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Carolyn Franklin (seated) with her sister Aretha, recording at Atlantic Records, December 1967. © David Gahr/Getty Images

Issue 115, Winter 2021

Carolyn’s Alchemy

 

There’s something about siblings in Black music-making—the Jackson 5, Michael and Janet, K-Ci and JoJo, the Isley Brothers, Solange and Beyoncé, VanJess, Aretha and Carolyn. When raised in the same house and having lived through your formative years hip to hip, no one comes close to knowing you quite as well as the person who grew into your clothes. It’s impossible to look away when watching a family share a stage together, and you wonder if the choreography is rehearsed, intuitive, or a little bit of both. When Ernie and Ronald Isley took the virtual stage during their VERZUZ performance alongside Earth, Wind & Fire, there was a synchronicity to their movements. Ernie, a gifted percussionist and guitar maestro, layered his complex and bombastic riffs in such a way that when his brother came in with his buttery smooth vocals, they seamlessly rode above the instrumentation. And Ronald never missed a beat; flexing his range at the right moment and anticipating Ernie’s musical direction with innate precision. Even via a screen, their symbiotic relationship is apparent. It carries the experience of having made music together since childhood and the trust that grows when two people are raised to follow and lead each other. Looking beyond performance, to siblings who also write for each other, you’ll find an even more mesmerizing relationship, with higher professional and personal stakes.

It’s something I have thought about the dozens of times I’ve listened and relistened to “Ain’t No Way”—sung by the late Aretha Franklin, written by her younger sister, the late Carolyn Franklin. I return to the song because it reminds me of some of the most vulnerable moments in the landscape of Black art; the first verse makes me think of the fractured, heavy love between Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun. When I hear the slow percussion, I envision Zimbabwean actress Jesesi Mungoshi as the titular character in the film Neria, struggling to stay upright after the sudden death of her husband. And as the song continues, I think of the women written by Gayl Jones, Vievee Francis, and Toni Morrison, from bits and pieces and flashes of women they knew. Then I think of the women I know. That singular song is the score to a never-ending tapestry of film, prose, poetry, and people that informs my art, because its lyrics witness and hold so much memory.

For a vocalist whose oeuvre is bursting at the seams with tracks on redemptive love, broken love, and love in the godly sense, “Ain’t No Way” holds prime place as being especially naked, emotionally tortured, and deceptively revelatory beyond the well-trod scope of love-me-back pleading. The melody is as exquisite as the lyrics are laden with dread and an extraordinary hope for reciprocity. It doesn’t seem too much of a leap to posit that the song is different because the writer was different. She wasn’t a stranger who became a collaborator, but a sister who had always been a companion.

 

The piano and horn arrangements at the start of the track are lithe in their introduction of a heartbreak ballad. They sound like drifting nostalgia, and it’s when listening to the first words that listeners realize: this is a song for a moment. The moment that finds you wondering whether love must continue or come to a smoldering, ash-filled end. Carolyn wrote this song for Aretha’s smash 1968 album, Lady Soul, her third album for Atlantic (and twelfth album overall), and it was a dual breakthrough, showcasing the talents of a fierce songwriter and the heartache of an immensely private diva. 

Throughout her life, Aretha rarely spoke of the men she loved and skillfully found ways to maneuver questions about her own personal life back to something universal—part of a life lived and “experienced.” Having carved a barrier between her private life and her public persona early on in her career, it’s clear that the only person who would ever come close to knowing how love bruised Aretha was her sister. On “Ain’t No Way,” in the soaring choral arrangement of the refrain, and the slow build from almost whispered confession to desperate pleading, listeners hear snatches of how Aretha might have loved. They also hear pockets of how Carolyn wanted to be loved, delivered by someone whose voice, at its best, could come close to resurrecting what was once dead. 

