Still Commanding ‘Respect’

Sunday, April 26, 2015
Aretha Franklin is riding on the freeway, or maybe it’s just I-70, on her way home to Detroit from Washington, D.C.

She was in the nation’s capital to play for the president at the White House, but that’s old hat to her. She played for President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton, and it was President George W. Bush who awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Needless to say, the 73-year-old Franklin is among the most decorated performers in history. She was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She ranked No. 1 on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. She has 18 Grammys (second only to Beyonce for a female artist), and she holds honorary doctorates from Yale, Princeton and the Berklee College of Music, among others.

The title that might be the most important, though, is the one that has stuck with her most of her career, and always will: Queen of Soul.

She was midway through her 20s when she got it.

“That happened when I was at the Regal Theater in Chicago, which was very much like The Apollo in New York,” she says. “One of the local DJs there, a guy named Pervis Spann, he walked on stage one evening with a crown, and I went, ‘Whoooa! What is this?’ ”

She didn’t mind at all. “Who wouldn’t want to be called ‘Queen’!”

That was in 1967 when Franklin, who sang in “gospel caravan tours” as a teenager, had her breakthrough success with the album most people consider to be her greatest, I’ve Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You. It was her Atlantic Records debut, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and the lead track was a gender-flipped cover of the Otis Redding song Respect with a few added touches.

“My sister Carolyn and I worked on it,” she says. “Carolyn was an RCA Victor recording artist, and she also sang with me for many years, in the background. She and I went into my apartment, and ‘sock it to me’ was a very big cliche in the neighborhood at that time, and we decided to work that into the song, and then along came Laugh In and just took our ‘sock it to me’ and just went national with it. It went viral.”

Respect, driven by one of her most fiery vocals, became the only No. 1 hit she scored in her prime (she got there again in 1987 with the George Michael duet I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me) ). Respect also became her signature song, one that has served as a feminist anthem ever since.

She didn’t see it that way at the time but says, “It certainly applied. And then it became a mantra for the civil rights movement. Women and children are the least respected people. We are getting our just due now, and women are certainly moving to the forefront of many fronts now.”

“Respect” opened the door for more classics: (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Think, Chain of Fools, Spanish Harlem, etc.

By then she was a savvy stage veteran and ready to wear the crown. Having mentored singers on American Idol, she’s glad that her success did not come that way.

“I like better the way I came through the ranks because it wasn’t an overnight thing, and I was able to adjust to whatever success I had as I went, so it wasn’t overwhelming. A little bit at a time. I was down in what Lou Rawls used to call the Chitlin’ Circuit. I had the tiniest dressing room in history. There was a chair, a mirror and some boxes behind me. If you put your foot one step to the right, you were out of the dressing room.”

When her career dipped in the late ’70s, she was able to bounce back under the direction of Clive Davis at Arista. After a show-stealing guest spot in The Blues Brothers movie, she went on to score her first platinum album, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? in 1985 and a run of hits, including Freeway and Sisters Are Doin’ it for Themselves (with Eurythmics).

Asked if there’s a song in her set that is the most meaningful to her, she says, “They’re like my children; they’re all important to me.”

For her latest album, her 38th, it’s all other people’s children. Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics has her reworking such hits as Midnight Train to Georgia, I Will Survive and Nothing Compares 2 U.

She has a simple formula for how to approach a song that someone else has already made famous, like Adele’s Rolling in the Deep.

“I just enjoy singing it. I enjoyed her performance of it, and I was watching one of her videos where a lot of young kids were on the bus singing it and just having a good time with it. And I said, ‘That’s it, just have a good time with it because I really like it.’ ”

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