It’s been twenty-nine years since I did my first of two interviews with Erma Franklin and yet I can remember with vivid detail. It was 1973 and Erma was in the UK for a quick club tour as part of a European trip that also included dates in Germany and Italy. It was a memorable chat because Erma was both warm and down to earth and we talked at length – mostly about her career but also about her sister Aretha and her career. I had penned an article for “Blues & Soul” entitled “Aretha, Where Are You At” just a few months prior in which I questioned the state of her recording career, in view of a less-than-successful collaboration with Quincy Jones and what seemed to me an emphasis on Aretha covering pop and rock songs from the catalogues of Elton John (“The Border Song”), The Beatles (“Long And Winding Road” and other tunes) and others. Erma read the article politely and did offer some comments - mostly in her sister's defense - but just what she said is lost in the mists of time!
What I do recall is that sitting in a tiny hotel room off Earl’s Court in London, Erma was happy to discuss a career that always seemed on the verge of happening. In fact, the resultant article for ”Blues & Soul” was entitled “If It Wasn’t For Bad Luck…” Music had played an important part in her life in Detroit, as it had in the lives of younger sisters Aretha and Carolyn, as the daughters of renowned preacher The Reverend C.L. Franklin. Erma had formed a group in her teens named the Cleopatrettes and laughingly revealed how Aretha was not a member because she always wanted to sing in a particular key that didn’t necessarily blend with the harmonies of others in the group. Although Aretha would try and compromise, she’d always end up in the key she wanted to sing in…so as Erma explained, “we decided to let her go do her own thing.”
Erma met a young then-songwriting Berry Gordy Jr. when he was just about to start Motown and she actually went with Gordy to Chicago to record some of his songs for Chess. Producer Billy Davis was assigned to the sessions but nothing came out of them and although Erma almost joined Motown, her father insisted she complete her studies.
Fast forward to 1960 when Aretha, with parental consent, signed with Columbia Records. A year later, Erma was signed to sister label Epic by Dave Kapralik, who would later mastermind the careers of Peaches & Herb and Sly & The Family Stone. Erma cut an entire album for the label, “Her Name Is Erma” which focused mostly on standards (such as “Time After Time” and “Everytime We Say Goodbye”) with covers of a couple of Johnny Ace hits (“Pledging My Love” and “Never Let Me Go”) thrown in for good measure. Years later, when sister Aretha arrived at Atlantic for the beginning of her reign as ‘The Queen Of Soul,” she would re-do the very same tunes herself…
The Epic years produced no chart hits for Erma although she recorded some fine singles, including “Don’t Wait Too Long,” a song that I and my partners at Soul City Records – Dave Godin and Robert Blackmore – picked as one of the releases on the much-renowned label in 1968. Fortunately, work with Lloyd Price’s band kept her busy but after five years, Erma opted for a regular gig at IBM and apart from occasional sessions with Aretha (specifically for her Atlantic debut album, “I Never Loved A Man”), Erma stayed away from the studio.
The phenomenal success her sister enjoyed prompted interest in Erma and in 1967, she signed with Shout Records. It was a year-long tenure with the label that produced arguably Erma’s most soulful and best recordings. With label owner (and prominent songwriter and producer) Bert Berns at the helm, Erma’s first couple of sessions focused on tunes popularized by blues man Jimmy Reed including “Baby What You Want Me To Do” and “Big Boss Man.” A tune written for Erma by her sister Carolyn, “Don’t Catch The Dog’s Bone” was a special standout of the first few sessions.
Then came “Piece Of My Heart,” a song written by Berns and soul music producer Jerry Ragovoy, responsible for amazing work with such names as Lorraine Ellison and Howard Tate. The song was a classic-in-the-making and Erma’s performance was outstanding. It was no surprise that the record – released in October 1967 – became a Top 10 R&B hit and I can still remember the first time I heard it when it came in as an import to Soul City when we were at 17 Monmouth Street in the West End. I had already been impressed with Erma’s previous Shout single but this record blew me away…
Erma recounted in 1973 how she had been totally unprepared for the record to take off the way it did: “I started getting calls at home about it…and Bert called me to get down to the office…fast!” Erma struggled with giving up her IBM day job but after seeing the response “Piece Of My Heart” was getting, she reluctantly quit. Subsequently, she performed at The Apollo (with The Supremes and Marvin Gaye) and toured with Bobby Bland and garnered a Grammy nomination for her performance of the song. As it turned out, rock star Janis Joplin did her own version of “Piece Of My Heart,” virtually turning it into a pop classic. Erma was gracious about it when we spoke in 1973, noting, “…her version is so different from mine that I really don’t resent it too much.”
