Aretha Franklin on Feminism, Beyonce and Who Should Star in Her Biopic

Lunch with Lady Soul: A revitalized Aretha speaks out

Aretha Franklin onstage in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 8th, 2014. Credit: Paras Griffin/Getty

Listen," Aretha Franklin says to a waiter as she points at her fish sandwich. "Don't you have the smoked salmon?" She's sitting in the restaurant at New York's Ritz-Carlton on a rainy Friday afternoon, wearing a bright fur coat, hair spilling out of a winter cap. The waiter explains that Franklin's lunchtime staple – salmon and cream cheese on whole-wheat bread – isn't on the menu anymore. "But I will talk to the chef," he adds quickly. "He will do it for you right now."

Franklin, 72, just finished signing a stack of copies of her new album, Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, her first recording since she was reportedly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010. Franklin canceled several shows at the time; tabloids had her on deathwatch. When she was honored at the Grammys the next year, she looked noticeably thinner. Franklin denied the diagnosis, but last June, onstage at Radio City Music Hall, she recalled receiving a grim diagnosis from doctors: "[I told them,] 'You burn the midnight oil, you read books, but you really don't know that much about me. You see, I come from a praying family.' . . . A couple of years later, I went back to the hospital, and those same doctors are saying, 'Miss Franklin, the thing we saw before, we don't see no more.' Hallelujah!"

This week, Respect, a new biography by David Ritz, has been getting a lot of publicity – and Franklin is not happy about it. Ritz ghostwrote Franklin's 1999 autobiography but was unsatisfied with the results. "Self-reflection doesn't come easy to her," Ritz says. So, drawing from his interviews with her and her close family, he published a book that details the wild offstage promiscuity of the Fifties gospel circuit as well as Franklin's troubled marriage to Ted White, who managed her before their divorce in 1969. "[It's] a very trashy book – all lies," she said recently.

Today, Franklin is careful with her words and at times combative. When I ask if I can record our conversation, she flatly declines. "You can take notes," she says. When I mention praise in the book from her sister Carolyn – "She slips into a zone when she sings . . . and connects to the Holy Spirit" – Aretha cringes. "I don't think Carolyn ever said anything like that. That doesn't even sound like Carolyn." 

Franklin's new album – on which she covers Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia" and Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" – reunites her with Clive Davis, who helped revive her career in the Eighties with a series of hits on his Arista label. Davis had been pushing Franklin to record an album of diva classics for years, sometimes over dinner at the Four Seasons. According to Davis, Franklin hasn't lost any fire. "She's come back in peak form," he says. "The wonder of Aretha is she can do any song. And with very, very few exceptions, two takes is as close to the maximum as she does."

For Franklin, the album is a chance to prove herself in a pop world with more divas than ever. "It was never as competitive as it is now," Franklin says. "People are being very selective about what they spend their money on. I understand that this year they haven't had any platinum records. I hope to have the first one. That would be fabulous."

Soon, the salmon hors d'oeuvre arrives, which she offers me. "A little caviar, too," she says, savoring a bite. "Great!"

Franklin has lived in Detroit for most of her life, but visiting New York reminds her of when she moved there in 1960. She was 18 and had just been signed to Columbia Records. "I always had a chaperone," she says with a smile. "I was working with the jazz greats – Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, Blue Mitchell. All of the best of the best."

Franklin had been a star in the gospel world for years before signing to Columbia. At 12, she joined her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin – whose sermons sold millions of copies on Chess Records – on the road. "His delivery was very dynamic," she says. "If he had chosen to be a singer, he would've been a great one." Her favorite sermon of his was "A Wild Man Meets Jesus," about a man who goes insane, abandons his family and winds up living in a graveyard. Jesus sails through a rainstorm to meet him and exorcises him of demons, to the dismay of townspeople who prefer the man as the village idiot. "The man walks into someone he immediately knows is superior and supreme to him, without any words," says Franklin. "That's what I love about that. It underscores a supreme being."

Franklin was no stranger to big personalities growing up – her parents' parties included Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Sam Cooke. "I had a teenage crush on him," Franklin says of Cooke. "Very classy, very classy. He came from the church, so it would be hard not to have class."

Franklin's early records sold poorly – her Columbia material was lounge-y and overly slick, and she was mistakenly marketed as a supper-club soul singer in the mold of Dinah Washington. She didn't become the Queen of Soul until she signed to Atlantic Records in 1966. There, she was backed by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section and produced by Jerry Wexler, who added a funky, psychedelic edge to match her gospel fervor. "Jerry asked me to play the piano [in the studio]," she says. "You could call my piano my trademark, or one of my trademarks." 

Soon, Franklin was topping the charts with songs like 1967's "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)" and "Respect," which she singles out as her two favorite songs in her catalog. "Everybody wants respect," she says. "In their own way, three-year-olds would like respect, and acknowledgment, in their terms." As for the "sock it to me" backing vocals in "Respect," she clarifies: "There was nothing sexual about that. Some people thought that, but it wasn't."

Franklin lights up when she remembers February 16th, 1968. The mayor of Detroit christened it Aretha Franklin Day, ahead of her show that night at Cobo Hall. "Dr. King was there, my dad was there," she recalls. "When we walked into the arena and became visible to the audience, then the crowd erupted. It was like the ceiling was coming down."

Songs like "Respect," "Chain of Fools" and "Think" became anthems for the civil rights and women's liberation movements, though Franklin downplays her influence on the latter: "I think that's Gloria Steinem's role. I don't think I was a catalyst for the women's movement. Sorry. But if I were? So much the better!" Today, she praises Beyoncé for carrying the torch for feminism in pop. "Astrologically, for what it's worth, she's a Virgo, like Michael Jackson," Franklin says. "A very hard worker."

Franklin's classic work earned her the top spot on Rolling Stone's list of the greatest singers of all time, in 2008. "I went, 'What?' I did a triple take!" It's one of dozens of accolades she's earned in recent years: There are also honorary doctorates from Harvard and Yale, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. "Hard to beat that," she says. "But 20 Grammys is not bad either."

These days, Franklin does her best to keep up with pop culture. ("If you missed something, you can always go to YouTube.") She listens to a lot of pop radio. "I like 'Bang Bang,' " she says. "Ariana Grande – I like her a lot." She's not as keen on Taylor Swift, who ended up beating Franklin to the first platinum album of the year. "I heard 'Shake, Shake' – is that what it's called?" she says. What does she think? "I love her gowns. I went to her website and saw she wore Oscar de la Renta. I tried to order that gown. I love whoever is dressing her. She wears some beautiful clothes."

The last movie she saw was Get On Up, the James Brown biopic. "It was good, up to a point," she says. "I met with the producers prior to that movie. Had we agreed on a creative approach, it would've been my movie." She says she's in negotiations again for her own biopic – she even has someone in mind for the lead role: Audra McDonald, who won a Tony for portraying Billie Holiday in Lady Day. "It would be her job to bring it home," Franklin says. "The question is whether she has that ability."

Franklin has some other big plans in mind: She hopes to teach a "master class" at Carnegie Hall and would like to record with both Smokey Robinson ("the fact that we haven't yet is crazy") and Stevie Wonder. "I saw him play Robert De Niro's tribute the other night, and Stevie was so good. The level of music was 'Whoa!' You should've been there."

Franklin will play one-off shows throughout the coming year, sprinkling in covers from the new album alongside her biggest hits. "I find new ways to just keep it fresh for me," she says. "I still don't think I would do anything else. I guess I could've been a prima ballerina. Or a nurse. Aretha Nightingale!"