Erma Franklin Story
Erma was born in Shelby, Mississippi in 1939. When she was four years old, the Franklin family moved to Buffalo; when she was six, they moved to Detroit, where her father became the minister of New Bethel Baptist Church. The following year, Erma became a regular in her father’s choir.
While attending Northern High School, encouraged by members who later would become the Four Tops, Erma formed a vocal group called the Cleo-Patrettes at age 14. They sang rhythm and blues and soon made a name for themselves in the Detroit area, winning an all-city talent competition.
“Everything Was Fine But My Father Was Firm With Me And Told Me I Had To Continue My Studies. At The Time, A Singing Career Was Never Considered A Serious Proposition, So Back To The Books I Went!”
Upon graduation from high school, the group disbanded.
After High School, Erma toured the country for two years in her father’s gospel group.
“The tour was a lot of fun,” Erma recalls. “but it was very tiring, because the majority of the shows we did were one-niters. But it was an educational experience.”
Continuing with her studies, Erma met up with a young Berry Gordy, who as we know today would form the legendary Motown label. Erma recalled how they went to Chicago to do some things with Chess “and we hardly had two bits between us.” At Chess, they met up with producer Billy Davis but nothing came of it except being an inspiration for a huge hit later for Etta James called “All I Could Do Was Cry.”
As the story goes: “I was supposed to do a session at Chess, but I’d been through the experience described in the song. A guy I’d been dating was getting married and he asked me to the wedding. Well, I had to go into the studio a few days later and I was still cut up about it. So much so, that I was in no mood to record. When they asked me why, I explained what had happened to me. Some time later, the same idea was used by someone at Chess for the song. Imagine how I felt when I heard it!”
Erma was all set to join Motown and would have recorded many of the early songs later sung by Marv Johnson and Mary Wells but, Rev. Franklin prevented it. “I couldn’t very well argue with my father when he said it was a choice between leaving home and singing or staying at home and studying – so I decided to stay at home and study!”
“And later on I was glad I did!”
During this time younger sister Aretha was signed to a recording contract from Columbia records. Fortunately, the success Aretha’s debut album in 1960 made Rev. Franklin rethink his decision, and the following year Erma was signed to Epic Records, sister company to Columbia Records by epic’s then A&R man, Dave Kapralik. Kapralik later brought Sly and the Family Stone to Columbia as well.
“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. I think maybe we were too soulful for them! I was there for a total of 5 years until 1966. I cut enough material for two LPs within that period and decided since they didn’t know how to handle me or my music I decided the best thing to do was sit out my contract.”
“You know, It’s funny about those contracts. You sign them and you don’t know you’ve become trapped when things don’t work out for you.”
Her first and only album for the label, entitled “Her Name Is Erma”, surfaced in 1962 and mixed jazz-flavored standards such as “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”, the stunning “Detour Ahead”, “Time After Time” and “The Man I Love”, with R&B oriented tunes like “Never Let Me Go”, “Saving My Love For You” and “Pledging My Love”.
“The Epic sessions were really good”, says Erma. “I did them all in New York, which was my home from 1961 to 1972. There was a real family atmosphere between me and the musicians and producers. I had quite a bit of input regarding what songs we did and a lot of the sessions were recorded `live’ with the band, orchestra, the background singers (including Valerie Simpson) and me. It was a shame the records didn’t do better.”
The singles didn’t fair too well either. One of them, “Abracadabra”, was written by the late Van McCoy, has since become a desirable Northern Soul item. Curiously, one of the singles, “Time After Time” backed with “Don’t Wait Too Long”, was given a belated release in the U.K. on the Soul City label in the late sixties.
“Even though I wasn’t doing too well at Columbia, I was working all the time. I was on the road with the 16-piece Lloyd Price Orchestra as a featured vocalist.
“Lloyd was, of course, one of the major innovators in early r&b and he’d had a whole string of big hits. I joined his show in 1961 as the resident singer and when I left in 1966, I was still earning the same amount of money! One of the problems was, I guess, that we shared the same manager! Well, what with everything at Epic and this too, I felt I just wanted to quit.”
After a five-year stint touring with the R&B star, Erma quit “to go work for IBM where I earned more money than I ever did on the road!”
Thankful for the educational training she’d had earlier, she was performing executive functions in one of the company’s major offices. “I still wanted to sing deep down but there was a good deal of security and good money, much more than I had ever gotten on the road. I ended up practically running the office – because I really loved what I was doing: I was working in an administrative capacity”.
It was 1967. Sister Aretha’s career blew up and Erma began receiving offers she couldn’t refuse.
“My then-manager called me up during the late part of 1967 and asked me if I was interested in recording again. I was more than a little reluctant because I refused to give up my IBM job but I said if we could do it in my spare time, I would. So we went along, made some demos and took them to a man named Bert Berns at Shout Records.
“I finally agreed to sign with Shout Records but only provided I could record at night because I wanted to keep my IBM job,” she recalls.
Erma began sessions for what would have been an album. After cutting two Jimmy Reed tunes (he was one of my favorite artists during my college years”) “Big Boss Man” and “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, plus Carolyn’s songs, “Don’t Catch The Dog’s Bone”. We went in to do a follow-up after “Dog’s Bone” did OK on the R&B charts.
The song they went in to record was written by Berns himself with Jerry Ragavoy called “Piece of my Heart”. Legend has it that Berns originally offered the song to Van Morrison whom he had worked with while he was in the R&B style group Them.
As Erma recalls. “Bert had written a song with Jerry Ragovoy called “Piece Of My Heart”, especially for me to record. When I first saw it, I found they’d written it in a calypso-type beat but I told them I just couldn’t do it like that, so they let me do it my way! I’m famous for changing songs around, you know! Well, they put the record out and I didn’t think too much about it. Next thing I knew, I started getting calls at home about it and one day, Bert phoned up and told me to get down to the office – and fast! When I got there, I found the record was on the Top 100 and I was just knocked out”.
