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Smokey Robinson Remembers Childhood Friend Aretha Franklin

“There are children who haven’t been born yet who are going to know who Aretha Franklin is,” says Robinson, who had known the singer since he was eight years old.

Smokey Robinson

Smokey Robinson recalls meeting Franklin when he was eight years old — and knowing she was already the Queen of Soul.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

“This morning my longest friend in this world went home to be with our Father,” Smokey Robinson wrote on Twitter after Aretha Franklin’s death. Robinson grew up around the corner from the Franklin house in Detroit’s North End, where Franklin’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, hosted some of gospel music’s biggest names. “All the top gospel artists came to Rev.’s church at one point or another and sang,” Robinson tells Rolling Stone. “And some of them stayed at his home.” And even though Robinson went on to massive success with his group the Miracles on Motown in Detroit while Franklin signed with Columbia in New York, they never stopped being friends. Robinson got on the phone to share his memories of Franklin. Here is an edited version of his words from that conversation.

I met Aretha Franklin when I was eight. Her family had moved to Detroit from Buffalo, and her brother Cecil was my good friend. I remember going over to see their house — I had never been to a mansion before. That day, Aretha couldn’t have been any more than five or six years old and she was singing a gospel song at the piano. From the time we were kids, man, Aretha could sing. She never changed. She was always Aretha.

We’d do lots of kid stuff together. Kids don’t do kid things anymore. They don’t play outside. They wear their thumbprints out with computer games. But we played outside, played hide and seek, kick the can. Aretha was a tomboy, basically, when she was younger.

After we became professionals, I was very proud of her. She was out there performing and at the top of her game. Soul Train [their joint appearance in 1979, where Franklin sang Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby”] was a wonderful memory. It was impromptu, wasn’t planned or anything, so that made it even more special. She could sing the phone book and make it her own.

She was the inspiration for all the girls who came after her: for Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera. She deserved that title of the Queen, because she was inspirational to all of those girls as far as I’m concerned.

Her legacy, to me, is that she was one of the greatest singers to ever open their mouths. And she will always be known. There are children who haven’t even been born yet who are going to be made aware of Aretha Franklin, if only through her music. But she was an activist also; in the Civil Rights movement, she worked very closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So she did a lot of things, man. But she will be known through her music by kids who haven’t even been born yet.

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