Aretha Franklin Talks Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson: ‘I Hear My Influence’

Sam Emerson
Aretha Franklin singing circa 1985

Even when she isn't recording, Aretha Franklin, 72, looms large in our culture. The recipient of the United States' highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and an 18-time Grammy Award winner as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement and Grammy Living Legend awardee, Franklin is quite simply the greatest living singer. Even the hat she wore to President Barack Obama's first presidential inauguration created a stir. (It's now in the Smithsonian.)

The Queen of Soul's new album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, is her first studio release in three years, and her first for a major label since 2003's So Damn Happy. (It entered the Billboard 200 at No. 13, her highest debut ever.) Hearing her talk about the record, it sounds like she's having the time of her life. "I love these songs," says Franklin. "I listened to them all, by the original artists, for my own enjoyment. So making this record was a pleasure."

 

 

The album reunites her with Sony Music Entertainment chief creative officer Clive Davis, with whom she worked for 23 years at Arista Records. In the 1980s, Davis helped revive a career that had stalled after her epochal '60s and '70s run with Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records that produced such rock'n'roll landmarks as "Respect" and "Chain of Fools," among many others. As with Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook series and Santana's Supernatural, the critical contribution from Davis this time around was the concept -- in this case, having Franklin record the signature songs performed by other capital "D" divas through the years.

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No one is more qualified to sing the diva songbook than Franklin. Born to a famous minister and performing professionally since her teens, Franklin has survived an abusive first marriage (single now, she has been married twice and has four sons), a crippling fear of flying, dramatic weight fluctuations and, in 2010, a mysterious bout with and subsequent recovery from an undisclosed illness that sparked deathbed rumors. A well-received multi-city 2014 tour, starring a slimmed-down Franklin, dispelled any lingering doubts about her health.

Then, in September, a clip of her performing "Rolling in the Deep" on Late Show With David Letterman instantly picked up a million-plus views on the Internet. Diva Classics itself is a wild ride, unpredictable in both selections and arrangements, from songs associated with Dinah Washington ("Teach Me Tonight") to Gladys Knight ("Midnight Train to Georgia") to Alicia Keys ("No One"). A raise-the-roof version of Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" leads into a segment of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," while Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" breaks into "Survivor" by Destiny's Child. Babyface produced most of the album, though The Underdogs, Eric Kupper, Harvey Mason Jr. and Chicago DJ/producer Terry Hunter were also onboard. Most notably, André "3000" Benjamin produced a sped-up, jazzy rendition of "Nothing Compares 2 U," which closes the album.

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On the phone from her tour bus, headed to a show in Miami, Franklin says that she hasn't decided yet whether there would be a volume two. "It's like my teacher always used to say -- we shall see what we shall see." 

What was it like making this album?

I had a really good time. I love this music. I bought most of these records in the original version -- I had the occasion to tell Berry Gordy that he owed me a ton of money for all the Motown records I bought!

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Midnight Train," "Survivor" -- that's one of me and my granddaughter's favorite songs. Victory, that's her name. I'm coaching her; she wants to be a singer, and she's coming along very well. She sang for me on the BET Honors. She's more of a student right now, and she's definitely finishing her education. But she has the voice, and she's a very fast learner.

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How were the songs selected? Were some Clive's idea, some yours?

It was Mr. Davis' idea. He brought the concept, gave me a list of songs and artists -- of course, I knew all of them. Chaka [Khan] and I are friends. Gladys [Knight] and I came up on the same route, singing at the Royal Peacock in Georgia, along with Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin and artists of that stature. So Gladys and I passed each other several times as younger artists.

Alicia [Keys], of course, is a label mate, and it was her idea to put that reggae flavor on "No One." I thought that was just great, right on the money. With the Sinéad O'Connor song ["Nothing Compares 2 U," originally by Prince], André wanted to do a complete turnaround, so he went to that faster tempo and jazzy feel. At first, I wasn't quite for it, but I thought about it and thought, "Well, it could work out great." So I went back to my jazz roots, to when I sang in [Greenwich] Village, at the Gate and the Vanguard and all those clubs, with John Coltrane and Charles Mingus and all of the jazz greats. 

