H.B. Barnum on 25 Years of Working With Aretha Franklin: 'As Many Fights As We Had, I Loved Her'

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Aretha Franklin photographed circa 1967. 

H.B. Barnum has worked with a few iconic singers during his career -- Frank Sinatra, Lou Rawls, Etta James, Little Richard, Gladys Knight...the list goes on (not to mention Count Basie). But the acclaimed producer, arranger and conductor also spent 25 years as Aretha Franklin's music director, the Queen of Soul's main man in putting bands together, arranging songs and set lists and making sure her regal visions were realized on the concert stage. Barnum, 82, stopped working with Franklin amicably in 2016, but he still thinks she was "the best singer I've ever heard, bar none," and like so many other he feels a deep personal loss in her passing last week. From his home near Los Angeles he spoke about his time with the Queen and his enduring love for her.

So how did you wind up as her music director?

King Curtis was one of my mentors. He always told me when he retired he was going to give me the gig. He had an untimely death, but I guess he had mentioned me to Cecil, Aretha's brother and manager. Cecil called me and said could I put a group together for a show she was doing out there. I said sure and put a band together and Cecil and I hit it off pretty good. She came back to a festival, Bud Fest or something like that and he called me again and said, "Could you put a band together?" and they just kept calling.

Had you met her prior to that?

I think we had met one time, very briefly. It was a casual meeting. I was working with Lou Rawls, and there was some place where our paths crossed. But we really didn't know each other.

What was she like to work with?

Oh, it was easy for me because it was fun. When you're a fan, it's nothing but a great honor to be working with somebody you admire so much. It gave me a chance to see my idol every night. I really felt like she was the best singer I've ever heard, bar none. I've been with a lot of good people, and I’m not putting them in second place, but she was just so superior. She was like Tiger Woods in gold; When he was at his best, nobody could touch him. So it worked out just fine.

What was your approach towards how she and her music should be presented on stage?

She and I always talked about it; I'd say, "Ms. Franklin, you're really working hard" and she said, "Well, people pay to see me and I want to give them my very best all the time" -- and she did even when she was a little ill or in bad voice. She'd come out there and she'd work, so that made everybody else come to attention. And she had people who had been with her a long time, especially her singers. And we had a strong rhythm section and we were able to network with horn players in the various places that we went.

How did the two of you decide what to play each night?

Prior to going out she might call and say, "Now H, I want to add such and such a song now. I want it to be great. I want it to be grand. I want it to be magnificent," and I said, "Oh, Ms. Re, I got you." She might send me a cassette tape of a song she wanted to do, too. But mainly a day before or maybe even the same day we'd sit together and she'd say, "OK, this is what we're gonna do. We're gonna open with this and we'll put this here and this here and then we'll do that," and I would go hand that out to everybody. Then she'd call me back and say, "Let's put this one here instead of that, and this year instead of that," and then I would pass it out to everybody again. And then right before we'd go on stage she'd say, "No, no, no, no -- I can't put those two songs together. Lemme change that and put this here" (laughs) and that's what we did. And then sometime son stage she'd say, "OK, skip that and put that one down near the end..." We carried a book of all the music she, 'cause she did not want to leave anything behind. So we had a book that at one time must've had 400 songs in it, some being the same song maybe in a different key or a different arrangement, a different ending. We were always prepared.

Was there a rhyme or reason to all that?

She just had an amazing gift of judging the crowds and pacing shows and everything. So it was not only an experience of playing with her but also it was a learning experience.

Talk a bit more about that improvisational aspect of the show. You usually had a large band to conduct. How were you able to pivot when she called an audible?

Well, (laughs) we had a good rhythm section, so there might be times during a show -- and I hope the audience never noticed this -- when I would have the whole band cut out and I would quietly say to the rhythm section, "We're gonna skip No. 13. We're gonna go to 'Ain't No Way'" or something. The band had to read my lips, and you could see guys shuffling the music, looking in the book. And the rhythm section would continue to play the song we were playing, she'd be singing and at some point we'd all come back in together on the new song or maybe even to end that song we were already playing. That was done a lot.

She was a pro. If she wanted to change a key in the middle of a song she'd back and up say, "H, bring that down a step" and while she's finishing the chorus I'd be talking to the band, "OK guys, when we get to letter E, Richard (Gibbs, pianist) is gonna take it down a half step." So we'd get to letter E and the band kind of fades out, Richard would do a little transition down into the key she wanted to be in and then everybody would come back in on the letter F. So it was cool.

A well-oiled machine, right?

Well, (laughs) she was a pro. When you're working with somebody you know, it's like a good team working together. You kind of know where everybody's going to be at what time. We all knew what are tendencies were, so instinct was good. With her it was always a surprise -- always a pleasant surprise. Very few times would she catch us unaware or not paying attention.

