Aretha Franklin wore a body stocking onstage the other night. Couldn’t tell if it was transparent, but you could tell she was proud of her new deep-dish streamlined body. She’d tell the world. She spread her wings, her cape fell open and the spotlights hit the spangles like the Crab Nebula. The crowd could understand.
Maybe they didn’t understand her dancers, who pirouetted around in the clutches of variety-show ballet spasms. This was Harlem’s Apollo Theater, you dig, one of the toughest audiences in the land. The peanut gallery can, in the right hands, change the course of mighty rivers, or they can reduce the once-proud entertainers into sniveling slagheaps.
The sign outside simply reads: ARETHA HOME AGAIN. Up and down the rainy 125th Street, hi-fi stores blare Aretha onto the street, and guys are walking into the Apollo, jamming those nosebleed platforms forward, one arm hitched back, the other arm pitching forward, you have to ﬂow forward all dandyfine, with the poise of a three-masted schooner … fine! The families, the couples, the Superﬂy genre, the blood-lusting troublemakers …. aching hearts beat behind their smiling lips. Aretha came out hoisted on the shoulders of these dancers, one hand touching her Blue Angel top hat, being very grown-up and sensational and are those snickers and guffaws we hear?
She used to enter to the strains of “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” punching up the power-fist and the V-sign while all heads bowed reverently. Full of drama, she’d throw her voice around like a bola and her coup de grace. “Dr. Feelgood,” would stretch out like an orgasmic aria, Brunhilde’s Immolation, her lips flaring and the nation plunged into deep hankering. An aide would throw a while towel over her bare, wet shoulders and hustle her offstage.
But she is calming down. She’s 32. Her agent is trying to book her into the Waldorf Astoria, into the richneck niteries, ﬁnd movie scripts and television specials and bust her into the Midler-Minnelli-Flack racket. Classic — this is an era of classics. And even if she’s now singing “Rockabye your baby with a Dixie melody,” in front of the Bill Eaton Orchestra, there is no doubt that the fans still love her Queen of Betrayed Hearts image, and all she has to do to milk the crowd is get tough, brassy, heave those shoulders, and testify. She just has to snap, “Turn up the P.A., would you?” and the crowd is delighted.
But this is not the ascending road. So the thinking goes. By the end of the night, after she’d changed into mink, the Apollo peanut gallery gave the dancers a big hand.
There she was, her eyes hanging like two expectant globes. Her heart was a bruised tomato under glass. The reporter felt like Waller Winchell interviewing Joan of Arc.
Baby, I know…
The reporter wanted answers. Aretha is the toughest interview in town. Her life has been an unending Stations of the Cross, and her people are very protective. But the reporter wanted poignant insights, universal lessons and gallons of confessional poetry. There she was, her eyes hanging like two expectant globes. Her heart was a bruised tomato under glass. The reporter felt like Waller Winchell interviewing Joan of Arc.
If you can get next to her. These protective people … why, one heard rumors of Aretha cashing in her chips and having a nervous breakdown. All hands issued thousandfold denials of so much as a hangnail before one ladyfriend of Aretha’s finally said: “She didn’t have any nervous breakdown. She was dieting and took the weight off too fast, you know? Taking diet pills. So she checked in to see the doctor and some paper got the story all wrong. She didn’t have any nervous breakdown.”
The woman who sings to … him that she threw away her pride, that she hopes he doesn’t mind it she weeps and cries for him sometime, that she’s a fool for him, baby, won’t you think of her sometime, baby, if you walk through that door she can get up off her knees, give her some respect … she has needs. . .
This woman who has sung all this and more will freeze at the sight or some reporter weaving her way with a deadly tape recorder under his arm.
Aretha is a millionaire and she owns a six-story townhouse just off New York City’s Central Park, the rosy heartlands, where monocled highbinders like Carnegie, Vanderbilt, Duke and Warburg built their alcazars, now institutionalized. The brownstone chateaux are framed by soldierly doomen; the dowagers and milords and new-wave parvenus gate their windows to Harlem roughnecks who cruise down to loosen up some gold fillings . . .
