Clive Davis on Billboard Women in Music Honoree Aretha Franklin: ‘There Are No Pretenders to the Throne’

Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment
Aretha Franklin recording in December 1964 at Columbia Records' Studio A in New York.

The chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment writes about the enduring appeal of the Billboard Women in Music Icon honoree.

Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul. It’s not the totality of who she is -- beneath her cool exterior is a remarkably warm-hearted person -- but it is a very big part of her. There are no pretenders to the throne, and she didn’t get there by accident.

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Even after winning 18 Grammy Awards and landing 100 songs on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, she still sees herself as a working woman. She’s very much involved in her touring schedule, she’s the final determinant of what songs she does in concert, and she’s the most prepared singer I’ve ever worked with: I’ve never known her to do more than three takes in the studio.

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She is also capable of brilliant spontaneity. In 1998, with less than a half-hour’s notice, Aretha filled in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti, who was supposed to sing ­Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammys. The tenor canceled with so little notice that Aretha had to sing the aria in his key, since that’s how the orchestra rehearsed it. She listened to Pavarotti’s performance on a boombox, then confidently walked onstage and knocked the audience off its feet. I can’t think of anyone else who could do that. 

I also can’t think of anyone who owns a song the way Aretha does. When she performed at Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration, she chose “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, and at the song’s high point, unexpectedly changed the lyric to “I had a dream” to reference Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Even when she sings another artist’s work -- like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” -- she hits the highs and the lows in a way that makes the song her own. That’s why the great Otis Redding conceded that Aretha had made his “Respect” her signature song. That’s why Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics is a concept album, not a covers album. And that’s why centuries from now, when people are studying the music of our time, they will still be talking about Aretha Franklin.

Clive Davis is the Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music Entertainment and the executive produicer of Aretha Frankling Sings the Great Diva Classics.

As told to Frank DiGiacomo.

This article first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of Billboard.


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