My friend, Aretha Franklin– wait, such a weird thing to say but it’s true– Aretha Franklin was my friend. She died two years ago today, August 16th, 2018. Like a lot of her friends, I’m not over it.
I think the new worst part of Aretha’s death is that back on April 8th of this year, Aretha’s long standing boyfriend, road manager, best friend, bodyguard, sort of everything person, Willie Wilkerson, died as a result of COVID-19. He was in Detroit, he went out to walk the dog, came back sick, went to the hospital and died alone. Willie had married on February 14th, 2019, six month after Aretha died. He was still getting over her death, but he was happy. This was just about the cruelest ending to an honorable life I could imagine. He was my friend, and I miss him a lot.
In July 2018 I went to Detroit to say goodbye to Aretha. Willie was my host, but she was so ill that he didn’t want me to see her. Aretha at first thought we might see each other. Instead, we talked on the phone. I’d been with her the previous November when she played Elton John’s AIDS Foundation dinner. Her appearance really alarmed me. She was skeletal. I’m very sorry there are photos from that night floating around. That wasn’t the real Aretha.
That whole last year of 2017, Aretha was still out there, performing. I’m going backwards: In August she played the Mann Center in Philadelphia. I went down by train and we had dinner before the show. She was exhausted, she knew it was her last real show, but she wanted to prove she could still do it. And she did. It was a wowser of a show. During dinner I reminded her she “owed” me a performance of Stevie Wonder’s “Until You Come Back to Me.” Would she do it? “We’ll see,” she said slyly. (Sometimes she’d say yes, and then forget.) Well, it was the fourth number, and she even introduced me from the stage. I was in heaven.
I write about Aretha all the time. I’ll remember her every year and in between. One thing I’d like to convey this time is that Aretha was smart. She wasn’t smart not to leave a will, that was emotional. But she was smart about so many things in the arts, politics, history, and so on. She was educated. She read. Before she got very sick, she paid attention to everything. She surprised me all the time when she’d bring up a subject out of left field. She was a very good interviewer herself, and loved getting information out of people. When Instagram started, she loved it, and went crazy taking and posting pictures.
She left a close circle of friends. We are still in touch, some loosely, some more frequently. But if I ran into any of these people on the street, or at a function, the bond is there forever. She chose her friends wisely and deliberately. It was an honor almost beyond description to be in that group.
I was surprised when she died that “I Say a Little Prayer for You” took off again. It was really Dionne Warwick’s song. There are so many actual Aretha songs that are tougher and more representative of her. “Ain’t No Way” was one. “Seesaw” was another. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” had really become important to her again in recent years. So did a song called “My Cup Runneth Over,” originally recorded by Ed Ames. She’d perfected it so much — accompanying herself on piano — that I started filming it. Her performance was a revelation. The song was biblical. She was reassuring herself and telling us that her life had been good, and God would protect her now whatever happened because of her cancer. Each time she did it was transcendent.
In the last year she’d suddenly added to her set list a great Jerry Butler hit called “A Brand New Me” written by Jerry and Thom Bell and Kenny Gamble. I’d heard it in March at Mohegan Sun and commented on it. She hadn’t sung it live in a concert since the very early 70s, then tried it out in 2016. In her last year she performed it 8 times. Again, she accompanied herself on the piano and literally pushed herself into it. I didn’t understand this was her goodbye song. She was always changing, improving, no matter the obstacle. And she was always true to herself. That is Aretha Franklin’s legacy.
We will always miss you, my friend. I do hope you’re not making Willie crazy up there in heaven, but you;’re playing gigs and getting the cash up front. Willie is keeping it in the Vuitton bag under the piano until the show is over, and afterwards there’s plenty of soul food in the green room. Amen.
These are my same old shoes
It was the same old me
With the same old blues
Just by holding my hand
And when I look in the mirror
I see a brand new girl, oh me
Just because of you whoa, oh, oh
Just because of you, boy
Just because of you
And they’ve got the same old sins
I tell them the same old jokes
And I get the same old grins
It happened somehow with you
Everyday of my life
I’m as fresh as morning dew
Just because of you, whoa, oh, oh, oh
Just because of you, boy
Just because of you
I see the same old faces
I look at the same old sky
See it all with brand new eye