In the wake of Aretha Franklin’s death from pancreatic cancer at age 76 on Thursday (Aug. 16), longtime friend Tavis Smiley tells Billboard about the sides of Franklin that fans didn’t get to see up close: the laughter-filled dinners, the grand birthday parties and her fierce loyalty to those she cared about. As told to Nolan Feeney.
The first time I met Aretha, she was having dinner in Detroit with someone I knew and invited me. This was about 20 or 25 years ago, and I’ll never forget it as long as I live: She had the center table in the middle of one of the hottest restaurants, and her seat was facing the door — I walk in and am looking dead at her face. She spotted me at the top of the stairwell, and I kept eye contact with her until I got to her. I greeted her and gave her a big hug, and she barely hugged me back. Here I am dying to meet her, and she’s the queen holding court — everybody in the restaurant is looking at her.
It was the first of many meals I had with her. About eight years ago, she was playing in Chicago when I happened to be there, and I called her and asked if she wanted to get lunch. When I asked her where she’d like to go, she said, “No, I’ll make the reservation, you just meet me there.” She had the center table again, smack dab in the middle of the restaurant! She walked in first, and people started clapping in the restaurant, which was routine with her. Wherever I went with her, people would clap. The only other person I saw that with every time was Rosa Parks.
When I first met her, I didn’t think this friendship was going to be what it went on to be. I used to tease her about that: Aretha didn’t say a whole lot that first dinner. She wasn’t giving me a lot of energy. But as the evening wore on, she warmed up and got to talking. We exchanged numbers, and from that moment on we became the best of friends. I’ve traveled with her, hung out with her. She ended up serenading me on my 40th birthday at the Greek Theater in L.A. She mentioned that Clive Davis was in the audience, so he stood up and everyone went crazy. And then she said, “And I understand that there’s someone else in the audience tonight, and he’s celebrating his 40th birthday. Would you please stand up, Tavis Smiley? I’m gonna ask the room to join me in singing ‘Happy Birthday.’“ She sat at the piano and sang, and I was done — just in tears.
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’s been talking for the last few days 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 about 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. Aretha was a political junkie. 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. King’s favorites — whenever King called her for, 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! And she was given to talking about the range of that life: politics, economics, religion. If you raised a subject, she had an opinion on it.
The most fun was just sitting with her, eating and laughing. I don’t think people realize how hilariously funny she is. 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.
She had moods like the rest of us — anybody that knows her that denies it would be lying. Because of the environment she grew up in, she had good reason to not trust everybody. Aretha came of age during segregation, Jim Crow, Jane Crow, racism, discrimination. Aretha got paid in cash because black artists got ripped off so much back in the day. She would get paid up front in cash before the concert, put the money in her purse and take her purse on stage with her. She knew where it was at all times. If you look at the video of her serenading Carole King at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015, she walks out with a fur coat on, but she puts that purse on the piano. I have plenty of memories of her diva side, but all I will say is this: That song “Respect” was not just a song. She grew up in an era where she had to demand respect. If she didn’t, she would get walked on. And if you didn’t give it to her, you were going to hear about it. She demanded respect, but she earned respect.
She celebrated her birthday every year in some kind of grand fashion. She always had a birthday party and what she called the afterglow — the afterparty. Quincy Jones told me many years ago, “Live every day like it’s your last, because one day it will be,” and Aretha did. She lived her life to the fullest. She was courageous enough to do that even in the era she came up in. She lost her mother when she was young, she lost her siblings, she lost her father — Aretha knew that one day her time would be up. It’s interesting to me that she never missed a year celebrating her birthday. That meant something to her: to be alive, to be grateful for having lived another year. She always had the party, and she was always celebrating life.
I’ve been trying not to cry, and what I’ve been doing for my own healing and processing is listening to Aretha’s version of “My Way,” the Frank Sinatra song. It’s the most soulful version of that track that will ever be sung because the words speak for themselves: She’s the quintessential example of doing it her way.