Aretha Franklin on Beyonce, Women’s Rights, the Future: Her Last Rolling Stone Interview

You were instructed to call her “Ms. Franklin.” In 2014, Aretha Franklin sat for her last extensive Rolling Stone interview to promote 2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, her first project in years with her former Arista Records boss Clive Davis. The timing of the interview was unfortunate: it happened during the same week as the release of David Ritz’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. Ritz, Franklin’s former ghostwriter, wrote a follow-up book to her memoir sharing shocking details about Franklin’s tragic childhood and more. She was furious with the book. In the restaurant lounge of New York’s Ritz-Carlton, wearing a bright fur coat, hair spilling out of a winter cap, Franklin grimaced when I alluded to a quote from it, where her sister Carolyn talked about how Aretha channeled the Holy Spirit when she sang. “I don’t think Carolyn ever said anything like that,” Franklin said. “That doesn’t even sound like Carolyn. That’s not her voice.”

But over the next hour, Franklin grew relaxed, especially when talking about the present – her thoughts on future projects, current pop hitmakers, politics and more. The piece ran as a short profile in 2014, but there was much more to the conversation that was left out. Here are some highlights.

She had no time for normal journalistic practices. At the beginning of the interview, I placed my tape recorder on the table and asked Franklin if it was OK to record our interview. “No,” she said flatly. I added I was only taping so I could remember our conversation. “You can make notes,” she said. Conversation over.

She was still a perfectionist. Talking about her new album at the time, Clive Davis said he was still impressed with Franklin’s still-rigorous studio work ethic. “I have to sit with the song for a while before I record it,” she said. “And, that’s pretty much it. That, and respecting the writer’s melody. Once you establish that respect, you can pretty much sing whatever you want and express yourself.”

On why she sang Sam Cooke at her Columbia Records audition. “I auditioned in a small room for Mr. [John] Hammond. And I did some Sam Cooke songs. I did ‘You Send Me,’ something like that. I had a teenage crush on [Sam]. He gave me a suede jacket when my sister and I visited him in Los Angeles when I was a teenager. He knew I was a fan. He was very classy. I think the church gives you a natural class. And principles, and values.”

She was psyched to take the top spot on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. “That was right out of nowhere,” she said of the 2008 list. “Right out of nowhere. I went ‘What?’ ‘What?’ Like a double, triple take. Fabulous, fabulous, thank you, Rolling Stone. Unbelievable.”

One of her favorite gigs ever? February 16, 1968 show at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, which the mayor declared “Aretha Franklin Day.” “What a night!” Franklin said. “Dr. King was there, my dad was there. When we walked into the arena and then became visible to the audience, the crowd erupted. It was like the ceiling was coming down. It was so unbelievable.”

She didn’t think Dr. King’s dream had come true yet. “We’ve come a long way, but there is still a lot of discrimination,” she said. “There’s still a ways to go.”

She thought about backup careers. “I love what I do. [And] people appreciate the presentation, and they appreciate the time that I put into it. It’s worth all the time that you put into it. I still don’t think I would do anything else. [But] I could’ve been a prima ballerina. Or a nurse. Aretha Nightingale!”

She returned Beyonce’s love. Beyonce dedicated he and Jay-Z’s Detroit On the Run II concert to Franklin when it was announced Franklin was in hospice care. The love was mutual. ” We have a lot o respect for each other,” Franklin said. “I love the beat of ‘Bootylicious.’ And ‘I’m a Survivor” (Franklin covered Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” at the end of her career.) “Beyonce is a very hard working woman. Astrologically, for whatever it’s worth she’s a Virgo – like Michael Jackson, a hard worker. She’s very pleasant. She’s complimentary to other artists. And I think she just has a very positive message. I mean, I went to see her perform and I came out of there feeling uplifted. And Beyonce is very outspoken on feminist issues. So I think that’s good. That could be brought to the forefront more.”

“We deserve parity, and maybe even a little more,” Franklin said. “Especially if it’s physically taxing, women should get a little more money.”

That led to a broader discussion on pay disparity. “If women are going to do the same job, why not give equal pay? Because that job is harder for a woman than a man sometimes,” she said. “We deserve parity, and maybe even a little more. Especially if it’s physically taxing, we should get a little more money, if you have enough heart to take it on.”

She didn’t think full-album concerts were a good idea. Franklin was in the middle of raving about Stevie Wonder’s recent performance at a Robert De Niro tribute when the subject of Wonder’s 2014-2015 Songs in the Key of Life Tour came up. The tour had Wonder playing his 1976 album in its entirety. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Franklin said. “I wouldn’t do it. It may work for him [but] I think the people have a lot of favorites, and they want to hear a lot of favorites. I wouldn’t risk just doing one album for the night.”

She also wasn’t afraid to tell you her accomplishments. Asked how her 2005 Presidential Medal of Honor stacked up to her other accomplishments, Franklin replied: “Well, 20 Grammys is not bad. It’s on the same level as 20 Grammys. Hard to beat that, and the National Medal of the Arts. On one hand there are my humanitarian contributions on the other, and my civic contributions.”

On why her voice stayed with her while other divas lost theirs: “Well, maybe I’m just taking care of my voice. Maybe they don’t take care of their voice. I’ve heard people doing things that I thought were abusive to the voice. And I would never have done that.”

On Taylor Swift: “I love whoever is dressing her. Love her clothes. I went to her website and saw she wore Oscar de la Renta, and I know she gets some things from Oscar. I tried to order that gown. It never fit.”

On Adele: “I saw one of Adele’s promo pieces, and kids were on a bus singing ‘We could’ve had it all.’ They were just screaming it. But I was listening to the melody, I said ‘That’s a good melody, I like that melody.’ She’s a very, very fine, solid writer. I like her writing a lot. She has a lot to say. A lot of content. And, she’s a very good singer.  She reminds me how Carole King used to be with Tapestry. Her things are so original.”

On Ariana Grande: “I like her a lot.”

She still had more work to do. Asked what she wanted to accomplish over the next few years, Franklin replied: “I think just recording one smashing, memorable CD that will last. I understand that this year they haven’t had any platinum records. I hope to have the first one. That would be fabulous, to have the first one this year.”

Performing was still a thrill. “I am having a ball. I am having one good time. It’s just wonderful my audience is still there – and their loyalty, comradery and the exchange that we enjoy during the concerts. I don’t wanna run but I’ve gotta go, because I gotta go into a rehearsal.”

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