Detroit’s wheels are turning slow now. Nothing’s up. On Linwood Avenue, crowds have dwindled at New Bethel Baptist, where Aretha Franklin’s father, the late Reverend C. L. Franklin (“the Man with the Million-Dollar Voice”), son of a Mississippi gambler and sharecropper, dazzled thousands with blazing sermons. Rap reigns these days. Gone are gospel’s bountiful spirits: Mahalia Jackson, who changed Aretha’s diapers, and Clara Ward, who inspired young Aretha to sing when, filled with feeling during a funeral solo, she tore off her hat and flung it to the ground. Even the “kids” who grew up here with Aretha—Smokey Robinson, the Temptations—are aging now. Miss Ross is no longer supreme. C. L. Franklin’s house is dark and empty. But Aretha can’t bring herself to sell it.
These days, the Queen of Soul holds court miles away in the suburbs. Franklin, 51 now, has lived rather reclusively in fancy Bloomfield Hills since 1982, when she returned to her hometown from L.A. after the sudden breakup of her second marriage, to actor Glynn Turman. (Franklin’s first husband was Ted White, whom she married in 1961 and divorced in 1969.) A short time after her return to Detroit and her then bedridden father, a near air mishap (she calls it “a dipsy doodle”) resulted in her now legendary fear of flying, which curtailed travel and touring. She rarely left Michigan. It seemed, in fact, as if fate and circumstance had conspired to ground Aretha back home—to nurse her wounds, to recover from a life that reads like something you might encounter in a Toni Morrison saga.
Aretha Franklin, who has described her music as “me with my hand outstretched, hoping someone will take it,” has been singing for four decades, beginning in her father’s church. Her major period of chart dominance began—after a flirtation with jazz and six years at Columbia Records as a would-be black Streisand—in 1967 at Atlantic Records with her first soulful blockbusters, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect.” A steady stream of hits followed, trailing off in the 70s and accelerating again with her move to Arista Records in the 80s with songs such as “Freeway of Love,” from her first platinum album, Who’s Zoomin’ Who?
Stardom has rocked her up and down and back—from gospel to MTV, segregated rooms to sequined gowns. Husbands (two), lovers (you add them up), and hard times have taken a toll, certainly, though many would add that Miss Franklin has exacted a special penance of her own from those whose paths she has crossed. She has recorded 58 albums, released 17 top-10 singles (more than any other female singer in pop history), and won 15 Grammys (more than any other female performer ever). This year she’s nominated again and will also receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She has made classic records in almost every category. She has mothered four sons: Edward, a theological student; Kecalf, a rapper; Teddy junior, who plays guitar and travels with his mother; and Clarence, a chronic schizophrenic.
She is one of music’s legends. “She’s got the pipes,” says Diana Ross. “Real pipes.” No one ever doubted that. Yet Franklin remains one of the most enigmatic performers in show business. Mercurial diva or neighborly homegirl, survivor or victim, mad as in angry or maybe a little nuts? For decades now, the questions have remained. But her place in African-American culture, where her name holds near-mythic resonance, remains secure. “She has always been our queen,” says ex-Vandella Martha Reeves. “People have always rallied to her.” As a performer, she carried black music, with the help of Ray Charles, from the church to the radio. As a social force, not only was she Martin Luther King Jr.’s friend and ally, she was the voice carried into battle, the woman who demanded her dignity, the sound that said pride. Her voice welled with emotion, yet promised resilience. And to this day it is this same tension that defines Aretha. In her review of the Billie Holiday story, Lady Sings the Blues, Pauline Kael noted that Franklin’s voice—which even detractors concede is an instrument of awesome natural power—can do what Holiday’s never could: heal. But has it healed her own pain?
Not an easy question. Yet last year was—as she might put it—a particularly up-tempo kind of situation for the Queen. In May, at Radio City, after a surprise entrance through the audience from the rear of the auditorium, she took the stage in a Supremes-style wig, a sequined jumpsuit, and a few rolling acres of white fur. She tore the place up with a voice that sounded, if not brandnew, then definitely reopen for business. The audience, recalling previous outings, when Aretha performed as if she might rather have been in Bloomfield Hills watching her favorite soap, The Young and the Restless, threw up their hands in joy.
They may have other reasons to rejoice. Aretha has sworn off chain-smoking her Kools, and some of her famous high notes, extolled by fans including Barbra Streisand, are audible once more on her newest single, a remake of the club hit “A Deeper Love.” The song, which may get her back on the top 10, is taken from her latest album, a long-delayed (let it be said: the Queen does not hurry herself) collection of greatest hits and new songs. Last year she also sang with Sinatra on his Duets album and performed rather consistently for a woman who hasn’t set foot on a plane since 1983. Early last year, wearing a fur that may stand as the Pearl Harbor of the animal-rights movement, she sang for the president during the inaugural festivities. Last spring, she did the second TV special of her career, receiving repeated standing ovations from the audience and praise from the stellar guest list. “I can’t believe I’m here,” said Bonnie Raitt, echoing all the other singers who have paid homage to the Queen through the years. “She’s the main influence on me vocally.”