Aretha’s six-story townhouse looks something like Liberace’s holiday cathedral. A grand piano is ported by the towering bay windows in the sitting room, and the red, mirrored wallpaper reminds you of a gumball emporium.
Three of her boys were raising hell. I Love Lucy was on the television. Kecalf, age four, sat on a zodiac rug and asked the stranger his sign. The other boy, Eddy, 15, was cutting out pictures of entertainers he said were all Aries: Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and so was he, so was Kecalf and Jimmy Dunn, the road manager over there who reminded us not to forget Lady Soul upstairs.
Was this to mean a celestial conspiracy worked in their behalf?
The library was only started, with books like The Sensuous Woman, My Friend Che, Eros and Civilization by Herbert Marcuse, African culture, astrology, ﬁlm books and a few hundred records, sleeveless and in piles. There was a saxophone, electric piano and guitar, bongos, a walli’ull or gold records (seven albums, 20 singles), countless NAACP awards and the ofﬁcial keys to the cities.
In one room was a grand piano. I waited there. A rumpled sheet of paper was on the stand. Someone had started a song. The lyrics went: “Baby, I know . . .” and the rest was emphatically scratched out.
Baby I know . . . So she walked in. Her hair was henna-red and weaved into corn-row plaits that looked like a spiral of welts “Is my smoke bothering?” she asked, before clamming up.
For instance. What about these upcoming television specials? “We have a couple or things we’re working on,” she said. — Oh? — “It’s nothing I can talk about right now.”
“… I just ain’t got time
To sit, and chit
And chitchat and smile.”
Her shyness goes back in part to Time magazine’s 1968 cover story. They praised her, but also informed the nation’s horriﬁed bystanders of a Grade B life of seaminess and sensuality. They made her then-husband, Ted White, sound like Sonny Liston. Aretha was hurt and the die was cast. “It cruciﬁed her relations with the press,” said one of her advisers.
It took years to ﬁnd a topic that wouldn’t lance open a wound. We exchanged banalities, ruminations on dead cities, like New York . . .
“I like New York,” she said, folding a leg on the couch. “You can see a lot of movies here. Sometimes at four in the morning.”
Well, television . . .
“On 42nd Street,” she corrected.
What kind of movies?
“Oh, the kind with Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, lngrid Bergman. Those kind. Cicely Tyson. I just saw Warm December with Sidney Poitier. His girl had sickle and … it was a good movie. It was. All the black movies are OK.”
You’ve been offered some scripts?
“I’ve gotten a lot of scripts, yes. Not that many, but some. None that I felt were right for me. Not yet. One of them was Melinda, did you see that? That was one of the scripts that I didn’t think was right, but after I got a chance to see it, I thought maybe it could have been.”
What did you think of Lady Sings the Blues?
“Very good, very good. I liked.”
Roberta Flack might do . . .
“Bessie Smith?” She brightened instantly. “I think it’s gonna be good. I read the book and thought the book was very good. And hilarious. And I think it’s gonna be good. I do. Some parts in it were very funny.
“I’m going to have coaching lessons. And I’ve talked to a few acting coaches already, but nothing’s come of it. You might like it.”
Her dry rustling voice stayed businesslike, pardoning a small laugh.
“Maybe I could call you?” she’d say. It was her way or begging the stranger to scram.
Aretha was 10 years old when she stood up in her father’s church to solo. The way the regulars described it, she had God by the short hairs.
You have to understand Reverend Franklin; his dominating inﬂuence. You’d have to see the way he passes through a crowd, touching hands and flashing a ﬁne, balmy smile. He’s no strict Fundamentalist. This Detroit gentleman is a well-upholstered stalwart, both a Bible-walloper and a bon vivant. They love him — him and his pinkie diamond and stone-studded watch. Members of the fold defer to him as a combination Mussolini, James Brown and Saint Peter. “He’s not a prude in any way,” says Aretha’s booking agent, Ruth bowen. “He understands today’s generation.”
