New Again: Aretha Franklin
In New Again, we highlight a piece from Interview‘s past that resonates with the present.
Congratulations, Aretha Franklin! The singer has just announced her engagement to beau William Wilkerson. The two began dating in the 1980s after Aretha’s second marriage, to actor Glynn Turman, ended in 1984. We’ve featured Franklin a number of times over the course of her relationship with Wilkerson, but the December 1986 interview ranks among the best. Not only is Franklin wearing a tremendous ’80s get-up (shoulder-padded sweater, hoop earrings, and all), the interview is full of esoterica. For example, did you know that long before Lady Gaga, Aretha performed at the Academy Awards wearing antlers? Or that she sang in a Coca-Cola commercial with Ray Charles and then forgot that she did so? We’re a little concerned, Ms. Franklin—we’d heard that David Bowie doesn’t remember appearing in Labyrinth, but we expected more from you.
At the time of the interview reprinted below, Franklin was the best-selling female artist ever. Alas, Franklin has since been dislodged by Madonna, mentioned in this interview with regards to “Papa Don’t Preach,” a delicate subject for Franklin, who had her first child at fourteen. Don’t worry, Aretha, you were never overtaken in our hearts.—Emma Brown
by Pat Hackett
She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, had a pastorate. He moved the family to Detroit, where, at age twelve, she joined the choir at his New Bethel Baptist Church. She recorded her first gospel record on the Chess label at age fourteen, and at eighteen she was signed to Columbia Records by producer John Hammond. During her seven years with Columbia, she polished her technical skills, combining her own gospel training with jazz and supper-club style. She moved to Atlantic Records, where producer Jerry Wexler took her down to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He worked closely with her on song choices and encouraged her to play piano on arrangements of her own. Her premiere single on Atlantic, “Never Loved a Man,” exploded over the airwaves in February 1967. The first day of its release, amazed people asked each other, “Have you heard that woman?” By the second day, everyone was calling her by name—Aretha.
The term “soul,” as the essence of “blackness,” was new then in the national vocabulary and it was getting a big workout: Aretha’s voice defined it. She quickly racked up awards and gold records, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The story inside, however, revealed marital difficulties, and this soured her on the press. Erratic performances followed personal problems and divorce in the late ’60s, but she reemerged strong in 1970 when her Spirit in the Dark LP entered the Top 10. She led the charts for another two-year period, but then the middle ’70s proved difficult for her musical style. She changed producers frequently, and, in 1980, she signed to Arista Records, where, in 1982, her third album, Jump To It, reestablished her chart presence. Her last album, Who’s Zoomin’ Who, went platinum and produced two Top 10 hits. On top again, Aretha has a new album on Arista, a new video and a hit single—”Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—and Atlantic Records has just released a 30 Greatest Hits package that studies in depth her thirteen-year career with that label. Aretha has received fifteen Grammy Awards and 25 gold records. She’s the highest-ranking female in total record sales, and with her next Top 10 single, she will become the female leader in the Top 10 singles field. She recently was the first female inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of fame.
Aretha is poised and cordial in the living room of her house in the Bloomfield Hills area of Detroit.
PAT HACKETT: When Keith Richards came her to do the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash ” video, was that the first time you’d met?
ARETHA FRANKLIN: Yes.
HACKETT: I’m surprised you never met the Stones in the early days.
FRANKLIN: I’d met Mick. When I was in London he came backstage and we had a nice little chat; he’s very down-to-earth. And then Mick and Ahmet [Ertegun] are very close, so of course I’d run into him now and then.
HACKETT: Do you think that Tina Turner’s comeback helped your career in any way?
FRANKLIN: No, I don’t think that had anything to do with it. Tina had wonderful success and that’s beautiful, but I think it was the choice of the material—the “Who’s Zooming Who” and “Freeway” type thing—as well as the way it was promoted.
HACKETT: Does your brother Cecil still manage you?
HACKETT: Another reason I thought about Tina was that early in your career a story in the press talked about problems in your first marriage and that really bothered you, but in Tina’s book [I, Tina], after you read about her and Ike, everything seems pretty tame.
FRANKLIN: I haven’t read Tina’s book yet. I enjoyed Diahann Carroll’s book [Diahann] though. I just read that, and I’m reading the Henry Ford book [Ford: The Man and the Machine] – I love it – and let’s see… Joan Collins’ book [Past Imperfect] was informative, but I thought there’d be some hotter things in there…
HACKETT: Will you ever write a book?
HACKETT: I’m surprised, because you’re famous for not wanting to talk about your personal life.
