Bill Martin, who married into the Franklins, Austin’s first family of gospel, delivered good news.
The night before East Austin’s legendary gospel announcer and promoter Bill “The Mailman” Martin was laid to rest at age 81, there was a musical memorial at the St. James Missionary Baptist Church on MLK pastored by his father-in-law E.M. Franklin from 1953 –1981. The songs were mournful, the speeches reverent on that Good Friday. Bill Martin was an actual mailman in East Austin for three decades before he took over for his mentor Elmer Akins as the face and voice of black gospel music in Austin, so he was doubly beloved. Sad to think that we’ll never again engage with Brother Bill, a man so full of life and care.
But gospel music does nothing if not lift you up when you’re down. In the midst of the musical tribute to the Mailman there was a Elgin preacher named Luchus McShann who got the crowd on its feet, urging him on, as he sang a ballad about Jesus in a haunting falsetto. When he squeezed out every bit of emotion on the last note of each line, spontaneously shrieks cut through the ominous atmosphere. Hands were shaking in the air. The huge auditorium filled with the spirit.
It was like the moments that changed the life of Bill Martin, who married into Austin sacred music royalty and was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame on his own in 2009.
He had grown up wanting to be a sax player like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young and moved to New York City after graduating from high school in Asheville, North Carolina. Martin passed an audition at Julliard, but he didn’t have the money, so he joined the Air Force during the Korean War with plans to attend Julliard on the G.I. Bill.
While stationed in 1953 at Bergstrom Air Force Base, where the Austin airport is now, he met a Huston-Tillotson student named Evelyn Franklin at her grocery store checkout job in East Austin and asked her out. “You gotta talk to my daddy first,” said Evelyn, who everyone called “Tutter.”
Can’t imagine there are too many things in life more intimidating than facing legendary East Austin preacher E.M. Franklin and asking him to entrust his daughter to you for an evening. The old man asked the airman what church he belonged to and when Martin said it wasn’t a member of any church, the audition was over. But Bill was in the front pew at St. James the next Sunday and he served the church with enthusiastic dedication for almost 60 years. Bill and Evelyn married in 1955 and stayed that way for 50 years. Evelyn passed away nine years ago.
She was a Franklin, back when that surname on the Eastside defined gospel music, not stand-in-line barbecue. E.M. Franklin was the family’s lightning rod. Born in 1910, one of 17 children of porter Ananias and Callie Franklin in the Pilot Knob community nine miles southeast of Austin, E.M. grew up in the church. He co-founded Austin’s first recorded gospel group, the Paramount Singers, with his brother A.C. in 1936.
Named after the theater on Congress Avenue which they couldn’t enter because of segregation, the Paramounts had a radio show on KTBC for five years and recorded for the Library of Congress in 1941.
World War II broke up the a capella group when the other co-founding brothers, Kermit and Geno Terrell, were drafted. Upon returning, the Terrells settled in Oakland and restarted the Paramount Singers with the fifth original member James Haywood Medlock. The Franklins decided to remain pastors of their churches — A.C. in Los Angeles and E.M. in Austin. Known to “wreck a house” with his passionate sermonizing and then move the throngs to tears as he sang his signature tune, “Yes, God Is Real,” A.C. preached alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1968. Everybody in Austin knew him as “Uncle Koot.”
Evelyn Franklin and her sister Dorothy were members of Austin’s first girl group, the Chariettes, who had a minor hit in 1953 on Houston’s Duke/Peacock label with “Step By Step.” Since some of the members were still in high school, they couldn’t hit the road, so Duke’s Don Robey dropped the group, which was managed by Lavada Durst. KVET’s jive-talking Dr. Hepcat was well-respected by Robey, who sold a million copies of Durst composition “Let’s Talk About Jesus” by Austin’s Bells of Joy in 1951.
It was the Gospel Highway or no way back in those days and Rev. E.M. Franklin no doubt wanted to keep his young daughters near him. (Years later, daughter Barbara Franklin went on the road with Ray Charles as a Raelette, which reportedly didn’t sit well with the Reverend.)
“We could’ve been the next Caravans,”Evelyn told me in 2000, when the Chariettes reunited for a 50th anniversary concert. (They were joined by an 82-year-old Rosie Lee “Miss Kitty” Alexander, one of the hottest piano players in town in the ‘40s and ‘50s.) “But there are no regrets.”
