The Queen of Soul still rules

The Queen of Soul still rules

Living legend

Iconic  Singer Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin sat alone with a Coke. It was the night of her 69th birthday, and all around, guests were filling into the Park Room at the Helmsley Park Lane Hotel, bobbing to live music from the vibraphonist Roy Ayers or the mambo prince Tito Puente Jr. Franklin has given herself big birthday parties before, but this one had a certain urgency.

A few months earlier, in December, she announced she had undergone an unnamed surgical “procedure”, and word spread that she had pancreatic cancer; other reports speculated that she’d had gastric-­bypass surgery to get control of a weight problem that appeared to have pushed her over 250 pounds. The organisers of the Grammy Awards quickly put together a tribute for her, and the sudden and shocking weight loss displayed in a taped thank-you played during the ceremony in February only kept advance-obituary writers scrambling for whatever superlatives were left to describe a career that has included 18 Grammys, upward of 75 million records sold, being the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But now, there she sat at a front table in a flowing cream-­coloured silk Naeem Khan gown, with the kind of resurrection glow you see on stained-glass windows in churches. Open and accessible to all, Franklin seemed to be saying, ‘Come, poke your fingers into the airspace where a third of me used to be’. “I almost walked by her in the hall,” said a friend who has known her for more than 15 years, “that’s how much I didn’t recognise her.”

Slowly, well-wishers made their way to her. Tony Bennett, trailed by the record producer Phil Ramone, presented her with a drawing he’d done of her. Bette Midler, who is very short, and her husband, Martin von Haselberg, who seems very tall, did a walk-through in street clothes, stopping by Franklin’s table. Finally, after an hour or so, Franklin rose and walked over to the food stations, where she half-filled her own plate with lobster on blue-corn tortilla, smoked-salmon mousseline and baked ham made from her own recipe.

She had plenty of company while she ate, including the Rev Al Sharpton, but there were a few more moments when she sat strangely by herself, as if the guests, even some of her best friends, felt the need to dance gingerly around her. When her birthday cake was rolled out, the crowd parted again, and she made her way to it across the room, just as the DJ played Respect. Franklin shimmied her shoulders and sang along for a few bars as she got ready to blow out the candles. Not long after that, she and a retinue of six or eight processed out. It had been a long night and a long few months, and she looked tired, but also content, and ready for another spring.

“May I recommend something?” Aretha Franklin asked after we slid into a banquette in the side room of Jean Georges on Central Park West. “The shrimp-and-avocado salad. I’ve had it four times this week.” It was a warm day in early May, and we were meeting to talk about her first album of new material in almost eight years, A Woman Falling Out of Love — released on her own label and available, at least initially, only at Wal-Mart. That she agreed to an interview was a bit of a surprise. Franklin has long had two great phobias: she has not been on a plane since 1983. And she has been notoriously evasive of the press since a Time magazine cover article in 1968 suggested, at the very moment she was becoming a national icon, that she was also a battered woman. We were, in fact, supposed to meet earlier in the week; I got as far as the lobby of her hotel before she cancelled.

But now she arrived on time, and moving confidently in Jimmy Choos. I’d also been told beforehand that she would not discuss the nature of the medical procedure or anything reported in The Queen of Soul, an unauthorised biography by Mark Bego that, like most unauthorised biographies, sometimes presents its subject in less-than-flattering lights.
She ordered tea “with Splenda, lots of Splenda,” and we started talking about New York, the city where she spends most of her time outside her home city, Detroit, and where she had her greatest recording glory. We were only steps away from the site of the old Atlantic Studios, where she recorded most of the torrent of hit singles in 1967-68 that included not just Respect but also Chain of Fools, Think and A Natural Woman.

“I first came here when I was a teenager in the ’50s with my dad,” she said, the word “dad” coming out with the same frisson of hard consonant and harmonic vowel that permeates her records. “You remember certain things about the city that aren’t here anymore. There was a great little steak place next to the Apollo where I’d go between shows to have my lunch and dinner.” Food joints, record stores, “knockout” men she ran into, these were the most immediate memories she conjured. One of those knockouts was Sam Cooke, the R&B and pop legend and lothario, whom she went to visit once at the Warwick Hotel.

“There was another young lady, a name vocalist who had been visiting him prior to myself, and I saw her coming out of his room. To this day she insists it wasn’t her, but of course it was. I was only visiting him as a friend. And I went into the bathroom and happened to see a ring around the tub. I just could not believe it... to me he was above things like that. That was so common.” She giggled, but when the waitress appeared again to take our order, she shifted back into Queen of Soul mode, ignoring her.

