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Aretha Franklin’s childhood crush tells all

For Aretha Franklin, he was the man that got away.

While talking with The Buffalo News last week as she prepared for her concert Tuesday at Artpark, Franklin spoke fondly of the Blassingame family, who had lived across the street from the house in Buffalo where, as a girl, she spent her summers. Recalling the family, she made special mention of Gordon Blassingame, two years older.

“I must have been about 11, and I used to kind of wait to see him come out of the house,” sighed the superstar, now 72. “He didn’t know I was alive.”

Gordon Blassingame couldn’t make it to her concert at Artpark on Tuesday evening, but Tuesday afternoon he returned a call The News had placed to him days earlier. He was happy his younger brother Wayne was planning to meet her backstage and bring greetings from the family.

“I hope she lives forever,” he said. “Her music will never die. Anyone who likes any kind of music at all can appreciate Aretha’s music. It transcends all generations and genres. She’s one of a kind.”

Blassingame remembered the vibrant little girl who had chased him years before. And as he reminisced, a poignant story emerged.

“When I first met her, she seemed kind of tomboyish,” he remembered. “We were little kids. Normally I would think, ‘If I jump over the fence and run into the backyard, I wouldn’t have to be bothered.’ I thought I would get away. But she would jump over the fence too. She was intimidating to me,” he laughed. “I never saw a girl that would do that. She was very aggressive. She would pursue me. Of course we were very young.

“My friends would say, ‘Who is that?’ And I’d say, ‘That’s Aretha!’ Aretha was very aggressive during that time. She was sweet.”

The Blassingame children lived at 50 Ada Place. Their father, born into a sharecropping family in South Carolina, had moved to Buffalo in search of a better life. He was a porter on the Pullman trains – “Being a Pullman porter for a black man was a good job,” his son said – before becoming a legend as the longtime doorman for the elegant Chez Ami restaurant on Delaware Avenue.

Franklin would spend summers as a girl with her mother in the big house on the corner of Ada Place and Lyth Avenue, about a mile from Canisius College. She lived the rest of the year in Detroit with her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin.

After a few summers, the Blassingames moved to Hamlin Street, and the children lost track of Franklin. Gordon Blassingame went into the military. That was why he was not home in the early ’60s when Aretha Franklin stopped by to say hello.

“My mother told me about it,” he said.

Some time after that, a chauffeur-driven limo pulled up in front of the Hamlin homestead. It was Aretha again, looking for him. And again he missed her. “I was a young man, sowing my wild oats.”

He added: “At that time, Aretha wasn’t that big of a star. She was singing, but she wasn’t a star. Shortly after that, she took off.”

Aretha Franklin and her boy next door never did meet again.

Gordon Blassingame met his wife, Marilyn, while in the military in the Chicago area. They have a grown son and daughter. Blassingame is retired from a management position with Atlanta’s rapid transit authority.

“I’m happy,” he said. “I’m 74 now. I don’t look my age. It’s all from the man up above. I eat right, exercise. My wife and I have been married 41 years. We still love each other. My parents were married 50 years. I’m going to try to break that record.”

Franklin is a very fond childhood memory. Blassingame was touched to see his family mentioned in her autobiography. “She was a sweet person then,” he said, “and she still is today.”

Meanwhile, her personal life, like the lives of too many stars, has been a struggle. Her ill-starred marriages, love affairs and health problems have kept the tabloids busy. Had she been able to marry her childhood crush, maybe she would have been healthier and happier.

Blassingame admitted he sometimes plays the game of “what if?”

“I was telling my wife last night, ‘Just think, had I not gone to Chicago, I might still be in Buffalo, and I might have hooked up with Aretha Franklin.’ She looked at me and smiled. I thought, my life would have been totally different for sure. I always get a warm feeling about her, and what might have been had I not gone into the military.”

His wife laughs about the situation, he said. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t you call Aretha?’ ” He added: “I enjoy her music and all that she stands for and I wish her all the luck in the world.”

That sounded like a final statement. But then Gordon Blassingame paused, thinking.

“I think she’s coming to Atlanta this October,” he said. “I think I might be motivated enough to go there and check her out.”