This piece is part of the Detours series. Detours are deep dives, because music deserves time and context. Listen, breathe deep, take the scenic route.
Some sibling musicians live in the shadow of their siblings (Chris Jagger, Andy Yorke), others carve their own path (Solange) or are collaborators (HAIM, Allman Brothers). Erma Franklin is a bit of all those things.
Erma Franklin’s story is one of great music, but also false starts and bad luck. She started singing in her father’s church in Detroit, along with her sisters Carolyn and, of course, Aretha. From the very start, her influences were not flashy entertainers, but what she called "flat-footed gospel singers...They didn't need any routines or other musical gimmicks to get over, they just stood flat-footed and tore the house down." She had success with a secular vocal group she started, and did some work with a pre-Motown Berry Gordy, but put her musical pursuits on hold when her father insisted that she go to college.
Franklin’s music career does follow her more famous younger sister’s. Aretha was signed to Columbia Records in 1960, and shortly afterwards Erma was signed to sister label Epic. Her 1962 debut Her Name is Erma is dominated by standards, and the record didn’t really go anywhere. As Franklin later observed, "At the time, Epic wasn't into R&B and I had the same problem Aretha had at Columbia: The company just didn't know what to do with us.” She spent some time singing backup for other singers (including her sister), but left the music business to work for IBM.
But in 1967, as Aretha’s career blew up, Erma was drawn back in by legendary songwriter, producer, and Shout Records label head Bert Berns. It was with Berns that Erma Franklin recorded the original version of “Piece of My Heart.” While it may be overshadowed by Janis Joplin’s rendition (which has 100 million more Spotify plays), Franklin’s version was a hit in its own right, reaching #10 on the R&B charts. In contrast to Big Brother & The Holding Company’s wild and ragged rendition, Franklin’s is taut and smooth. Her voice is powerful yet restrained, matching the swinging piano-driven groove.
While she was primed to keep up the momentum and record an album, Berns tragically died at age 38, which left the record company in chaos. Again Franklin retreated from the limelight, but did spend the next few years contributing backup vocals to her sister’s recordings. Eventually, she signed with Brunswick and was able to record and release her 2nd album, Soul Sister.
With a sound helmed by Carl Davis and Sonny Sanders, Erma Franklin and the band meld wonderfully and bring a unique flavor to various covers. Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” opens the record with soaring strings grounded by snappy drums and a rubbery bass, and after that a Muscle Shoals-esque gritty funk dominates the record. “Light My Fire” is punctuated by a groovy swinging organ that trades the extended organ solo original with a squawking sax solo. The first side also contains the two Franklin originals, including the terrific tell-off “You’ve Been Cancelled.”
The highlight of the record is the ferocious side two opener “Hold On, I’m Coming.” The overall arrangement isn’t markedly different from the Sam & Dave original, but the sound has gone from black and white to color 3D. The energy and drive of the song is through the roof, and it would’ve fit perfectly in the movie Baby Driver. Side two is rounded out with an energetic rendition of “Son of a Preacherman” (recorded before Aretha’s take on the tune), and the two singles off the album: ballad “Saving My Loving for You” and soul stomper “Gotta Find Me a Lover (24 Hours a Day).”
Unfortunately, Soul Sister was another dud for Franklin, and her music career fizzled out. She did continue to sing on some records and make live appearances with her sister Aretha, but spent most of her time working for a children’s charity in Michigan. In 1992, her recording of “Piece of My Heart” was used in a commercial in the UK, and renewed interest in the song led it back to #9 on the UK Singles chart. The success was some well-deserved good karma for Erma Franklin, though Soul Sister remains a hidden gem.
The album's title is a cheeky play on the fact that Erma might be best known to listeners thanks to her sister. It's likely tough to be compared to a sibling who’s been crowned the Queen of Soul, but as Aretha herself put it, she’s “Miss Erma…[she’s] her own woman.” Her voice is strong and rich, with a depth and breadth of feeling. The text on the back of the LP describes it well: “Erma Franklin is everybody’s soul sister… Erma speaks out for people, whether they dream in a corner or boogaloo in a crowd—which means everybody.”
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