FRANKLIN: My book is going to be about the years I sung gospel with my dad. That will be Part One.
HACKETT: Did you start singing when you were eight?
FRANKLIN: Eight? Heck no! I couldn’t even sing then. I guess at twelve, on weekends in the young-adult church choir at my father’s church. Sometimes I played [piano] for them; sometimes I was a featured vocalist.
HACKETT: And you were styling yourself along the lines of…?
FRANKLIN: Aretha. But yes, I had early influences—Clara Ward, James Cleveland.
HACKETT: They say your mother was a good singer. Did you ever hear her sing?
FRANKLIN: Mm hmm. Yes, she was.
HACKETT: Is your voice more like hers or your father’s?
FRANKLIN: It’s a mix of the two.
HACKETT: And she was purely gospel?
FRANKLIN: Yes, uh huh.
HACKETT: Is gospel as big as it was?
FRANKLIN: It’s bigger now. I think it’s coming to the forefront of American music, and I think it’s wonderful they’ve started including gospel artists in the Grammys telecast, too. That helps expose a lot of the older artists. And the artists like Amy Grant and Reba McEntire give it more exposure still…
HACKETT: You’ve often said that religion is extremely important to you. What’s your favorite Bible story?
FRANKLIN: Let’s start with the church. As you know, it’s my background, it’s a natural setting for me and it’s definitely my roots.
HACKETT: But if you could pick one piece of advice from the Bible—something that helps you live your life—what would it be?
FRANKLIN: I like “Live, and let live.”
HACKETT: But that’s not in the Bible.
FRANKLIN: But that personally is what I like.
HACKETT: Your father was a very famous preacher. They called him the “million dollar voice.” How many records did he make?
FRANKLIN: He has about 50 volumes on Chess Records. Meaning 50 sermons. He usually prefaced his sermons with a hymn.
HACKETT: When you dropped out of school you were very young. Was it at thirteen?
FRANKLIN: No, about fifteen.
HACKETT: When you dropped out, was it in order to go on the gospel tours with your father?
FRANKLIN: No, I had a baby at that time, and then I did start singing as a featured soloist with my dad.
HACKETT: I wanted to ask you about that. We just had Madonna’s song “Papa Don’t Preach” creating controversy over teenagers having babies out of wedlock. In retrospect, do you wish that you hadn’t become pregnant when you were so young?
FRANKLIN: Well, that’s very, very personal and nothing I care to discuss. I’m very happy with things just the way they happened for me, and what I’m going to do now is go back and get my diploma. I’ve thought about going to MSU [Michigan State University] to enroll as a special student in music theory.
HACKETT: Would you say your family was “affluent?”
HACKETT: Where in Detroit did you live?
FRANKLIN: On the North End. Boston Boulevard.
HACKETT: That was close to where Berry Gordy lived after he became successful with Motown?
FRANKLIN: His house was one block over, on Chicago Boulevard. Smokey lived another street over from where we lived, and Diana lived on the same street that Smokey did. But this was all after I left Detroit—I never remember Berry living in a house there.
HACKETT: In Mary Wilson’s book [Dreamgirl, My Life as a Supreme] she says that Berry Gordy wanted to sign your sister Erma, but not you. Is that true?
FRANKLIN: I read that, too. I don’t know! I liked Mary’s book, it was very well written. It’s true that Erma was right there at the beginning of Motown, when Berry would go around with his songs under his arm. He and his partner, Billy Davis, would come over to our house and give Erma songs and she’d make demonstration records, or “dubs” as they called them in those days, for the other artists at Motown.
HACKETT: She never recorded on Motown, though.
FRANKLIN: No, she moved to New York and was on Epic. Lloyd Price’s manager used to be her manager too.
HACKETT: Does she sing anymore?
FRANKLIN: No. Just with me sometimes. She was on my Showtime special. And Billy Davis, by the way, now makes the Coca-Cola commercials at McCann-Erickson on Madison Avenue.
HACKETT: Speaking of Coke commercials, the one you did with Ray Charles was so great, they should’ve made a single out of it.
FRANKLIN: I did a Coke commercial with Ray Charles? I don’t remember that.
HACKETT: Are you kidding?
FRANKLIN: No, really, I don’t remember.
HACKETT: He sings something to you. And then you sing, “BAY-bay! Let’s talk it OH-vuh! Have a Coca-CO-la!/ I’ll be glad to let you try!/Because things go better with…” et cetera. You still don’t remember?
FRANKLIN: No. I do remember a Coke commercial where I did a very long run-up.
