Teenage Dreams: My Life as a Soul Boy

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Photo credit: Tom Copi - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tom Copi - Getty Images

I was 17 when Otis Redding died. I was working as a messenger boy for a business publishing house in London’s West End. Somebody who I would talk music with came down to the basement post room and said, “Have you heard about Otis?” I went out into Oxford Street to buy the lunchtime edition of the paper, and there it was: Otis Redding, dead in a plane crash at the age of 26. Tears were stinging my eyes.

I didn’t know Otis, of course, but I felt I did. I had seen him a year or so earlier, performing at the Orchid Ballroom, Purley. A big man in a red silk suit, frantic and impassioned, burning up the stage on “Respect”, his signature song; crying out in pain on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, perspiration on his forehead, dropping to one knee as if pleading for deliverance. His act was pure catharsis; not a word I’d have understood then, but you didn’t have to understand it to feel it. It was called soul music for a reason.

The Orchid in Purley was the largest ballroom in Europe. In the 1950s and early 1960s, it had hosted big bands and bow-tied and blow-dried crooners and songbirds, but by the mid-’60s it had become the domain of mods. To me, it felt like paradise. The big night was Monday. Forget the weekend — that was just waiting time — and even the first day back at school or in the dead-end job was tolerable because the minutes were ticking past until 7.30 in the evening when you could walk through the double-glass doors, past the bouncers and into the red carpet and flock-wallpaper foyer, anticipation surging through your veins.

In the cloakroom, you’d check yourself out in the gilt-framed mirror. A sand-coloured, “Tonik” mohair suit: regulation three-button, single vent slashed 16in, narrow lapel, single pleat trousers. Hair back-combed from the crown and chopped and teased at the front. Like everybody else’s, it had been cut by Antoine, the gay (if closeted) barber in South Croydon. The smell was of Brut aftershave, even though you hardly needed to shave at all. You could hear the strains of music from the dance floor. You adjusted the knot of your tie, lit a cigarette and pushed through the swing doors, to be swallowed up in the tumult of sound and excitement.

Photo credit: Sherry Rayn Barnett - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sherry Rayn Barnett - Getty Images

At one end of the enormous room was the Carousel bar, which slowly turned like a funfair roundabout; at the other was the Blue Grotto, where they sold ice-cream sodas, the room bathed in ultraviolet light that would reveal the dandruff on the shoulders of your suit. The dance floor — the biggest in Europe, remember — was a sea of mohair, top stylists giving it everything, the girls with Mary Quant peekaboo haircuts and Dusty Springfield bouffants, shift dresses, high heels clacking on the polished wood boards, dappled in light from the spinning glitter globe. Everybody lost in the music.

The music was soul and R&B: James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Otis (of course), and Motown — The Supremes, The Isley Brothers, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, The Temptations. More than songs, these records were a textbook, a map of the human heart articulating all the feelings, the dreams and the fantasies you could never articulate for yourself. The yearning, the sting of rejection, the pain of separation: “This old heart of mine, is weak for you…” That’s right! That’s exactly what it feels like! And no matter how banal or trite they may seem on reflection, at the time they felt like the gospel truth.

“When a man loves a woman, can’t keep his mind on nothin’ else…” Recorded by Percy Sledge in a small, dusty town in northern Alabama, it was a song that seemed to have been circling the heavens, just waiting to be called down to Earth in south London, describing all the longing I felt for the girl on the dancehall floor, whom I could never tell exactly how I felt, and never would. It would be 50 years before I learned that she’d committed suicide at the age of 21.

You’d sing these songs quietly under your breath to the girls you passed, on the passeggiata around the perimeter of the dance floor, past the drinkers crowding the bars, careful not to attract the attention of the hard cases looking for any excuse for a fight — “You clocking my bird, mate?” — which they would assuredly find before the night was out, most often on the pavement outside, which at closing time, as the hordes spilled out into the street and the sounds of revving scooters filled the air, would be drenched with the smell of fear and the promise of bloodshed.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

But on the dance floor everything was sweetness and light, a community of dreamers, the music surging through your veins, the circle of dancers growing larger, arms pumping in and out in unison, like pistons. “Love is like an itching in my heart… and baby I can’t scratch it…” then the slow dance, the chance to clutch someone close, to inhale the smell of cheap perfume, vodka and lime and menthol cigarettes on her breath, “and here’s Smokey Robinson and The Miracles”: “People say I’m the life of the party, ’Cos I tell a joke or two, Although I might be laughing loud and hearty, Deep inside I’m blue, So take a good look at my face, You’ll see my smile looks out of place, If you look closer, it’s easy to trace, The tracks of my tears, Oh I need you (need you)…” Bob Dylan was right when he named Robinson as America’s greatest poet.

