Aretha Franklin

Al Sharpton, Fantasia and Babyface Share Personal Aretha Franklin Stories

Franklin's famous friends -- from creative collaborators like Babyface and Jermaine Dupri to fellow vocalists like Peabo Bryson and thought leaders like Rev. Al Sharpton -- recall stories of the singular friend and artist they knew so well.   

Babyface, producer-singer

I was fortunate enough to do one show with her up in Oakland, Calif., probably in 2016. I remember coming offstage and going back to see her and her saying, “You was killing them out there, ’Face! I had to come out here and see what was going on!” And then we sat and talked for a little bit. She was actually dealing with the cancer, and her attitude was, “I’m not going to let this beat me. I’m going to keep fighting this. I’m going to fight until the very last minute and keep doing what I do.” Even up to the point of that night, we talked about this guy she was starting to see. She gave me the story of what happened and wanted to get my advice on if he was for real or if he was foolish. [Later], we talked on the phone, and she said, “By the way, you was right about that guy. He didn’t do enough for me.” This was her at 74 years old. There’s no question that she lived her life all the way.    

Detroit Free Press via ZUMA Wire
Babyface (left), Franklin and producer Don Was in 2013.

Jermaine Dupri, producer

I’d met Aretha a couple of times in passing before I got a chance to work with her [on her 1998 album, A Rose Is Still a Rose], but I didn't know exactly what to expect. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous, because I had heard a lot of stories -- she was the Queen of all queens.

I was expecting her to be late, but she was on time. She came to the studio in Detroit with one or two people, and she came to work. She came with Chinese barbecue food, and we talked about that for a second, and that’s when she told me, “Let’s get to the song; I ain’t got long. I’m going to give you a few takes, and then I’m going to go home. I got food cooking.” She let me know that she had left food on her stove at home.

She did “Here We Go Again” all the way down five or six times, and it was basically perfect to me. I heard a couple of things I wanted to fix, and I think she heard those things as well because she seemed like she was waiting for me to correct her. There was a moment in the studio where she thought she didn't hit a good note and actually said, “So, are you going to produce me? If you’re not going to produce me, then I’m going to go home.” I’m sitting there like, “It’s Aretha Franklin! What can I tell her?” But I realized that no matter who I’m in the studio with, no matter how big they are, if they ask me to come into the studio with them, they want me to be the way that I am with all the other artists. She broke me out of my bubble.

Peabo Bryson, singer

Conversations with Aretha, they’d only last about four minutes. Four-and-a-half minutes is a long conversation with her. She’d just randomly ring you up; go, “I was reading this, and I thought of you”; and she’d read me several paragraphs and give me her take. I’d give her my take, and we’d decide who had the most comprehensive take. And then suddenly, right in the middle, she would say, “OK, bye!” You would sit there with the phone in your hand, and you’d go, “OK. The Queen has left the building.”   

Bobby Bank/WireImage
Bryson performed with Franklin in 2010.

Fantasia Barrino, singer

I was able to sing for her when they were honoring her [at a 2007 tribute concert] at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, which is actually where I won American Idol. I was stupid nervous because I was the little girl that was listening to Aretha. My first cassette was Aretha Franklin.

They took us downstairs [after the show], and I remember the door opening, and I just burst out crying as she came in. She walked around the room gracefully, as Aretha would do -- very smooth. She shook hands, gave people one or two words and kept it moving. She finally gets to me, and she looks at me -- I’m still crying. And she said, “You can sing -- but I’m the bitch around here.” I’m thinking, “Wait a minute! That’s not what I was ready for!” But she was serious. She said it, and I said, “Yes, ma’am.” And I understood exactly what she was saying because she was that in my life, for me. There will never, ever be another Aretha Franklin. That’s what she was letting me know: “You’re good, but always know, I’m the head chick.” And that’s what it is.

Lester Cohen/WireImage
Barrino with Franklin at the 2008 MusiCares Person of the Year honors.

H.B. Barnum, longtime music director

I was fired 15 times and probably quit eight or nine. Maybe the sound man did something wrong, or maybe one of the musicians missed a note, but the buck always stops 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 get a ticket to the next gig. You just get a call that says, “H, we’re going to be in Chicago Dec. 13,” and I’m like, “Hey, wait a minute, I was fired two months ago! ... OK, Miss Re, I’ll see you there.” [Laughs.] So what? There’s no problem. I loved her.

Franklin with Barnum during sound check for a Los Angeles show in 2012.

Mavis Staples, singer

My memories of having Aretha around the house [in Chicago, where Staples’ mother often hosted traveling entertainers] is that she would get upset that we didn't have a piano. She was a piano lady. I told her, “Well, Aretha, we have plenty of guitars.” And she would say, “Mavis, get out of my face -- you know I don’t play no guitar!”

Tavis Smiley, radio host/author

If she didn't like you, she didn't like you. But if she loved you, she loved you hard. I feel so fortunate that she let me in. Everybody has been talking about how private she was, how she didn't tell anybody about her illness. But it depends on how you define “private.” She was private about telling you her business, but when you dissect her music, you can feel what her journey was like: Aretha would talk about disappointment, heartbreak, happiness. Aretha wanted to share her truth with us on her own terms. At dinners, we talked about everything. She was not vocal about her political positions in the way that many people are these days, but you knew whom she supported by where she showed up. She was one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorites -- whenever King called for her, she showed up. She was always performing at events to raise money for the movement. She showed up at Obama’s inauguration and Clinton’s inauguration. She wasn't a political talking head, but she loved talking politics. We’re not sitting around talking about songs and notes and bars -- she lived a full life! If you raised a subject, she had an opinion on it.

The most fun was sitting with her, eating and laughing. I don’t think people realize how hilariously funny she was. She loved watching silly movies over and over again. If you talked to her on any given occasion, she would start pulling scenes from movies. She’d make a Tyler Perry Madea reference -- she loved doing that Madea voice: “Good mornting!” She really loved comedy.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
Smiley and Franklin attended a basketball game together in 2011.

Rev. Al Sharpton

When most people hear the name Aretha Franklin, they automatically think of her remarkable career in music and entertainment. But what most do not realize is that the Queen of Soul dedicated much of her time, money and efforts toward advancing civil rights and human rights. There are superstars, and then there are humanitarians --  Aretha somehow encapsulated both.

In the 1960s, when the revered Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was facing significant hurdles and some financial challenges, Aretha teamed up with another musical and philanthropic icon, Harry Belafonte, and toured cities doing fundraising concerts for Dr. King. Such selfless actions wouldn't appear unusual if you knew that her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was the most prolific black minister of a generation, a close friend and co-activist with Dr. King, and spearheaded the massive Detroit March for Justice, which led to the historic March on Washington in August of 1963.

I got to know Aretha very well. I was invited to her birthday parties and Christmas parties, and she came to my birthday parties and gatherings. She remained authentically a church person, a person committed to social justice and civil rights, well-read and of course well-rounded. You felt as if you were in the presence of royalty around her, without all of the pretension -- and you were.

Michael Stewart/Getty Images
Sharpton celebrated Franklin’s 70th  birthday with her in New York in 2012.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 25 edition of Billboard.