Aretha Franklin (Sunday Times Magazine, Nov. 09, 2014)
Aretha Franklin has been called the Queen of Soul since she demanded Respect in 1967. That’s a lot of years to be regal and I suppose you can’t expect someone who is constantly revered not to feel a little distant from the world, a little divaish.
Her new album after all is called Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. Things like I Will Survive, People, You Keep Me Hanging On, and I Am Every Woman mashed up with Respect. Basically an album where she out divas every other diva.
It’s a compelling album. Her voice on it at 72 is not effortless. It no longer swoops and soars with dexterity, but instead it delivers something else, something that shows struggle, grit, terrifying emotional strength and triumph.
Of course I was excited to meet the diva of all divas. She rarely gives interviews. She hates giving interviews. For a large chunk of time she hated leaving her house.
Her last album with Arista Records – the company that first released her – was in 2003. Sure, there was a Christmas album after that merely to fulfil a contract and in 2011 there was a studio album made for Wal-Mart stores. But the Diva album is a proper return with music impresario Clive Davis at its helm.
The album has been generally applauded, as has her refreshed energy and weight loss. For some of those silent years where no one saw her it’s been said that she became huge. Her weight ballooned in the 90s after she stopped smoking because it was hurting her voice.
Last year she had a mysterious illness and undisclosed medical treatment. She came back after it fitter and thinner. Certainly there was a sense she was ready to take on the world again. What I wasn’t ready for was to take her on.
The interview had been on and off several times in several locations. Over a period of weeks. Finally it happens- within an hour of it being confirmed I find myself en route to Detroit, to the suburb of Southfield and the Westin Hotel, close to her home.
The interview is to be at 7.30pm. Would I go down and meet her to try to charm her? There was a fear the interview would be cut to ten minutes. Of course I would. At that time I didn’t realise she was uncharm-able.
It turns out she didn’t want to meet me first. She wanted to do the interview at 8.30pm, so I decided I would take a restorative bath. Five minutes in the bath I get a call she wants to do the interview now. Still wet I drag on clothes to meet her in the lobby. As the lift door opens and I go to get out she gets in.
She is wearing a black leather blouse, black trousers, black and gold trainers and a zebra print rucksack. She looks a little plus-sized but you don’t see her as fat, you see her as a presence. I would guess she’d be a UK size 16-18.
I wasn’t there at the exact time. Had she decided to leave completely? Was she angry? Will she come back? A few tense moments. Apparently she will come back and she will give me as close to my full hour as possible. The PR warns that I should ask any important questions first which does not bode well because you can’t really ask first off: Are you an emotional eater? What pain were you trying to bury? You can’t ask who in fact was the father of the son you had when you were 14? Or the next son a couple of years later?
You can’ t say how did it feel when your first husband Ed White used to rough you up and why did she want that bit deleted from her autobiography.
Her father was a super preacher who had a turbulent marriage with her mother who left when Aretha was six and died shortly before her 10th birthday. Just after her mother’s death Aretha began singing at her father’s sermons. She debuted with the hymn Jesus Be A Fence Around Me. That fence never came down. Can you even begin to ask her why? No, you cannot.
People become interviewers because they want to ask the questions we all want answers for. Asking questions requires a kind of fearlessness which has always come naturally to me. I have faced plenty of divas – pop stars, prime ministers and wannabe presidents. None of them have awed me. There’s something about Aretha. She’s absolutely terrifying.
I’ve seen her on TV interviews making mincemeat of fawning reporters. One look, an ever so slight roll of the eyes, reduces them to gibberish.
We are in the grand ballroom of the semi chi chi hotel. Me and Aretha poised opposite on low under-stuffed armchairs. There is her son, her granddaughter, a record company person, the British PR, and another man to whom I was not introduced.
There is a sort of wall around her. Later I learn from the staff at this hotel where she regularly comes often for omelettes they have dubbed her The Wall. One staff member who begged not to be identified says, ‘You just can’t get through to her and she makes everyone feel scared. It’s hard to be normal with her. Once I asked her son for tickets to her show but he said even he was afraid to ask her.’
Aretha is sat in front of me with the beginning of an eye roll and I am afraid, I am petrified. But unlike the song I Will Survive I fear I won’t. I tell her that her album is great. And it is. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says.
