The Queen is on the move. Aretha Franklin is in her home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the affluent northern suburb of Detroit, with suitcases and travel bags piled around her. It is a balmy, late-winter day, but Franklin is getting ready to head south. Although she says that these days she is ”semiretired,” she has a concert scheduled in North Carolina, along with a birthday party in Florida. On March 25, she turns 74.
There is, however, more than a birthday to celebrate. This year marks six decades since Franklin’s first recordings (released later on the album Songs of Faith), a set of gospel hymns recorded live at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church, where her father, the late Rev. Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin, had gained national prominence as a preacher.
For Franklin, those recordings began a career that has been iconic — and titanic. “The Queen of Soul” moniker, bestowed in the mid-1960s by Chicago DJ Pervis Spann, has been well-earned during the past six decades.
Signed in 1960 to Columbia Records by John Hammond, the legendary record producer who had sparked the careers of artists from Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, Franklin had her first, modest top 40 hit 55 years ago (“Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”). She found her chart-topping success only after moving to Atlantic Records in 1966, collaborating with producer Jerry Wexler, engineer Tom Dowd and arranger Arif Mardin.
Her voice became a force on the airwaves but also in concert halls and at civil rights rallies. Franklin was so identified with the cause that she sang at the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
For her involvement in racial and social issues, Franklin was honored in 1969 by the NAACP and, in 2005, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush for “meritorious contribution” to the United States. More recently, she has offered support for gospel musicians in her hometown of Detroit and pledged funds for residents in Flint, Mich., after the lead contamination of its water supply.
Music accolades, of course, also have stacked up through the years. Franklin has won 18 Grammy Awards while selling 8.8 million albums during the Nielsen Music era. She has charted 73 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, the most of any female artist and the ninth-most of all artists, including such pop/R&B anthems as “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think” and “Freeway of Love.”
In 1967, she released the definitive version of Gerry Goffin and Carole King‘s “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” Then in December, during King’s recognition at the Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin gave a surprise performance of “Natural Woman” that left King gasping in delight and President Barack Obama wiping tears from his eyes. The moment, onstage, when she shed her fur coat and soared into the song’s final chorus brought the cheering audience to its feet and created a social media sensation.
Clearly, the crown still rests comfortably on The Queen of Soul’s head. After surgery for an undisclosed illness in 2010, she made a comeback in 2014 with Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. The twice-married mother of four, now single, offered her versions of hits originally recorded by other female stars, including Adele‘s “Rolling in the Deep.” Franklin’s rendition has been viewed 4.4 million times on YouTube.
If Franklin has her way — “I have my physical regimen, my diet, rest and all that” — she will be ready to talk about the 80th anniversary of her first recordings, with her bags still packed and ready to go.
People online are still viewing your remarkable performance for Carole King at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Of course, Carole didn’t know I was coming — that’s one of the reasons she was so excited. I was afraid for her, almost falling out of the balcony; there’s no railing up there. But what a magnificent night. I would put it in the top three in my career, and I’ve had some great moments onstage. And in my semiretirement it’s very, very rewarding when you get that kind of response.
You made President Obama tear up with that performance. What was it like to sing at his first inauguration in 2009?
Phenomenal. Just masses of people, no matter what direction you looked. I just wish I could’ve stayed backstage a little longer because it was freezing out there. Colin Powell gave me some hand warmers; I took those and sat on them.
Among your other major appearances in recent years was the 2014 Billboard Women in Music event, where you received the Icon of the Year honor. You shared the stage with Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Idina Menzel, Jessie J, Charlie XCX and Hayley Williams. How do you view today’s artists?
Someone was talking to me about that recently, the difference between the younger artists today and our generation. I think you have a lot of really good artists today. You have your Beyoncé, Usher, Nicki Minaj and the like. But our generation, the artists were stronger. You’re talking about myself, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Gladys Knight, The Temptations, The Four Tops.
We came up a little different than the hip-hoppers today. They kind of have everything laid out for them. They’ve got the Internet now. They’ve got social media and video — everything that we didn’t have. All we really had was our craft and word-of-mouth and press. That’s it. We didn’t have the overnight [promotional] tools they have today.
Are you a social media user?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t be without Google, and I love Facebook.
You gave a compliment to one young artist by recording ”Rolling in the Deep.” What advice can you offer to Adele?