But not everybody believes he’s in collaboration with the Almighty. Record business people talk of him with an ugly invective. In New York they call him bad-tempered. “Let me tell you,” said a record exec, “he’s a tough guy … a real heavy guy.”
Sometimes late at night, the Reverend Franklin would rouse his daughters out of bed to sing for his party guests. He knew all the flash grandees of the day: Dinah Washington, Art Tatum, Arthur Prysock, Dorothy Dandridge, Lionel Hampton. Aretha learned all of Clara Ward’s music and sang duets with her.
Aretha Louise Franklin was born March 25th, I942, the second youngest of six children. The Reverend had come up from Mississippi. Aretha was six when her mother left home, and it’s been trumpeted as a devastating desertion, but the kids used to spend their summers with their mother. When, after four years, Barbara Franklin died, her good friend, Mahaliah Jackson, became Aretha’s mother-influence, and stayed so until her death in I972.
Aretha dropped from school a number of times, and for good around the tenth grade. After all, from ages l4 to 18, she was an evangelist star, touring around the country by car while the Reverend went by plane, and there are suggestions that these tours were a “schizophrenic” mixture of devout religion and footloose showbiz tenderloin. Aretha said those days were just “pretty good.” And that’s all she’d say. You can listen to one album from those days, The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin, on Chess, and it does not sound like any 16-year-old kid.
She came out or that gospel cyclone; big numbers in her life were the Reverend James Cleveland, Mavis Staples, Lou Rawls, with the Pilgrim Travelers, and Sam Cooke, with the Soul Stirrers. This break with the church was considered, well, vaguely improper by some. But Aretha … “No. I never ever broke away from the church. It’s all basically still there. The break didn’t matter because I still carry my faith with me.”
Anyway, religion is the basis for show business, and the Reverend was her teacher. “She inherited his thing,” said sister Erma Franklin, “tit for tat.” He has this vast, rolling voice that snakes out and lashes the penitent to shreds, sermons that work to a ravaging climax — his voice a gasping, puissant wheeze that suggests both the ﬁres of hell and an out-of-tune diesel. He’s recorded more than 70 albums of these sermons, and some, like The Eagle Stirs Its Nest, has sold platinum. But the records don’t capture that smile, the expansive, conﬁdent smile of heaven’s own ticket-taker.
The heavy image, the high-living preacherman caricature, is the image that sticks the loudest, so I asked the Reverend Franklin, as he propped his feet on his desk and sipped his heavily sugared coffee, if he also resented Time magazine’s 1963 story. He was portrayed, after all, as some sort of religioso Sportin’ Life.
“No, l was not bothered,” he said. “No, but Aretha was. The writer was … presumptive. There were hints in the story that she was promiscuous and that’s not true, not true at all! On our tours, when she was a teenager, she always traveled with her aides. She’d rarely ever go anywhere without them. No, she wasn’t promiscuous then and she’s not now.” He drew himself up for emphasis ” he has men friends and she likes them and … that’s alright.”
The stocky minister was businesslike, obliging yet careful. Once pinned down, he allowed himself to become reﬂective, retaining the gospel timing. He wore a gray suit. He’d look good in spots.
“It helped her a lot, that traveling around the country. She achieved . . . a synthesis, because there’s a lot of good gospel talent in this country and she got a chance to observe a lot.
“She kills me, yes she does. She kills everybody. She has an ear . . . the things she hears never fails to amaze me. She can pick out little things and, of course she can sing, but that ear. . . she can translate what she hears into song.
“You know, I’ve always thought that Aretha sounds just like her mother, Barbara. No, she didn’t know her mother. Died too early.” The Reverend looked away for a moment. “Aretha always had a mature voice, but, of course, it might of had something to do with heredity.” He beamed.
Did he teach Aretha?
“No, I didn’t teach her.” He paused and smiled that smile, shot from guns. “But she heard me.”
