On Wednesday night, Aretha Franklin and longtime collaborator and mogul Clive Davis sat down with veteran music journalist Anthony DeCurtis at New York City’s 92Y for a lengthy discussion and preview of her upcoming covers album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics (due out Oct. 21).
As her Monday performance of Adele‘s “Rolling in the Deep” on Late Show With David Letterman proved, the 72-year-old is in terrific form following a few years of ill-health rumors. Her vigor was evident at the Y, sassing both “Mr. Davis” and DeCurtis, posing for photos, and dancing in her seat when Clive had some of her new tracks played over the PA. “Everything is good,” she told DeCurtis when he asked how she was feeling, before noting that the recording was done over the past few years between tours and recuperation.
With the Adele cover already having over 2 million hits between YouTube and Vevo, the longtime friends were almost overflowing with enthusiasm for the new album, which also features renditions of hits by Whitney Houston, Etta James, Barbra Streisand, Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child, and Sinead O’Connor, with production from a team of hitmakers that includes Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Andre 3000.
Here are the highlights about from Aretha Franklin and Clive Davis’ 92Y appearance:
– “This incredible voice should record forever,” Davis said of Franklin. That’s why he originally signed her to a deal with Arista in 1979 and rejoined forces with her for Diva Classics. He also didn’t mince words with how much Franklin transformed these covers, citing her treatment of Otis Redding‘s “Respect” as an example of her singular power. “Aretha was not the first one to record ‘Respect’ but she made it her own,” he said. “We’ve got to do it different, we’ve got to do it exciting, and we’ve got to make it your own.”
– At Davis’ instruction, Franklin’s cover of Etta James’ “At Last” was played, with both of them gesturing at the PA coordinator to turn the music up. While it starts out with the same string arrangement as the 1960 classic, the new Babyface-produced version adds a modern R&B flavor, a sax solo, and a whole lot of vocal flourishes. As the album opener, it sets the tone for lots of twists and plenty of Aretha getting the room to prove that her pipes are still incredibly strong.
– As for the decision to include “Rolling in the Deep,” Davis said, “It’s what contemporary music needs more of.” About Adele’s 21 album, Franklin explained: “I absolutely loved her CD. In addition to being a great singer, she’s a great writer, a deep, heavy writer. She doesn’t write the usual or the norm.” She then cited that Target ad featuring a girl on a bus singing the hit as inspiration before belting out a portion of the chorus to a huge round of applause.
– Valerie Simpson, who co-wrote a bunch of Motown hits including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” along with Nickolas Ashford, was in the audience and got a special shout-out from Davis before they played Franklin’s version of Chaka Khan‘s “I’m Every Woman,” another of Simpson’s classics. The new rendition features heavy, uptempo four-on-the-floor beat and, after a couple minutes, mixes in verses of “Respect.” This one is going to be a staple at weddings.
– Davis has known Andre 3000 since the hip-hop star was 17, and that longtime friendship led to the latter’s involvement in Diva Classics. “He said his dream is to produce a cut or two for the great Aretha Franklin,” said Davis, who credited the Outkast rapper for coming up with a completely new arrangement of the Prince and Sinead O’Connor tearjerker “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Franklin’s take is classic jazz, with an upbeat big-band feel and an extended Ella Fitzgerald-style scatting solo in the middle. Though it’s not an emotional gut-punch like O’Connor’s, it sure is a lot of fun and should easily be the LP’s biggest surprise.
– Though they didn’t play it, Davis and Franklin discussed her version of Alicia Keys’ “No One,” from the singer’s 2007 album As I Am. Aretha’s spin takes a Caribbean and reggae turn, an idea that came from Keys herself when she stopped by Davis’ office. “It’s wonderful,” Franklin said, adding that “I’ve done my job” if any young talented artists cite her as an influence.
– Aretha’s redoing of Gloria Gaynor‘s “I Will Survive” also takes that faster, bass-heavy beat-driven feel like “I’m Every Woman.” The twist here is that the song suddenly breaks down into Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor,” at Franklin’s suggestion. “That was my granddaughter Victory’s song, and then it became our song,” she said. Once she got into it, “I went out and got the combat boots, the whole deal.” That comment probably drew the loudest laughs of the night.
– Unrelated to the album, a fan asked who she’d want to star in her eventual biopic. “Maybe Jennifer Hudson,” she said, to big applause. Then she expanded on the thought, praising the acting and vocal range of Tony winner Audra McDonald. “She could pull that off.” Aretha also mentioned that she heard Chadwick Boseman was great as James Brown in Get on Up, but the timing didn’t work out for him to play her in a movie.