Don Was on the Record He Nearly Made With Aretha Franklin: 'She Had More Chops Than Anybody'
During his high school years, Don Was was a youth in Detroit dancing to Aretha Franklin albums before he became a Grammy Award-winning producer and the president of Blue Note Records. He finally crossed paths with the Queen of Soul just a few years ago, and he tells us about the projects that never came to be but led to a rewarding relationship with her.
I was at Sound Suite (Studios) in the '80s when Luther (Vandross) did her vocals for Jump To It. We were doing Was (Not Was) at night and she was in during the day. At one point -- now, they do it professionally, but you used to make a pop screen for the microphone out of lady's stockings. So (Franklin) sacrificed one of her stockings, and we kept it at the studio. (laughs)
In October of 2013 Clive Davis summoned Babyface and me to Detroit to meet with Aretha about doing this Greatest Diva Songs album. Aretha set it up to meet in a hotel in [the Detroit suburb of] Southfield. It was supposed to be a meeting but she made it a press conference and she got confused about the date and scheduled it for the day before. She called Kenny and said, "Where are you guys?" "That's tomorrow." So she went ahead and did the press conference and then invited them all back the next day.
So we took the red eye in and I got to the hotel about six in the morning and I'm lying in bed and I put on the local news and they cover Aretha's press conference, and at one point she's talking about the record we're going to make and she turns to the camera and says, "And Don Was, you better bring your Grammy game to Detroit!" I'm lying in bed and Aretha Franklin is admonishing me! It was the trippiest moment of my life.
Then we had the meeting and it was in front of TV crews and stuff. She sat down at the piano and she was going through the list of songs Clive had suggested. I was sitting, like, two or three feet away, and the first song she played was (Barbra Streisand's) "People," and I started crying like a baby. It was just Aretha playing the piano, and it was so beautiful. She was just magnificent. She had that thing. She had more chops than anybody, but she never abused it. You can turn on the radio now and hear people with all kinds of chops -- not as good as Aretha, but all kinds of chops and just technique for the sake of technique, and I don't think she ever wasted it like that. It was always technique in the name of the truth with her, and you never get that combination anymore. That's why she's one of a one. She used that technique to such honest advantage.
It was great, the greatest day. I didn't end up making the record but I tried again a couple years later. I tried to sign her to Blue Note. What I wanted to do from just that (previous) experience was make an old fashioned Aretha record where she plays piano and sings and there's a bass player and maybe a drummer and that's it.
And we became quite friendly. I was texting with Aretha Franklin all the time, and she was always lovely. I couldn't believe I was texting with Aretha Franklin; I remember turning to my kids, "Look at this!" We were just texting about songs and music. She knew a great song from a good song and she would not settle. She texted me one time, she said, "Can you get Nelly to write a song for me?" 'cause she heard something of Nelly's she liked. She was great.
The lawyers couldn't make the deal and it didn't happen. Now I just think I should've done it and not waited for the lawyers and we'd have figured the rest out later.