What Made Aretha Franklin Special: Producers Jimmy Jam & Harvey Mason Jr. Reminisce

Paul Morigi/Getty Images for BET
Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam attend BET Honors 2013: Red Carpet Presented By Pantene at Warner Theatre on Jan. 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. 

As fans pay their final respects to Aretha Franklin this week, songwriter/producers James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Harvey Mason Jr. share unique memories of being in the presence of the Queen of Soul:

Jimmy Jam, together with his songwriting/production partner Terry Lewis, has crafted hits for Janet Jackson, Yolanda Adams, Sounds of Blackness, SOS Band, New Edition and Mary J. Blige, to name a few. Below, Jam tells Billboard about his “Aretha Franklin moment,” when he and Lewis were asked to collaborate on the singer’s 2003 album, So Damn Happy.

We had a song on that album, “Everybody's Somebody's Fool.” That experience was very interesting because we had a whole different concept of what we wanted to do with Aretha, which was to focus on her piano playing. We thought the key to some of her greatest musical moments up to that point had been when she sat down to play the piano and everybody else just fell in around her. 

Terry, myself and [musician/songwriter/producer] James “Big Jim” Wright traveled to Detroit, where Aretha fixed us lunch at her house. She had this huge piano; I think it was white, if I'm not mistaken. But she thought that we had come to play her some tracks. And we said no, we don't want to play any tracks. What we'd like to do is sit with you and just kind of bounce ideas around. So she sat at the piano and started playing all these songs that I guess were, in her mind, kind of unfinished ideas. She played for 30 to 45 minutes straight. It was probably the most amazing musical experience ever to hear her playing and singing these songs that nobody's heard other than maybe family members. 

When we all heard her play this music, we said, "That's the kind of album we’d like for you to make -- and you don’t even have to leave your house to go to the studio. We can set up a portable unit here and you can literally sit at your piano just like you’re doing now." It was a bit revolutionary at the time, but we tried to talk her into doing that. And I think she liked the idea a little. But it never happened. We did, however, end up with the one song on So Damn Happy.

But that was my Aretha Franklin moment. Just sitting in the greatness of her playing and her being trusting enough to play those songs; to let us hang at her house and fix us lunch -- because she could also get down when it came to cooking. I still wonder what it would have been like to actually do a record centered around her playing. If you think about it, she never really did a record like that. Her singing was key, but it was also very much about her musicianship.

Harvey Mason Jr.’s credits include Whitney Houston, Chris Brown and the Pitch Perfect and Straight Outta Compton soundtracks. In addition to Franklin's in-the-works biopic with Jennifer Hudson, Mason worked with the Queen of Soul on other projects, including the singer’s 2014 album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. Here, he recalls a recording session with a multi-tasking Franklin.

Just to set up the picture, I was in the studio recording a vocal with Aretha. In between vocal takes, she was talking on the mic to her assistant, who was sitting on the couch behind me in the control room. Aretha would sing a little bit and then we’d stop recording. I heard Aretha say to her assistant, “Red potatoes, Lawry’s season salt.” I said, “OK, Aretha, let’s do one more try.” She sang the line again and then told her assistant, “Celery, bread crumbs.” I said, “Aretha, what are you doing? We’re recording a vocal.”

And she said, “Well, I’m putting together a grocery list for my assistant of the food that I’m going to cook tonight for Quincy [Jones]. It’s his birthday and I’m going to cook him a fabulous dinner.” I said, “That’s amazing. I love the kind of cooking you do. Can I come?” And she said, “Nope.” [Mason laughs loudly.]

Aretha was a great cook, a great piano player, a musicologist. She was up on Plato’s philosophies and into opera music. She was so many things, so well-rounded. People didn’t know that about her. There were just so many sides to Aretha. And that’s one of the things that made her so special.