HACKETT: So you left Detroit and went to New York. This was right at the beginning of the ’60s. What did you do when you go there?
FRANKLIN: I took lots of classes. This was all in the CBS building on 54th and Broadway, where the Ed Sullivan Theater is. That building had all kinds of classes going on in it—dancing, ballet, you-name-it.
HACKETT: I’ve read that when you first got to New York you lived at the YWCA on 38th Street.
FRANKLIN: I did stay at the “Y,” yes, for a couple of days, and then I moved in with my manager. Her name was Jo King, and she was working for Broadway Recordings then—she lived in the East 70s. She introduced me to John Hammond.
HACKETT: Judging from the early records you made on Columbia with John Hammond, you must have taken speech classes—your diction was absolutely perfect.
FRANKLIN: [laughs] I still have perfect diction!
HACKETT: You’ve lapsed just a little bit.
FRANKLIN: No way, no way!
HACKETT: Barbra Streisand in her Playboy interview said she wished she could hit the notes that you can. It was often said you had a four-octave voice. Is that still true?
HACKETT: When you first came to New York, it was a hot time on Broadway, right there around the Brill Building. All the girl groups were popular then. What was a typical day like? I’m sure you went up to the Apollo sometimes.
FRANKLIN: Oh I did, I did. I’d spend a couple of hours with [choreographer] Cholly Atkins, and then I’d have lunch and then spend a couple of hours with my vocal coach, Leola Carter, and then, yes, if there was somebody hot at the Apollo I’d go there. I saw the Supremes when they were still singing in little black skirts and white blouses. They weren’t starring yet, but they were on the show. And I saw a couple of gospel artists there too. And I was booked once to go on Ed Sullivan and I got bumped and ran out the back door crying.
HACKETT: They never rescheduled you?
FRANKLIN: No. And, of course, I had told everybody in the world, “I’m going on The Ed Sullivan Show!” I had the most beautiful gowns, I was going to sing “Skylark”—I had worked with Cholly on that—and we had done the rehearsals. I remember one of my gowns was cut a little low and a voice from up in the booth said, “We don’t like the cut of the gown—change it.” So we brought out two others that were higher-cut and they seemed satisfied with those, but then at the last minute they said the show was overbooked and somebody had to be bumped, and that it was me.
HACKETT: You’ve had a lot of drastic fashion looks. When I look at your album covers over the years and think about the shows you’ve done—like the Academy Awards show when you came out in the antlers…
FRANKLIN: Yes, I’ve always been fashion conscious.
HACKETT: When you were first starting out, who was your ideal of fashion and beauty?
FRANKLIN: I was probably modeling myself after personal family friends whose style I admired, rather than anyone inn show business. When I first started, I wore Ceil Chapman gowns. I’ve been wondering for years what happened to the Ceil Chapman line of clothing. My manager took me to her place on Park Avenue to pick out things that I like or that she thought I looked well in. So I was wearing designers right at the beginning.
HACKETT: You yourself have been planning to design a line of clothing, haven’t you?
FRANKLIN: I wanted to design a line based on Hollywood’s Golden Era. I talked with Stephen Burrows and with Willi Smith and with one or two other people, but it just seems like such a hard field to break into. I need someone like Calvin Klein’s manager to get behind me!
HACKETT: Madonna isn’t the first person to wear a conspicuous brassiere as part of her act. I remember seeing you at City Center when you split your brown dress, then came back on in a turquoise one, apologizing for the rust-colored bra that was showing through.
FRANKLIN: You saw that? That was the night that I was running between the Grammy’s and my opening at City Center.
HACKETT: What’s your beauty regime?
FRANKLIN: Just cold cream and a good attitude. And I go to Vic Tanny.
HACKETT: When Otis Redding heard your version of “Respect” he said, “I just lost my song. That girl stole my song.” When you record something that was originally done by another artist, does that artist ever call you and tell you what they think of your version?
FRANKLIN: No, no one ever has.
HACKETT: I herd you sing the Debbie Boone hit “You Light Up My Life” at Carnegie Hall in the mid-’70s, and everybody in the audience was standing up and screaming—it was like nobody else had ever sung it before.
FRANKLIN: You were there that night?
HACKETT: Yes. It was thrilling. Why didn’t you ever record that song?
FRANKLIN: Didn’t I? I know we were going to…
HACKETT: Jerry Wexler said that you and Ray Charles were the only two geniuses he could think of. Who do you regard as a genius?
FRANKLIN: In music? I know people I feel are extremely talented, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard any geniuses.