Others, however, were left speechless by a surreal ballet sequence in which Aretha, in a tutu, attempted pirouettes. In another set, her Bill Blass gown, with its plunging neckline, led columnist Liz Smith to comment, rather gently, “She must know she’s too bosomy to wear such clothing, but clearly she just doesn’t care what we think, and that attitude is what separates mere stars from true divas.”
Aretha’s response? “How dare you be so presumptuous,” she wrote Smith, “as to presume you could know my attitudes with respect to anything other than music. . . . Obviously I have enough of what it takes to wear a bustier and I haven’t had any complaints. When you get to be a noted and respected fashion editor, please let us all know. . . . You are hardly in a position to determine what separates stars from divas since you are neither one or an authority on either.”
Well, nobody said she’d mellowed.
As I walk into Machus Restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, a woman waves. Five feet five inches tall and stout, she’s wearing a simple white blouse, a sleeveless vest, black flared pants, and moccasins. Aretha Franklin looks like one of the auto executives’ wives scurrying about outside with their bags from Hudson’s. Except, of course, she’s black. No one looks her way; the only sign of stardom is Harry Kincaid, more family friend than bodyguard, seated near the table where Aretha sizes up a towering taco salad. “You probably thought we’d never get together,” Aretha says, turning the fact that our interview has been canceled and rescheduled again and again into a joke—on herself. I didn’t take it personally: Aretha gets cold feet. She cancels things, gets nervous, procrastinates. Like lightning, Franklin sparks at random. You never know what’s going to happen. And you never know whether she’s making you wait because she’s the Queen or because some part of her is scared, suspicious. Brilliant or “no show,” regally temperamental or extremely terrified, Aretha doesn’t flounder between the extremes. She’s on or off, up or down, and you sense that this is something she cannot consciously control.
In 1969, at the height of her first wave of hits, she canceled a group of concerts. In 1984 she backed out of her commitment to star in a Broadway musical based on the life of Mahalia Jackson. (In court she was ordered to pay $230,000 in expenses to the show’s producer.) As reticent as Garbo, she has shunned almost all lengthy interviews since 1968, when Time outraged her with a story suggesting that her life with Ted White was no bed of roses. “Her attitude is ‘I do what I like to do, no matter what,’ “ says Clive Davis, president of Arista Records, her latest label. Jerry Wexler, who produced Aretha’s great records at Atlantic, recalls, “Way back to my early days with her, she would win every award in sight, every year, all the Grammys. And I’d wind up going to pick up her hardware because she wouldn’t show. She had some kind of complex about not doing it unless she really had to. . . . She would be down and depressed. I remember going to sit with her at the Drake hotel and holding her hand and begging her to come to the studio because we had a room full of musicians. And finally she came in and did it. I’ll tell you this. There was never any kind of attitude in the studio. Once you were there, it was beautiful.”
Today at Machus, Aretha laughs huskily, and her face, natural except for a little eye makeup (tiny flecks of dried mascara dot her eyelids), turns pretty and youthful.
“I’m very simple,” she says, grabbing a taco chip whose cheese clings tenaciously to her plate. “Not literally. . . . I am just a regular, when I’m not onstage. . . . I’m a mother and an aunt.” She scoops up a taco, covered in meat, and continues: “I like my celebrity where it is, because I can do most things that anyone else does. I can do my own grocery shopping. I can get out and shop.”
The Queen of Soul in a Farmer Jack supermarket?
“I just don’t believe when guys say that stuff. Why can’t you imagine that? Why can’t a man imagine me shopping for groceries and doing what women do? I am a woman and I am a lady. Farmer Jack, on 12th Street, is exactly where I get my meat. . . . They have a very quick turnover of meat down there, and that’s where the best meat is in the city. It’s not out here. It’s down on 12th.
“Somebody once said, ‘Yeah, I can just see you out in your flower garden.’ I planted a garden of roses, a lot of roses and trees and different other things. . . . Every now and then I have to bust a few suds, yeah. I do my own personal wash.” The waitress removes the unfinished taco salad and brings the entree, a steak, which Aretha cuts hesitantly.
“This is a filet mignon? It’s strange,” she says as she quizzically pokes the meat. “It does look dry. This restaurant has changed since I was here last. It’s not the way I remember, and they have a different menu.”
