'She honed her skills in Oakland:' Musicians recount early days of Aretha Franklin

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As fans mourned the Queen of Soul around the globe, so did one of her longtime Oakland musician friends.

"Terrible Tom” Bowden, 79, said he had a feeling she had already died before officially hearing the news Thursday morning that the legendary Aretha Franklin had died at age 76 of pancreatic cancer.

“I knew last night,” said Bowden, adding that he "went way back" with Franklin and peformed with her at least three times over the years in The Town at the Oakland Auditorium, now the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. “Something in my soul just knew.”

Bowden wouldn't describe in detail just how close he had been with the musical great. All he would say is this: "It was a friendship that maybe grew a bit."

Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added, "I'll leave it at that."

Bowden, a blues singer and songwriter, said, “there will never be another one like Aretha. Her music came from the core. The root. She planted the seed.” He also described her as a “great cook” and “kinda’ fiery.” 

Franklin first came to Oakland about six decades ago, when “she was 16 or 17,” recounted Ronnie Stewart, executive director of the West Coast Blues Society (formerly the Bay Area Blues Society.) He never met Franklin personally but knows her history through his work at his nonprofit.

Way back then, her father, Baptist Minister Rev. C.L. Franklin, came to the Bay Area to host revivals, Stewart said.  Franklin would sing at those spiritual gatherings, Stewart said.

"She began a recording career in Oakland, California cutting a live version of 'Precious Lord,' a gospel song on a program where her father was giving the headline sermon," added Joel Selvin, music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. .

Those early days were the impetus for Franklin’s signature sound.

“She was the link between the black church and R&B,” Stewart said. “She carried that link between soul and gospel.”

Stewart was a key organizer in getting Franklin’s legacy permanently and literally etched in Oakland history as her name is one of 88 plaques etched into the “Walk of Fame” on Seventh Street in front of the West Oakland BART station. Bowden’s name is also one of those names honored in that spot.

That location heralds back to the glory days of the “Harlem of the West,” Stewart said, and was the spot where the now-gone Slim Jenkins Supper Club used to be.  The upscale club, made popular during the 1930s to 1960s, hosted some of the blues greats including, BB King and Nat King Cole. Franklin also used to sing at Slims during the 1950’s an ‘60s.

“She was building her career then,” Stewart said. “It was in its infancy stages. BB King used to give her pointers.” 

Stewart added: “She honed her career in Oakland.” 

 Franklin also played other parts of the Bay Area, too in her early days. The San Francisco Chronicle has a 1966 ad for a two-week only show for her in 166, where she played at the small Jazz Workshop t 473 Broadway in San Francisco. She returned, according to the Chronicle, in 1968 as a phenomenon, playing two nights at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.

In 1971, she gave a "legendary" Fillmore West recording in San Francisco, according to Chronicle writer Jim Crockett.

In her later years, Franklin had not performed much in the Bay Area, and so her rare appearances were much appreciated by Bay Area fans.

In the last 50 years, she played a 1976 show at the old Circle Star Theater in San Carlos and didn’t return until 39 years later to perform before more than 8,000 fans at Oracle Arena in Oakland in 2015. Critics and fans alike raved about her show.