Did it ever just drive you crazy, though?

It was a good crazy. I was fired 15 times and probably quite eight or nine times -- but so what? The thing is when you get fired you don't get hired (back); You just get a call that says, "H, we're gonna be in Chicago Dec. 13" and I'm like, "Hey, wait a minute, I was fired two months ago. OK, Ms. Re, I'll see you there..." (laughs)

Were you given reasons or just fired.

Just fired. (laughs) Maybe the sound man did something wrong or maybe one of the musicians missed a note, and the buck always stops here at the conductor, so I would get the blame. It wasn't a thing we had to argue about; I just gave her a hug and went home. Sometimes I didn't know I was fired; If I didn't get a ticket to the next gig, then I knew I had been fired, and when I got hired again I would just get a ticket to the next gig, so I knew I was hired again. There's no problem. I loved her.

Did you have a favorite song or songs, ones you looked forward to hearing her sing every night?

Man, I don't have any favorite songs, but there were the things that I would like to do that she did anyway. She always put a gospel song in the show, and I mean a real gospel song, not a patsy song. She always went to church during the shows. Sometimes she wouldn't do a jazz number, like a swing number, and I would say, "Ms. Re, let's put in this or that, and she would say, "Nah, nah, not tonight" -- and then she might go on the stage and call it anyway! You had to be on your toes.

How about favorite gigs?

Well, of course. The Obama inauguration, that's in my book. When you got her (Presidential) Medal of Honor, that's gonna stand out, the trips to the White House. We did a show in Paris that was absolutely fantastic and filled with all kinds of drama, but fantastic.

The number of shows declined pretty steadily over the years.

I was a little disappointed, I guess, in the whole thing when she decided not to fly anymore because there were so many places around the world that wanted to see her and never got a chance to see the Queen. I told her, "You're not shortchanging them, you're shortchanging yourself because they have so much love they want to give you." I've been pretty much every place in the world, and the three people everybody knew were Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Aretha Franklin -- I’m talking about in the mountains of Tibet and Mongolia, Marrakesh, Morocco, in a cave where people were eating out of wooden bowls, there was no place they didn't know who she was or didn't know a song. Sometimes they didn't know her name but you'd sing a little bit of the song and they'd start singing right along with you. That was always exciting to me.

What happened that led her to decide not to fly?

I really don't know. I was on her last flight; We went to Paris to do a special there, and when we came home she just said, "I'm not gonna fly anymore. I'm gonna take a bus." We thought she was kidding at first, but then she didn't (fly) and throughout the years we tried so many ways to get her on a flight. Many times I went to Detroit and we walked out on the tarmac and she turned around and went back. She would call up and say, "H, how's a boat?" I said, "A boat is great, Ms. Franklin. We can take a trip over to Europe and sail." Then she decided she didn't want to go on a boat. We decided we were gonna go on a train ride at one time because I thought that would be more comfortable to her than a car, but then there was a train wreck somewhere in Tennessee so that killed the train ride.

Did she cook for you?

Oh yeah -- and I cooked for her, too. I made my Tasmanian mousse-mousse.

Who was better?

(laughs) Well, y'know...she can sing, but no way in the world Aretha can cook better than me!

When did you last speak with her?

About five months ago, just called to say "How you doing?," that's all.

How big a loss is this -- for you and for the world?

For me, I can't tell you what a loss it is -- and not the loss of the artist, 'cause the music speaks for itself, but the loss of the person. Aretha did so many things people don't even know about. I've seen her write a check to somebody she didn't even know 'cause she just saw something on CNN or the news or something. She wasn't a rabble-rouser at marches in the street, but she did a lot to make social changes. I believe musicians are philosophers and the music and poetry always forecast what's going to happen in society, but there were so many things that people don't know that she did behind the scenes -- people like Aretha or Nat King Cole or Redd Foxx -- that allowed other people to continue what they did. So my loss is a personal loss, and it's heavy. I'm happy that she didn't suffer a lot; I talked to a couple of people who were with her at her bedside and they said she was smiling. God knows best, and we have to just accept that. We won't know for a number of years, probably, what a great loss it is.

We're certainly getting a sense of it during the past week, though.

Y'know, I'm so proud so far of the news for just telling it like it is and not trying to do a lot of dirt and stuff. People have a lot of stories about Aretha; They're not always favorable, but she was part of our fabric, of our country's fabric and the world's fabric, and I want people to remember her like that. We need to remember the words of "Respect," especially right now. And I'm gonna tell you that as many fights as we had, I just loved her to death and I think she loved me, too, and that's all that's important.