On the Phone With Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul. She's in town Wednesday night at Constitution Hall, and she's still got it. She called to chat recently, a few hours before a show in Worcester, Mass. 'Nuff said. (Although at her insistence I will also say this: "This Christmas" is available now, exclusively through Borders and Waldenbooks.)
After all this time, why a Christmas album now?
I've never had one. In all of the years, I've never had a Christmas album. And I have mentioned it to the chieftans -- you know, Clive Davis, Jerry Wexler, John Hammond. I did do one or two things at Columbia. But they always said, "Oh, well, Christmas albums really don't sell." That was their attitude. And I always thought that Christmas albums, and having a Christmas offering, was very important because it's such a special time of the year. Of course, I want to be in the mix and played at that time. It's seasonal. It's celebrates the birth of Christ and the nativity and all of that. So I thought it was very important.
You mention Jerry Wexler, who was one of the most influential figures in your career and in the record industry in general. He passed away a couple months ago. What do you have to say about him and his contribution to the music world.
Well that was such a sad occasion, particularly when you work with someone as long as we did work together. But I will always be grateful and thankful for the major contributions that he and Ahmet (Ertegun) made in my career.
You mention Ahmet, who passed away a couple years ago, do you feel like the passings of him and Jerry mark the end of a certain chapter in the record industry?
I do. I do. I think they were some of the last of the great record men. Of course, you know Clive is still here, and going strong. He's ever on the case. But there are only a handful, only a few great record men like that left in the industry. They had a great love of music -- particularly Ahmet and Jerry -- and, to me, they had integrity. They didn't say one thing and then do something else. They had integrity. They were men of integrity. And they were great people persons. And I note, particularly with Clive, that the press just really adores Clive Davis. They really, really like him. Which is kind of unusual, I thought. But they respect and like him a lot.
You think it's because he's one of the few larger than life figures left in the industry?
I think it's because he's a caring person and they know it. And they know that he cares. He has integrity and he cares. He's one-on-one with them. He's not condescending. And I think that's one of the great aspects about Clive.
But you're not working with him anymore.
No, but we're still great friends.
But you started your own label.
Yes, I did.
Do you think that's where the future lies?
Many people have taken off on their own. They are recording and distributing online, nationally and internationally. They are distributing digitally. There are all kinds of deals going on. All kinds of distribution going on today. I'm studying them all, trying to pick one to go with for the release of the record that I produced, along with two other gentlemen and my son, called "Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love." And I'm looking for a deal. I'm looking for a label distribution deal.
It seems that you can't read an article about the record industry without it saying that it's collapsing or falling apart. Do you think that's true?
I wouldn't say that. I'm certainly not privy to their numbers. What their gross income or anything like that is. So I wouldn't say that. And I wouldn't call close to a billion dollars a year falling apart. It might be a billion less, but I wouldn't call that falling apart. It's just that artists have become a lot more independent and aggressive in terms of their growth and distribution and control of their product.
How do you feel about your voice these days? At a concert at Wolf Trap last summer you said, "If I don't hit the highest plateau, just imagine it."
(Laughs.) Just fabulous. I'm very, very happy with it at this point. Very happy.
There's a big trend these days to use auto-tuned vocals, what do you think about that?
Auto-tuned vocals, it's a way to digitally correct pitch.
I've never heard of that! I've never even heard of that. No, I come from the old school where you do it yourself.
It's not all about perfect form, right? I mean, it's Queen of Soul, not Queen of Perfect Pitch.
It's not all about singing. Being the Queen is not all about singing and being a diva is not all about singing. It has much to do with your service to people. And your social contributions to your community and your civic contributions as well.
What are some of the most important things you do?
I contribute to the food banks in Detroit, and the churches. And that kind of thing. We had a woman in Detroit who headed up a very big food bank there, Mother Waddles. Mother Waddles, she passed, and her daughter took over. So I contribute from one to the other. And many of the churches. Certainly, my father's church, the New Bethel Baptist Church, has a food bank and I contribute to that one and then many other churches in the area. And then there's one that's called Gleaners. If you contribute to their food bank, they distribute to many food banks in the city. So I particularly enjoy doing that.
(More after the jump.)
