Mitch Ryder Reflects on the Loss of Fellow Detroit Legend Aretha Franklin

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Aretha Franklin

Following Aretha Franklin's death on Aug. 16, fellow Detroit legend Mitch Ryder spoke to Billboard about his memories of the Queen of Soul, including the time she almost covered one of his songs. As told to Gary Graff.

I met her in New York a long time ago, when I was a star (laughs). They were in the same building we were in, Atlantic Records, and I had recorded a song called "Takin' All I Can Get" and I was told Aretha was considering doing a cover of that song herself, based on my performance. She ended up not doing it but I was introduced to her.

And to show you how fucked up I was...Here's Aretha Franklin, and I didn't think it was a life-changing moment being introduced to her. I was having hits. I just blew it off. It was just stupid teenage or young adult arrogance. At that point I should really have dug in and gotten to understand her but, y'know, she was from Detroit, I was from Detroit, I just thought we'd meet again. Plus we were working in the same building. We were equals; Why should I be in awe of this person? When all along I should have been.

I'll give you a good example; One of my hit records, "Sock It To Me, Baby," we got out of the tail end of the chorus of "Respect" when the background singers are going "sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me." I was doing the Murray the K show in New York when "Respect" came out and we were listening to it and my manager said, "Let's make a song about that," and it worked out. So I owe here more than just a casual hello. There's a lot of things in my life I can point to that were the result of her being Aretha.

I never really did get to sit down with her, other than that casual hello in New York City 50-plus years ago, but that doesn't mean I wasn't affected. I was affected more as a fan than anything else, and by what she was capable of as a singer. She could go for these indescribably beautiful notes and twists of melody without breaking a sweat. She never had to struggle for it...and if she did, nobody knew about it and I’m sure she wasn't going to tell anybody. She could go an octave and a half up in a split second; Most people would have to at least have to rev their engines up to get on that starting line, but she just jumped. It was spontaneous notes that I couldn't even fathom being reached by a mortal human, just really incredible stuff.

I felt like the last few years she's been struggling to appease her fans. There's no reason on Earth she could or should've been out there doing what she was. If I was in her shoes I'd probably be reclining somewhere, not worrying about pleasing the fans anymore when her future was so clear to her. But her being who she is, she was "Yeah, I'm gonna cut back on my touring," but never saying, "I'm done. I'm finished. It's over." That was never in her vocabulary.

There's a void there I don't think will be recaptured by any singular artist. I've watched other female artists come and go and some getting very close, but nobody ever had that fire she had. Some of them are just as skilled and quite talented, but they didn't have that magic she had. And she resonated with so many different people in different places around the world. You've got to be a superstar to get up there, and that's what she was.