Just to take her time. She clearly knows what she wants. She’s a very good writer. She’s a women’s artist; she writes and touches on things that [resonate] with women. I think she should just keep doing what she’s doing.
When it comes to women in the music industry, sexual harassment is, and always has been, a hot topic. How much of that did you have to deal with?
I never had any problems like that. Men have always been gentlemen to me — responsible people with healthy attitudes.
They probably know that it is unwise to mess with The Queen of Soul, too.
Well, I do have a good right. (Laughs.)
Looking back at the start of your career, does it feel like 60 years have passed since your first recordings?
(Laughs.) I would think maybe 35, something like that. I’m 73, but I feel like I’m in my 50s. I [stay in] good shape for the concerts. The 70s are the new 50s, you know.
I’m not making a big deal out of 60 or 74 or any of that. You just try to stay in great shape, and you can do it as long as you would like to.
Do you still own a copy of Songs of Faith?
Of course I do! I don’t recall everything that was on that album, but I have everything I’ve ever recorded.
Talk about how singing became your life’s passion.
I was influenced by the great [gospel singer] Clara Ward. She was one of my mentors, and I would see her at our church. She and Mahalia [Jackson], who was a family friend as well. They were different kinds of singers. But I guess I enjoyed Clara so much that I decided that’s what I wanted to do. We used to have gospel programs at our church after the regular Sunday morning service.
Sam Cooke later influenced your move from spiritual songs to secular music, correct?
Sam Cooke had a huge influence on me. He left the gospel field at one point and went into the secular, and he had this huge hit, “You Send Me.” Irma, my older sister, and I heard “You Send Me” on the radio while we were driving through the South one night. We had to stop the car. We got out and danced around the car out on the highway.
But after hearing Sam, I wondered if I could sing secular and be as successful as he had been. I talked to my dad about it, and he said if that was what I wanted to do, by all means, he would support me.
You’re still active in showcasing gospel talent at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where your father preached. Do you feel a personal mission to nurture gospel music?
Gospel is something that should stay alive in the community, yes. People need that kind of spiritual uplifting and strength today because economics are so bad. People are losing their homes and can’t pay their mortgages. There are all kinds of terrible things going on.
So I bring in the best in gospel music, and we make it free. We need more people to do that for people.
You have created some of your most successful hits with two legendary record men, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records and Clive Davis, first at Arista Records and now at Sony Music. How do they compare?
Jerry had very clear ideas about the direction he wanted me to go in and, of course, Ahmet [Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic] had a little something to say about that, too.
When we would feel like we had something very, very hot, Jerry would say, “Maybe we’ve got a hit — if it stands up tomorrow.” And those were his words: “If it stands up tomorrow.” And “Respect” and “Natural Woman” are still standing up today.
Clive and I have worked very well over the years. Even though he’s not the chieftain at this point, he’s still the chieftain to me.He’s very, very easy to work with. Usually, he picks half [the songs for an album] and I pick half. What Clive picks would be more oriented to the top 10.
Is a new album on the horizon?
One of my upcoming projects is myself and George Benson. We’ve got some new, really, really hot stuff coming — I would say by summer, the end of summer. It’s a really mixed bag [of styles].
You have had a biopic in development for a while. What’s the latest on that?
We are speaking right now to some people out of Hollywood who have put up a $20 million budget. I think we need at least another $10 million to $15 million, so we’re looking for investors to do that.
Billboard recently reported that Robert DeNiro personally called you to come to a Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Amazing Grace, the 1971 documentary about you, which has been tied up for years in litigation.
Right now, legally, I cannot speak about that.
You’re heading to North Carolina for a concert. What does performing live mean to you now?
There is definitely growth. You give a little more thought to what is really entertaining, other than singing, or things that would be interesting to the audience. Sometimes it’s just a couple of good jokes. Sometimes it’s a Q&A — just different things that enhance the concert and make people feel like they’re more a part of it. Music is transporting.
After singing [my hits] for so many years, I have to make small changes, without bothering the basics and what people heard on the record. I just make small changes here and there, vocally, to keep it fresh for myself. It’s pretty easy.
What do you feel has been your greatest legacy?
I don’t know — somewhere between the musical and the humanitarian. That was one reason that I was so appreciative of the Presidential Medal of Freedom because it spoke to my service to humanity and the community.
The Queen accomplishes more than just singing, you know.
This story originally appeared in the March 25 issue of Billboard.