If Aretha Franklin loves Buffalo – well, Buffalo loves her back.
Last week, in a phone interview, Franklin expressed a lot of affection for Buffalo, especially touching considering that she lived here only a few years as a girl. The singer, who was coming to town to play Artpark tonight, planned to stop by Buffalo General Medical Center, where her mother had been a nurse. She gave a particular shout-out to a neighbor family, the Blassingames, whom she hoped to see again.
“Charlotte and Gordon, and they had a younger brother by the name of Wayne, who was 5 or 6,” she said. As an 11-year-old girl, she added, she had cast a longing eye toward Gordon. “He didn’t know I was alive,” she laughed.
The News took on the problematic task of looking for the Blassingames, now scattered around the country. Meanwhile, the phone began ringing.
Kaleida Health got in touch, wishing to invite Franklin on a tour of Buffalo General. Next came a call from a woman from Friendship Baptist Church, Karen Hill. She hoped to show Franklin that her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, is still remembered from when he was pastor there, that his picture is on the wall.
Most dramatically, the baby of the Blassingame family responded to a Facebook message.
Wayne Blassingame was in Chicago, where he had planned to stay for a few weeks following a relative’s funeral. At first, he regretted that he could not make it to Artpark. “Each time she’s come to Buffalo I’m always doing something and I can’t go to enjoy her concerts,” he lamented.
Then he changed his mind.
In a surprise development, Wayne Blassingame phoned The News on Monday and announced that he would be on the overnight Amtrak train, heading home to Buffalo.
He said that because he was so young, his memories of Franklin were vague. But he felt the pull to represent the family, and let her know what the long-ago connections meant to them.
His brother, Gordon, lives with his wife in Atlanta. His sister, Charlotte, lives in Memphis with her husband.
“I said, now, how many times am I actually going to get to meet her in a situation like this? I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth,” he exclaimed happily over the static of the cellphone. “I don’t want to be disrespectful and just think about myself. She wants to relive the past, she wants some acknowledgment of the past. I thought, I can be in Buffalo. It wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. How can a prince deny the queen?” he joked. “I would definitely love to meet her.”
Earlier, Blassingame had expressed happy surprise over Franklin’s nostalgia.
“My brothers and sisters and I, we figured she’s so big and popular, she probably wouldn’t remember us,” he said.
He painted the same peaceful picture of the old Cold Springs neighborhood that Aretha Franklin suggested in her memoir and in last week’s interview. The Blassingame children’s father was the doorman for the Chez Ami, the prestigious restaurant on Delaware Avenue. Their mother was a stay-at-home mom.
And yes, the family knew that little Aretha thought Wayne’s older brother, Gordon, was cute.
“Yes, she had a little crush on him,” he laughed.
Other families from Franklin’s old neighborhood also called, rounding out the picture of a warm, tight-knit neighborhood. Several old classmates of the Blassingame children came forward, hoping to help Franklin rekindle old friendships.
“Excellent people live in the area,” said Hill, of Friendship Baptist Church.
As a girl, she knew the Blassingame family, particularly the later siblings who were younger than Wayne. “They are a very nice family. Very cool people. I am thankful to God that I was able to know a family like that.”
Though Friendship Baptist Church has moved from where it was when Franklin was a little girl, Hill would like Franklin to know that the congregation still treasures its ties to her.
“We would love her to come and see the church, and to see that her dad’s picture is on the wall, and he is not forgotten,” Hill said. “His legacy is still there.”