There is a Portuguese word, saudade — that feeling of bittersweet melancholy and nostalgia; a yearning for a happiness that has passed, or perhaps never even existed. If Motown expressed teenage dreams and angst, the deep soul singers of the 1960s essayed something altogether darker, more complex, more adult. Deep soul was a singular form that took its spirit from the black church, the testifying of preachers whipping their congregations into a fervour.

Its defining mode was the soul ballad, a secular sermon in 4/4 time. Its primary exponents were stone-cold romantics; men made weak by love. Usually unrequited, pole-axed by pain, screamers, shakers and weepers at the far edge of thwarted desire, often, it seemed, just a heartbeat away from total collapse; men who weren’t afraid to plead or to cry.

The guttural yelps, cries and screams, the sermonising homilies, the “gotta, gotta, gotta” testifying climaxes all came straight from gospel music, “the mother” as Al Green would put it, “of rhythm and blues and the grandmother of rock ’n’ roll”. Otis Redding (and Otis Clay), Garnet Mimms, OV Wright, Joe Tex, Oscar Toney Jr, Clarence Carter — even the names seemed like poetry, and that’s before you got to the songs.

Photo credit: Lynn Goldsmith - Getty Images
Photo credit: Lynn Goldsmith - Getty Images

The “soul man” appeared in a number of archetypes; there was the sly, street-corner sermoniser (Joe Tex); the love-struck, pleading romantic (Percy Sledge, Kip Anderson and Al Green); and the sneakin’ around “back door man” — Clarence Carter and Jimmy Hughes fell into this category. As in country music, the cheating song was one of the great staples of deep soul, and the greatest cheating song of them all is “The Dark End of the Street”, a song that wraps desire and guilt, the terrible compulsion of illicit love and the dread of discovery into a three-minute package of choking melodrama. It’s been recorded in more than 20 different cover versions, but none has ever surpassed the 1967 original by James Carr.

Soul singers all seemed larger than life, certainly larger than my life, which seemed trifling, stultifyingly conventional and uneventful by comparison. Their lives were led on an operatic scale, of swagger and style, sexual profligacy, domestic chaos, drama, tragedy and often early death. It was this that gave their records their pain. James Carr spent his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Al Green was scalded when an ex-lover threw a pot of boiling hot grits over him (then shot herself dead in a bedroom); it was what turned him back to the church. Johnny Ace died of an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound aged 25. Sam Cooke was shot dead by the manager of a low-rent Los Angeles motel. Marvin Gaye would be shot dead by his own father.

No story was more baroque, nor more confusing, than Bobby Womack’s. He had been in a family gospel group, The Valentinos, which Sam Cooke signed to his record label Sar. When The Valentinos ran out of steam, Womack became Cooke’s guitar player and protégé. So close were they that after Cooke died, Womack married his widow, Barbara. He then went on to have an affair with Cooke’s teenage daughter, Linda. After the collapse of Bobby and Barbara’s marriage, Linda married Womack’s brother Cecil, thus going from being Bobby’s step-daughter to being his sister-in-law. Meanwhile, another Womack brother and former Valentino, Harry, was stabbed to death by a jealous girlfriend.

Bobby, who indulged copiously in drugs, narrowly avoided a murder charge of his own. One morning, he was awoken by the sound of an intruder trying his bedroom door. He reached for the pistol he kept under his pillow and discharged several bullets into the door. The intruder was his young son, whom the bullets only barely avoided hitting.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

Most of the singers I loved had sung in church, or in gospel groups, and it was as if their lives were balanced on the tension between the spirit and the flesh. But few achieved this balance with quite the elegance and aplomb of Solomon Burke. In 2002, I spent an afternoon with him in Los Angeles, where he was then living, and he was one of the most joyful people I have ever met. As befitted a man who, as he put it, “can’t drive past a hamburger stall without hearing it calling my name”, he was of magisterial girth, somewhere due north of 25 stone, as sweet and gentle as a lamb.