What about political involvement? Do you think it's important for musicians to voice their opinions there?
That's one's own choice. But politics are not my arena. Music is.
I was flipping through the paper the other day and I saw there's this squabble with you and Tina Turner. What's that all about?
Oh, there's no squabble. The people at USA Today just grossly exaggerated that I was fuming. That's ludicrous. I've always appreciated Ms. Turner and she just kind of overstepped herself and chose to speak on my ego when I really thought she was being more descriptive of herself. Mmm-hmm. Particularly in view of the fact that she doesn't even know me.
I found that shocking that you two have never crossed paths.
We did, once, at the Essence Awards, but we didn't meet at that time. And we've never been introduced to each other. She seems to be confused or something, I don't know.
Between your own label and the involvement you're taking with your biopic that's in the works, you seem to be taking a very hands-on approach to your career.
I really, really love that. Because now it affords me and gives me the opportunity to use my creativity 100 percent, without a lot of spoons in the soup.
It seems like if you've been doing things for as long as you have, you might just want other people to take care of everything.
No, no. I love producing, writing. I rarely write with other writers unless I have a real great respect for them. Like Burt Bacharach, or Carole Sager, or Stevie Wonder. Somebody like Smokey, like that. Otherwise I choose to write alone.
Talk about your piano playing, everyone knows you're a great singer but you're not bad at piano either, are you?
I spent the summer in New York and I took classical piano lessons, I'm taking them now. The Juilliard Technique. I go in for classes. Whenever I go in, I go an extra two or three days just for my piano classes. So I'm going to play and feature my piano more now.
Do you ever think about how your career might have been different had you signed with Motown back in the early '60s?
Yes, I do. Many of my friends were there at Motown. The studio was only a few blocks from where my dad's home was, where we lived. So I would just go over to the studio to see who was recording, just to say hello, maybe to Smokey or Mary Wells, or someone who I was friends with. But I'm glad that my career took the path that it did. As I understood it they had to get special permission to be paid. I'm not really sure what it was, but in my instance, coming up, I was able to handle my own money and I didn't have to ask anyone for anything. And those artists, I believe, did. They had to go through a process to get a check written. Certainly Motown presented their artists in a first class way. They did have some of the things that the other labels didn't have, which were the grooming schools where they had to sit and take different classes in knowing how to speak to the press and so on. So they had some very good things on their label that other labels didn't have. But then other labels had further reaching distribution, internationally, than Motown did. There was a different respect to begin with, in the industry, between a Columbia Records and Motown. Later on, Motown became the industry giant that it did.
Right, when you were making that decision it was before Motown really took off.
That's right, it was still a fledgling label. And my father wanted me to go to Columbia Records because of the national and international distribution he knew they had.
But going with Columbia didn't turn out to be too lucrative, either.
Columbia was a wonderful label for me. Wonderful. The records I made there garnered me an audience. I won a number of polls during the years that I was at Columbia. The Downbeat Jazz Poll. Leonard Feather, who was a huge critic back in the day, different polls that he had. The Playboy poll, a number of polls. So the music was great. Artistically, it was great music. But it wasn't commercial. That was the problem with Columbia. The producers weren't really commercial producers. Bob Murphy was one of the all-time great arrangers and he had some of the most beautiful arrangements I ever heard. Clyde Otis was excellent but they just didn't have that commercial flair. We had what you called turntable hits, meaning you were getting a lot of radio play but you weren't selling a lot of records.
For every young, up-and-coming R&B star you're the benchmark to whom they are always compared. How does that feel?
I think that's fabulous. I think that's really fabulous. I appreciate it. I'm honored that I'm held in that esteem.
What's with your purse?
(Laughs.) It's like Peanuts, right? My security blanket. No, I just choose to keep it with me. Ladies always keep up with their purses!
One of the most heartbreaking performances of your career was surely at Martin Luther King, Jr.s' funeral 40 years ago. You've already performed at one inauguration, back in 1993, would it be some fulfilling, full-circle moment to perform at Barack Obama's inauguration if he were to be elected president?
Well, it's left to be seen. It's very, very close at this time and it seems to be ever-changing. But I would be so honored, if it happened to turn out that way, to be asked.
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