Darlene Love first met Aretha Franklin when she came to Los Angeles in 1957 to perform with Franklin’s father, the great baptist minister and civil rights figure Clarence LaVaughn Franklin. It was the beginning of a five-decade friendship where they got to share the stage everywhere from the Obama White House to Madison Square Garden. Hours after Franklin’s death was announced, Love phoned up Rolling Stone from a tour stop in Germany to reflect on Franklin’s genius and their relationship, both personal and professional.
I met Aretha when she was 15. She was in Los Angeles with her father to do a program. That was the first time I ever heard her sing. I remember going, “Wow, who is this woman? Where is this voice coming from?” I’d never heard anyone sing like that. The voice was coming from somewhere else. I said to myself, “This is a gift that God gave her.” That’s the only reason she’s able to sing the way she sings. It was a natural gift.
After that first meeting, I saw her off and on all my life. The greatest thing about her was that she always did exactly what she wanted, no matter what anybody else said. After she left Columbia Records and went to Atlantic, that’s exactly what she did there. She was like, “This is the way I sing. This is the way I perform.” As we say in the business, “And the rest is history.”
I remember working with Tom Jones in the 1970s in Las Vegas and Aretha was also there working. We got a chance to sit and talk about what was going on with our lives. Aretha was exactly the same from the day I met her to the minute she left this earth. She never changed for anybody. That’s something I really loved about her.
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One of my joys is that when Luther Vandross got to record her [on 1983’s Get It Right], I was one of the background singers. I spent a week or so with her when we were recording. There’s nothing like it. When she wants to take a break, Aretha takes a break. Then after she learned a song and it was time to go in and record it, there wasn’t going to be no 10 takes of one song. She knew exactly what she was going to do.
She was also such a master on the piano. She had a touch on the piano that was better than anyone I knew as a singer. A lot of times when she was recording she’d get down on the piano and they’d have to record her and then put the rest of the music together later because you’re never going to find the beat, the tempo, the phrasing that she did until she’s on that piano. I’ve never seen anyone that can play the way she did, for herself. She just came alive at the piano.
I must have seen her play 100 times, and I never saw her do the same song the same way twice. Even when she was having trouble with her voice later in life, she would take the song down an octave, but it’s still Aretha. You’ll never find anyone else like her. She changed the world in the way she handled the song, the way she took to the song, no matter what it was.
In 2009, we both played the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert at Madison Square Garden. I was backstage when someone said, “Aretha is in the dressing room and she isn’t coming out until you turn the air conditioning off.” I said, “Lord have mercy on this girl. There’s 20,000 people in that audience, Aretha. You can’t turn off no air conditioning. I don’t want to be in here with 20,000 people and no air conditioning on!” I knew her bandleader H.B. Barnum and we liked to sit around and laugh at her shenanigans. That’s what we loved about her. She never cared what anybody else thought.
When we worked together at the gospel concert at the White House in the last year of the Obama administration, she came out in her full-length fur coat. We were already sweating and there she was in in her fur coat. Aretha spent years not being able to afford things. When she was able to afford 10 mink coats, she was going to wear her mink coats. When people stopped wearing mink coats because of the cruelty to the animals she was like, “I worked hard for this fur coat. I’m going to wear it.” That’s Aretha.
As I live today, my favorite songs that she sang were gospel. There’s one song she used to sing that I just love called “Too Close.” It’s a gospel song that goes, “Too close to heaven and I can’t turn around.” I’m sure that’s what she is singing right now. I always look back and I think, “You know, I can’t be too sorrowful that you’re gone because I know I’ll see you again.”
It’s a cliche to say something like there will be another Aretha, but it’s so true. She was one of a kind. There are people who can mimic her, but nobody can ever be her. As I said to my husband the other day, she was a master class. Just being in her presence was like attending a master class.