His grandmother was a “spiritual medium” who predicted his coming 12 years before his birth, and founded The House of God for All People, for him to lead. By the age of seven, he was a boy-wonder preacher, caped and crowned, delivering his sermons from a soapbox in a storefront church in Philadelphia. He recorded gospel records as a teenager, before having his first R&B chart hit, “Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)”, for Atlantic Records in 1961.

It was to appease the church elders, who disapproved of him recording secular material, he told me, that he came up with the term “soul music”, a slightly fanciful tale, perhaps, although he was a monumentally important figure in establishing both the musical template and the commercial possibilities of the soul music boom that would launch the careers of such singers as Joe Tex, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.

Burke was a particularly versatile singer, comfortable in a variety of styles. While songs such as “If You Need Me” and “The Price” were steeped in the testifying idioms of gospel, he was equally adept at singing country material like “Just Out Of Reach” and the Jim Reeves hit “He’ll Have To Go”. At a time when artists were known primarily through the radio, he was often mistaken for a white singer and found a following in the most unlikely quarters. He told a story of once being booked to play an open-air show in Mississippi at a time when his song “Down In The Valley” was a big hit, only to discover that it was a Ku Klux Klan rally. He laughed his big, throaty laugh. “But they were cool. They even gave me my own sheet!”

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

Burke trod the line between religiosity and libidinousness with cheerful indifference. He was married four times, fathered 21 children, including at least two outside his marriages, had 90 grandchildren and, at the time of his death in 2010, 19 great-grandchildren. “You have to keep a congregation,” he reasoned, “and make sure you got enough people to work the fan club.”

It was these onerous family responsibilities, perhaps, that fostered his strong entrepreneurial instincts. Touring in the American South in the 1960s, at a time when many roadside restaurants refused to serve blacks, Burke would travel with a portable cooker to prepare chicken and sandwiches to sell on the bus to his fellow artists, the prices rising incrementally with each passing mile as the hunger pangs kicked in. He owned restaurants and drug stores. And at the height of his success, he even kept his hand in as an undertaker — and as a preacher.

On the night I met him, he was preaching at a one-time cinema, repurposed as the Miracle Theater in a neighbourhood out near the airport. Seated on his crimson throne, shrouded in a silk robe, and backed by a four-piece band, he crooned, wailed and hollered. For his sermon, he dispensed advice on matters of the spirit, the heart and home decoration — “Turn your furniture around! Clean up! God don’t like a mess!” — and urged the congregation not to buy their shoes at Payless: “How you gonna find anyone to love you if you look poor?”

“Bless you all!” he called out as the crowd filed out of the theatre. Outside, a black town car purred on the sidewalk, waiting to whisk him away. In the Los Angeles night, a choir of hamburger stalls were calling his name.

Photo credit: Richard Dowker
Photo credit: Richard Dowker

I felt privileged to have found this music early. I was 12 or 13 when a family friend gave me a copy of Paul Oliver’s book, Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues. Oliver was an English architectural historian who had developed a passion for jazz and blues while at university and went on to become one of the foremost authorities on the development and history of the blues. There was a phrase in the book about blues singers living in “virtual squalor” that haunted me (it sounded like a hamlet on the wrong side of the tracks in the Deep South — Virtual Squalor, Mississippi).

It was my first inkling of the conditions of hardship and injustice from which the music had sprung. It was hard to imagine the plight of families a generation or two away from slavery, 5,000 miles from my own suburban comforts, but the music was intoxicating, raw and powerful, and from another world, the mythology around it tragic but at the same time inescapably romantic.

One day in 1964, I caught the bus to Croydon with a school friend, to sit in the front stalls at the Fairfield Halls — a venue more accustomed to television comedians, show business crooners and current hit-paraders (including The Beatles) — to watch one of the folk and blues packages that toured Britain and Europe in the early and mid-1960s. What could Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson have made of the rows of young, white faces gazing up adoringly at them from the stalls. What would have elicited shouts and whoops of approval in joints and clubs in America was greeted with the reverent silence and barely nodding heads of an audience at the Proms.

The following year, I made my way across London to see James Brown perform for the first time in England. If Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins were ancient prophets coming down from the mountain top with tablets of stone, to see James Brown, sliding across the stage like mercury in red satin, executing spins, twists and splits while singing “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” was to witness God himself. Ennoblement was a long-standing custom in black music; there were dukes and earls and counts — and later a Prince — but there was only ever one true and undisputed king, and that was James Brown, The Godfather, Soul Brother Number One, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

Photo credit: Tom Copi - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tom Copi - Getty Images

More than a mere singer he was a role model, an exemplar. Brown had shined shoes and danced on street corners for dimes; he had served time in jail, it was impossible to conceive of more humble, or less promising, beginnings, yet he reinvented himself by sheer talent and force of personality and willpower to become the most important black entertainer in America.

