With Wexler and gold records in 1967.
With Wexler and gold records in 1967.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

How Aretha Franklin Took Care of Business (And Where Her Estate Stands Now)

by Gail Mitchell, Melinda Newman
August 23, 2018, 3:58pm EDT

In 2015, Aretha Franklin delivered one of her most indelible performances, singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in tribute to the song’s co-writer, Carole King, at the Kennedy Center Honors. Before starting -- and bringing a jubilant King and a teary President Obama to their feet -- the singer did something she had done on countless stages before: nonchalantly tossed her purse (here, a sparkly clutch) on the piano. The move spoke volumes about how the singer took care of business.

It’s well known that Franklin, who died Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer, demanded to be paid in cash, partly because she came up in an era when African-American artists were routinely ripped off by white promoters. “Aretha would put her reading glasses on her nose and she would be there while you counted out” the money, recalls Empire Entertainment’s JB Miller, who hired Franklin for numerous private and corporate gigs starting in the 1990s. “The purse would always make it onstage.”

And after the show, “you had your audience with her backstage as she paid everyone” -- the band, backing singers and so on -- in cash, recalls Narada Michael Walden, who in addition to producing Franklin’s 1985 Grammy-winning smash, “Freeway of Love,” occasionally played drums in her band.

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.

“When you have two longtime industry people like Dick and Ruthie, who are very savvy, you really don’t need a manager,” Franklin told Billboard in 2003. Along the way, Franklin also established Crown Productions, which handled bookings for herself and her sons Teddy and Kecalf.

With White, she created 14th Hour Music (BMI), which published Franklin-White compositions like “Think” and “Dr. Feelgood.” Her songwriting portfolio also includes the hits “Day Dreaming,” “Ain’t No Way” and “Rock Steady.” After her 1969 divorce, Franklin launched Springtime Publishing (BMI). She also retained ownership of select masters from her later Atlantic years, a rarity for artists in 1978, when she parted ways with the label.

“Respect,” the Otis Redding song that Franklin revamped in 1967, became her first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and signature hit. It also took on a special significance in the music industry, as a rallying cry for performing artists seeking royalties for airplay. Under copyright law, only publishers and songwriters -- not performers -- are paid for spins of songs recorded before 1972. The 2014 Respect Act, which proposed changes to the law, has been folded into the Music Modernization Act currently before Congress.

Like any legend, Franklin leaves behind numerous ongoing projects, including a Warner Music U.K. two-CD/vinyl singles package due in September  with liner notes written by soulmusic.com founder and former Billboard contributor David Nathan.

 The fabled Sydney Pollack documentary companion to Amazing Grace, her seminal 1972 live gospel album, remains in legal limbo after Franklin spent years blocking its release. “We look forward to sharing the film with the world soon,” the documentary’s owner, Alan Elliott, said in a statement following her death.

Franklin told Billboard last summer that she planned to record a new album featuring collaborations with Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Lionel Richie. “We’d been talking about songs and people she wanted to collaborate with, but we hadn't begun recording,” says songwriter/ producer Harvey Mason Jr., who worked with Franklin on various projects including her 2014 RCA album Aretha Franklin Sings the Diva Classics. 

Mason is, however, co-producing a biopic on Franklin’s life, starring Jennifer Hudson, and says preproduction for the theatrical release is underway. “I spent countless hours on the phone with Aretha as she talked about how she wanted to be portrayed…Certain things that other people didn't know, that weren't on the Internet or in a book, that’s what she was sharing with me and Jennifer.”

Franklin’s death doesn't mean the yet-untitled biopic will be rushed to theaters. “We’re not trying to push this out right away,” adds Mason, who will also be helming the film’s soundtrack. “We’re going to continue to develop the story and make sure it’s as legendary as she was.”

Posthumous projects should not be hurried, agrees Jampol Artist Management’s Jeff Jampol, whose firm handles the estates of Redding, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. He estimates that Franklin’s legacy could be worth as much as $1 billion, based on “the recordings, the publishing, the goodwill, the name and likeness and her value around the world.” (Franklin reportedly did not leave a will, which means a court will need to determine her heirs.)

He emphasizes that authenticity and credibility are paramount to nourishing a life’s work. “I don’t think there’s anything that needs to be done immediately,” he says. “You have to handle these things respectfully.” When it came to the dangers of music-industry exploitation, Franklin never let her guard down. The stewards of her legacy would do well to keep it like she kept her purse -- in full view at all times.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 25 issue of Billboard.