Franklin was as exacting with her performance contracts as she was with her music. They had to accommodate two major challenges: her fear of flying and her 20- to 30-person entourage. Her willingness to only travel by bus and her health issues later in life limited her earning power. Franklin never landed on Forbes’ highest-paid celebrities list, with the magazine estimating her annual income in the low seven figures.
Since 2015, Franklin reported only six concerts to Billboard Boxscore, with an average per-show gross of $304,689. Among bus rental, gas, hotel rooms and per diems, moving Franklin and her entourage accounted for $50,000 to $100,000 in expenses alone, according to producer Michael Levitt, who worked with her on several events. “If you wanted Aretha on your show, her terms were nonnegotiable. It was her way, or no way,” says Levitt. But “Aretha was worth it. She always delivered, and it always seemed effortless on her part.”
Franklin didn't suffer fools lightly, Levitt says, but she held herself to high standards as well. “Aretha was late for rehearsal [for Bill Clinton’s 50th birthday party] and when she arrived, she blamed me for not getting her the [rehearsal] information. I tried to explain that we sent a packet with all the call times to her and her team. She wasn't having it and put me in my place. To get the wrath of Aretha Franklin was pretty devastating,” Levitt says. “The next day she arrived for the show run-through. Her bodyguard came up to me and said ‘Ms. Franklin would like to speak to you.’ I was anticipating part two of the wrath. [Instead], she said “Young man, I am so sorry. When I returned to my hotel last night, I discovered that you did indeed send over the proper information and for that, I owe you an apology.’ I truly appreciated that she cared enough to right that wrong. I mean, how many people can say they received an apology from the Queen of Soul?”
To avoid such misunderstandings, Franklin would often phone ahead herself to work out details. “There would be this fog: You wouldn't know when she was coming in, how she was coming in, where she was staying,” says Miller. “Then, usually within 24 to 48 hours [before the event], you’d get a call from Aretha, and it would always be about something like making sure there’s no air-conditioning on. That was a big thing of hers…People that don’t know how to work with artists like that might get really intimidated and go, ‘Oh, she was a diva and threatened not to perform,’ but she cared a lot about the performance and she wanted it to be great. It was always an interesting road to get there.”
Franklin business style paralleled the singer’s creative approach musically as her career took shape. “Early on … I wasn't thinking about the business side of things, getting credits as a producer or arranger,” Franklin told Billboard in 2003. “But you learn from trial and error and sometimes people in the business are not going to tell you too much.”
In the last three decades, Franklin piloted her own career. She had only two managers: her first husband, Theodore “Ted” White, from the early ’60s until their 1969 divorce; and then her brother, Rev. Cecil Franklin, until his death in 1989. Ruth Bowen, of Queen Booking, was the one constant throughout most of Franklin’s career. A trailblazer in her own right as the first black female booking agent, Bowen signed Franklin in 1962. In addition to Bowen, who died in 2009, now-retired WME agent Dick Alen, with whom she signed in 1979, was a key member of Franklin’s camp.