By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Photo by Kwaku Alston
A lot of newborns have attained drinking age since Aretha Franklin last visited Los Angeles. Nothing personal on her part — it’s just that she doesn’t fly, and the bus ride from Detroit is a grind. So her Greek Theater performances this weekend are an opportunity. Not only to see her, but to think for a minute about a very valuable somebody we tend to take for granted.
Think, for example, about “I Say a Little Prayer,” a jaunty number that somehow ended up as a definer of African-American womanhood. The Burt Bacharach–Hal David fluff burger first hit in 1967 via Dionne Warwick, who was considered to represent as much black female as the contemporary mainstream public could take: frail, polite, precise, stamped from the same pop template as Leslie Uggams (favorite of the cableknit viewers who patronized TV’s Sing Along With Mitch) and Diana Ross. Close your eyes and they’re white.
Then, in 1968, Franklin said her little prayer, and Lord have mercy. The porcelain melody was shattered, kaleidoscoped with gut-deep embellishments and whoops that seemed to leap forth unbidden. There was no way this woman was white. Look at her: She wasn’t fragile, either. And the backup singing, hardly in the rear of the bus, was pure strong sisterhood, fisting forward with the kind of catfishy seventh harmonies that only the Beatles and Stones had enough balls (and influence) to jab into the Top 40.
It was natural, in those Black Panther days, that Franklin would be called upon to stand for something beyond the undiluted gospel, blues and soul music that she was delivering into millions of homes for the first time. She was Young, Gifted and Black, as a 1972 album title had it. She took “Respect” from Otis Redding and demanded it for herself. And think if you will about “Think,” which Franklin wrote as a love song — but when her screams of “Freedom!” tore through your car speakers, notions of kissin’ and huggin’ plain fled your mind. Hard to realize it now, but Aretha Franklin was frightening.
Franklin emerged as a musician’s musician. In addition to her hurricane vocal ability, she was (and is) a damn good piano player. She required the best, as Bobby Womack, Duane Allman and Eric Clapton passed through her Atlantic recording sessions. “I Never Loved a Man,” “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman” — the hits came at a ridiculous pace, and after the rush she remained popular, even cracking the charts again with a number of ’80s hits, including “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” Her most recent album, last year’s So Damn Happy, blends all her R&B, gospel and pop skills in classic fashion.
I talked to Franklin over the phone, which was unreal: The idea of her simply does not fit into a telephone receiver. The Queen of Soul she may be, but she came across with the down-home manner she’s known for — patient and humorous though not expansive.
The impetus for Franklin’s return to L.A. after a two-decade absence makes a funny story. She was giving a deposition in Albuquerque last year; she’d sued the Star for implying she was drinking herself into the grave. (The red liquid you might see her sipping is cranberry juice; she hasn’t imbibed for many years.) The nearly mile-high location was chosen for legal venue reasons, and the acrophobic Franklin resisted going; a cartographer was actually hired to plot the least severely rising land route. But after arriving without much stress, she realized, “It was a blessing in disguise. I said, ‘How far is Las Vegas from here?’ And when the driver told me, I said, ‘Oh, please, we’re going to Las Vegas. And Los Angeles.’”
Franklin says she’s “absolutely looking forward to it”; she anticipates the reconnection with the local faithful, of course, but also, I figure, she’ll enjoy the chance to gloat over her hometown’s trampling of the Lakers in this year’s NBA championship series.
Congratulated on that, she laughs big and cheers: “Dee-troit basketball! Dee-troit basketball! I’m fast becoming a fan of the new Pistons. I always loved the old Pistons — Isiah [Thomas] and Joe D [Dumars] and Mark Aguirre and those guys. But the new Pistons are really good. Dynamite players.”
She’s less ebullient when considering the claims that she lip-synched the national anthem before the series’ final game. “Oh, that that that that. Oh, that’s too much. Unbelievable. I don’t know, the sound was cut off on the actual telecast, because I saw it later on VHS. I think that’d best be left just where it lies. I had a great evening, the fans had a great evening, and that really was the bottom line.”
Franklin offers a little vignette from that night. “I had an especially good time sitting right behind [Lakers forward] Rick Fox. Some of the fans were razzing him, really stickin’ it to him, but he just had fun with them, laughed it off the entire evening and continued to play.” That, she seems to feel, is how a star should handle criticism.
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