I tell her when Sinead O’Connor sang Nothing Compares 2 U you felt she was going to kill herself, but when Aretha sings it with her own lines added, that not even ‘a strawberry sundae or ham hocks and greens, or roller skates or garlic toast,’ compare, you feel she is expressing triumph and joy and power. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says, which I’ve come to learn is Aretha’s very succinct way of expressing what she feels which is that I’m full of shit.
She tells me, ‘That was Andre 3000’s idea to take the tempo up and just refresh that song.’
I tell her that on I Will Survive she sounds particularly empowered. ‘No. That was the basic thing that Gloria Gaynor did. Then we mashed it up with I’m A Survivor (Destiny’s Child) which is one of my granddaughter Victorie’s favourite songs. So I said “Hey, let’s put that there”.’
Victorie is here with us. I think she’s about 17. Hair in a ponytail and a striped T-shirt. ‘Victorie is going to be a singer. Every time I type her name in my phone it comes up Victories with an s. Maybe she’s going to have some victories. I hope so. I’m taking her there. I’m mentoring her. She performed for me on the BET tribute.
Does she coach her because she sees herself in her, because they have a special bond? Her eyes swivel and look through me. ‘I coach her because she’s my granddaughter and she wants to sing.’
I laugh nervously.
‘I’ve been around a while, so in terms of coaching her as a vocalist why not, hmmm? I did have vocal coaching at one time when I was a teenager and I was also taught choreography by Charlie Atkins who taught most of the Motown artists.’
I’d read that she wanted to be a dancer at some point. ‘Well, I could have been a prima ballerina. I took classes at the Academy of Ballet where I would do plies, semi-plies, grand plies.’
The barre workout is very popular now. Is that what she does for exercise? ‘No. Really. Is that what people do?’ She looks incredulous. ‘I walk. I have my fitness regime where I walk the big superstores. – K-Mart and Wal-Mart. I walk the whole store. Sometimes twice if it’s not a superstore. I don‘t do it with the cart. Security people mind the cart and I do the walking.’
Do fans recognise her and come up to her? ’Sometimes.’ Pause. Do they ask her to sign something? ‘Yes. Peaches or a lettuce.’ We laugh. ‘They are usually very nice and they want an autograph or a selfie.’
She smiles sweetly and for a moment she seems relaxed so I ask her why was there a period of no albums for a while? ‘Because I was between record companies and during that time I did a lot of concerts. I noticed somebody the other day, I’m trying to think who it was, and they said they hadn’t recorded for nine years, and I understood that perfectly. I love recording, but if you’re in concert as much as I was you’re just not thinking about it and of course you’re minding the store at home. I have four children, so that’s what was consuming my time.’
This puzzles me. Her four children, all boys, or rather men, are fully grown up. The oldest, Clarence Franklin, is in his late fifties, followed by Edward Franklin and Ted White Jnr., who by all accounts is a wonderful kind person, and Kecalf Cunningham, a musician who is known professionally as KPoint.
I want to ask her about why she still feels she needs to look after them but this is the first time in our interview there’s not been a silence. It’s been question, answer, silence. Her talking about walking the superstores is the nearest thing we’ve got to a conversation.
‘I love walking the superstore. You can shop, pick up things you need, and it’s good exercise.’
What is her favourite thing to shop for? ‘I love beautiful things, beautiful clothes. Pretty much what the average woman likes.’
The silence returns suddenly. There is no twilight moment. No cooling down, segueing in. There’s warm friendly and then cold silence. This is not your average woman. So I change the subject. She grew up near here, then moved to New York and Los Angeles.
‘Well, I had to come back to Detroit because of the incident that happened to my dad.’ She had been performing in Las Vegas when she got the news in 1979 that her father Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as CL Franklin, was shot twice at point blank range in his Detroit home. He spent six months in hospital and was returned home needing round the clock nursing care. ‘I came back to stay with him and my sisters and my brother so we could alternate looking after him.’
That must have been a terrible shock? ‘Yes.’ Long pause. Did they ever find out who did it? ‘They did and they were arrested.’ How did it happen, was it random or planned? ‘I couldn’t tell you, but let’s move on.’
Now there’s not just a silence but a silence with pins and needles in it. She was always extremely close to her father. ‘Yes, of course, sure. I travelled as a young featured vocalist. I would sing before he preached.’
I’ve read that his sermons were mesmerising, it was like going to a concert. ‘No. I would not say it was like a concert at all. My dad was a theologian and he ministered the congregation, very enlightening and educational.’ He had a compelling speaking voice? ‘Oh yes. He was famous for that.’ He recorded 39 volumes of sermons and he was quite the singer as well.’
