Aretha Franklin sounded relaxed and happy during a phone interview that took place while she rolled down the highway in her tour bus—she disliked flying—on her way to New Orleans for her 2012 appearance at the Essence Festival. The show, in which she was joined by this city’s own Paul S. Morton and the Greater St. Stephen Church choir, would be the last time the Queen of Soul would perform in the Crescent City. The much beloved Aretha Franklin, a remarkably talented woman of great voice, influence and humanity, died at home in Detroit, Michigan on Thursday, August 16, 2018 at the age of 76.
During the dialogue, Franklin, who garnered 18 Grammy awards among numerous other accolades, said that she had no notion that her 1967 recording of Otis Redding’s “Respect” would become an anthem for both the civil rights and women’s movements. “I liked it so much that my sisters [Erma and Carolyn Franklin] and I got together and came up with our own version of it. It is wonderful that it became a battle cry for many people.”
Other Aretha hits that struck the right messages during the era include 1968’s “Think,” where she demands, “Freedom, freedom…!” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” on which she plays some tasty piano with a band filled with superb musicians. (Dr. John plays percussion on the cut “Rock Steady.”)
It’s been stated many times that Aretha Franklin came out of the church. However it might be more accurate to say that she invited the secular world into the powerful and compassionate musical tabernacle that remained her roots. In an interview on CBS This Morning, New Orleans pianist/vocalist Jon Batiste insightfully described Aretha’s approach as having an “ancestral” sound. Hallelujah!
Franklin’s appearances here in recent decades were surprisingly limited. She was a headliner at the 1994 Jazz Fest appearing both at the Fair Grounds and at the UNO Lakefront Arena. In 1995, the Queen of Soul wowed the audience with her power and range at the first Essence Festival.
Naturally much of the previously mentioned 2012 conversation centered on her experiences in New Orleans. We’ll let Franklin’s words tell that part of her story.
Does Essence Festival have any particular significance for you? How about New Orleans?
I love the festival. People come from all over the country. All roads lead to the Essence Festival. Its vibe is one of unity and brotherhood.
I used to come to New Orleans many years ago as a young singer with my dad [Reverend C.L. Franklin]. I used to sing just before he would get up to speak and, of course, I accompanied him on piano. Many times we came to New Orleans and we stayed on LaSalle, I believe it was. There was a hotel at the time in the 1960s by the name of the Foster Hotel and that’s where we stayed.
I also came after going to New York and I was beginning to sing secular music. I’m aware of the Mardi Gras and I watched it from the windows of the Foster Hotel on a number of occasions. It was just spectacular, a spectacular event for a young girl to see. And also I would see the concerts at the City [Municipal] Auditorium with Ray Charles and he would be rockin’ the auditorium. So I have many fond memories of New Orleans and it’s always a pleasure to come and it’s wonderful for me to sing there after so long.
I’m aware that you were close to Mahalia Jackson. Did she have any influences on you?
I recall her as being a very beautiful and devout woman who was a great friend of my dad’s and who was revered and cherished by many millions as a vocalist and artist and I can certainly understand why. One of my mentors was Clara Ward who was out of Philadelphia and headed up the Ward Singers. Although I enjoyed Mahalia very, very much, Clara was a little more of a mentor. But she and Mahalia were great friends of my daddy and the family. So it was nothing for either one of them to just come over to our family home and head straight to the kitchen and start cooking. Mahalia would go in and fix greens, fried corn, baked chicken and dressing and the whole nine yards.
You cook too.
I love to cook. I love being very domestic. I do love my home as much as I love entertaining. I have many specialties—oxtail soup with cornbread, filé gumbo. We used to go to Dooky Chase’s all the time. They would set up big banquet tables for our group. Of course she [Leah Chase] was the Emeril Lagasse of the day.
Amen, Aretha Franklin, for offering the world your own banquet piled high with heartfelt music lovingly prepared by the Queen of Soul.