"If I see someone cute," Aretha Franklin told producer Narada Michael Walden during an initial telephone conversation to discuss working together on an album the singer was planning, "I may wink. Then he may wink, and it's like 'Who's zoomin' who?'"
The phrase — which Franklin said was an old New York street expression — immediately caught Walden's imagination. "At that time I hadn't worked on an album by anyone of Aretha's stature," Walden says. "I wanted to design something just for her." The result was the title track of Franklin's 1985 comeback album, Who's Zoomin' Who?
The reclusive Franklin had spent many of the preceding years in her hometown of Detroit, looking after her seriously ill father, the Reverend C. L. Franklin. According to Walden, Aretha hadn't sung seriously in two or three years. After her father died in 1984, the singer began thinking about returning to the music scene.
Walden started assembling backing tracks in Los Angeles. Since Franklin doesn't like to travel — she refuses to take airplanes when on tour — Walden brought the session tapes to Detroit, where Franklin added her vocals.
"She had to get reacquainted with being in the studio," Walden says, "and she'd get winded." But it didn't take long for the singer to regain her form. "She'll sing a song down in the lower range maybe four or five times," he says. "Then she'll sing it up in her range and do two or three takes."
Who's Zoomin' Who? produced two Top Ten singles — Franklin's first album to do so since 1972's Young, Gifted and Black — with the title track and "Freeway of Love." The latter boasted a cameo appearance by E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons. "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" featured Annie Lennox of Eurythmics and was produced by Lennox's band mate, Dave Stewart.
Looking for a male singer to work with Franklin on another duet, "Push," Walden "put out signals, but a lot of people were frightened to death to sing with her." Former J. Geils Band vocalist Peter Wolf, however, jumped at the chance. "Peter's got guts," says Walden. "He put his helmet on and came up in there."
Despite Franklin's awesome reputation as a singer, Walden found her easy to work with. "She's a black Mae West," he says. "She's very fast I didn't pull anything out of her. She's so vast and brings so much to her takes that it's more a question of keeping up with her. And when it stops, it stops. So you've got to be on your toes. Before any session with her, I'd jog four or five miles just to be mentally alert. You have to be — she's the queen."