Work began on what would have been her first Shout album, which doubtless would have included the wonderful follow up single “Open Up Your Soul” and a version of Bobby Bland’s “Share Your Love With Me”. Fate cruelly intervened when Bert Berns died suddenly, leaving the album incomplete. Erma stayed with Shout for a little longer, long enough to do one session with Shout labelmate Freddie Scott in the form of “I Just Ain’t Ready For Love.” Talk was rife at the time that the two might do a duet together but that never materialized and to make matters worse, the tape of “Share Your Love With Me” was apparently lost in a fire. Aretha had a copy of Erma’s version and Erma stated in ’73, “…she remembered how we’d done it and did it herself. I was pleased it was a hit for her but, of course, I’d have been happier if it had come out for me!”
Down but not out, Erma went to Brunswick Records and in 1973, she recounted the interesting tale of how sister Aretha had offered to produce Erma through her production company, Do It To It. “Aretha and Carolyn had some really great material and Aretha was going to fly out her own 24-piece band to Chicago for the session… On the week we were due to record [saxophonist] King Curtis [who worked with Aretha at the time] was killed…and he was, in fact, due to have been on the session himself.” Aretha was ready to start work again on Erma’s sessions for Brunswick when the label had a change of heart and “…you can imagine how I felt…” Erma stated.
Prior to the notion of having Aretha produce a session, Brunswick had done a series of sessions with Erma in 1969 and one Top 50 R&B hit “Gotta Find Me A Lover” emerged. The only album she did for the label consisted almost entirely of cover tunes that Erma had featured in her live performances. “That really wasn’t the right way to do an album and I was very upset at the way they handled it,” she recalled in our “Blues & Soul” interview, noting that during her first year with the label, she did get a chance to visit the UK and Europe on a bill with Wilson Pickett that included a show at The Royal Albert Hall, a memory she cherished with much fondness.
Further Brunswick sessions focused on covers of Jackie Wilson tunes such as “Whispers” and “I Get The Sweetest Feeling” and one more non-album single, “It Could’ve Been Me” b/w “I Just Don’t Need You At All” but by 1970, Erma’s tenure with Brunswick was over. Essentially, Erma stopped recording after that experience aside from occasional background sessions with sister Aretha. She was entertaining offers in 1973, she said, “with a top producer who is currently enjoying a good deal of success in everything he does” but whatever plans were made never came to fruition.
Rather, Erma began working in Detroit for Boysville of Michigan Inc., the largest childcare agency in the state while raising her daughter Sabrina. She might have continued that path uninterrupted until I abruptly called her one day in 1992 to inform her that her original recording of “Piece Of My Heart” was being used in a UK television commercial by Levi’s Jeans and that Sony Music had reissued it as a single…and that it had become a Top 10 hit! Erma responded in disbelief when we spoke and it was only when Sony financed a video of the song (cut live at a Detroit club) that the reality sunk in! “I was stunned!” she told me when we spoke for our last “Blues & Soul” interview in 1992. “It was something out of left field…”
The success of the single did result in the release of an album by Sony UK, essentially based on Erma’s Epic recordings; in 1994, U.S. label issued a CD which included all of Erma’s Shout material together with some of her Epic sides. Undaunted by the new found success of “Piece Of My Heart,” Erma settled back into her regular work with the childcare agency in Michigan, appearing on occasion with Aretha on television shows.
The news that Erma was suffering from throat cancer became public knowledge earlier in 2002; both her younger brother Cecil (who had managed Aretha’s career for so many years) and younger sister Carolyn had also succumbed to the disease and while she had shown some improvement, Erma’s condition ultimately deteriorated until she passed on September 7. While she did not leave a massive legacy of recorded work, Erma’s Shout sides remain among the best recordings from 1967. Personally, I will always remember her with much fondness: our 1973 and 1992 interviews were filled with smiles and laughter and she seemed genuinely unaffected by the ups and downs of the music industry, opting instead for work that expressed her desire to make a real contribution to those around her. For me, her musical contribution was also more than valid and as I listen to cuts like “Don’t Catch The Dog’s Bone” and “Open Up Your Soul,” I am reminded that the Franklin family was blessed with more than one super soul sister.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.