We think of him now as the inventor of funk, which he was, but before that he was a deep soul singer, a screamer and a knee-trembler. The climax of his act was “Please, Please, Please”, a pleading ballad which he would whip up into a feverish lather of angst and pain, culminating in a dramatic fall to his knees, microphone grasped in both hands, amplifying his anguished sobs. At that moment, a figure would appear from the wings bearing a crimson robe which he would drape over The Godfather’s shoulders, helping him to his feet and escorting him towards the wings. But wait! Undone by emotion, The Godfather would throw off the cape, step back to centre stage and drop to his knees again, “Please! Please! Please! Please!”, the drama repeated thrice more with robes of different colours until finally the singer would be led offstage to tumultuous applause.

It was December 1981 when I finally got to meet him. He was touring Britain, starting at the Odeon in Birmingham. (A Flock of Seagulls had appeared there three days earlier; Hawkwind were performing the following day). Whether because of conflicting schedules, or to save money — always a consideration in Brown’s universe — his journey had involved him flying from Georgia to New York, and then to London, before making his way from the airport by chauffeur-driven car directly to the door of the venue. Propelled by two drummers, he performed a breathless hour-long set of his best-known numbers before being led off stage, weeping in customary fashion, by his long-standing retainer and keeper of the many coloured robes, Danny Ray.

Backstage, I was introduced to a portly and suave young man who described himself as Brown’s spiritual advisor, the Reverend Al Sharpton. This was some years before Sharpton would achieve fame and notoriety as a savvy street politician and civil rights organiser, and the inspiration for the agit-prop crowd-rouser Reverend Bacon in Tom Wolfe’s book, The Bonfire of the Vanities. Sharpton led me down a corridor and into the dressing room where Brown was holding court. The mode was one of Byzantine formality. I was introduced to Danny Ray.

“Mr Brown, this is Mr Ray.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr Brown.”

“My pleasure, Mr Ray.”

“Mr Ray, would you find a seat for Mr Brown.”

“Certainly, Reverend Sharpton.”

“And Mr Brown, this is Mr Brown.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr Brown.”

“Mr Brown, it’s a privilege and an honour…”

Photo credit: Walter Iooss Jr - Getty Images
Photo credit: Walter Iooss Jr - Getty Images

He was sitting under a hairdryer like a space helmet, of the type that you see microwaving the perms of women of a certain age in suburban hairdressing salons. A post-performance ritual, it seemed. Such was the energy that Brown expended that his elaborate plume of processed hair would end the show hanging limply across this face and needed to be rebuilt.

I switched on my tape recorder and leaned forward to hear him speak over the whine of the hairdryer. Brown was never reticent about his achievements, and it was his usual riff, at least what I could hear of it: “I changed the face of music, 95 per cent of modern music. There are three great Bs in music — Beethoven, The Beatles and James Brown.” He talked about his insistence on running a tight ship in the musical department: it was said that during his performance he would indicate his displeasure with anyone in his band who was deemed to be slacking, by holding up his outstretched fingers in mid-dance-step to indicate how much would be docked from their pay; 10 bucks, 20 bucks, 30 bucks.

On he went, about his greatness, his genius, his magnificence. I pushed my tape recorder closer to capture these pearls of unbridled egotism, all of which I agreed with. I was so bowled over to be in his presence I could hardly speak. It didn’t matter. He talked enough for both of us, for everybody in the room.

At length, the hairdryer was turned off, Brown stood up and shook me by the hand. The Reverend Sharpton ushered me out of the dressing room, handing me a copy of a single he had recorded with The Godfather, “God Has Smiled On Me”, and suggesting that a mention of the recording might make its way into whatever I cared to write.

On the train back to London, I switched on my tape to listen back to the conversation. All that could be heard was the whine of the hairdryer, and the occasional ghostly word, “Three geniuses... Beethoven, The Beatles, James Brown.’