Cooke was just one of many prominent, powerful men in whose presence Franklin has thrived, along with her father; the Rev Martin Luther King Jr; the record executives John Hammond, Jerry Wexler and Clive Davis; and most recently the US president. Franklin performed My Country ’Tis of Thee at Obama’s inauguration, and for perhaps one of the few times in her life she was upstaged, not by another performer but by the impressionistic Luke Song hat she wore. She didn’t speak to Obama that day, but they met during his campaign at “an undisclosed location” with 10 other “notable people.”

“You know what he said to me? ‘You look good.’ I was already beginning to lose weight, and it was an affirmation of all my efforts. And then he sang Chain of Fools, and I thought, He’s really hip. Real down, and real up. And he’s got a walk like nobody else.”
Franklin has been married twice, the second of her marriages, to the actor Glynn Turman, ending in divorce in 1984, the same year her father died. (She has four sons, ranging in age from early 40s to mid-50s.) Her most recent busted romance was the inspiration for A Woman Falling Out of Love.

Sooner or later, almost everything we discussed came back to food, and it was clear that Franklin is as obsessed with it as she ever was, only now that obsession extends to how not to eat it. She said she has lost 85 pounds, through a combination of her mystery surgery and dieting. The talk about her weight loss brought us to her surgery, though in the end all she would say was that it was a required procedure, that it was not “minor” and that when she knew she had to have it, she put out the call for prayer. The Rev Jesse Jackson and Stevie Wonder, among others, flew to her side.

And here again, one more time, was the waitress, who said that the kitchen would be closing soon. Franklin, as if trying to ward off all temptation of food, still did not look at her, but finally said, regally, “I’ll have a glass of orange juice.”

The recently released box set, Take a Look, compiles Franklin’s recordings between 1960 and 1966, from ages 18 to 24. It includes jazz, supper-club standards, silky soul, blues, “American Bandstand” pop and just about every other genre that existed in the early ’60s. If the sessions, recorded for Columbia, didn’t quite capture lightning in a bottle, they set the stage for Respect and the other sandblasting-soul tracks that followed. “Part of what makes her timeless is that her music is so personal,” says Michele Myers, a DJ on the influential indie station KEXP in Seattle.

Franklin will not claim a favourite era of her career. “I’ve never recorded anything I didn’t like,” she said. “Well, maybe one time.” She wouldn’t say what that one song or album was. She says she has sung Respect thousands of times and hasn’t got tired of it, and she acknowledged that the song has become “a national anthem.” It has also become a party dance-floor cliché, but its significance over the years cannot be overestimated: the song was a cultural document of the civil rights era, with loud reverberations for African-Americans, for women, for gays, for anyone, really, who felt neglect or subjugation. But when I asked her why the song had  such an impact, she just said, blithely, “I guess everybody just wanted a little respect.”

It was almost time for Franklin to leave for a fitting at Oscar de la Renta — new clothes for her new shape — but before she did, she said, suddenly animated, “We haven’t talked about the movie!” A film of her life story is in development, “with a huge budget, $50, $60 million,” she said. Denzel Washington has been mentioned as a possibility to play her father, Franklin said proudly, and she had imagined Halle Berry playing her, though Berry ultimately demurred because she can’t sing. Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia have also been considered, and Franklin named them as modern singers she enjoyed.

About a week after our interview, on a Sunday afternoon, my cellphone rang. It was Franklin, who had thought of something else she wanted to discuss: the high-school dropout rate. There were some figures, she said she thought she’d read, that went as high as 50 per cent; the hip-hop community needed to step up and tell kids to stay in school. The issue seemed random, but it has great personal resonance for Franklin: she had told me that her only true regret was allowing one of her sons to quit school. (She herself dropped out to give birth to her first child in her midteens).

After she exhausted the topic, she just wanted to chat. She was on her custom bus — her usual, nonairborne mode of traveling cross-country — on the way to Chicago to tape one of the final “Oprah” shows, and wanted to talk about the weather, literally. After a few minutes of this, she got ready to sign off, and I told her to “break a leg.” “You take that back,” she snapped. “Take it back!” She explained that someone once said that to her and it actually happened.

Here is a woman who has fulfilled every professional expectation that has been had of her since she was a teenage prodigy in her father’s choir loft; a woman for whom the word “legend” can be applied without grade inflation. And yet she is also a woman who still gets lonely on a bus, who feels she has to keep secrets, who blushes when the president compliments her appearance, who’s still out there looking for love — and confident that she’ll find it.

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