HACKETT: You’ve never felt that you were hearing an inspired work of genius?
FRANKLIN: Not that I recall. Just very talented people.
HACKETT: So do you think that Jerry Wexler was excessive in calling you a genius?
FRANKLIN: [laughs] Well, what is this? If Jerry wants to say it, then let Jerry say it!
HACKETT: What’s going on with your movie career? Are you still planning to do a TV movie of the Mahalia Jackson story?
FRANKLIN: I have a script for something that I like very much. We’re negotiating now and it’s supposed to start in early December.
HACKETT: It’s not the Mahalia story?
FRANKLIN: No. Can’t tell you what yet.
HACKETT: Is it about a singer?
FRANKLIN: Mm hmm.
HACKETT: Is it a TV movie?
FRANKLIN: No, silver screen.
HACKETT: Have you ever studied acting? Taken lessons?
FRANKLIN: I went to Lee Strasberg’s in New York for, oh, two days. And I got a little coaching in New York. And when I went out to L.A., I spoke to Nina Foch once or twice.
HACKETT: Do you think that you’ll ever want to take acting classes again?
FRANKLIN: I think I’ll want coaching more than anything else. And of course, my ex-husband [Glynn Turman] taught acting and I sat in on all of his classes. And participated.
HACKETT: Weren’t you going to do something in a Stallone movie?
FRANKLIN: I got an offer about two months ago, but they were so quick, they’ve done it already!
HACKETT: Speaking of Rocky, I know you’re a big boxing fan. Whose career are you following now? Mike Tyson’s?
FRANKLIN: I just got into Mike Tyson. My security people kept saying, “Haven’t you seen him yet?” Well, I finally did, and he’s got a real knockout punch. And he’s young.
HACKETT: What do you think of twelve-round championship fights instead of fifteen?
FRANKLIN: Fifteen is better—gives you that little more excitement, and they have to be in really good shape to go fifteen. It’s over a little too soon at twelve. But the, I also love one- and two-round knockouts. The element of surprise! I love it.
HACKETT: Your sister Carolyn once said that you used to get in fights defending her in the schoolyard. Will you describe one of these fights—what you would say and what they would say?
FRANKLIN: That was so long ago, and Carolyn exaggerates. I only remember one fight. Carolyn was tiny. I didn’t say anything, really. Just, “Wuss thuh problem?”
HACKETT: The way you say it, that would be enough. Are you writing a lot of songs now?
FRANKLIN: I’m writing some things for Wayne Newton. I’m going to produce him.
HACKETT: How did this association come about?
FRANKLIN: Wayne? Okay, I was interested in buying some thoroughbred horses to run. Not for the big stakes like Belmont or anything, but to run at DRC [Detroit Race Course] or Hazel Park. I knew he had horses, so I called him about that, and then as we were talking I asked what record company he was with and he said he wasn’t under contract to anyone. Clive Davis, the president of Arista, recently said he’d let me produce three projects, so one of them will be Wayne, and then two people I’ve selected locally here in Detroit.
HACKETT: Have you ever done a royal performance?
FRANKLIN: Yes, a variety show. About six years ago. Sammy Davis hosted, and Sheen Easton was there, and Cleo Lane and James Cagney and J.R. Ewing. It was wonderful. After the performance the royal family came down on stage. Lady Di wasn’t married to Prince Charles yet, but she was there, and the Queen Mum, and I found them to be warm, genuine kind of people.
HACKETT: Did the Queen realize that you were the Queen of Soul?
FRANKLIN: I don’t know but she certainly did enjoy “Amazing Grace.” I sung that and “My Shining Hour.”
HACKETT: When did you first hear yourself called Queen of Soul?
FRANKLIN: It was many years ago in Chicago. I was crowned in Chicago.
HACKETT: They literally put a crown on your head?
FRANKLIN: Uh huh, yes, they did.
HACKETT: Is that the crown over there on the piano?
FRANKLIN: No, that’s another one. But it was beautiful. I still have it at my grandmother’s.
HACKETT: Who decided there would be a coronation?
FRANKLIN: It was a DJ named Purvis Spann. One night after the show he brought the crown out and crowned me.
HACKETT: Did you know it was coming?
FRANKLIN: I had no idea.
HACKETT: Did you cry like Miss America?
FRANKLIN: No, I was delighted and thrilled.
HACKETT: Did you wear it home that night?
FRANKLIN: No, no. But thereafter the journalists and people started using the term.
HACKETT: The “Queen of Soul.” It never catches on unless it’s true.
FRANKLIN: Unless it’s real, that’s right.