The Four Tops' Ronnie McNeir Talks Writing a Tribute to Aretha Franklin Before She Passed - And What She Thought of It
When the Four Tops Ronnie McNeir heard Aretha Franklin was ailing, he didn't send a card or flowers.
Instead he wrote a song for her -- which Franklin liked so much she asked for it to be featured in the in-motion biopic about her.
McNeir was moved to write the two-part "Sister Ree" (half gospel-flavored tribute, half bluesy tune) after learning that the Queen of Soul would not be attending her annual holiday party, which she typically hired the Tops to play. "My mom died three years ago of pancreatic cancer," McNeir, who's been with the Tops since 1999, tells Billboard, "and I knew (Franklin) had to be bad when she didn't come to the (party). I knew her time was winding down. I said, 'Let me do something for her before she gets up out of here.' Everybody brings flowers or does tribute after a person is gone. I wanted to give her something NOW."
McNeir's song is a praise fest in which he talks about meeting Franklin when he was 19 and becoming friends. He sings, "Sister Ree, ain't no doubt about the reason why they crowned you The Queen/You've been an inspiration all over the world...And I'm so glad I got a chance to hear you sing for me." In the second part, titled "Sister Ree, Put Your Soul In Me," he concludes, "Hope you like it, Ree. I love you."
Franklin apparently did. A week after McNeir sent the song through Franklin's sister-in-law she called him and, according to McNeir, praised its "old school groove." "I said, 'Aretha, I did that because I miss you playing piano on your records. You don't play piano on your records anymore,'" McNeir recalls. "She said, 'This is so good, I'm gonna put this in my movie.' I just said, 'Well Ree, I hope you do get it in the movie, but I did this just for you.' For me to touch her like that, that the great Queen respects lil ol' me, was really special."
McNeir, in fact, says he and Franklin actually bonded over the years as piano players. "We're pretty cool with each other; Her playing was the bomb to me, and she used to love the way I played, too," he says. "She would hire me to play private parties for her."
McNeir will give "Sister Ree" its live premiere at the all-star A People's Tribute to the Queen concert on Aug. 30 at Detroit's Chene Park Amphitheatre, where the Four Tops will also perform. Next week he plans to release the song and an accompanying video via YouTube. The Franklin biopic, meanwhile, is still in motion and producer Harvey Mason Jr. has vowed to get it finished, with Jennifer Hudson as Franklin's hand-picked star. "I hope it gets made, and I hope they use my song," McNeir says. "I know it's about a year away, at least, so things could change. But I did what I had to do. I gave her my 'flowers.' (The song) was my flowers for her."