Being “a regular” seems to matter a great deal to her. And there’s a kind of longing in her desire. Her life has veered fairly spectacularly from the quotidian. Hence the craving for domesticity—and, after years of show-biz virtues, her demand for straight talk. She can be incredibly direct. “I ran into her at the inauguration,” Diana Ross tells me. “I said, ‘You know what, girl? We just really need to know each other. I just think it’s ridiculous that we’ve never taken time to know each other.’ She said, ‘Well, you say that, but what are you going to do?’ “ She has no time for what’s not “real,” a word that gets repeated a lot in her conversations. Defending herself against the anti-fur activists, she tells me, “Leather comes from animals, you know what I’m saying? We’re all using a lot of leather with respect to our shoes and handbags and things like that, so come on, let’s be for real.”
The Reverend C. L. Franklin was no ordinary minister. In the black culture of the segregated 40s, 50s, and 60s, the preacher carried enormous social and political influence. C. L. Franklin was one of the country’s most powerful black pastors, a man who attempted to organize his own, northern version of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a passionate, ambitious leader. His was a voice that could wrap itself around the deepest, most private feelings of his thousands of parishioners. Aretha was his beloved daughter, the child whose talent mirrored his own dynamic charisma. She grew up as a child in his church, his temple, under the spell of his dreams.
In black Detroit, C. L. Franklin’s daughter was never an unimportant person. She was a princess in a very special kingdom. Early on, however, there was loss, an essential loss that may account for the Queen’s less confident side. Aretha’s mother, Barbara Franklin, left her family in 1948, when Aretha was six. “Reverend was gone so much,” recalls Willie Todd, a New Bethel deacon. “He was a playboy. I mean, truth is the light. That wasn’t their first separation. . . . Aretha was a little bitty something.”
Barbara died when Aretha was 10, and the singer, who has never discussed her mother in public, will say little about her today. “She was the choirmistress and pianist,” Aretha tells me, speaking very softly. “I was so small when she was singing. I don’t remember everything. But I knew she could sing and I certainly could see how much people enjoyed it.”
When asked another question about her mother, Aretha snaps, “I can’t write my book, James,” she says, referring to her frequently delayed autobiography. “I’m going to write my book.” But singer Mavis Staples, a longtime friend of the Franklins’, remembers, “She had a brush and a case, and I asked, ‘That’s your mother’s brush?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, man, that’s my mother’s brush. It’s still got a little hair in it.’ I think that was the worst thing that could’ve happened for her, not to know her mother.”
Aretha’s grandmother kept the four Franklin kids (Aretha, Carolyn, Erma, Cecil) and her oldest sibling, Vaughn, from her mother’s first marriage, in check. “She didn’t spare the rod with any of us,” Aretha recalls. “You had to be doing it right with Big Mama or she would meet you at the nerve endings you would understand the most.”
C. L. Franklin’s world was a place of spirituality and feeling where the love of God was never detached from the pleasures of the body or the earth. There was always music—gospel and jazz. Aretha Franklin, whose skills as a pianist are comparable to her agility as a vocalist, played the instrument like a prodigy almost from the moment her fingers touched the keyboard. It should not have been surprising. It is hard to imagine a location more nourishing for musical talent. In addition to the gospel greats such as Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward, who visited often, Reverend Franklin—no foe of “the Devil’s music”—filled his big house on LaSalle Street with gospel singers and visiting bluesmen and jazz musicians. Outside, the sound of nascent Motown moved through the streets. “There were so many people in our neighborhood,” says Smokey Robinson, who has known Aretha since he was six. “Diana Ross lived right down the street from us. The Temptations lived not too far, a few blocks. The Four Tops. So we had a bunch of music happening in our neighborhood. We used to hang out, do things musically, ‘musical battles,’ we called them.” Guess who won?
All kinds of musicians were part of her informal musical education. “They would just play,” she says. “At that time I couldn’t play the piano. I just listened and met them. They would come to church on Sunday: Art Tatum and Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke. . . . My dad wanted me to study and he got a music teacher for me and it was O.K. for a while, but I felt like I wanted to be in the intermediate book, doing something more than we were doing. I just felt like what we were doing was too childish. . . . The teacher would show up and I would just hide until she left. I refused to go to class anymore. I really wanted to get out of the baby book and this whole vernacular that I thought was elementary.”
Suddenly she pauses. “If I hadn’t played by ear, that might have changed my style altogether. My approach would not have been as natural as it is. So it’s possible I may or may not have been successful.”
But with Reverend Franklin pushing, there was no doubt she would succeed. “She was so young when she was singing,” says Willie Todd. “And the people all admired her a lot because she was Reverend Franklin’s daughter. . . . Aretha was his choice and then she could sing and they pushed her around a lot because, really, the way I felt about it, Erma [her elder sister] could beat Aretha singing, but the people didn’t go with that because Erma wasn’t Reverend Franklin’s favorite.”
