Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Erma Vernice Franklin, 13 March 1938, Shelby MS; d 7 September 2002) Soul singer, older sister of Aretha Franklin. Her original version of 'Piece of My Heart', written and produced by Bert Berns, was subsequently covered by Janis Joplin, Faith Hill, Bettye Lavette, British singers Beverley Knight and Dusty Springfield, and no doubt others.

[A word about the Franklin family might not be out of place here. Barbara Vernice Siggers Franklin (b 29 June 1917, Shelby MS; d 1952, Buffalo NY) was the wife of C. L. Franklin, the famous Baptist preacher. The marriage produced four children: Erma, Cecil, Aretha, and Carolyn. Before the marriage, Barbara had given birth earlier that year to her son, Vaughn, by a previous relationship. Barbara was a pianist and, according to Mahalia Jackson, one of the finest singers in the country. A few years after Barbara and C. L. had moved to Detroit, marital trouble (probably stemming from C. L.'s infidelities, including a daughter he had fathered by a 13-year-old congregant in Memphis in 1940) caused Barbara to leave him in 1948, and she moved to Buffalo, New York with her son, Vaughn.]

Erma and her sisters, Aretha and Carolyn, sang at their father's Detroit-area Baptist church. Aretha went on to the greatest fame. Their brother, Cecil, became a minister like their father, and managed Aretha's career for a while. Carolyn (b 1944, Memphis; d 25 April 1988 of cancer) had singles in the R&B chart on RCA in 1969-70: 'It's True I'm Gonna Miss You' and 'All I Want Is To Be Your Woman'. Erma's career was hampered by bad management. In the 1970s she left the music business, apart from engagements with her sister Aretha.

Erma made her singing debut at age five in Buffalo; when the family moved to Detroit, Erma and her sisters became members of the young adult choir at New Bethel Baptist Church. 'My musical influences were what we called flat-footed gospel singers,' Erma said. 'They didn't need any routines or other musical gimmicks to get over, they just stood flat-footed and tore the house down...Naturally I love Aretha and I love Mavis Staples, Shirley Ceasar, the late Jackie Verdell of the Davis Sisters and Inez Andrews of The Caravans...There are other R&B singers I love also, like Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick, but those flat-footed singers influenced me the most.'

As a teenager, Erma formed a singing group called the Cleo-Patretts, who won a state-wide singing contest and recorded songs with the local JVB label, which also recorded the sermons of Rev. C. L. Franklin. When the group disbanded, Erma went on winning local talent contests. In the late 1950s, Berry Gordy and his songwriting partner, Billy Davis, wanted to groom Erma to be their first recording artist on their own record label, but her father convinced Erma that continuing her education was more important than singing. She went to Clark College in Atlanta GA, majoring in business administration and secretarial science. She later learned that songs intended for her were recorded by others: 'You Got What It Takes' by Marvin Johnson, 'All I Could Do Was Cry' by Etta James, and 'Sweetest Feeling' by Jackie Wilson. 'All I Could Do Was Cry' was written by Berry Gordy from Erma's personal break-up with a boyfriend.

After Erma graduated, their father took Erma and Aretha to Columbia Records for auditions; Aretha signed with Columbia and Erma with Epic, a subsidiary, which released Her Name Is Erma in 1962. When that contract ended, Erma worked with the Lloyd Price Orchestra for five years, and then signed with Shout Records, where she recorded 'Piece of My Heart' in 1967. The record went top 10 R&B and got her a Grammy nomination for best new artist in 1968. Bert Berns, part owner of the label, was also responsible for Van Morrison's first album, but died suddenly of a heart attack. 'It was utter chaos after that within the recording company so I got a job with a computer programming firm.' Erma said that when she heard Janis Joplin's version of 'Piece of My Heart' she didn't recognize it because of the vocal arrangement.

Erma next signed with Brunswick, who released the album Soul Sister in 1968, including 'Gotta Find Me A Lover (24 Hours A Day)' reached the R&B top 40. When Aretha left Columbia Records and signed with Atlantic, Erma and Carolyn did the background vocals for their sister's first recordings. The harmonies Erma and Carolyn added to their sister's songs (called the 'Franklin Sound' by critics and disc jockeys) were nothing new; it was the way they had sung all their lives. Apart from the two albums, Erma had a total of 15 singles released during her career (seven on Epic, four each on Shout and Brunswick).

Erma toured Canada and Europe as a solo artist in the late 1960s and early '70s, as well as Africa and the Caribbean. She also recorded several commercials. She made her dramatic debut in Detroit in 1975, in a play by Ron Milner, who also wrote What the Wine Sellers Buy, which reached off-Broadway in New York. In 1982, Erma added background vocals to Aretha's album Jump To It. She continued periodically to perform with Aretha in Detroit in the the 1980s and on special occasions in the 1990s. She was one of the special guests on Aretha's television special in 1986 for Showtime, and sang on Aretha's gospel album, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptist, recorded at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit in 1987, which won Aretha a Grammy. Erma performed in 1990 at the Nelson Mandela rally at Tiger Stadium.

In 1992, Sony Music International, who had acquired the rights to the Shout Records catalog, licensed Erma's 'Piece of My Heart' to Levi Strauss for a jeans commercial in Europe, and with the new interest in the song, they released a compilation in the USA. One of Erma's last singing engagements was an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show with Aretha. Meanwhile, she had long since got off the road, working for a public relations firm, then joining the staff of Boysville of Michigan, Inc., the state's largest private child-care and family reunification agency for at-risk, abused and neglected children.

During the Oprah show, the hostess asked Erma, 'What is it like to be the sister of Aretha? Before Erma could answer, Aretha said, 'Erma is her own woman!