Aretha, we hardly knew you

No doubt, you’ve read all of the tributes to Aretha Franklin since the news of her death broke yesterday.

The radio stations of the world have been playing her music non-stop in many cases, and appropriately so. The newspaper music critics have published their top-10 lists of her music.

But it’s biographer David Ritz’ account in Rolling Stone of the time she performed a Puccini aria at the Grammys that won the day.

During the winter of 1998, I traveled with Aretha to New York where she was to sing at the Grammys. She was in high spirits. At a MusiCares charity concert, she sang “Nessun Dorma,” the Puccini aria, which she’d prepared with a vocal coach in Detroit. She sang splendidly. We dined at Le Cirque 2000, one of the city’s toniest restaurants. Over a sumptuous five-course meal, she renewed her vow to overcome her fear of flying and return to Paris, where she hadn’t performed in 30 years. At the Grammys, she rendered a rousing rendition of “Respect.” A half hour later, Pavarotti was set to sing the same “Nessun Dorma” Aretha had sung three days before, but cancelled at the last minute. Aretha was asked to replace him.

In her dressing room, seated before a mirror, she breathed deeply before turning to producer Ken Erhlich to ask a single question. Would the orchestra be playing the same arrangement she had used at MusiCares? They would not. Different arrangement, different key, bigger orchestra, not to mention the addition of a 20-voice choir. Was there a recording of the arrangement? Yes. Erhlich handed her the tape. How long before she was to sing the aria live for a worldwide audience of untold millions? Twenty minutes.

“Fine,” was all she said.

As she listened to the tape, her eyes remained opened, her face expressionless. She listened to the orchestration twice through before quietly saying, “I can do it.”

Years later — 2015 — she repeated the performance — in her key — for the pope in Philadelphia.

If you love beauty, you’re going to need a tissue.

Ritz worked for years to convince Aretha to let him be her biographer and she finally relented. Her closest friends told him she never let her guard down to provide real introspection, but Ritz was convinced he could.

I didn’t. I found what we wrote — From These Roots (1999) — shallow and void of introspection. During the process, Aretha and I remained civil to another, but she clearly rejected my approach and fashioned the book according to her fantasy of an idyllic life. That was her right. We’re all free to mythologize ourselves any way we please.

The grief that Franklin leaves behind is also a recognition that we never really knew her.

  • Gary F

    I love hearing all the great stories that made her the queen.

    I heard a story yesterday about why she always brought her purse on stage and put it on the piano in clear sight. She demanded that she got paid before she performed and put the money in her purse so there was no question where the money was. They said Chuck Berry carried a revolver with him because sometimes he needed it to get paid. Just thinking of how tough it was to be a black entertainer those days, heck even just an entertainer, with the shady promoters and night club owners and the turbulent racial relations of the day.

    That lady could sing.

  • MrE85

    Just in case you’re not an opera buff, that aria is from the final act of “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini. It’s considered one of the best (and challenging) works for an operatic tenor. It was one of the late Luciano Pavarotti’s signature works.

    As you can hear for yourself, the Queen made it her own, too..

  • Barton

    I’ve been honestly surprised by how much her death has impacted me. Listening to The Current’s tribute yesterday had me tearing up nearly every other song. A co-worker came by at one point yesterday morning, while I had tears streaming down my face, and asked what was wrong. I said, “Aretha.” He nodded and moved on: I saw him later, silently crying when listening to How I Got Over.

    I had the same reaction for Bing Crosby (when I was a kid) and Prince. I expect I’ll behave the same way when Willie Nelson leaves us. Still, the reaction to Aretha’s death surprised me.

  • Al

    We singers are very, very particular about having rehearsed in one key and performing in another. It’s the feel of the notes, the muscle memory that trips you up. She’s a damn master.

  • Al

    I had a gig a few years back where I was subbing for a band’s vocalist, and they asked if I could cover “Baby, I Love You.” I said no. Absolutely not. I’m not about to go out there and make a fool of myself trying to do Aretha. Are you kidding me?

    But I have a confession: In the car, me and Aretha, we’re tight. It doesn’t matter if I can hit those notes (I can’t, because no human being can); she carries us both. I am, if only temporarily, the Junior Princess of Soul, trying my best to sing with the Queen.

  • X.A. Smith

    I remember that Grammy performance like it was yesterday. Every couple years I’ll watch it again, never making it through without the waterworks.

  • tarry_on

    Couldn’t watch these til today. Yes, ugly cry I did. Beauty indeed. RIP, Ms. Franklin.