Is she like him? ‘You could say that with respect to certain things.’ She was a daddy’s girl? ‘You could say that.’
And he had great friends? ‘Yes. Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Dr King. These people came into the city to perform on Saturdays and on Sundays knowing about his sermons came to our church.’
I want to know more about what it’s like growing up with all these legends and how does this compare to our modern divas like Beyoncé and Miley but before I can say the word twerk my throat closes up. I know she’s not going to talk about these things, I just know, and I’ve never had that feeling in an interview before.
I wonder if she too is afraid. When I heard that she was terrified of flying it seemed ridiculous that an artist of her magnitude with her 18 Grammys and over 75 million records sold and her constant breaking of Billboard records should have any fears at all. She is a legend.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ she says, almost savouring the moment that I’ve grasped she has fear. ‘Aretha is a woman like every other woman. Everyone has something.’ She looks at me sweetly. ‘I flew for 21 years and it’s just ridiculous for me not to fly. I’ve started working on it. One of these days you’ll see me back in London.’
Will she take a boat? ‘I don’t think so. There’s too much water. I’ll take eight hours on the Jumbo jet. I am thinking about that.’
What happened to create this fear? ‘A bad flight. A small plane. Two engines. Up and down, up and down. And I decided I would not fly again. I was not happy. Not a happy camper.’
It is at this point it strikes me Aretha has the wall because she feels pain like no other. She had a bad flight. She decides she can’t bear it. And that will never happen again.
The wall is not so much a fortress but a place where she traps herself inside herself. The wall I think would have come anyway, due to the tragedies in her early life and how in order to be the Queen of Soul she is the queen of sensitivity. Fame and being feted didn’t cause this wall, it just helped it stay in place.
‘I have a custom bus that I very much enjoy. I can go from city to city and see points of interest, get out and stretch my legs. If we go to California we have all these different things in the desert that you can see. I can do things on my bus that you can’t on a plane. You can’t stretch your legs at 30,000 feet.’
Does she have a bed on her bus? ‘No. I don’t want that. That’s too much bus. I get a good night’s sleep and then get back on the bus.’
Is it true the things she fears most are airplanes and interviews? ‘Where on earth did that come from? Never even heard that. Here we are in an interview and the planes as I said I’m working on it.’
Does she see a hypnotherapist? ‘No, no, no. I would never do that. I went to a fearless flyers class organised by US Air. I missed two classes. Last time I was standing at the gate when the rest of my class flew away because I’d missed a few lessons, but I am determined that I will graduate from that class. You do things like a rejected take-off where the plane goes down the runway, they start the propellers and everything, but then they stop and come back. We do that and actual classes where you watch films and find out a lot of things about planes.’ There’s another silence now.
Later on I speak to Versa Manos of Gorgeous Media Group. Manos was her PR at Arista Records 25 years ago. She looked after Aretha and Whitney Houston. I wonder was she like that then? ‘She is extremely sensitive, so if an interview becomes intimate or is about to discuss any of the big tragedies in her life it might make her cry, so it probably would be stopped before it got to that point.
‘She has had a very harsh early life. She expresses it in her voice all the time. Her detachment from the world is because she is so sensitive. That’s why she became slightly agoraphobic at some point.’
When she sang about demanding respect in 1967 it was when a black woman was rarely granted such a thing and now she is a legend she can demand it.
She sang for President Obama at his inauguration. ‘It was a tremendous moment. Certainly a historical one and I was delighted to be part of it. Throngs and throngs of people that morning as far as you could see. Unbelievable.’
She met him at Rosa Parks’ funeral. ‘Yes. That’s exactly where I met him. He was on his way out of the door and someone saw him leaving and said “Hey, Barack, you haven’t met Aretha and said hello.” He stopped, turned right round and came back. And that was a nice moment. He’s a very nice man. He’s very much in person as you see him on TV, charismatic.’
Did she maintain contact with him? ‘No, no, of course not.’ The eyes roll again. Did he ask her to sing again? ‘No. There is only one inauguration.’ But there’s a second term. ‘Oh. Well, how can that be an inauguration the second time? That’s not the same thing. The moment that was historical will only happen once in history and it happened when I sang the National Anthem. That’s the first time it ever happened. How can it happen again? I was there at one of the greatest moments in history. I was touched. That moment was the fruition for many who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly when we saw Reverend Jackson and there were tears flowing. I’m sure many, many things went through his mind, Dr King being one of them. It was the fruition of the hopes and dreams of a nation. Ah-hum,’ she says triumphantly. It’s an ah-hum that says her father would be very proud. ‘Ah-hum-hmm. Absolutely.