I ask her about the first time she sang in public. Did her dad say something like “O.K., Aretha, you’re going in that church and you’re going to sing lead—”
“He didn’t say that,” she interrupts.
“What was the first time like?”
“It was fine,” she answers, stony-faced, revealing nothing.
“What was the first song?”
“‘Jesus Be a Fence.’ It was a favorite song. I was about eight or nine. They had a chair—I used to stand on the chair because I was too small to be seen behind the podium.”
“It was something to hear a little girl belting it?”
“Yes,” she says slyly. “Four octaves.” And then, peeping out like a mischievous kid from behind the mask of her composure, she smiles.
By the time she was in her early teens, Aretha Franklin was on the road with her dad’s gospel caravan, touring the segregated South by car while her father flew between engagements. A hard life for a girl, her late brother and manager, the Reverend Cecil Franklin, once said: “Driving 8 or 10 hours trying to make a gig, and being hungry and passing restaurants all along the road, and having to go off the highway into some little city to find a place to eat because you’re black—that had its effect.” Those times—back roads, segregated rooms, “the Chitlin Circuit”—seem so distant now that it is easy to forget that the same person we’re seeing in an MTV video actually survived them. But Aretha Franklin did and they remain part of her, part of the diva who seems so unwilling to inconvenience herself for anyone these days. “We’d drive thousands and thousands of miles,” she has recalled. “I’ve been to California from Detroit about four times through the desert. Baby, those steep mountains with no railings. That was worse than coming across in a horse and buggy, I’m sure. Never again! Never again!”
But at an age when most of the girls from New Bethel were joining the church choir, Aretha Franklin was meeting the big names.
She was especially fond of the great singer Sam Cooke, who would later try to get her signed at RCA. There have long been whispers of a very passionate romance between them, but Aretha now denies she was involved with the much older star. “He was every bit as fine as they say he was and more,” she tells me. “Yeah, I had a crush on Sam, and my sister had one. We had these heavy, heavy crushes on him, and he was a very sweet guy, a fabulous man, not to mention singer. One of the singers of all time in my opinion. Stunning personality. If there were 25 women in one room, he could make each one of them feel like there was something personal between him and them.” A few years ago, Franklin confessed that she was so devoted to Cooke that she kept a scrapbook on him and everything about him. In the book, she saved one of his old crumpled Kent cigarette packages, which she cherished for years.
She remembers meeting another gospel family, the Staples Singers, at a gas station. She especially recalls their handsome brother. But Mavis Staples says she met Aretha when the Davis Sisters, another gospel group, persuaded Franklin to confront her about a romantic rivalry. “Oh, man,” Mavis remembers, “we would get into such devilment. When we started traveling on the road together, that’s when we got tight. Aretha went to the beauty shop, man, and came back with green hair. Reverend Franklin said, ‘Aretha, go back to that beauty shop.’ She said, ‘Daddy, I like it like this.’ . . . Aretha was so cool. . . . She would pick on the midget, Sammy Bryant [who traveled with the show]. Aretha went for bad. . . . One time she hid behind the tree with a baseball bat to knock her own sister in the head. . . . Aretha was tough, but she ain’t nothing but a cuddly bear.”
But by the time she was 15, Aretha had her first hit gospel record on her hands—and a baby on the way. Two years after her first son, Clarence, was born, a second—Edward—arrived. Aretha has always declined to identify the boys’ father—or fathers—whom she did not marry. How did that play at New Bethel, I ask.
Aretha bristles. “I’ll talk about that in my book,” she says firmly; she keeps her secrets. “Aretha has gone through a lot of trouble in her life,” says Jerry Wexler. “A lot of trouble. And she doesn’t want any reference to it.” Carolyn King, a former New Bethel secretary who sang backup for Aretha, says, “She’ll only let you ask her so much…. Sometimes you want to know a little bit more, but some things are between her and God.” To Aretha, even in a tell-all age, there is dignity in silence. “Trying to grow up is hurting, you know,” she once said in a rare unguarded moment. “You make mistakes. You try to learn from them, and when you don’t it hurts even more. And I’ve been hurt—hurt bad.” She rarely speaks about her relationship with Ted White, whom she married and put in charge of her career when she was 19 and who fathered her third son, Teddy junior. White, according to Time magazine, “roughed her up in public.” Says Mavis Staples, “She fooled around and got with a man like Ted White, but that’s the kind of dude Aretha likes, the dude that flies fancy.” Willie Todd adds that “Reverend Franklin couldn’t stand Ted,” and pianist Teddy Harris agrees. “Aretha is the kind of girl, you’ve got to love her hard.
