Michelle Williams on How Aretha Franklin Inspired Her: 'Aretha Never Had to Pick' Between Gospel and R&B

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Aretha Franklin performs at the inaugural gala for U.S. President Bill Clinton in Washington D.C. on Jan. 19, 1993.

In the wake of Aretha Franklin’s death from pancreatic cancer at age 76 on Thursday (Aug. 16), singer Michelle Williams tells Billboard about how Franklin's careers in both secular and gospel music helped her find her voice as she was getting started in Destiny's Child. As told to Nolan Feeney.

When I’m around folks like Aretha, school is in session. When we both performed at the White House in 2015, I literally sat Indian-style in the back. I didn’t want my original seat. I was like, “Aretha Franklin is here, get my books and my pencil and my notepad.” Her voice is everything. She is everything. I’m not even ready to say she was everything — I can’t bring myself to say anything past tense about her yet. 

I remember when I first got in Destiny’s Child, a childhood friend of mine — music producer James “Big Jim” Right, who has done some producing for Aretha — made me this CD of music I should be listening to. On that CD was so much Aretha Franklin. He said, “Watch how she gets in the pocket of the song, how she grooves. Just study her.” At the time, I didn’t know if my voice was radio friendly — it’s not that crystal-clear pop voice — and Aretha gave me some confidence. She grew up in the church, and she would always be herself, whether she was singing or hollering. She inspired me to own my unique voice: Whoever likes it likes it, and whoever doesn’t, it’s okay.

I learned so much from the way she let the spirit take over. I love that whether she was in the White House or Madison Square Garden, you were going to get the same type of show. I tell people all the time, “I don’t care if I’m performing for 20 people or 2,000, you’re going to get the same energy.” And you learn that from legends like Aretha Franklin. 

When I was a child, my dad probably had a thousand records on vinyl, and I remember the Amazing Grace gospel album vividly. People have always said to me, “Michelle, how can you do secular and gospel music?” And when they do, I start naming the greats: Aretha, Sam Cooke, Whitney Houston — all the people that I love. Yes, Aretha was the Queen of Soul, but she made sure to go back to her church roots. People in gospel who did not want me to continue R&B always said, “Pick a side.” But Aretha never had to pick a side. And I can only imagine how many times she cussed out people who tried!

I got to interact with her at that White House concert, and she was just so down-to-earth. I don't fan out around someone I admire, but I make it a point to look them in the eye and tell them how much I love them, honor them, respect them and appreciate them while they're here. I make sure to do that to every artist I look up to when I see them. It’s not just taking advantage of the moment or trying to be seen talking to a celebrity — I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

I don’t remember exactly what Aretha said when I told her that, but I remember her laughing. She was like, “Girl, I heard you out there carrying on!” I said, “I was just trying to take the folks to church, Ms. Franklin!” That moment was quick, but I will never forget it — it meant so much just to hear her say, I heard you.

Last year, I took part in a tribute to Aretha Franklin with the American Pops Orchestra. I sang “I Say a Little Prayer” and also “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Women,” which I put in the diva medley I do in my live show. Aretha was ill — we did this in September, and her last performance was in November — so we knew she wasn’t going to be able to travel to see us. But I just stood there and said to myself, “Imagine you’re that girl singing at church, and then just let it go — stay true to the melody and channel your inner Aretha as much as you always have.”