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Was that meaningful for you, to show some more of that side of your singing?

Intermittently in my concert format, I sing a little jazz, a little scatting. But the recordings are more secular or gospel, or just straight-up R&B. So having that gave it another flavor and a whole other feel. And hopefully it will be enjoyed by that audience, the jazz audience, as well.

So did you like the concept when Clive brought it up? Or did he need to convince you at all?

Oh, I approved it immediately. It's very easy to work with Clive. We usually agree on pretty much everything; I can't think of a time we really disagreed -- on the players, the songs. It was all very compatible. He's an Aries like me, for whatever that's worth, and 'Face is an Aries, too, so there's a lot of fire going on here. But it works. We're all pretty much in agreement.

Franklin in the late 1960s.

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What did Babyface bring to this album?

Well, Babyface brings his savoir faire to every project. He's a very easy producer to work with, very detailed in listening to everything. But we had a lot of fun, too, a lot of laughter. On "Midnight Train to Georgia," I was doing some of the Pips moves at the microphone. We all had a lot of fun in the control room, listening to takes and talking about the tracks.

You must have thought about recording some of the older songs on here through the years.

Yes, I had thought about "Teach Me Tonight," and some others like that I still hope to do. "At Last" was a big record back in the day. I had the occasion to meet Etta James a few times back in L.A. That song reminded me of my roller-skating days -- they used to play that all the time at the Arcadia roller rink in Detroit and we would back-skate to it couples only, ladies only. It reminded me of a very wonderful time coming up.


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Did any of these songs really surprise you or go in some direction you really didn't anticipate?

No, none of them really surprised me, but the track on "Midnight Train" was done without getting a key from me. I would have liked that arrangement a half-step higher, but it worked out, mostly because of my range.

One song that stands out is Barbra Streisand's "People." That seems a bit different from the rest of the choices.

Barbra and I came up on Columbia together, when Goddard Lieberson was the chairman. Then after I left [in 1966], Clive came to the label. Not long ago, I did the memorial service for Marvin Hamlisch. And Barbra was there, and I could hear her coming from a mile away -- "Where's Aretha? I want to see her!" So we talked and chatted, took some pictures. Really, Barbra and I, and Chaka and Gladys, we all came up together. I've always enjoyed all of them, as I enjoyed all of these original artists.

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Have you started to work on how you're going to present these songs onstage?

I'm really looking forward to singing them in concert, because after a certain amount of time, the vocals are going to change, and it's always a change for the better. It always changes naturally, and only improves.

"I Will Survive," "No One," "At Last" -- I have writers working on arrangements for those now. The stage arrangement is usually the same as the record, but you add something to give people something a little extra special, you get to be a little more creative with the arrangements.

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Have you had a chance to spend time with some of the younger artists represented on the record -- with Adele or Alicia Keys?

I haven't had the occasion to meet Adele. She lives in England. So when I'm flying, or when she comes over here, perhaps we'll have a chance. I think she's a very fine singer, a very strong writer and performer.

I call Alicia the girl of a thousand faces. Her appearance is always changing, so you never get used to what she looks like. She's very stylized, but she has recorded some really great things. I especially like that old-school song she has, "You Don't Know My Name," and of course that New York song ["Empire State of Mind"]! I'm really glad she wrote that, because from time to time we need a new song for New York, for Detroit, for Chicago. And there really hadn't been one since Liza Minnelli did "New York, New York," so that was very timely.

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When you listen to those young artists, do you feel like the future of singing is in good hands? And do you hear your own influence in their work?

I think they're doing a very good job -- Beyoncé, Alicia, Jennifer [Hudson]. I hear my influence sometimes; I know when my voice, when something I'm known for, has passed. But these young ladies, for the most part, are all very original.

This article first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of Billboard.