When Aretha walks through a crowd, the masses part like the Red Sea, faces liquidating in awe and respect. She’s actually small, but this presence, you know, suggests a turbulent private life. No one knows the whole story. Like Brando. The fans have tenderness in their eyes. Aretha was sitting in this coffee shop picking through a Salisbury steak that looked like vulcanized cowpie and this girl stood behind the chair, trying to get Aretha to autograph, no joke, a blank check. She stuttered badly. “Your records have been very good for me,” she said. “A-a-and have taught me . . . a lot about how to handle life. And love.” Aretha nodded understanding and drew her a little picture.
But the cofee shop was in tumult. You’d have thought Sappho just lumbered in. The entire restaurant staff was in clammy-handed position for autographs: Sarge, Hoskins, Jim, and Phyllis, and this earnest hobbledehoy over there behind the plants smiling his heartbroken Turhan Bey smile, asking if Aretha’d come sing at his church. She declined, pulled her purple robe close, turned to the table and looked as if she were about to hemorrhage.
At a concert once I asked a fan why she was jumping up and down, and what about Aretha she wanted to know. “Well,” she said, ﬁnger to chin, “I’ve heard so much about her problems . . . in the magazines you know? I’d like to hear her side of it. I mean, I’m sure we could have a good talk about it. The fact that she’s a black woman who’s done what she has. . . and with all those problems, you know. . .”
It’s like all those quotes you’d collect.
Lena Home: “Inside every woman there’s an Aretha Franklin screaming to come out.”
Bob Dylan (in Tarantula): “Crystal jukebox queen of hymn. . . she has no flaws in her trumpet … she knows the sun is not a piece of her.”
Lord, the troubles. It’s like Janis was saying. People like to see their blues singers real gone blue. Aretha hadn’t yet turned 18 when she dropped evangelism for torch singing. The Reverend brought her into New York City, he set her up in the 38th Street YWCA and he ﬂew back to Detroit. People like to remember this “desperate child,” on her own for the ﬁrst time, getting into huge monkeyshines.
when she dropped evangelism for torch singing. The Reverend brought her into New York City, he set her up in the 38th Street YWCA and he ﬂew back to Detroit. People like to remember this “desperate child,” on her own for the ﬁrst time, getting into huge monkeyshines.
“She had a lot of hell in her,” said Major Holley, a jazz bassist and friend of the family who tried to take care. “She was wild and she loved to be with her peers, you know, go up to the Apollo Theater and see her friends backstage. I tried to chaperone her, but I couldn’t ﬁnd her half the time. It was difficult in those days for a girl of 17 with no male accompaniment, wasn’t it?
“Police would ask for your ID and certain places wouldn’t serve you. It was hard. Real hard.
“I tried to introduce her to a few people in the music business. I walked the streets with her, actually.”
And when she sang . . . “When she sang, she sounded like a mature woman,” recalls John Hammond Sr., who signed her to Columbia Records. “Because she had lived — by the age of 18 — more than most people live in a lifetime. Aretha was lost, but she was a great singer . . . and you could tell she had lived.”
Aretha finally came under the care of Jo King, a wispy Italian woman who knew something about classical piano and something about managing. She brought Aretha into her Park Avenue apartment, on the Upper East Side, among the staid and stately.
“She had experiences that were beyond most human beings,” suggests King, still horriﬁed after all these years.
“For the first three months I thought I had lived with an 18-year-old girl who had never before left home. And then it burst like a bubble. I realized I had a real woman here, one who knew more than I did when it came to men, alcohol and everything. She had tremendous depth.”
Aretha had the depth of motherhood. She left behind in Detroit her first two sons — Clarence, now I7, and Edward, now 15.
It was a turbulent time, and Aretha and o had personality clashes . . . there were recent printed allegations from Aretha’s sister that “a manager” used to feed Aretha speed, all “lies,” according to Jo King. She remembers a girl of titan insecurities, yet one who’d read philosophy, who’d sweep around the house performing the play, The Royal Family, who’d sit by the window for 10 hours a day playing the piano and not a soul ever complained . . . “She sounded like an angel, that child . . .”