. . . She requires a lot of attention and she didn’t get that from Ted. Ted was into something else. He was kind of abusive.”
But Aretha was not without spirit. Billy Davis, part of Detroit’s music scene at that time, remembers the teenage Aretha Franklin as very strong with little trace of insecurity. “I don’t think she was shy,” Davis told Franklin biographer Mark Bego. “She was a little introverted. I would never describe her as shy. She was a strong individual and had a mind of her own—there’s no doubt about it. Aretha wasn’t anyone that you walked over or pushed around or manipulated too easily, even at that age.”
Whatever she was suffering—or not suffering—privately, Aretha in public was something to see. In Parting the Waters, his study of the civil-rights movement, Taylor Branch describes a 1963 concert held at Chicago’s McCormick Place to honor the heroes of Birmingham, where scores of protesting schoolchildren had been attacked by police with dogs and fire hoses. After Martin Luther King (C. L. Franklin’s good friend) spoke, Mahalia Jackson sang, joined by Dinah Washington, Queen of the Blues. “The three of them,” writes Branch, “held the overflow crowd until two o’clock in the morning, when young Aretha Franklin topped them all with her closing hymn. Only twenty-one, already a battered wife and the mother of two children aged six and four. . . Aretha Franklin still remained four years away from crossover stardom as Lady Soul, but she gave the whites in her audience a glimpse of the future. She wrung them all inside out with the Thomas Dorsey classic ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand,’ and by the time she finished few doubted that for one night they had held the most favored spot on earth.”
The church and its music could not contain Aretha indefinitely. Especially after she saw her friend Sam Cooke and her idol, Dinah Washington, become big secular stars, having started as gospel artists. In 1960 she was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond, the same man who had discovered the 17-year-old Billie Holiday at Monette Moore’s Club in Harlem. After hearing a demo, Hammond called Franklin the best voice he had heard in 20 years, the greatest voice since Holiday. Reverend Franklin, who had told his daughter that she would one day perform for kings and queens and who had already turned down an offer to Aretha from Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy, was hardly surprised. Others were.
“Was the church surprised when you went secular?” I ask Aretha.
“That’s what I hear,” she says. “I heard it much later. I heard that there was a bit of controversy going on. . . . I wanted to broaden my horizons musically. I didn’t want to be limited to one type of music.”
“So there was some resentment about you turning secular?”
“I don’t really think about that. What I’m singing is everyday music for most people, things that relate to our hearts, our everyday life, what we do every day, and I truly am everyday people offstage. My dad’s responsible for that. . . Had it not been for him, I would’ve become affected much younger. I lived in New York for a period of time. . . and part of me, when I would come home to visit, I didn’t feel like I should have to share the housework. I just didn’t know any better. So I would come home and everyone would be working, washing dishes and vacuuming and doing things, and I would be standing around looking at everybody, and my dad came downstairs. . .and he said, ‘See if you can find your way in that kitchen and introduce yourself to the trash.’ ”
“How did you make the transition from gospel to jazz?”
“My dad took me to New York. This bass player, he and my dad were good friends, and we had a session here and we took those dubs, or demonstration records, to New York.”
“I guess that’s just the kind of music I liked initially and I gravitated to. I like R&B too—it’s just what I was singing at the time. I made my debut with Columbia Records singing ‘Navajo Trail’ and ‘My Funny Valentine.’ ”
“Early on, you would hold back for a more commercial sound?”
“Some people that I know and I call it lazy singing—you’re not staying on the beat. I like it, but it’s not a producer’s favorite kind of thing.”
“You were always working, gigging? Did you fly much back then?”
“Yeah, I flew for 20 or 25 years.”
“Do you think you’ll fly again?”
“Are there fear-of-flying classes?”
“Uh-huh. USAir. . . . I’ve taken that.
Now I have other things to work with.”
In 1967, “I Never Loved a Man” made Aretha Franklin a superstar, but the next year “Respect” earned her the first two of her Grammy Awards. The song also made her a force. One of the all-time classics of American music, “Respect” resonated with the power of Franklin’s own personality and the spirit of the times. Martin Luther King Jr. was on the streets, making change. But his friend Aretha, who had sung for him so often (“Most people don’t realize how much work she did for Martin Luther King,” Jerry Wexler has said, “she devoted an enormous part of her life to King”), was on the radio all day long, calling for “Respect” in a voice that could not be forgotten. Or ignored.
