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Aretha Franklin: The 'Fresh Air' Interview

Aretha Franklin sings in the studio during during her early career at Columbia Records.
Frank Driggs Collection
Getty Images
Aretha Franklin sings in the studio during during her early career at Columbia Records.

Aretha Franklin was more than a woman, more than a diva and more than an entertainer. Aretha Franklin was an American institution. Aretha Franklin died Thursday in her home city of Detroit after battling pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type. Her death was confirmed by her publicist, Gwendolyn Quinn. She was 76.

Franklin has received plenty of honors over her decades-spanning career — so much so that the chalice of accolades runneth over. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2005. And Franklin sang "My Country, 'Tis Of Thee" at President Barack Obama's first inauguration.

The Queen of Soul rarely gave interviews, so we were delighted when she sat down for a Fresh Air interview in 1999. Franklin spoke about her father's gospel influence, growing up with Sam Cooke, crossing over to pop music and more. Read Franklin's edited conversation with NPR's Terry Gross below and listen via the audio link.

Terry Gross: Let's talk a little bit about the influences on you during your formative years. First of all, let's talk a little bit about your father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin . He was one of the most popular preachers of his generation. He was nationally known through his tours and through radio broadcasts as well as recordings. You say in [Aretha: From These Roots] that church nurses carried smelling salts to revive worshippers who were overcome to the point of fainting by the spirit or by your father's sermons. What was it like for you to watch your father speak and people fainting in turn?

Aretha Franklin: Well, it was tremendous. I loved going to church. I enjoyed being a part of the choir and just doing things in and around the church. But as a young girl, I certainly enjoyed watching and listening to my dad.

You toured with your father through churches through the Deep South. And I'm wondering what it was like for you during the days of segregation to tour through the Deep South [and] how that compared to what you were used to in Detroit.

Well, it certainly was not what I was used to or accustomed to in Detroit. There were times that we were asked to go to the back of the restaurant, say, or we couldn't use the bathrooms. We got information that, Gulf [gas stations], you could use the bathrooms there — and we didn't buy gas where we could not use the restrooms. So we went to Gulf a lot, I must tell you.

You say about your father he was a minister. He was also a man, and that some women pursued him aggressively night and day. So he wasn't uncomfortable with that?

I have no idea. I never discussed it with him, and he never discussed that sort of thing with his children. But as children, we could certainly see that women were kind of aggressively taking off behind him. He was single at the time, and sometimes you might see it with ladies sitting on the front row, a little high, skirts a little high, a little short, you know, when women are interested.

Many singers who grew up in the church weren't allowed by their parents to listen to or to perform pop music. It wasn't that way in your family. Great performers like Nat Cole and Art Tatum knew your father and would sometimes be in your living room at the piano. That must've been something.

Yes, that's true. Art Tatum was often a visitor in our home. He was a very good friend of my dad's. [Also] Oscar Peterson, Arthur Prysock, Mahalia Jackson, and he loved Sam Cooke. And he just really very broadly appreciated one's artistry when they were truly gifted and really good.

Now, you were friends with Sam Cooke, the great gospel singer turned soul singer. How did you meet?

Sam and I met at a Sunday evening program that we had at our church back in the early '50s. And I was sitting there waiting for the program to start after church, and I just happened to look back over my shoulder and I saw this group of people coming down the aisle. And, oh, my God, the man that was leading them — Sam and his brother LC. These guys were really super sharp. They had on beautiful navy blue and brown trench coats. And I had never seen anyone quite as attractive — not a male as attractive as Sam was. And so [laughs] prior to the program my soul was kind of being stirred in another way.

Well, now, he crossed over from gospel to pop before you did. What impact did it have on you when you heard him having a hit pop song on the radio?

Well, we were going down the highway, somewhere in the South and — my sister and I and the driver and maybe one or two other people in the car. We knew that he had left the gospel field and of course I was rather sad about that. But as we were driving, we knew that he had recorded, and just out of the dark came this fabulous voice and it was Sam. And it was his first record, and he was singing "You Send Me." And there was just pandemonium in the car. My sister and I just had a fit. ' "You Send Me' It's his record!" You know? And there was just so much excitement in the car, the driver had to pull over.