After a year of marriage, Bill hungered to give his musical dreams another shot and convinced Evelyn to move to New York City. He got a job driving a subway train and, at night, would tote his sax to jazz clubs in Harlem. But four years in the service left him rusty and his old musician pals, including nephew Johnny “Spider” Martin, had passed him in skill. But Martin was starting to become interested in gospel music, especially since the Mighty Clouds of Joy, featuring Evelyn’s brothers Ermant Jr. and Elmo, played the Apollo Theater every December. “Now, the Apollo was some place I dreamed of playing as a jazz musician,” Martin told me in 2001. “Seeing those gospel shows there opened my mind to the possibilities of where church music could be performed.”
After ten years of living in the South Bronx, just across the river from Harlem, the neighborhood started getting too dangerous and the Martins, who now had five children, moved back to Austin at Evelyn’s insistence in 1966. “I liked the New York pace,” Martin told me in 2001. “But what could I do?” He said he had never regretted the decision, however.
The ‘60s were a great time for Evelyn’s older brother Junior, who had become a major player in the national gospel scene by co-founding and managing the Mighty Clouds of Joy, as well as playing guitar and singing harmony. Junior Franklin moved to L.A. in the late ‘50s and started a new version of his Austin group Sensational Wonders, who played the same circuit as a teenage holy ghost shouter from Troy, AL named Willie Joe Ligon. What Ligon liked in the Wonders was a full band backing, unheard of in gospel at the time. In Ligon, Junior saw a singer who could match the intensity of June Cheeks and Archie Brownlee, the two greatest hard gospel voices of the ’50s. Together they became the Mighty Clouds of Joy, a group that revolutionized gospel music. They were called “The Temptations of Gospel” for their soul and choreography. But even more significantly was the funk bass lines they brought to religious music. Such current Texas gospel acts as the Relatives and the Jones Family Singers are direct descendants of that Motown gospel sound.
As much a Texas group as one from L.A., the Clouds made their first record in 1960 for Houston-based Peacock Records, having a hit right away with “Ain’t Got Long Here” (renamed “Stealing Away To Jesus” on some reissues). Though the Clouds, who had a disco hit in 1975 with “Mighty High,” were frowned upon by religious purists, they brought church to the charts while never losing the sanctifying conviction.
Junior Franklin moved back to Austin in ’79 to see after his ailing mother. At the time, Bill was delivering mail all over East Austin, then after work he’d get together with Elmer Akins, a man he met on his route. Also originally from Pilot Knob, Akins had the “Gospel Train” radio show on KVET from 1947 until his passing in ’98 and also promoted gospel concerts, usually at Doris Miller Auditorium. They’d attach a loudspeaker to the top of Akins’ car and Martin would drive while Akins barked. “The Soul Stirrers, with Austin boy James Medlock, are playing this Saturday night! With Shirley Caesar from the Caravans! Come to the program! It’s a joyful noise!” At the corner of 12th and Chicon, Martin would pull over as Akins, 21 years his senior, played records by upcoming acts over the loudspeaker.
What Martin didn’t learn from Akins he picked up from Junior Franklin, who went into the poster business after checking out a book about printing from the library. The Franklin–Stewart Printing company, known for day-glo posters, was shut down by the Dept. of Treasury in 1985 over counterfeiting charges, though details were not made public. Junior Franklin became a minister in 1991 and died of a stroke in 1996 at age 64.
“Junior convinced me to stick with radio when I was ready to give it up,” Martin said of his rough start at KIXL in 1980. “My first show was a disaster. I didn’t know I was supposed to turn off the mike when the records played, so they heard me talking on the phone over the music. I was so embarrassed; I tried to hide from everybody. But Junior kept telling me I could make a difference in gospel music if I stayed on the radio.” Martin went back to KIXL the next Sunday and kept going back for 34 years, even after KIXL became KGLO.
Just as Junior Franklin and Bill “the Mailman” Martin took over for E.M. Franklin and Elmer Akins, gospel music is a tradition to be passed on. The Franklin legacy is firmly in the hands of the remarkable Claudia Williams, who has been choir director at St. James since she was 16. Claudia was handpicked by E.M. Franklin after she led a bicentennial choir at the church in 1976. That was 38 years ago and in that time Williams, whose frantic motions and facial contortions resemble Mick Jagger as much as anyone in gospel, has become nationally known in mass choir circles.
Last weekend was quite a busy one for Williams, who is a Franklin on her great grandmother’s side. Good Friday was the musical memorial to the Mailman, and the funeral was the next day. Sunday was Easter. Williams led several hours of music over those three days, but gospel doesn’t pay all the bills and so Williams was back at her job early Monday morning.
Claudia Williams has been a mail carrier for 28 years.
Traces of tradition keep pieces of East Austin’s past alive.