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.
Great moments in sports have deepened into metaphors for perseverance. Franklin says she’s got a picture on her wall of “when Isiah got hurt and Magic was coming down the court right behind him. He was hobbling and determined to finish that game. He had hurt his ankle, I think. But he was a trouper that night, like I haven’t seen before — not in basketball.” The suggestion is that she’s seen plenty of troupers in music. “He definitely said to himself, ‘The show must go on.’”
Does she ever play hurt? Sure, but not often, and the pain doesn’t last. “The audience has a beautiful way, when you don’t feel well, of helping you to feel better.”
Yeah, the corner man stitches up the cut, the crowd hoots, and you go on. The 1985 Hearns-Hagler boxing contest was another sports crucible that made an impression on Franklin. “Fight night is a big night in the Franklin household,” she says. She remembers popcorn and ice cream with her dad, watching Floyd Patterson on the Gillette Wednesday-night pugilistic telecasts as a kid.
The Star found out that Franklin herself packs a punch. (Her suit against the tabloid was settled in a “mutually satisfactory” manner.) Only in defense, though — she takes her role-model status seriously, and puts her dukes up on behalf of her reputation.
“Children are listening and observing, and will emulate. So I really think you should be very careful and tasteful about what you say and do. You have principles and you have integrity, and that’s the way it is.”
Artistically, Franklin can belt but also bob and weave — she’s an improviser. “I came up in a jazz atmosphere after going to New York, working at the Village Gate for months at a time. As a teenager, I was with artists like John Coltrane and Horace Silver and Junior Mance and Freddie Hubbard. My whole focus was not on jazz, but I heard it a lot.”
You still hear that indirect influence, and it can wield overwhelming power. “I loved the entire album,” she says of So Damn Happy, but amid the rhythmic bump and the penetrating statements of joy, praise and lost love (and a Bacharach tune), one song meant so much that Franklin had to sing it twice, as a statement and a reprise. “You Are My Joy,” where she sits at the piano and hallucinates the implications of a very real and recent unrequited love, sounds exactly like what she says it is: a spontaneous impulse that served as a ground for further flights.
“I woke up early one morning, and that song was just there — all the words, all the music, all the everything,” she says. “It just came flowing out.”
I accuse Franklin of making me cry twice as I listened to “You Are My Joy” just before interviewing her. Hell, I’m clouding up again right now, just reading its simple lyrics — “The joining of our hearts/Joining of our heads” — and remembering the desperate soar and the terrible hurt of her voice, an expression beyond art. She pretends to be surprised at my response, but you know she hears that kind of thing all the time.
Well, hello and hasta la vista to an old friend we always knew and never met. Franklin will be heading back to Detroit, back to her cronies, her studio and the churches she regularly attends (which include her minister father’s, of course, and the Reverend Jim Holley’s “historic” Little Rock Baptist Church). And by way of recompense for her long absence from L.A., she’s making sure to leave her fans plenty of memories; her stage extravaganza will feature a huge band (with strings), her dancers and “lots of surprises.”
How about a hint? “No, then it wouldn’t be a surprise!” She’ll only say, “It’s gonna be fabulous. It is time to rock and par-tay!”
Aretha Franklin plays the Greek Theater on Friday and Saturday, September 17 and 18.