Many people took the song as a message from blacks to whites. But “Respect” was actually a different sort of demand, a demand from a woman to a man for dignity in the guise of what Jerry Wexler called “sexual attention of the highest order.” Aretha Franklin had appropriated a song containing sentiments that, at the time, were considered masculine (“Respect” was written and originally performed by Otis Redding). She claimed her proper respect before most women had ever heard of feminism. And she wanted it sealed with a kiss, tied up with a touch of transcendent love. It was 1968 and Franklin’s performance was a revolution of its own. She sang about wanting what she wanted and taking it when most ladies still spoke of sex as just one more tribulation. And the song, to this day, defines the essence of Franklin: the forceful assertion of personal pride in the face of pain or disrespect. “She would never do a song of self-pity,” Wexler has said, “the scorned woman, the hurt woman: ‘Come back, please. One more chance’—that was absolutely out.”
Offstage, it wasn’t so simple. “She was very shy when it came to speaking in public, because Ted used to rehearse her,” says bassist Rod Hicks, who toured with Aretha for six years. “ ‘Say this like that.’ And every night she would say things almost exactly the same way, because it worked. We played all the major television shows, and I remember one show—I think it was the Johnny Carson show—and Jerry Lewis was on the show with her, and he said something to Aretha and my heart jumped up in my mouth because it wasn’t right. I can’t think what he said, but Aretha cut him up. She knew how to scream on you. She’s excellent at that. He said something derogatory toward her, like she was just another little girl sitting there. Whatever she said to Jerry Lewis, there was a chill that came through the room. Because he was out of order and she checked him right quick.”
Fame had come very fast for this young singer, working mom, troubled wife. “There was not enough care in the early days with respect to what my schedule was,” she tells me now, shaking her head. She became physically and mentally exhausted. Tragic deaths claimed pals like Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother, who drowned in a pool accident.
Franklin’s life took its place in the headlines as well. In November 1968 she was charged with reckless driving after running two cars off the road in Detroit. The next year, she was arrested for disorderly conduct after allegedly swearing at and trying to slap two cops following her involvement in a minor traffic accident in Highland Park, Michigan. That same year, the Reverend C. L. Franklin allowed the Republic of New Africa, a separatist group, to hold a conference at New Bethel Baptist. There was violence. In a gun battle with police, one officer was killed. Five were injured. Franklin and his daughter were caught up at the center of the storm called the 60s. In 1969, The Detroit News reported that Ted White was being sought by police for allegedly shooting business associate Charles Cook in the groin at Aretha’s home. Not long after, Aretha and White finally divorced. She was apparently drinking heavily.
“I’ll tell you something about Ted White,” says Rod Hicks. “He didn’t have no pussycat. He had a tiger on his hands when that girl got drunk.”
Aretha has finished her steak and is getting into a conversational groove, The subject is men. She’s single now, and as far as she’s concerned, she’s a catch. “I was looking in the mirror earlier and I said, ‘You know, the brother that gets me is going to get one hell of a fabulous woman,’ “ Aretha says. “I said this while I was combing my hair. That’s because I can do it. That’s right, I can do it. Thinking about what my thing is. The brother that gets me is going to get one hell of a fabulous woman.”
She says she likes “simple things” about men. “Nothing, as I said, that’s unrealistic or impossible. My standards are not so high that this person is not real. I think some people’s standards can be too high and that person isn’t even around. But mine are more down-to-earth.” She likes personal attention, but “not overly so,” she says. “Within reason, reasonable. . . . Yes, I want romance. I like men who are thoughtful. . . . Most of the men I date, even though we don’t date anymore, we’re friends.” She hired her last boyfriend, Willie Wilkerson, to work with her during tours.
“She tries to do too much,” says Wilkerson. “She takes on the responsibility of everything. When I’m with her, she gives me some of the responsibility. . . . When I’m there, things go smooth.
“My title is music librarian. I handle sheet music. I make sure nothing is lost. I make sure music gets to her. She just asked me to do this job recently. . . . Sounds like something small, but it’s major.” He says he doesn’t take any flak from Franklin. “I’m no one’s pissing post. We were on the bus the other day. . . . She went off. . . She says, ‘They left the music.’
“ ‘What music?’ I said. ‘Here’s the seven boxes.’ I was going to tell them to pull this bus over. ‘Take a cab to the airport. You don’t talk to me like that.’ ”
They were engaged, he says, but broke it off. “She’s a homebody,” he says. “She really is as far as I can see. She likes being around the house and likes having a man around the house. The type of person I am, I can’t sit around the house. If I could be that type of guy, I would have been there. I’m too hyper.”
A romance in the 70s with her former road manager Ken Cunningham produced her son Kecalf, but no marriage. And an engagement was broken off years ago between Aretha and Dennis Edwards, formerly of the Temptations. “She’s just a teddy bear,” says Edwards. “She really needs a lot of love, that’s all. She’s a stern lady and she’s very strong. But, like any strong woman in the world, she needs love. . . . Let me say it like this. I should have married Aretha. It was all in my court and I think I’m the one that was so scared of marrying this superstar.”
