The essence of Soul music cannot be mentioned without the names of iconic entertainers that have created a signature sound that is remixed, reworked and constantly remastered to this day. The preservation of music history, Black music history, has become relevant now more than ever. One cannot drop the name of Aretha Franklin without referencing her as the ‘Queen of Soul’ a description that was crowned by Chicago’s legendary radio broadcaster, Pervis ‘The Blues Man’ Spann. During the 1960’s, Spann, a radio disc jockey on WOPA-AM began to produce concerts at The Regal Theatre booking Blues and Soul acts including a young Aretha Franklin. He later purchased the station under WVON-AM which continues to operate today.
Chicago holds a special place in Franklin’s heart as she remembers the constant trips as a young girl traveling with her father—the legendary Rev. C.L Franklin. “I’ve been coming to Chicago for almost 60 odd years,” Franklin said. “As a teenager, we stayed out South on 93rd and Stewart. My Dad had a friend here and that’s where we stayed during the summer. I would come with him, when I got a little older and he would preach in town at different churches for Rev. Evans and others. So, I’ve had a love affair with Chicago for many years.”
The 18-Grammy award winning singer has sung for several Presidents, foreign dignitaries, queens, princes and kings as well as shared the stage with nearly every known international rockstar from every corner of the world—all fighting for a the chance to share a piece of her. The first woman inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she reminisce about why the “city of big shoulders” brings back so many wonderful memories – there isn’t a hint of name dropping.
In town for yet another memorable concert; the Queen of Soul will perform at Ravinia this Saturday to a near sold out show. On the way in from Sioux City, Iowa, her tour bus suffered some transmission problems barely making it into the city limits.
“That was God’s grace that we got here as close as we did. Fortunately, when the bus stopped – 5 minutes later, the Illinois Department of Transportation and Safety pulled up. I said, ‘Whoa’ as the old folks say, ‘Watch God work.’”
Born in Memphis, her family relocated to Detroit where she’s called home for most of her life. Although firmly rooted in gospel, Franklin also drew from such blues and jazz legends as Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn as she developed her singing style. On the male side, she was inspired by Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, and Sam Cooke (both with and without the Soul Stirrers). From the emerging world of youthful doo-wop groups and early soul, Aretha enjoyed the likes of LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Little Willie John, the Falcons (featuring Wilson Pickett), and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
Having musical roots in the church, she learned early by traveling on the road accompanying her father and singing with her siblings at various churches and gospel music revivals. Her father, a pastor at New Bethel Baptist Church also recorded albums. Aretha’s best lessons were picked up by singing in her father’s church. Influenced by great singers Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland – the secular side of music was never far from her repertoire.
“Back in the days of the Regal Theatre, I had great days performing with other artists like the Motown groups – the Temptations and the Marvelettes.” Franklin remembers. “That was during the time when Dennis Edwards was a Contour. He wasn’t a Temp then. McKinley Mitchell used to close the show with “A Little Bit of Soul”. The last verse of it was, ‘How am I doing? Am I doing alright.’ He would answer himself. I love that. That’s the way he would close the show and kill it all the time. Great days – the best days. You would taste the best hamburgers from the back door of the Regal.”
During that time, record labels such as Vee Jay, Chess and Motown Records were dominating the airwaves, especially on Black radio stations but gradually crossed over. Chicago and Detroit shared great similarities in musical styles and trends. Some artists recall there was some friendly competition among the male vocal groups.
She explained, “I never knew there was a rivalry between Detroit and Chicago. Chicago to me is very similar to the people in Detroit. Very sophisticated, very honest and very intellectual. Just down-to-earth and good people.”
Growing up she loved hearing about her sister’s escapades on one of her many trips to Chicago and each them soon had young suitors. “My sister, Erma used to date one of the Chi-Lites. Way back in the days – I mean way back when we were teenagers. I was 16 when The Flamingos had caught our attention. One of the members, Jimmy Carter stayed across the street from my father’s friend so eventually she became friends with them. Later, I started to date one of the Flamingos as well,” Franklin said.
Hearing about Erma’s adventures hitting popular nightlife attractions like the South Side’s Club DeLisa, would often have her calling the airline to inquire about flights even though she wasn’t quite ready to board a plane. Over the years, it’s been known that Franklin still prefers traveling via ground transportation and rarely travels overseas due to her misgivings of flying.