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

Soul and R&B, in Britain, was like a well-kept secret. When The Tamla-Motown Show, featuring The Supremes, Little Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and Martha and The Vandellas toured Britain in 1965, the revue played to half-empty theatres outside London, and despite being priced at only 15 shillings, tickets sold so poorly that Georgie Fame, who was then enjoying success in the UK charts, was added to the bill in a bid to boost sales.

Transat Imports, where one could find records that would never have been released in Britain, was located in a basement at 27 Lisle Street in Soho’s Chinatown. Immediately after WWII, the street had been lined with shops selling electrical equipment and radio parts, much of it decommissioned from military use. Red lights showed at windows above the shops; postcards at the door advertised French Maid, and Large Chest for Sale. By the mid-1960s, most of the electrical goods outlets had moved north to Tottenham Court Road. The red lights and postcards remained.

On a Saturday morning the basement would be crammed with soul music aficionados, a masonic brethren feverishly poring over the singles and LPs stacked in cardboard boxes, newly arrived from America. There was a fetishistic currency in their obscurity. It felt as if there were only 40 people in Britain — all of them crowded in that basement — who would have heard “How Can You Babysit A Man” by Ned Towns, or “May God Bless Our Love, Pts 1 and 2” by Elvis and The Roadrunners — and for some reason the records sounded all the sweeter for it. There is no snob like a music snob.

These secrets were cultivated and shared by a handful of fanzine and “appreciation societies”, the phrase “fan clubs” being beyond the pale. There was the James Brown Appreciation Society; the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, run by a bearded civil servant from Bexley named Dave Godin, who would attain a legendary status among soul aficionados by being flown to Detroit at Motown’s expense to meet the artists he wrote about. The Fame-Goldwax Appreciation Society was run by my cousin, who, breaching the furthest reaches of the arcane, also ran The Organisation, dedicated to the appreciation of Hammond organ players such as “Big” John Patton, Jimmy McGriff and Dave “Baby” Cortez.

Photo credit: Richard Dowker
Photo credit: Richard Dowker

When Pete Wingfield, who edited a fanzine called Soulbeat, went off to university, I offered to take over. (A few years later, Wingfield would have a hit single himself with “Eighteen With A Bullet”.) The magazine was produced in my bedroom in the hours when I should have been doing my schoolwork, typed on a vintage Underwood typewriter, printed on an ancient duplicating machine and sold by mail order. I wrote to American record companies, wildly inflating the circulation figure, begging for new releases to review.

Stax, Duke, Fame, Atlantic, One-derful — envelopes would drop through the letterbox like manna from heaven, bearing singles, glossy 8 x 10 promo pictures and artist biographies, written in a breathless prose, designed to invest the musicians, their every action, with the significance of myth. This was essential information. I knew little about the chemistry and physics I was supposed to be studying, and had even less interest in, but I knew that Rufus Thomas made up his song “The Dog” the night he played in a small club in Millington, Tennessee, after watching a woman dance, and that Booker T and The MGs cut “Green Onions” on a summer afternoon in 1962 when a singer they were supposed to be backing at a recording session failed to show up, and that MGs stood for Memphis Group.

I found a Saturday job, in a record shop in West Croydon. Diamond Records was owned by a small, tubby man with brilliantined hair and a pencil moustache who was seldom to be seen. It was managed by a woman in her thirties named Ronda. There was a large West Indian population in the area and the shop did a lively business in ska and bluebeat recordings: Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, The Skatalites. The West Indians would drift in at lunchtime, sharply dressed in tailored clothes, often topped off with a pork pie hat. They were style kings, “rude boys”. It was my job to crack open the boxes of that week’s new arrivals and play them over the shop’s sound system, while they moved languorously, signalling their approval or disapproval with a nod of the head.

Then would come the mods — some of them I knew — and the same ritual would unfold with the new R&B and Motown releases that they had been dancing to at the Orchid or the Top Rank Suite. “Sock It To ’Em JB” by Rex Garvin and The Mighty Cravers, “Shotgun Wedding” by Roy C, “In The Midnight Hour” by Little Mac and The Boss Sounds.

Photo credit: Keystone Features - Getty Images
Photo credit: Keystone Features - Getty Images

I became a purist of the worst sort, seized with the idea that race was a measure of authenticity, and only black singers and musicians could rightfully enter the temple of soul. Everybody I knew who collected these records felt the same way. To see a photograph of Booker T and The MGs and realise that two of the group — guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn — were white presented difficult problems of ideological purity. Clearly, they would have to be given special exemption from the stain of being white, as would the members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra who lent a sense of ineffable class and sophistication to Motown records like The Isleys’ “This Old Heart Of Mine” that I loved.