“I began having a real mental tussle trying to decide what to do. “We did three or four sessions in all. I think. I remember the one where we cut the follow-up, “Open Up My Soul” in particular”. Remember we did this during my lunch hour at IBM”. After a great deal of thought, seeing the reaction to the record, I reluctantly decided to quit my job and sign up with Aretha’s booking agency, Queens Booking.”
Queens Booking got Erma work right away from the success of “Piece of my Heart.” “Piece Of My Heart” stayed on the U.K. Top 100 for some time and was a Top 10 R&B single throughout the U.S.
“Bert had called me up and told me we ought to work on an album. I had rehearsed some of the material and just as when the time came to come in to record it Bert died unexpectedly, leaving Erma’s career at a standstill.
“When I called up the office, there was no reply and I thought it was strange because everyone had told me how important it all was to get out an LP to capitalize on “Piece of my Hearts” success., so I tried Queen Booking, who were in the same building. Imagine my shock when they said “Didn’t you know? Bert Berns died this morning.”
“I was really crushed, because aside from the fact that he’d been helping me build my career, he had been a really wonderful guy. And this came at a time when it looked like things would really happen for me. After Bert died his wife Ilene took over the company but frankly, she didn’t know what to do. Well, I said I’d sit out my contract, again.
” I did a session with Freddie Scott as producer but nothing much else happened.” Then Shout Records lost the master tapes from some of the sessions including one we’d done on a new arrangement for the old Bobby Bland hit, “Share Your Love With Me” (just when we were about to put it out). Aretha heard that one and after the tape had been lost 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!”
Since Erma’s Shout contract had expired she kept busy in the studio recording backing vocals for Aretha on her first two Atlantic albums, “I Never Loved A Man” and “Aretha Arrives”. With still no record deal Erma started getting requests for solo appearances from the Apollo Theatre, Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles and the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. The success of “Piece Of My Heart” was building and offers from record labels came pouring in, among others, R.C.A and Brunswick (still owned by Decca at the time). In 1969 Erma visited the U.K. playing the Royal Albert Hall as part of a European tour. .Erma opted for Brunswick since Carolyn was recording for R.C.A.
Her first Brunswick single, “Gotta Find Me A Lover (24 Hours A Day)” hit the R&B charts for 3 weeks and peaked at # 40, started filling dance floor in the early Seventies. In the U.K., an undercurrent of interest in Erma’s dance sides during the first half of the 70s led to several reissues.
“You know, when they signed me, everyone was really excited and we got a single out, “Gotta Find Me A Lover”. After that, I was told we’d be doing an album but instead of sending me material to work on, I heard nothing and when the time came to record, they asked me what songs I did on my live performances. Well, that really isn’t the right way to do an album and I was very upset at the way they handled it all.”
“You know, after all the trouble at Epic, then Bert dying at Shout, I really had high hopes for Brunswick but when things weren’t happening, I was talking with Aretha and she suggested that, seeing how I needed a record badly, I should have her production company, Do It To It, work on me. I asked Brunswick and they said the idea of Aretha as my producer was fantastic, so go ahead.
“Well, we were all ready: Aretha and Carolyn had some really great material together and Aretha was going to fly out her own 24-piece band to Chicago for the session and pay all expenses. On the week we, were due to record, King Curtis was killed and you know how close he was to Aretha. He was, in fact, due to have been on the session himself. Well, naturally, Aretha was broken up about it all – so we shelved the idea for a few weeks. When we were ready to get it together again, Brunswick suddenly hacked out the idea, saying they had their own producers and so on. “You can imagine how I felt and after that, I guess, I just gave up on the company altogether. The worst part of the whole thing is that I’ve had to sit out my contract yet again”.
Erma did one or two more sessions of which produced four Jackie Wilson covers. Her last Brunswick single, backed version of two recent hits, by label-mate Jackie Wilson – “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder)” b/w “(I Get The) Sweetest Feeling”. Both with the same instrumental backing track as the original versions makes this a most desirable vinyl in collector’s circles.
After the success of the single, literally nothing happened. Erma’s career started to taper off. She returned to Europe in 1972 for shows in the U.K., Germany and Italy as well as to the Caribbean and Liberia while raising her daughter, Sabrina.
“She really wanted me to come off the road and come home to Detroit. So that’s basically what I did. I returned home and began working in the public relations field.”
Erma has also appeared in the play “Season’s Reason’s”, sang backup for Aretha’s 1982 LP, “Jump To It”, the 1987 gospel double-LP, “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” (recorded at the late Rev. C.L. Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist Church) and performed at Detroit’s Music Hall and in June 1990 rally for Nelson Mandela and performed on the Oprah Show singing background and sharing the stage with sister Aretha to perform lead on “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” in a favorite childhood medley the Franklin Sisters loved to sing to their Daddy.
Erma has devoted most of her time and energy to Boysville of Michigan Inc., the largest child care agency in the state, acting as the liaison for twenty-five or more similar agencies in Michigan.
When Erma heard about the current excitement in Europe surrounding “Piece Of My Heart”, she was stunned to say the least. “Most know the song because of Janis Joplin’s version. I was shocked on night when I heard Deborah Harry correct a TV show host by telling him that I had done the song originally. And now to what’s happening to the song in Europe, to say I’m pleasantly surprised is something of an understatement”.
“To be honest, I never even recognized the song when I first heard Janis’ version on the car radio. Naturally, it would have been great to have gotten the exposure, airplay and sales that she got but her version is so different from mine that I really don’t resent it too much.”