Throughout her recording career, she has helped build the R&B and Gospel brand of major record labels such Columbia Records for six years, releasing nine R&B hits (the most memorable being “Today I Sing the Blues” and “Runnin’ Out of Fools”). She also scored some pop crossovers (“Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” and “Won’t Be Long”) –
Eventually, she signed to Atlantic Records in 1966 under the guidance of legendary music executive and producer Jerry Wexler. It was during this time, her stardom rose to international heights. Her next three albums – Aretha Arrives (1967), Lady Soul (1968) and Aretha Now (1968) – included “Respect” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Baby, I Love You,” “Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby),” and a soulful rendering of Carole King’s “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like).” Her fifth Atlantic album was Aretha in Paris (1968). In 12 years, Franklin made a total of 19 albums while signed to Atlantic Records.
In the early years of the 1970’s, she released such critically acclaimed albums as Spirit in the Dark (1970), Aretha Live at Fillmore West (1971), Young, Gifted and Black (1972) and Amazing Grace (1972). Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted and Black found Franklin tapping into themes of resiliency and empowerment. Spirit in the Dark was her most autobiographical album, featuring five songs penned by Franklin.
Former Columbia Records president, Clive Davis signed Franklin to his new label, Arista Records in the 1980’s bringing her soulful sound into the dance world with hits such as “Jump to It” and “Get It Right”. Her collaborations on duets from George Michael, Keith Richards and later down the road with hip hop songstress, Lauryn Hill sealed her versatility as cross-generational to many fans.
Clive Davis is known as the man with the ‘golden’ touch and is famously tied to the late singer Whitney Houston, God daughter of Franklin. Having a niche for working with the best female vocalists, Clive approached her on the latest album project, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Diva Classics”, an album showcasing the singer’s signature style covering popular songs by chart topping female singers, many of whom have been influenced by Franklin growing up.
“That was Clive’s idea and it was his concept,” Franklin said. “He asked me what I thought about it and he gave me a list of singers along with a list of recordings. I looked at the list and most of these songs, I had bought as a consumer so they have no idea how much money they owe me,” she laughed. “I thought these songs are great, I loved them as a consumer as well.”
From her first major record label in 1967 to her current deal on RCA Records, the music business had changed. She believes the generation following hers have made smarter moves based on the doors that were opened by her peers.
“They came into the industry doing their own thing. They’re still doing their own thing. Like Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs (not Diddy), he organized and brought all of his artists to Clive under his production company. Once that contract played out, Puffy took his artists and left,” Franklin said. “We didn’t do that when we were coming along. We were either asked to sign the contract and we would either re-sign or not. But, now they are operating at a completely different way and a smarter way than when we came up.”
As she settles into Chicago for a few days prior to her show this weekend, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee has already laid out plans to revisit some of her favorite restaurant hot spots. She is a fan of Josephine’s gumbo at Captain Hard Times and Lem’s BBQ. It’s no secret that she can ‘burn’ in the kitchen with some of the best cooks, but she mentions, ‘it was a gradual progression.‘
“When I first started, I used to make breakfast for my Dad – it used take so long. He would give me a look. He didn’t say anything but he gave me a look that read, ‘What on earth, took you so long?’ I was doing my best, so there it is.”
Being a great cook is just another feather in Ms. Franklin’s cap as she looks forward to slowing down her hectic schedule from six shows a month to three shows. This is a strategy that she acknowledges to creating a level of balance and rest. There aren’t any plans in the near future for another album release but she prefers to keep her options open.
“I’m just thinking about what I want to record. I’m not really sure at this point. Just waiting to see if I’m going to re-sign with RCA Records or release music on my own with Aretha‘s Records,” she said.
With a sweeping view of Chicago’s Navy Pier and Lake Michigan from her hotel room, Aretha Franklin is taking everything in stride with God’s grace. The view from the top is not foreign to her and she understands all too well that without the loyalty of her fans that view would play out much differently. She feels it’s important to give the people what they want. Franklin’s deep musical roots range from gospel, soul, blues, rock and opera. She is a beautiful anomaly of what is missing from music today.
She adds, “I love where my concert is now. I’m entering new things, doing the hits and I try to evolve with them. Whatever I sung the last time, I try to keep with the things people like along with new things.”
Aretha Franklin: The Great Diva Classics Concert is Saturday, July 11th @ Ravinia Festival. Gates open at 6pm. Showtime begins 8:30pm. For more information: Visit www.ravinia.org