This was not the first song that Carolyn wrote for her sister, but it was the one that raised her profile as a writer who knew how to spin gold from the most uneasy feelings that come when falling in love, and that gave remarkable softness, clarity, and strength to music’s most overused muse. She wrote about love as someone who had observed it transform those around her. Standing on the periphery she saw the paths taken in the name of love, whether driven by lack of good choices, or not enough bravery. Some writers have made tentative assumptions about Carolyn’s own life, calling “Ain’t No Way” a queer love song for a somewhat closeted semi-visible artist. According to her sister, Erma Franklin, in an interview with journalist David Ritz, Carolyn loved women and never hid that fact. “She went her own way, lived her own life, and found freedom in her individuality. She had no shame about her sexual preference and spoke the unvarnished truth.” 

Having come of age in an era of free love for everyone but Black folks, Carolyn’s intimate truth was likely one she had to delicately balance between the meteoric visibility of her older sister and the staunch religious outlook of C. L. Franklin, her revered, preacher father—even as she confidently claimed it. Distressingly, chances are high that had Carolyn’s queerness been widely publicized it would have garnered even greater backlash than the reality of her preacher father, C. L. Franklin, fathering a child with a twelve-year-old member of his congregation when the family lived in Memphis—a fact that’s all the more pernicious when considering Aretha’s own experiences with motherhood at the same age. It’s a part of her life whose pain is understood only in her unwavering resistance to speak of that time or name any of the people involved in a situation that was likely coercive. Her sisters, especially Carolyn, might have been the only ones she told the full truth. The ones who saw everything as it unfolded, simultaneously carving room for the unnerving truth of their own father’s sins. 

Although singing back-up for Aretha—most memorably on the revamped “Respect”—granted Carolyn greater mobility as an artist, it also made her path to soloist so much narrower. “People won’t let me out of her shadow and I think that’s wrong,” she said in a 1976 interview with the Ann Arbor Sun. “We have different sounds and styles. I have to live for myself,” she added. Songwriting was her independence when a solo career failed to flourish after numerous false starts. Her songs suffered from botched releases and recording contracts so bad she called one “the second-worst contract” she’d ever seen. The pivot to focusing on her writing skills was not only a matter of self-preservation, but an avenue for her to step into the foreground. She was central even though she wasn’t visible, and we hear her words on tracks like “Angel,” “Don’t Catch the Dog’s Bone” (for the B-side of her sister Erma’s 1967 release), and “Save Me,” also covered by Nina Simone. “Angel” is particularly remarkable for Aretha’s spoken word at the beginning of the song, where she momentarily lets her guard down and grants listeners access to her conversation with Carolyn. Those few seconds see Aretha settled in and at home, retelling a special moment, unvarnished, without the gloss that often accompanies celebrity anecdotes of their creative process. That ease of expression and desire to reveal seem to be a through line in Aretha’s collaborations with Carolyn. I don’t know whose idea it was to include that intro, but Carolyn being named and Aretha performing in a state of rarefied vulnerability lend the song a personal place in the pantheon of Black myth-making. 

I got a call the other day
It was my sister Carolyn, saying,
“Aretha, come by when you can…”
And when I got there, she said,
“You know rather than go through a long drawn out thing
I think the melody on the box will help me explain.”

Letting listeners in on a myth, “Angel” gives a glimpse of the work that goes into craft, and spotlights the family members who help in the building. Over a half century later, Carolyn’s words continue to take on new life as they leave the mouths of Black women who embody both spirit and melancholy. They have taken on a life larger than the artist who shaped the classics, a testament to her ability to be the woman for everywoman.

 

“Ain’t No Way” was Whitney Houston’s favorite song, and she shared this before breaking into its first verse during a 1994 concert in Philadelphia, a stop on her strenuous “The Bodyguard World Tour.” Two years after she starred in the film with the same name, the soundtrack had made Houston the biggest star in the world, evidenced by sold-out shows in North America, Europe, and Asia. When she sang the song in Philly, she left its original backing vocals, performed by her mother Cissy Houston. Her performance felt familiar and stripped down, different from the one she would give in 1997, and again in 1999 at VH1’s Divas Live alongside Mary J. Blige. The song landed with a new weight each time she hit the stage. In 1997, it was restrained but triumphant. With Blige, it was explosive as two women both clad in siren red, who’d scaled love’s pinnacles and sunk into its valleys, came together to share their version of a song that undoubtedly had been a thread throughout their own musical lives, echoing in their childhood homes, coming through their tour bus speakers, and bleeding through their pens with language that helped them create their own requiem to love.