You were living in Detroit. so when you decided to make pop records, I mean, the obvious choice, I suppose, would've been Motown, especially since Berry Gordy was a friend of the family. I guess Motown was a very new label at the time. But did you consider Motown?

Actually, no, I really did not. My dad and I had talked about it, and we really kind of had our sights set on Columbia Records out of New York. We knew that Columbia was a worldwide label, and I think the feeling probably was that the promotion would be better than, say, a Motown, or the distribution and the promotion and so on. And so we just kind of maintained that feeling that Columbia and other major record labels were the people that we wanted to talk to.

Now, you were playing a lot of clubs during those early years, and a lot of those clubs were jazz clubs. And the people who you shared a bill with included John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Was this a new kind of music for you?

Not exactly a new kind of music. As a very small girl, I listened to Charlie Parker and loved him. And Max Roach and people like that. I had not been in the jazz environment having been brought up in the church. But once I got to New York ... I was signed to perform at The Village Gate and The Vanguard and clubs like that and these. The Vanguard was one of the most elite, if not the most elite, jazz club out there.

What was different about the jazz environment? What were some of the things you hadn't been exposed to before?

Well, I certainly had not been exposed to Charlie Mingus reaching over and I think he slapped the pianist that one night. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Sounds like Mingus.

Sitting in the audience then, this was at The Village Gate. And he kept right on playing. You know, nobody missed a beat.

In 1966, after your contract with Columbia Records was up, you moved to Atlantic Records, which was the home of rhythm and blues greats like Ruth Brown and Ray Charles. The producer Jerry Wexler took you down to a studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., that was famous for its great session men, which included Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. And the first song that you recorded there was "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)." Now, Spooner Oldham tells a story that when he heard you sit down at the piano and play your first chord, he thought, 'Wow, that's really great' And that he — and he's a pianist — that he should let you play piano while he moved over to electric piano playing behind you. What did you think of that arrangement? Were you pleased that he agreed that you should be the one at the piano?

I remember that particular session. It was the very first session so naturally, yes, I remember it. And we really were kind of struggling at that point to get to the music. It just wasn't quite coming off although we had dynamite players. We had the Muscle Shoals Section and they were really very, very hot, cutting them out of good, greasy stuff, or what you would call greasy in that day. But we weren't getting to the music in the way that we should have. It just wasn't coming off. And finally someone said, "Aretha, why don't you sit down and play?" And I did, and it just happened. It all just happened. We arrived, and we arrived very quickly.

Peter Guralnick, the music critic, describes this recording, "I Never Loved A Man," as one of the most momentous takes in the history of rhythm and blues, in fact, in the history of American vernacular music. Now, your second single was "Respect" which is, I believe, your still most requested song. How did you end up singing this Otis Redding song?

Well, I heard Mr. Redding's version of it. I just loved it. And I decided that I wanted to record it. And my sister Carolyn and I got together. I was living in a small apartment on the West Side of Detroit. Piano by the window, watching the cars go by, and we came up with that infamous line, the "Sock it to me!" line. It was a cliché of the day. Actually, we didn't just come up with it, it really was cliché. And some of the girls were saying that to the fellows, like, "Sock it to me in this way or sock it to me in that way." Nothing sexual, and it's not sexual. It was nonsexual, just a cliché line.

What did this song mean to you when you sang it? I mean, really part of the backdrop of this song [was] it was a hit during the civil rights movement, and I think, you know, respect had a lot of meanings in the song for your listeners. One was, you know, just the respect you wanted from a man in a relationship. But it also had, I think, a larger resonance with the civil rights movement, you know, a kind of larger social, cultural sense of respect.

Yes. In later times, it was picked up as a battle cry by the civil rights movement. But when I recorded it, it was pretty much a male-female kind of thing. And more in a general sense, from person to person, "I'm going to give you respect and I'd like to have that respect back or I expect respect to be given back."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 15, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly identified singer Arthur Prysock as Arthur Price.