I am heartbroken to report that my friend, Aretha Franklin, a legend almost beyond description, has passed away in Detroit at age 76. The Queen of Soul been suffering from cancer since 2010 but refused to give in or give up. Her final performance was for Elton John at the 25th anniversary of his AIDS Foundation in November. Prior to that, her last public show was at Philadelphia’s Mann Center on August 26,2017. (I was lucky enough to go with her, watch a historic, off the charts performance.) She’d recently announced her retirement from touring, knowing that she was getting weaker. In last few months, Aretha had been living in a luxury condo in downtown Detroit, where she was attended to by friends and family. She’d had several recent hospitalizations, mostly for lack of hydration.
Aretha leaves four sons, several grandchildren, extended family members and many friends that were dear to her in Detroit and all over the world. She wrote an autobiography called “From these Roots” several years ago with writer David Ritz, who more recently turned against her and published a book she deplored. I am imploring media bookers and writers not to use Ritz or his book, “Respect,” as reference material.
Aretha was born in Memphis, Tennessee to Reverend CL Franklin and his wife Barbara on March 25, 1942. She was one of four children, all of whom are gone now. Her sisters were Irma and Carolyn, and there was a brother, Vaughn. The family relocated to Buffalo and then to Detroit where Reverend Franklin became a famous preacher at the New Bethel Baptist Church. *In Memphis, among the people he married were the great DJ and R&B star Rufus Thomas, and his wife.) It was there that Aretha began singing. Aretha’s mother, Barbara, left Reverend Franklin and died in 1952, just before Aretha’s 10th birthday. Aretha was raised after that by her father and a number of women including singer Mahalia Jackson.
When Aretha finally took off, she signed to Columbia Records in 1961 and stayed for five years. Her Columbia catalog showcased her as a great chanteuse, but mostly singing covers of standards and gospel songs. She left in 1966 for Atlantic Records where Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin would let her voice and songwriting flourish. In 1967 the floodgates opened, and out came Aretha’s dozens and dozens of hits from “Respect” to “Natural Woman,” plus songs that she wrote like “Daydreamin'” and “Rock Steady.”
Aretha would spend a miraculous decade at Atlantic. Her biggest hit album, ironically, was a gospel album released in 1973 called “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky).” It was also the album she loved the most.
The rest of Aretha’s amazing career will be written about everywhere. In the late 70s she hooked up with Clive Davis at Arista Records, whom she had known at Columbia, and both of their lives were changed forever. She had a big run of hits on Arista from “Jump to It” and “Jimmy Lee” to “Freeway of Love” and solidified a lifelong friendship. Their last record together would be Aretha singing the great R&B hits of other divas. It was a great success, but almost not as big as her appearance on the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. She performed her 1968 hit “Natural Woman” for its writer, Carole King and it was the pinnacle of a stellar career.
The Kennedy Center show was broadcast on December 29, about three weeks after she’d taped it. By coincidence, Aretha had scheduled a show on New Years Day– January 1, 2016. I met her at Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. When we went to the theater, the manager said to us, “I had to add three hundred seats. The show is suddenly sold out.” Everyone was very pleased, but we asked if something happened, the women replied, “They keep asking if she’s going to sing the song from the Kennedy Center show.”
Aretha and her entourage– security guards, friends, etc– all laughed. “Natural Woman,” Aretha said. “Of course, I think it’s like the fifth song. No big deal.” She turned to me and said, “Imagine that. I’ve been singing it for 50 years.” She shook her head in disbelief.
For a few years, the cancer was in abeyance. Aretha told no one anything– everything had to be surmised. She was extremely private. When the tabloids said he had pancreatic cancer, she refused to deny or acknowledge it. It wasn’t like everyone who knew her wasn’t concerned, but it didn’t matter. One time I asked her directly, Can you tell me what’s going on? She said, I’m sorry, I can’t. She wouldn’t. It wasn’t her way and we had to respect that.
Aretha burned through staff, administrative and musical. People came and went, and came back again. And went again. She was The Queen. But her legacy was of loyalty and friendship. If you needed her, she was there. She performed on stage tributes to both Whitney Houston and Natalie Cole, whom she mourned. She maintained a long friendship with Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston, who was Aretha’s backup singer in the 60s and even on her final Letterman appearance in 2015.
The fact is, whatever her idiosyncrasies, Aretha Franklin was a genius. She wasn’t just gifted. She was very modest in this regard, but she was a superb musician whose gifts flowed through her fingers and her voice. She was funny, too. When she was well, she loved a good time. She loved the Broadway theater, and opera. Every summer she came to New York on vacation and took piano lessons with a Juilliard music school teacher. I think they learned more from her than she learned from them. But she boasted about learning better form as a musician.
In 1998, she was scheduled to perform Puccini’s “Nessum Dorma” with Luciano Pavarotti live on the Grammy Awards at Radio City Music Hall. I was in the production truck with producer Pierre Cossette when the call came. “Pavarotti refuses to come down and sing,” Pierre said. He took off to see Aretha in her dressing room. When he returned he said, “It’s all right. Aretha knows the Italian. She’s going to do the whole thing!”
And so she did– Aretha sang all of “Nessum Dorma,” it was utter magic, and the audience went wild. Already a superstar for 30 years, she was an overnight sensation. “Nessum Dorma” became part of her regular act, dropped into her show among “Respect” and “Jump to It.” An accident of caprice– Pavarotti deciding on a whim not to sing– changed her life. But the fact was, Aretha was ready. She had inner resources no one could imagine.
There will never be another Aretha, not as a singer, a person, or a symbol for Black America. Extraordinary doesn’t even begin to describe her impact on our culture or our politics. To do what she did– to become the greatest popular singer of all time– required exposing herself to the public when she didn’t want to, being tough and becoming press savvy (she knew how to manipulate the tabloids) and to retain her dignity when many wished against her. But Aretha’s super power– because she was a super hero long before Marvel or DC, a real Wonder Woman– was to know when to maintain her reserve, and fire away at the right moment.
What is Aretha’s musical legacy? Is it “Respect”? Is it “Nessum Dorma”? Is it the fiery gospel that propelled her life and supported her faith? It was all of it. As long as radio waves keep blowing across the world, we will never be without it.