I was shocked recently, looking back at a copy of Soulbeat to find an “exclusive” interview with Cropper, that I must have conducted over a period of weeks by airmail. My very first question was: I should think the foremost thing in the minds of us R&B fans in this country is the fact that you are white. Do you ever feel like an outsider because of this fact? Cropper’s reply was a model of graciousness. “No, because I have been accepted in every section of the country I have played in by both coloured and white audiences.”

It was the knowledge that my heroes and heroines had to play to segregated audiences when performing in the South that awakened me to the iniquities of racism in America, and made me realise that much of the pain expressed in the deep soul records I loved derived from the unspoken dynamic of a manhood diminished by the challenges of everyday life.

Sam Cooke’s wonderful “A Change Is Gonna Come” dared to express this and to look forward to a brighter future. But it was Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” that would change a hope into a demand. Written by Otis Redding and originally recorded by him in 1965, his version was the lament of a working man, pleading that he be given the respect in his home that he believes is his due, but which he is denied in the outside world.

But if Redding’s recording of the song was about love, Franklin’s interpretation, recorded two years later, was about power; a fierce, clarion call of self-assertion and independence that would become an anthem for two rising movements: women’s liberation and black power. Her father, CL Franklin was a celebrated preacher, known as the “Man with the Million-Dollar Voice”, who ministered to a 4,500-strong congregation in his New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, but who had been obliged to leave a previous church in Memphis after impregnating a 12-year-old member of his congregation.

Photo credit: Donaldson Collection - Getty Images
Photo credit: Donaldson Collection - Getty Images

Her mother left the family when Aretha was a child, and had died by the time she was 10. At 14, Aretha recorded her first album in her father’s church. By 16, she had given birth to two sons. At 19, she married a Detroit hustler named Ted White, who went on to become her manager. In 1968, a year after recording “Respect”, Franklin became the first African-American entertainer to grace the cover of Time magazine. But even while celebrating her achievements, the report described how White had “roughed her up” in full public view in the lobby of an Atlanta hotel. Franklin described herself as “26 going on 65, an old woman in disguise”.

She left White shortly afterwards, but her life would be a checkerboard of emotional storms and insecurities from then on. Atlantic Records’ mogul Jerry Wexler, who produced “Respect” and many of her other great hits, called Franklin “Our Lady of the Mysterious Sorrows”, describing her “luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain”. But that sorrow and pain was the grist of her genius, transcended by the sublime power of her voice and the dignity of her bearing.

I met her only once, in 1980, on her final visit to Britain (she never returned, largely due to a fear of flying). I was ushered into her suite at the Savoy Hotel, to find her seated on a sofa, flanked by her then husband, the actor Glynn Turman, her brother and manager Cecil, and two PR women. I pulled up a chair in front of them, tape recorder in hand, feeling as if I were facing a firing squad. She was awkward, testy, uncommunicative, her answers brief to the point of monosyllabic. She showed no interest in talking about her life — that I could understand — but also, and more depressingly, no interest in talking about her music.

I could feel the beads of sweat gathering on my forehead as I struggled to formulate a question that might ignite her interest. I asked about the two albums of hers that Curtis Mayfield had produced in the 1970s — Sparkle and Almighty Fire — wonderful records, made at a time when Franklin’s sparkle was actually threatening to fade and her music descend into formula. She shrugged. They were, she said, making no attempt to disguise the boredom in her voice, “just records...”. After little more than 20 minutes of this excruciating stuff, and having determined that she spent much of her time cooking and watching television soap operas, to my eternal regret, I abandoned the interview, frustrated, disappointed and deeply saddened. Aretha was the Queen, and I idolised her.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

Much more than a musical figure, Franklin became a figurehead for black equality, rights and progress. Her father was a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr, and organised the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom — at the time the largest civil rights demonstration in America — when an estimated 125,000 people marched through the city protesting against inequality in wages, education and housing, to raise funds for Dr King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and promote the non-violent campaign to desegregate the state of Alabama. Dr King, who delivered an early version of his “I have a dream” speech, called the march, “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America”.

