|Photo by Earl Perry|
On the Wednesday preceding her Friday night Essence Festival performance, Aretha Franklin was in her bus heading to New Orleans. Ten of the 23 musicians who would back her were onboard with most of the rest opting to fly into town. Prior to a lyric rehearsal that would take place as the entourage rolled down the highway, the “Queen of Soul” took time out for a few questions and memories.
Many of your hits were of great influence to people, especially women—songs like “Respect” and “Think” and later the more obvious, “Young, Gifted and Black.” Was that purposeful?
Actually, no. We did “Respect” off of Otis Redding’s version of “Respect.” I liked it so much that my sister [Erma Franklin] and I got together and came up with our own version of it. It is wonderful, yes, that it became a battle cry for many people—an anthem, so to speak. Everybody wants and needs respect and so yes it became very widespread. Not that I recorded it with that in mind.
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 I believe we stayed and there was also the Fairmont Hotel. 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 just beginning to travel with my daddy. And also I would see the concerts at the City [Municipal] Auditorium with Ray Charles and he would be rockin’ the City Auditorium in New Orleans. 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 here after so long.
Did you ever go to the Dew Drop Inn?
I knew where that was because it was up the street [from the hotel on LaSalle Street]. We saw a lot of people coming and going out of there. You know a young girl looking out the window and watching everything and soaking everything in like a sponge.
Also, New Orleans related, 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 am a domestic goddess, as Roseanne [comedian Roseanne Barr] used to put it. I do love my home [in Michigan] as much as I love entertaining. I have many specialties [as a cook]—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. The Reverend Herman Brown, who was the promoter at the time for my father’s appearances in New Orleans, used to take us all out to Dooky Chase’s. Of course she was the Emeril Lagasse of the day. They’ve got great gumbo in the hotels in New Orleans, too. The last time I was there I enjoyed that.
Is there anything that you would consider one of your greatest joys or experiences?
One of the highest points of my career was at the White House. It was wonderful singing in the Rose Garden for President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton. I have truly been blessed with high points in my career. Certainly the Grammy Legends award would be a highlight and the Kennedy Center honor and particularly being the youngest Kennedy Center honoree. It was a magnificent evening. Also my doctorates.
I know that you’ve worked with Ray Charles and have been compared stylistically to him—taking a song and making it your own. Do you see yourself as kindred spirits?
We came from the same church, let’s put it that way—brothers and sisters of the same church. We performed together at the Fillmore West and the Richmond Jazz Festival and about a year or so ago at the opening of the Mohawk Hotel and Casino. He was truly brilliant that night—his musicianship, his charts, his vocal performance—everything was just chained together. It was a magnificent fusion of music.
How much time are you spending on the road?
A couple of years back, I announced my semi-retirement. But I really didn’t cut down as much as I should have on the dates. So next year, I’m really going to make a conscious decision to cut in half the number of dates and be a little more semi-retired. Because I do love taking care of my home and just kicking around and doing the things I like to do at home. I usually do four or five dates monthly so I’ll probably do two and no more than three a month.
So do you listen to music at home? What’s in your CD player?
I sure do. I have lots of things in my CD player. Actually I was listening to my concert in Atlanta. I do listen to all my concerts when I get home. Other than that I’ve been enjoying artists like Gerald Levert and Jaheim, one of the hip-hop artists. I like some of Destiny Child’s things… a lot of contemporary things as well as traditional. I like the Clark Sisters, Vanessa Bell, Bobby Jones and I love Ruben’s [Studdard] latest single, “Send Me An Angel.” I love that.
[After the phone call was briefly disconnected, Aretha continued.]
A big truck went past and cut us off. I’m on my bus. We have a lot of great movies and tapes and books. I’m presently reading Condoleeza Rice as well as Dr. Cornel West, Democracy Matters and Tavis Smiley, Hard Left.