Aretha doesn’t understand why men are afraid of her. “I would never dog anyone,” she tells me. “I would never do that to my man. In fact, I could appreciate a man who appreciates me and who appreciates women.”
We get up to leave the restaurant, and she excuses herself for a minute to buy some doughnuts at the counter. “One thing I want to add,” she says when she comes back, as if she’s had a revelation. “The best ones are married. . . . You know, when I was in the dressing rooms, touching up my makeup, the other girls were studying men. When I was going onstage and traveling, see, a lot of the best ones got scooped up.”
Outside, I ask why she and Ted White didn’t become friends after their divorce.
“I think. . . who said we weren’t?”
“I’m asking you.”
“And I’m asking you.”
“Oh, so you are—you are good friends?”
“It depends on the definition of ‘friends,’ ” she says as we walk toward her limo. “Why shouldn’t we be? There’s a measure of respect.”
In 1978, Aretha Franklin married her second husband, actor Glynn Turman, in her father’s church. To many observers, it seemed she had finally found the perfect man, a fellow performer. They moved to a house in Los Angeles, in the Valley, with his three children and her four. This period of domesticity was interrupted when Aretha’s father was shot in his home by burglars. He was hit twice in the groin. The Reverend survived the shooting, but lapsed into a semi-coma. He lived for five years, passing away in 1984. Says Mavis Staples, “The best thing that happened to Aretha was that. . . . they kept him alive, because if he had died right then. . . there would have been no more Aretha.”
“He was so special to her,” says Carolyn King. “I think it was something that Aretha couldn’t receive or understand from anybody else. She would definitely receive it from her father. . . . I think she adored him.”
To this day, Aretha Franklin cannot talk about her father. When he is mentioned, she looks away, eyes watering. “I don’t really want to discuss that,” she says.
Reverend Franklin’s house still stands empty in Detroit. “We are looking for buyers,” Aretha says, “and we have been looking for buyers for the last, oh, one and a half years. We’ve had some offers, some that were not really real. Some people were lookers, and they just wanted to get in to be able to look around, but they were not bona fide buyers. . . . We’re looking for the right kind of buyer, and I’m looking for someone who will take care of the property and restore it, probably to its original beauty.”
In 1984, she divorced Glynn Turman, much to the surprise of friends and family. The reason for the divorce remains a mystery and Aretha will say little about the breakup. Rod Hicks’s brother, Bernard, who used to raise horses with Turman in California, was surprised by the divorce. “They seemed to have a nice little working thing,” he says. “Glynn was a good cat, too. I’m just sorry that they couldn’t work it out.” Why the divorce? “I can’t tell you why,” he says. “It’s weird, it’s definitely weird. You have to talk to Erma about that. I’m not going to talk about Aretha. I love her.”
Aretha moved back to Detroit in 1982. Between 1988 and 1989, there was more tragedy: the deaths of a brother, sister, and grandmother. For some time, her sister Erma has said, the family was not able to mention the word “death” around Aretha. And at New Bethel Baptist, where a photo of C. L. Franklin hangs above the organ and a cross bears the words “In Memory of C. L. Franklin,” the preacher’s daughter is not often seen.
“She always used to make Watch Night [New Year’s Eve] service,” says the Reverend Robert Smith Jr., who replaced her father as pastor at New Bethel, “but then there was a rapid succession of deaths in her own family. Her father went first, then I think maybe it was her sister. She lost her sister, grandmother, and brother all in about 24 months, you know. With all the funerals she came to, I think that when she enters now she gets a feeling of bereavement. It’s hard for her to be in here and not think of what’s happened to her family.
“You look in her eyes and you see sorrow,” says Reverend Smith. “I guess that’s what makes her such a soulful singer.”
‘Aretha’s insecure,” says Mavis Stapies. “As good as she can sing, she doesn’t have a lot of confidence. Everybody in her family has petted her and told her, Aretha, you’re bad.’ All of us did. I babied Aretha for years. . . . Aretha told me one time, and this shocked me, she said, ‘Mee, you know there ain’t nobody out here who can sing but you and me and Nancy Wilson.’ I said, ‘Well, I appreciate you adding me in the number.’ ”
In 1987, Mavis Staples sang with Aretha on One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, her most recent gospel album, recorded before the congregation at New Bethel. The standout of the live performance was “Oh Happy Day,” featuring Franklin and Staples. It was to have been released as a single, but at the last minute, according to Staples, Franklin called to say that they had to rerecord it in the studio.