When Patti LaBelle sang the song at the 1993 Essence Awards during the Aretha Franklin Tribute, she brought the soulful rendering of an ecstatic preacher at the pulpit. Her version is tethered to nothing except the push and pull of her vocal capacity, and the swelling applause of a grateful crowd. It’s LaBelle at her most inspired—expressive, flamboyant, and entranced by the melodies that gave her ample room to leave listeners in a state of awe. The best storytellers in Black music’s matrilineal generations have approached Carolyn’s words and all have done them justice, yet, intentionally or not, the song also makes starry moments for those who lend their voices in the shadows of the spotlight. Cissy Houston’s “ouuuuuu’s” in the background of the original version are arguably some of the most memorable parts of the song and linger long after Aretha is done. Whitney’s backing vocalist was breathtaking in 1997 as she harmonized while flatfooted, unafraid to take control and be heard, despite singing next to “The Voice.” The vocalist wasn’t who the crowd had come to see, but in that moment she imprinted her own soul’s movements onto the song, receiving a little of the light that Carolyn’s words so graciously offers to all. 

I’ve often wondered what music Carolyn heard playing around her when she conjured the song. Gospel is obvious, and with family roots stretching back to the sharecropping fields of Mississippi, blues would have found their way into any place she called home. Raised in Detroit, the city where Motown took its first breath right as she was stepping into her teens, Carolyn was introduced to the rhythms of the label’s most popular groups, many of whom were artists of her age, including the Supremes, the Marvelettes, and the Jackson 5. I also imagine that with guests like Sarah Vaughan, B. B. King, and Nat King Cole coming to her Detroit childhood home, jazz and r&b were a part of her education. Her single “Deal with It,” released eight years after she wrote “Ain’t No Way,” had strands of funk and disco blending into the gospel inflections, and it’s an under-appreciated gem that highlighted not only her vocal range, but her dynamic alchemy that made listeners hear different genres at the same time in her compositions. It’s a skill that was apparent on “Ain’t No Way,” which can seamlessly fit into multiple genres, from r&b to soul. 

In a grainy video documenting the process of recording early versions, she is a captivating conductor as she modulates the tempo, using her clapping hands like a scale measuring just how low and high Aretha’s voice should go. Carolyn asks for the famous fade away that gives the song not an ending but an uncertain resolution that listeners will come back to time and time again, just to see if they can hear it. In the moments that she sings the song, her voice is light but firm, without the supreme power of her sister, but scarred and moving nonetheless. There is also a moment in the video when she laughs, unexpectedly, caught up in the euphoria of being present in a space made possible by a tenderness that compelled her to write what would allow others to cry, heal, and soar. 

“Ain’t No Way” makes stars out of those who dare approach it. And from the sheer force it requires, the grace it seeks in the face of harm, and the faith it demands, it’s a melody for Black women. It understands how we love, are failed by love, will fight for it, and still stand without it. Carolyn was twenty-four when she wrote the song, already privy to the volatility of the music industry and the ways of the world against women who looked like she did, and who clung fiercely to their agency. For an artist who is devastatingly underrated, it’s a strange turn of events when she’s remembered only in the voice of a woman she knew since girlhood, one who became Queen of Soul in the same year that “Ain’t No Way” was released. The year 1968 saw Aretha release two albums less than six months apart: Lady Soul and Aretha Now. Between the two albums were the groundbreaking hits “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” and “Ain’t No Way.” Only one Franklin is a credited songwriter on one of these tracks. Even with Aretha’s unmatched talent, it still took a community to help in her anointing, and in that space was Carolyn writing words that ushered in her sister’s coronation. Carolyn is remembered because her sister is worshiped. That’s the thing about siblings in Black music-making. We see them all, even when only looking at one.





Tarisai Ngangura

Tarisai Ngangura is a Zimbabwean journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, T Magazine, the New York Times, Lapham's Quarterly, and Rolling Stone. She is currently a senior content strategist at the Atlantic and writes music reviews at Pitchfork. Her debut novel, The Ones We Loved, is forthcoming from HarperCollins Canada in 2023. You can find her on Twitter @FungaiSJ.