In the 1960s, Aretha had it written into her contract that she would never perform for a segregated audience, and she often appeared on the same platform as King. He was a hero to me. I would watch the newsreels of his marches for freedom, and be deeply moved by the spectacle of those marching beside him, the ordinary men and women, braving the catcalls, taunts and beatings, and the whites, too, mostly young students who had come to the Deep South to march alongside him. He was the very personification of human dignity and strength and resolve in the face of adversity, and I felt his killing almost as a personal tragedy.

In early April 1968, King was visiting Memphis to lend his support to a strike of sanitation workers. He stayed at the Lorraine Motel, which was listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, also known as The Green Guide, a compilation of hotels, restaurants, filling stations, barber shops and other businesses that were friendly to African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. It was a popular spot in the Tennessee city with visiting dignitaries and performers: Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Aretha Franklin had all stayed at the Lorraine. It was where Wilson Pickett, who had come to Memphis to record at the Stax studios, wrote “In The Midnight Hour” with Steve Cropper, and where Cropper and Eddie Floyd wrote Floyd’s hit “Knock On Wood”, both songs that would have the mods crowding onto the dance floor at the Orchid ballroom.

At 6pm on 4 April, Dr King stepped out of Room 306 onto the balcony and leaned over to talk to some friends who’d gathered in the forecourt below. Among them was the Rev Jesse Jackson and the saxophonist Ben Branch who was due to play at the rally that evening. King told Branch to make sure he played “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at the meeting that evening, and to “play it real pretty”. As King turned to walk back into his room at 6.01pm, a shot rang out. The bullet struck him in the right side of his neck; rushed to hospital, he died there just over an hour later.

Photo credit: CBS Photo Archive - Getty Images
Photo credit: CBS Photo Archive - Getty Images

When I visited Memphis, the Lorraine Motel had long since gone out of business, and the property had been bought by a foundation called the National Civil Rights Museum, with a view to turning the premises into a fitting tribute to Dr King’s legacy. The driving force behind the project was a Memphis judge and civil rights activist, D’Army Bailey. King’s legacy had been honoured across America, not least in the naming of streets and boulevards in every American city. But the Lorraine, in Bailey’s words, was “the site of the crucifixion”.

I met him for a drink in a downtown hotel. He arrived in a gold Jaguar, dressed in a mink jacket and wearing a large diamond ring on his finger. He ordered a vodka and 7Up with a twist. He was quite the coolest judge I’d ever met. He invited me back to his home, poured himself three fingers of vodka and flipped on a jazz station on the Bang and Olufsen. “Let me show you something,” he said.

He fetched a cardboard box and carefully began to unpack the contents: plates, cups, cutlery, salt and pepper shakers. “Dr King ate his last meal off this,” Judge Bailey said. He unfolded a pink bedspread. “And this is what was wrapped around him after he had been shot.”

He shook it open and held it up. The bloodstains were still visible.

There was a girl who worked at the record shop that I yearned for. Sue was three or four years older than me, out of my league. One day her new boyfriend came by at closing time to collect her. He swaggered in dressed in a velvet jacket, long hair coiffed in a perm. He was a drummer who had just joined a new group, featuring a guitarist who was supposed to be the latest rock sensation. I couldn’t have cared less. The guitarists I cared about were Steve Cropper, BB King, Buddy Guy. They wouldn’t have entertained this pretender — whoever he was — for a moment.

A few weeks later — incredibly — I managed to arrange an interview with Garnet Mimms for Soulbeat. Mimms was a soul singer from Philadelphia who, with his group The Enchanters, had a handful of hits sung in an impassioned, testifying style: “Cry Baby”; “It Was Easier To Hurt Her”; “As Long As I Have You”. He was visiting Britain for the first time. I met him at his hotel on Oxford Street. I nervously read my questions off a list I’d prepared earlier and he answered them politely, probably wondering why he was wasting his time talking to a 16-year-old boy who produced a magazine that had a circulation of approximately 50.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

He performed, a few days later, at the Saville Theatre in London, a venue that had just had its lease taken over by Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. Garnet — as I now felt I could call him — was the opening act for the latest rock music sensation, the very same rock music sensation that featured the velvet-jacketed and perm-coiffed drummer who was presently walking out with Sue from Diamond Records. It was all too much.

When Garnet had performed, I rose from my seat and in a magnificent display of musical purity and petulance left the theatre as this latest 1960s rock sensation was taking to the stage. So it was that, hoist on the petard of my own prejudices, I became the first, and probably only, person ever to walk out on Jimi Hendrix.

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