‘They were great friends Dr King and my dad. The march in Detroit was a precursor to the march in Washington. He actually did the “I have a dream” speech here before Washington. The applause was so thunderous the walls were shaking. There have been so many gains, but there’s certainly still a way to go.’
She says this with such passion I wonder how close she was to Dr King? ‘He was a guest of my dad’s.’ Not a personal friend? ‘Oh, please stop, definitely not. I understand exactly what you mean. None of that.’ She says this with a quiet ferocity, but then the moment passes and she becomes sweet again.
‘When he was a guest of Dad’s in our home we had a housekeeper who I used to call Catherine the Great because she was such a great cook. She asked Dr King what he would like for breakfast. Bacon, omelette, grits, or sorjetses because she couldn’t say sausages. Dr King thought for a moment and he says, ‘Well Catherine, I’ll have some bacon and I’ll have some of that sorjetses. He was such a gracious man he didn’t make fun of the moment or try to correct her, he just went along with it.’
At this point a voice comes in and says the interview must stop but Aretha is having none of it. ‘I love cooking. I do a great chicken and dressing and I do good spaghetti and omelettes. I also like banana puddings and peach cobbler. You know, these days I just very lightly taste. I don’t over taste when I’m cooking. If you mess up there you can gain a lot of weight. My favourite food to eat and cook and the most difficult thing for me to give up was ham hocks and greens. I just love ham hocks and greens.’
Maybe she should just stick to the greens? ‘Well no, I’d rather have the ham hocks with a little hot sauce, some cornbread. What could be better?’
A voice cries out, “The interview must stop.” Aretha says, ‘No. Let’s have another give minutes. She came all this way.’
So this is the even weirder thing. The minute she knows the interview is going to end she doesn’t want it. She becomes relaxed and super chatty. She tells me there are three deals on the table for the biopic movie of her life. ‘There might be Audrey MacDonald, Jennifer Hudson, or a gospel unknown playing myself. I don’t know yet.’
What about Alicia Keys? Aretha covers Keys’ No One on the Divas album so I thought there might be a connection. ‘That’s so interesting,’ she says animated. ‘There a possibility of Shonda Rhimes (writer and producer of Grey’s Anatomy) writing it. Uh-hmm,’ she says savouring it. Would she control the script? ‘I would certainly have edit approval and I don’t think you could beat that except maybe with the ham hocks.’ She giggles.
Her posse want the interview to finish and now we have passed a few sticky moments I think Aretha doesn’t want it to finish. The hot and cold is perplexing.
I ask her if we can have a picture. I sit on the floor before her and it looks as I am kneeling at the feet of a queen. ‘Do stop with that,’ she says. ‘There’s only one Queen, your Queen, and she’s still handling it. I really admire that Queen of yours. Such maturity from such a young age, and such great walking shoes.’
The tape recorder is off now and she is much more relaxed. She wonders if the Queen walks around the palace maybe as she walks around the superstore. She admires my eye make-up, which is dark and glittery, just like her eye make-up, which is dark and glittery.
Suddenly there’s an incredible warmth to her, or maybe it’s relief that I’m going. Puzzled I speak to Roger Friedman, Showbiz411.com columnist and friend of Franklin. Sometimes she’s sweet, sometimes she’s not.
‘Yes,’ he concedes. ‘She can be a puzzle.’ He tells me that changing her mind about interview dates and times is just because she changes her mind a lot and nothing more should be read into it. He tells me that she comes to New York to learn classical piano and teaches her teacher gospel piano in return.
‘A critic in the New York Times had accused her of using Auto-Tune on her Divas album. I asked her if this was true. I heard her ask, “Do we use Auto-Tune in the car?” She had no idea what it was. Of course she doesn’t use Auto-Tune.
‘What you have to remember is Aretha is a living legend. James Brown is gone, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. She wanted to do this album as they were her idols. It’s so easy to make fun of celebrities. They are so daffy or whatever. But we have to appreciate who we’ve got and what they mean to us. Every singer wants to be Aretha Franklin and they never will be. She is singular. She can still make an album with all the trills and whoops and everything she adds that no one else can do. It’s easy to make fun of her as she is the ultimate diva, but all the other divas who are legends are dead. We have to treat her with respect now.’
She is indeed the ultimate diva and respect is something she not only demands, but has earned.