But. “She was a desperately unhappy child. She had such an attachment to her father that she would do anything to please him. She would try to do it. But she would miss him so much, she would just disappear. She had a relationship with her father that nobody could break.
“I had a lot of work done on her. She was very fat and in bad physical condition. So for about four months nobody saw or heard her. I had all the skin treatments, had all the classes for walking and sitting, and of course, I had a piano and she worked hard.”
Many of Aretha’s old friends — who’d like to remain “reliable sources” — will heave their hearts hereabouts, their eyes will raise and their palms will uplift. The blues. Aretha’d run off, you know, to Harlem, or Philadelphia, and raise Cain. How “she had lousy luck with men.” Or, how she dated “this brutal guy.” She fell in love with one of the Swan Silvertones. “She was absolutely crazy about him,” said King. “She would call him every night no matter where he was.” It begins to sound like one of those showbiz biographs. The unlaundered version. Mythic.
Aretha’s first-ever club date was in Chicago, at the Trade Winds, second-billed to comedian Buddy Hackett, and she couldn’t hack it. Her throat was ravaged by the psychosomatic willies.
Until her father walked in the door with his Detroit friends. Aretha was thrilled, did ﬁne and ﬁnished the show by dedicating to him a spiritual, “Precious Lord.”
She took her ﬁrst $15 pay and bought a pair of white roller skates.
She was turning out product for Columbia Records, had a minor hit with “You Made Me Love You,” but the years were wobbly. If upset, she’d miss recording sessions. Or run off.
“These times Aretha would be absolutely consumed with self-hatred and disappointment,” Jo King continued. “This terrible cycle. She would hate herself, then she would do well for three or four months. She would revert from this helpless child to this brazen, tough woman; she would vacillate back and forth.
“Aretha was terribly shy because she felt a terrible guilt about all the things that’d happened. And listen, I talked to Clara Ward and all the gospel greats and they all said how brilliant she was and what a hard life she had. But they said it was not her responsibility.” King’s chin lifted. “She did the very best she could.”
This is the Aretha of a decade ago, a gospel wailer-turned-torch singer. When John Hammond Sr. signed her to Columbia, he wanted her clean and traditional, like his earlier friends, Billie Holiday and Mahaliah Jackson. The other Columbia seers related to a Barbra Streisand type.
Even Jo King’s tastes run to classical music and true grit was something declasse; she freely admits not understanding Aretha getting on the phone to Mahaliah and saying “Hey muh fuh!” and that they weren’t swearing at all.
The chicken fat never truly rode the skillet until she married Ted White in 1961. Poor Ted White. Aretha’s family generally hates him. Her tactful friends will call him “street-smart.” Or even, a hustler, an opportunist. Or, a gentleman and a square-dealer. Reverend Franklin has decreed: “His motivation was not sincere.”
Della Reese introduced the two. Jo King said,”l felt at the time that Aretha should be handled by a man, because maybe this whole thing with her father could be handled.”
People talk about the Franklin-White relationship as freely as they’d talk about their last dose. Nada. Aretha, at White’s mention, turns opaque, a frosted windshield.
And why? Because when Aretha was canonized, when she made the cover of Time magazine, the story said her husband beat her up and that is the one sentence that anybody remembers.
Her music in the early Sixties was grand-band puffola, lounge standards like “Lucky Old Sun” and “Skylark,” full of starch and strings, and somebody elseplaying the piano.
But she was pure at heart. “In the beginning,” said Major Holley, “she wanted to do what she wanted to do. She didn’t like doing pop tunes; she didn’t start out doing ‘Come Rain or Come Shine,’ stuff that was foreign to her. She wanted to do her own material. Blues-type things, you know, things she had written; or gospel.”
