“What’s the matter with you girl? You did fine.”
Aretha looked up to see Sam Cooke, her co-star, family friend, idol and love. She adored Sam from the first time she’d met him, when she was seven years old and Sam visited her family’s home. He was beautiful back then; still was. His soft eyes made her melt; his close cut natural framed his handsome face. And that smile, so warm, so inviting. Man, he just wore her out!
And who was she? A preacher’s daughter. A short, teenage ugly duckling who loved to cook and eat. Food was her constant friend, her constant foe. Aretha’s face was a round, chubby juxtaposition of baby fat and sadness, her deep-set dark eyes mournful.
“Oh Sam, I didn’t know what I was doing out there. How’d you learn to move like you do? I felt like I was falling over logs.” It was true enough. Her voice carried the crowd, but her awkwardness was apparent. The gawkier her moves, the more self-conscious she got and stiffened up.
She knew Sam could help her. He’d gone through the same thing when he gave up gospel singing for pop and learned how much to give an audience, how to stand, how to phrase, how to sell a song. Aretha had studied his show but could never figure it out.
“How’d you do it Sam? How’d you get so smooth?” she begged.
“Simple, baby, you gotta make that crowd feel good. Don’t fight it, feel it.”
Aretha knew she couldn’t do that. She reached into her purse for a cigarette.
“When did you start smoking Kents?” laughed Sam. “Let me have one of those.”
She handed one over and gave him a light. She’d given up her Kools for Kents. After all, that’s what Sam smoked, wasn’t it? Ever since she’d heard Sam’s “Nearer to Thee,” she’d fallen head over heels for the man, worshipped the ground he walked on, would do whatever he asked of her. Sam stood out, he was special. From that point on, Aretha kept scrapbooks of Sam and even saved a crushed cigarette package of his that he’d left behind.
“Girl, do you remember the first time I met you?” Sam smiled as he spoke.
“Oh yes. You sang with the Highway QCs in Detroit and came over to my daddy’s house after the show.” Aretha’s eyes twinkled as she thought back on her little girl self, staring moony-eyed at the fine 18-year-old lead singer right there in the living room of her mind. “What did that QC stand for?”
Sam laughed. “We never did get that figured. Nobody knows. We planned to come up with some words but once we started singing we forgot about it.”
“That was when my daddy first heard you. I remember he went on and on, ‘Sam Cooke this, Sam Cooke that.’”
“C.L. is something. I never met a man like that, so strong-willed, so powerful.” Sam wondered if C.L. Franklin had done right by his daughter. C.L. had gone from a young Baptist preacher to a money raising powerhouse, his New Bethel Church a gospel mecca. But now, in early 1961, he had big plans for his daughter. C.L. was a hustler, a real sharpie, always on the lookout for a buck. His influence on his daughter was too much, too strong.
Aretha toured with her daddy starting in 1957, hitting the gospel road as the “World’s Youngest National Gospel Singer.” On the road, 14-year-old Aretha searched for news of Sam Cooke and, when “Lovable” was released, and Sam became a pop star, she had her heart set on joining him. Sam had the same idea, and tried to talk her into doing duets, but C.L. laid down the law. It was strictly gospel for his girl until she turned 18. Then she could become a hit maker, but only to make records for a major label. She was her father’s plaything; not flesh and blood.
But Aretha was crazy for Sam and wanted to sign up with his SAR label. Daddy wouldn’t have it, especially when Motown, RCA and Columbia came calling. Aretha signed with Columbia, just like C.L. wanted, right after her birthday. Now she was on the road, not sure what to do, how to act, how to sing. She missed the church, the old time spirituals that had uplifted her heart. Singing "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” had no meaning for her, held no place in her soul. Had she made a mistake? Was the pop world right for her? She was already a mother of two. The road was no place to be.
She looked straight into Sam’s doe eyes. “Tell me, am I doing the right thing?”
“Have mercy, child, you’re a star! You’re doin’ fine, but you gotta remember this. If it don’t make you feel good, don’t do it.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Sam realized Aretha didn’t feel good about it at all, that this wasn’t the life for her. He knew Aretha admired him and as she sighed, he knew what to say.
Sam reached out for Aretha’s hands. “Honey, don’t do it. This life isn’t for you.”
“But Sam, daddy would be so angry.”
Forget C.L. Unlike her own daddy, Sam had always treated Aretha with consideration and respect.
“Do I have to spell it out for you?” Sam spoke strongly.
“Money is my God now. You should stay with the Lord.” As he spoke, Sam realized how much he’d changed since he left the gospel world. “Baby, I’m lost. I can’t find my way back. I won’t let that happen to you.”
Aretha smiled, for the first time in a long while.
“Really, Sam, do you think I should?”
Sam nodded. “I’m sure. Don’t you believe me baby?”
“I do Sam, I do. You’ve always done right by me.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, get ready for the star of our show,” shouted the MC from on stage. “Please welcome 'Mr. Soul' himself! How ‘bout it for Sam Cooke!”
Sam gave Aretha a peck on the cheek and strolled out.
“How you doin’ out there?” Sam squinted through the white hot spotlight and looked out to the crowd, a writhing, shrieking mass. “I said, how you doin’ out there? Is everyone doin’ all right?”
From off stage, Aretha Franklin smiled. She was doing just fine.
Aretha Franklin first met Sam Cooke in February 1949 after a gospel program in Detroit. Her father C.L. Franklin was a young Baptist preacher at the New Bethel Church. C.L. had big dreams and became a skilled fund-raiser and self-promoter, making several spoken word records before turning his attention and ambition to his talented daughter. Aretha signed a pop contract with Columbia and legendary producer John Hammond in the spring of 1960. Her career drifted aimlessly until her 1967 move to Atlantic records and her breakout album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You.
Sam Cooke was shot to death by the manager of the Hacienda Motel on December 11, 1964. Cooke, drunk and distressed, wearing only a jacket and shoes, had checked in with a woman (later picked up for prostitution) who may have robbed him. Cooke stormed into the manager’s office in a rage and was killed, a casualty of the rock and roll lifestyle.