Although she signed to Columbia Records in 1960, Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough did not come until 1967, when she moved over to Atlantic and released I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) in March of that year, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on Top R&B Albums. And when it did arrive, she wasn't entirely ready for all the attention. Franklin never got the media training fellow Detroit artists like Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson underwent at Motown, at the behest of the label’s famed founder, Berry Gordy Jr.
While it was a virtually unheard-of recognition for any African-American entertainer of the day, her June 1968 TIME magazine cover story made her even more wary of the press, creating a distrust that lasted decades: The story dug into her then-rocky marriage with husband/manager Ted White, detailing physical abuse and portraying a woman for whom music was the one place she could find solace from whatever personal problems she was facing. Going forward, she was often guarded answering questions on camera, replying with a polite “yes” or “no.”
My early experiences with Aretha -- first in 1965, as a teenage fan writing to her from England, care of her father’s church in Detroit, shockingly receiving a letter in return; and then in 1966, becoming the first person in the U.K. to ever speak with her on the phone -- established a rapport that transcended Aretha’s typical relationship with the media. When I eventually became a professional music journalist, I interviewed her at least 15 times (for various publications) over the course of 41 years.
I had my first face-to-face conversations with Aretha in London, when she performed in Europe in 1968 and 1970. Once I moved to the U.S. as the chief correspondent for Britain’s Blues & Soul magazine in 1975, we would see each other mostly at her shows. But it was only during a sit-down interview at her two-story home in Encino, Calif. in the summer of 1978 that she began to show a marked openness in her responsiveness to my questions on a variety of topics.
We sat on a wide sofa in the living room. Aretha -- then newly-married to actor Glynn Turman -- seemed relaxed and comfortable. She politely asked if her smoking bothered me before we launched into a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation touching on everything from the assumed autographical nature of some of her recordings -- (“People may think that they're personal but that's up to them. It doesn't stop me from writing because I still feel comfortable doing that regardless of what people may see in the songs”) to the music she listened to on the radio (“Barry White, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Rufus, The Emotions, the Four Tops -- I love them! Earth, Wind & Fire, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. And there are people who are friends -- like Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and Stevie [Wonder]”), to one topic I knew to be sensitive -- her choice of onstage wardrobe.
When I asked how much input she had in choosing her outfits, there was a distinct change in atmosphere as Aretha stiffened up in the chair, for the first time taking on a more defensive stance. “Most of what I wear I select myself,” she said. “You can't please everybody, and as long as I'm comfortable with what I wear, I think that's what's important. Occasionally, maybe one of my family will tell me if they don't like something but that's rare!” I switched the subject to the impersonations of other female artists (Mavis Staples, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick) that she’d begun including in her live shows, and she immediately lightened up.
Two years later, I met her again at the Encino house. She was anxious to share her newly-recorded first album for Arista Records prior to its release -- but perhaps even more eager to share her renowned peach cobbler, which I’d already told her I expected to taste. “I didn't forget, David!” Aretha said with a grin, offering me a bowl. And in the ensuing years, Aretha revealed to me more of her warm sense of humor and quick wit. In 1985, we spoke at her home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Aretha -- at the time, single -- opened up about how men often felt intimidated by her. “I’m really an old-fashioned girl -- I like to be romanced,” she revealed. “I’ve met my share of guys who have insulted and assaulted my intelligence with their stories and games. I say hello and goodbye! I like a man who can rise to the occasion!" The double-entendre made me chuckle, but when I asked her if I could print the quote, her response was a ready “Sure!”
My memories of Aretha aren't confined to interviews. There was the time we boogied at a party held in her honor in New York after a victorious performance at Radio City Music Hall. In later years, she’d speculate on possible eligible bachelors among the fellow entertainers and media personalities she encountered, asking my advice. Sometimes, she’d call from Detroit out of the blue simply to say, "Hey, David! What’s the 411? What’s the gossip around L.A.?"
Our last full phone interview happened in 2014, on the occasion of the release of her album Sings The Great Diva Classics album. As always, Aretha had me laughing out loud. Speaking about Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” (which she’d memorably cover), she told me, “After I heard the song, I said, ‘You better not cross Adele...she's not having it!’" In November 2016, I texted her before a trip to Detroit, and she asked me to bring her “something from Harrod’s,” the famed London department store she had visited herself back in the late ‘60s. We didn't get to meet up at the time -- but what was ultimately our final conversation reminded me of what a natural woman she always truly was.