Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Aretha Franklin: An audience with the Queen

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin Aretha Franklin Aretha Franklin Aretha Franklin

Universally acknowledged across the globe as the undisputed Queen of Soul, Detroit-raised megastar diva Aretha Franklin this month returns with her eagerly-anticipated new album “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics”. Which - overseen by Sony Music Entertainment’s Chief Creative Officer, legendary music mogul Clive Davis - is currently being pioneered by its lead-off single, Aretha’s grittily rousing rendition of contemporary UK superstar Adele’s pounding “Rolling In The Deep” which recently became Franklin’s 100th entry on the US R&B singles chart - making her the first-ever women to achieve this feat.

Indeed, featuring top-drawer production input from the likes of Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Andre 3000, Harvey Mason, Jr., Terry Hunter and Eric Kupper, “Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics” finds Aretha’s unsurpassed, instantly-recognisable vocal stylings covering 10 differing diva anthems ranging from a lushly-orchestrated, gliding rendition of Barbra Streisand’s “People” and a funkily-shuffling reading of Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train To Georgia” to an undulating reggae take on Alicia Keys’ “No One” and a spirited house update of Gloria Gaynor’s anthemic “I Will Survive”. Meanwhile, with Franklin herself tickling the ivories on her stomping version of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”, Grammy-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum interestingly guests on the jazzy “Teach Me Tonight” and Etta James’ triumphant “At Last”.

Born Aretha Louise Franklin on March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, it was nevertheless after moving with her family to Detroit, Michigan that - regarded at the time as a child prodigy - a young Aretha would begin her career singing gospel and playing piano at her father, The Reverend C.L. Franklin’s Baptist church,. Following which, with her father now her manager, at age 18 she would eventually embark on a secular career, recording for Columbia Records where she would attain modest success prior to signing with Atlantic Records in January 1967. After which she would within months achieve across-the-board international acclaim and success via such classic singles as the double-Grammy-winning US Pop and Soul Number One “Respect” (which to this day remains her signature song and has frequently been hailed as both a civil rights and feminist anthem); “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”; “Think”; and “I Say A Little Prayer”. All of which - alongside such critically-lauded albums as 1967’s “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You”, 1968’s “Lady Soul” and 1968’s “Aretha Now” - would by the end of the Sixties result in her gaining the prestigious title of “The Queen of Soul”.

… All of which in turn neatly brings us back to this month’s release of the aforementioned “Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics”. As a warm-mannered Ms. Franklin - whose l8 Grammy Awards and 75 million-plus worldwide record sales make her unquestionably one of the most acclaimed and best-selling female recording artists of all time - hooks up for the first time with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis for a rare in-depth interview.

PETE: Let’s start by discussing how your new album “Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics” initially came about

ARETHA: “Well, the concept came about through Mr. (Clive) Davis, the chairman of RCA. He basically came to me with the idea and a list of songs, and of course I agreed wholeheartedly with his SUGGESTIONS - because many of the songs that were on his list I’d already bought and enjoyed in their ORIGINAL versions!”

PETE: So did you then inject some ideas of your own along the way?

ARETHA: “Yes, I added Ashford & Simpson’s refrain from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” - which Diana (Ross) of course did a very fine version of back in the day - to “Rolling In The Deep”, mainly because to me it’s one of the great refrains of all TIME. Plus with my granddaughter Victory and myself both liking Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” - it’s like OUR SONG - I just felt for me it would feel natural to add the “I’m a survivor” chorus to my version of “I Will SURVIVE””.

PETE: Let’s talk further about your update of “Rolling In The Deep” - the album’s first single - and your views on its originator, modern-day soulful UK megastar Adele

ARETHA: “Oh, I thoroughly enjoyed singing “Rolling In The Deep”! You know, to me it was just a natural that just - excuse the pun! - came ‘rolling’ OUT! I think I did one, maybe two takes and that was IT!... And in terms of Adele herself I think she’s a very, very good artist whose latest CD I loved from cut-to-cut, back-to-BACK… I mean, to me it’s a lot reminiscent of say Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or Stevie Wonder’s “Music Of My Mind” and “Songs In The Key Of LIFE”, where each cut is entertaining in its own right but at the same time just seems to blend with the one BEFORE. You know, it’s not like a compilation of different stuff - there is a sameness to it but at the same time there’s also a DIVERSITY... So yeah, as I say, to me Adele is just a terrific writer and I’ve enjoyed everything she’s done to date.”

PETE: And what about some of the other songs you’ve covered?

ARETHA: “OK, I‘ll start with Alicia Keys’ “No One”. That one was actually produced by Harvey Mason, Jr. who I’d worked with previously on the duet that Fantasia and I did. And while he - as ever - did a super, SUPER bang-up job, it was actually ALICIA’s idea to add that REGGAE flavour to it. Which I think makes it that much more INTERESTING... Then me covering The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was really all about me thinking back to the time before I left Detroit to move to New York, when I was buying almost everything that Motown produced and put OUT! In fact I was only telling Mr. (Berry) Gordy the other day how he owes me BIG-time for all the money I paid out for those RECORDS of his!... And then with “I Will Survive”, while I’ve never actually MET Gloria Gaynor the fact is that song was a huge hit during the disco era, and with me just before the recording having picked up Gloria’s BOOK “We Will Survive” and read all the very inspirational and supportive stories in it, I just felt it was a song I definitely needed to include on this RECORD.”


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