Columbia Records was then a whiter shade of pale and executives admit now that they wouldn’t even consider sending their salesmen into ghetto stores. By the end of 1966, Aretha’s Columbia business was $90,000 in the red. White helped get her a contract at Atlantic Records, where she came under the golden wing of producer Jerry Wexler, who gave her poise, urgency, moxie.
Wexler, now 56, an all-time pro — sharp, literate, the soulful Jewish uncle to Atlantic’s R&B constellation — said, “There’s only a few geniuses around, you know — like Ray Charles — who can just come into the studio and lay down the song and everything’s implicit. The musicians just color it in. She’s just . . . you know?”
Wexler took her to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and recorded her in front of a piano, backed up by a load of rednecks. The very first tune was “I Never Loved a Man,” and she was a hit factory. Columbia got so upset when they heard her new sound that they ordered their best session man, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie (now Aretha’s drummer) to doctor up Aretha’s unreleased tapes. He tried to make them funky. Another studio hand made them mushier. In the end, Columbia was taken to court for these shenanigans and they had to pay up.
Anyway, the summer of I967 was Aretha’s summer. . . . Comedian Murray Roman did a routine about the girls in flower-decked Volkswagens driving around going “sockittome, sockittome.” White took her on the road permanently and life went nutsy. “We lived in a suitcase,” he recollected. “We were on the road 90% of the time.”
Aretha’s songs, her emotional litmus paper, were frank. Stating non-negotiable demands. A man close to her said, “Each song is her message to the world. It’s what she feels at the time.”
By mid-l968, her marriage disintegrated and she very nearly did as well. She began missing recording sessions again. She missed gigs. She says she sat around crying a lot.
When she separated from White, she never recorded any song about it, never tore him up in the scandal mags. But one little-known fact: The song, “With Pen in Hand,” from her new album, was actually recorded years ago, but held back until now. It’s about a separation. The song begins plaintively, but closes in a bilious, triumphant snarl: “You never know how you brought me down,”
“The song was just too close,” said a friend.
“People like to conjecture about the sadness within me,” Aretha told Alan Ebert. “Well, there isn’t any. Oh, I’ve had my bad times, but they’re the same problems, aches and pains other people have . . . When I think back on my marriage, I only think of how beautiful it was . . . and there came the time when it wasn’t.”
Ted White, who now manages Detroit real estate and watches over the one son he had with Aretha, Teddy, now 10, doesn’t feel like talking.
“I’ve had so many bad experiences,” he said, hedging back. “There’s no problems now and I’d like to keep it that way. I was into a couple of lawsuits, you know, as a result or bad publicity. Some things were written that was untrue. I had to sue Time magazine and somebody else who picked up the story [of his beating Aretha] and ran with it. I had to initiate some legal action because they were going crazy with a bunch of lies.”
Aretha was in awful straits for about a year. Then she met Ken Cunningham. They had a baby together. Kecalf (Kenneth – Eugene – Cunningham – Aretha – Louise-Franklin and the c is silent).
“Brand New Me” was her symbolic song . . . “It’s just that I’ve gotten rid of a lot of things that were weighting me down and I’m well, like a brand new person,” she told Charles L. Sanders in l971.
Ken Cunningham . . . all the women around Aretha like Mr. Cunningham, “so fine” they say … Aretha’s musical tastes are aligning with his and it is not so brassy, but cozy and a high moon over Havana, smooth as a fountain or lasagna.
“Aretha’s so shy, anyway,” Erma was saying. “Huge gatherings and stuff, she doesn’t really go for that. She leans more toward people she’s known all her life. She’s an introvert and she really comes alive only on that stage.
There are two other performing Franklin sisters. Erma, 34, and Carolyn, 28. The three would remind you of The Three Faces of Eve. Erma is boisterous, cocky, ambitious, while Carolyn is delicate, attentive. She writes songs for Aretha: “Angel,” “Ain’t No Way,” but would really rather write novels.
We were plowing across Detroit with their friend Verline, pulling on a bottle of Spanada, heading for a Bobby Womack concert. Lots of laughs, and a slug on the arm.