Staples, at home in Chicago, didn’t understand. “I was doing all the lead and people were shouting and everybody was going crazy. . . .She said, ‘Mee, you’re going to have to come over here to Detroit. We’re going to have to do “Oh Happy Day” again in the studio.’ I said, ‘What’s the matter? There was nothing wrong with it.’ I thought it was hip. She said, ‘Mee, it’s just the audio or something.’ She would never let me hear it, so we went back. . . .
“Then I made a vocal run in the studio, and the engineer, you saw his hair still on his head. Aretha would say, ‘Take that out. We’re going to do another.’ And he said, ‘You wanna take that one out?’ Aretha says, ‘What did I say?’ He said, ‘Mavis, don’t say a damn thing.’ . . . That’s when I gave up. I said, She just ain’t going to do right, because she thinks I’m going to upstage her. I can’t take nothing from her and she can’t take nothing from me, but she don’t realize that, you know. What she did to that record!”
‘You go in her house,” someone told me, “you’re going to see this room which is a shrine to her father with pictures of him and candles. And you’re going to see this big Lucite box right at the door. . . . It’s a big, Lucite box with this big rhinestone crown in it.”
I am thinking about the rhinestone crown in the big Lucite box as I follow the white limousine that is carrying the Queen of Soul home, past the huge suburban houses with the sculpted lawns, past Lone Pine Road, Echo Road, down a tree-shaded dirt lane to a stark white six-bedroom house where an Excalibur with the license plate ZOOMIN waits in the drive.
On the porch, a small dog barks and wags its tail. “Ginger,” Aretha says, “that’s-a girl. She’s about 49 or 59 in dog years, 7 years to every year in human years. My neighbors are very nice. My flowers are around that way. I planted all these trees. I’m growing roses.”
She takes a sniff. “Country-fresh air. The air is clean, quiet, beautiful—very quiet.” We walk toward the back, where there is a swimming pool. “I planted all these roses,” she says. I ask who lives with her. “My family,” she says, “so on and so forth.”
“No,” she says, and then changes the subject. “When I want to get out, I get out for a movie sometimes with my friends or my neighbors. We went to see What’s Love Got to Do with It? That’s the last thing we did. . . . Tina and I did a couple of shows together at a place called the Five-Four Ballroom. That’s where we first saw each other. We were on the same show that night. I was pregnant about seven, eight months with Teddy, but I was still performing up to about that time and they were preceding me and I followed them. When they left the stage, there was a whole lot of smoke and dust. I mean, they really, really got into what they were doing.”
I ask about the film’s portrayal of Ike beating Tina, and she looks uncomfortable.
“You never know what’s going on,” she says. “I just never dreamt that kind of thing was happening.”
I remind her that some people see parallels between her and Ted White and Tina and Ike Turner.
“Well, when people don’t know what they’re talking about,” she says, “it will make you mad. . . . My story is not her story. Her story is not my story.”
I ask whom she would like to play her in a bio film.
“Very interesting. Natalie Cole maybe,” she says sarcastically. “In good time.” (In 1976, Natalie Cole broke Aretha’s eight-year winning streak at the Grammys in the female R&B category, and at one time she was heralded as the Queen’s heiress apparent.)
I bring up Cole’s recording of Aretha’s old number “Take a Look.”
“That kind of thing,” Aretha says, “is typical of Natalie. I got a letter from her telling me certain things, saying certain things, prior to the release of it. . . . I don’t own these songs, you know. Anybody can sing what they want to sing. We don’t own these songs. . . . All I can say is I think she’s been influenced in a very positive way. That’s what I think.” But she does not seem threatened. “With respect to maintaining my title as the Queen of Soul,” she has said, “it’s second nature to me, and I think, just being myself, the rest will take care of itself.”
We chat for a while about other things and it occurs to me to ask her something I’ve always wondered about. Why, I say, did we never see Aretha Franklin on The Ed Sullivan Show?
“They said my gown was too low-cut,” Aretha Franklin says, looking straight at me, remembering what was to have been her debut on the show. “I didn’t think it was, and Cholly, my choreographer Cholly Atkins, didn’t think it was. It was a beautiful gown, beautifully beaded gown, but I don’t think at that time they had seen a black woman on network TV showing as much cleavage. . . . Fortunately, I had brought several other gowns with me. I had several other, high-cut gowns that we went to, but there were so many artists on that evening that I got cut. I guess that was it. I was worn out, the place was in a thousand pieces. I had rehearsed a long time for that appearance, me and Cholly. I just went out the back door crying. I was about 16, 17, and I really looked forward to that so much and then to be bumped off the show just wore me out. . . . We never appeared on that show. I don’t recall them asking and I don’t recall ever asking to be.”
Suddenly I remember Liz Smith’s little scolding in the paper, and I realize why Miss Franklin is so sensitive about her wardrobe. And I leave her in the house with the rhinestone crown and her photos of her father, still looking for what’s real.