Hard to believe, but today marks one year since the passing of Aretha Franklin. So many accolades have been visited on her including the Pulitzer Prize– just for being Aretha– and an all star TV special that she would have loved. Detroit has named an outdoor concert venue for her, and a stretch of highway, among other things.
Aretha is sorely missed by family and friends, even family currently at war in a Detroit probate court over her will. You know, she didn’t leave one. She did it intentionally. And it was only by accident that her niece found three unsigned, uncompleted wills when she began to clean out Aretha’s house. They were started and stopped. They weren’t signed.
Aretha didn’t believe she was going to die, even after harrowing surgeries, proceedings, and treatments. When I asked her one day, point blank, can you tell me what’s wrong exactly? She would reply, I cannot. And then silence.
Did she really believe her faith had cured her? Well, she believed it inasmuch as she could say it from a stage to her audience, because she loved them. But two years ago, at Philadelphia’s Mann Center, she knew she was pretty much done. It took all her energy that night to put on a real show of shows. I had dinner with her backstage before the performance, and she looked great. But coming off stage, all the air was gone from her body.
That wasn’t her last show. That distinction was left for Elton John’s AIDS Foundation gala three months later in November in New York. She’d lost so much weight I was scared and upset when I saw her. But she was already on stage. That was some performance. It included a long version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” with Aretha giving the piano a workout. Elton John and David Furnish came to the lip of the stage and cheered her on. Aretha called them out, and shouted out her old pal, Bill Clinton. She was in her element. Sail on, silver girl indeed.
So I think about Aretha all the time, and all the fun we had at different meals, on the road, in New York, Los Angeles, Mohegan Sun. She was irascible but she also had a great sense of humor. She really could make you laugh. When Instagram first got popular she got an account and started taking pictures of all her friends, her bodyguards, other performers, and posting the pictures. She said, “I’m the paparazzi now!”
Recently, my friend DA Pennebaker passed away at age 94. The day he turned 85, nine summers ago, I brought Aretha to his daughter’s house, to a backyard barbecue, for his birthday. Aretha had been renting a house nearby, and we’d spent the afternoon eating soul food that she and her sister in law Earline had cooked. There was enough food for 10 people, and it was delicious.
Around 5 pm, I said, “Aretha, I have to go to DA Pennebaker’s 85th birthday party.” She responded: “Will there be food?” We were all stuffed. I said, “Yes. I guess so.” She said: “I’ll come!” You can only imagine the looks on everyone’s faces when I walked into the Pennebaker garden and said, “Penny, your birthday present is Aretha Franklin.” He nearly fainted.
Aretha arrived with her guests, all dressed up. Everyone had a great time. It was a kind of magical moment as they talked music and Aretha tasted the family paella. For me, it was kind of a dream of watching two people you loved and respected connecting over all of our favorite things, music and food. I hope they’ve run into each other in heaven, and picked up where they left off.
All of those people in Detroit negotiating over Aretha’s wills are good people. They loved her, and she loved them. To tell you the truth, they love each other. I hope in Aretha’s memory they settle their differences soon. She would have wanted it that way.
Here’s a funny story. Aretha taped the Kennedy Center Honors in early December 2015 and brought down the house with “Natural Woman.” Two, three weeks later we went to Mohegan Sun on New Years’ Day for a show she had scheduled. In the interim, a couple of days earlier, the Kennedy Center program aired. Now we’re walking into the Mohegan theater, and the manager says to Aretha: “We may start a few minutes late, we had to add 300 seats because there was such a demand.”
This was good news! But why, I asked? The manager shook her head. “I guess a lot of people saw you on the Kennedy Center show. They keep asking if you’re going to sing Natural Woman. Are you?”
Aretha laughed. She’d only been performing it for 48 years. She said, “Well, it’s in there. It’s the fifth song.” She added: “Imagine that, I’m an overnight star!”