“Aretha’s so shy, anyway,” Erma was saying. “Huge gatherings and stuff, she doesn’t really go for that. She leans more toward people she’s known all her life. She’s an introvert and she really comes alive only on that stage.
“At home, if somebody comes in and I say, ‘Aretha, I want you to meet so-and-so’ . . . It looks as if she seals herself off. She says, [small voice]: ‘Hi, how are you? Fine. Oh really?’ And a curtain comes down. And as soon as they go out: ‘Well, giiiiirls, did you ever. . .’
“She’s not anti-social, but she’s afraid of people, really. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde type thing. It’s a different entity, really.
“I have to struggle, singing. If it happens, it happens. It’s not an obsession with me. Aretha could care less about singing. I think Aretha is surprised that people are putting so much emphasis on her. She really doesn’t know how big she is.”
“She’s tired now,” Verline put in.
“I think she’s shocked it the attention she’s getting.” Erma continued. “Sometimes I think it frightens her.
“I always known Aretha was a genius all her life, as far as singing was concerned. But ah, I don’t think any of us thought . . . I mean, we said it was inevitable, but she kept getting bigger and bigger and we said, Wow, my God, we’ve been living with this woman all our lives and didn’t know we had a genius in the family. Everybody’s getting excited except her.
“Aretha wants to be loved by her man, and have her children together. That’s the height of her ambitions.”
“She wants to be a magniﬁcent housewife,” Verline added.
Is there any sisterly rivalry?
Erma, who once hit minorly with the pre-Janis “Piece of My Heart,” measured herself. “It’s not so much jealousy as maybe you say: ‘I could have done it.’ “
Carolyn, who records for RCA and wants her gold record, tapped the window. “Rivalry isn’t gonna get me any richer. It’s not gonna get me a dime, in fact.”
The last time I saw Aretha Louise Franklin, she was in the recording studio doing “Lullaby of Broadway.”
Her agent, Ruth Bowen, was talking of how she’d like to get Aretha (a known soap-opera addict) a movie role. “A nice heavy dramatic part.”
Aretha was looking forward to Las Vegas, Reno, the Waldorf. You’d wonder what she’d like to talk about, besides cooking and astrology. That evening, back at the townhouse, Ken Cunningham was wandering around the house in shorts and a football jersey and the boys were doing their “Dr.” Julius lrving impressions, and Ken, athletic, friendly, brave, clean, reverent, was reminding us what it is like when he practices on the saxophone, Eddy plays his guitar, Clarence the piano, and Kecalf whatever-the-hell, and his eyes bulged in appreciation. “Hey Wolf!” Aretha called out. He calls her Mrs. Wolf, you see. She looked relaxed for once, and she moved to the sofa with some Fritos. “I’ve got no business with this,” she said, offering to share. Slim as she is, she does love food . . . (Reporter: “Well, your drummer, Pretty Purdie, sure is good.” — Aretha: “That man can cook up a plate of spaghetti? Hmph!“)
So I said, what’s your best dish? The freeze-dried terror in her eyes melted. “My best dish? Roast ham, I guess . . . my fried chicken is good. My spaghetti isn’t bad. I don’t think . . .”
Is there a story behind that song, “Call Me”?
“Well, hell, yes there is.” She brightened a bit. “There were two people on Park Avenue, a couple. And they were just getting ready to leave each other, going in different directions. And as he got across the street and she was on the other side, he turned around and said, ‘I love yooooo!’ And she said, ‘And I love yooooo!’ He said [singing], ‘Call me! The moment! That you get there!! She said. ‘I wi-yall.’ And they just stopped traffic on Park Avenue and everybody was checking that out. Romance on Park Avenue.” We laughed.
Night was settling and she suddenly appeared tired. Listen, what makes you happy?
“My children.” She weighed the question. “And having little get-togethers and making up a whole lot of food.” A little light ﬂickered. “And gold records. And love.” She shrugged and her half-twist of a smile suggested that there weren’t any more questions worth asking.