A rare and exclusive interview with David Nathan. Aretha tells B&S about her new album, her movie and tour plans, and life on the West Coast...
HOW MANY true superstars do you know who have managed to amass some 21 gold records in ten years (an average of two per year), ten Grammies and won countless polls and awards (including Blues & Soul's own Award as Top Female Vocalist) — and are still going strong?
No, don't waste any time trying to sit and count — because there is only one that we know of! Her name is Aretha Franklin and regardless of what you might hear, she remains the undisputed Queen of Soul and, beyond that, Aretha has moved into what can only be called legendary status.
True, that over the past couple of years, Aretha has not been turning out records at quite the rate she used to and she's more selective now about touring. But after a period of some seven or eight years of non-stop activity (since she joined Atlantic Records and begun to collect that gold back in 1967), everyone's entitled to slow down and Aretha's no exception.
Note, we said slow down: we didn't say stop and whenever Aretha has gone back into the studios, she's always come through with something special.
Last year, she collected her seventh gold album for the soundtrack for "Sparkle" written and composed by another genius of our time, Curtis Mayfield. "Sparkle" provided Lady Soul with another super smash in the extra-soulful "Something He Can Feel", squashing all those rumours that she'd been dethroned by various contenders to the soul throne by assorted newly-emerging stars such as Natalie Cole.
And if 1976 was a good year for Aretha, she started 1977 off with a bang! Chosen to sing at President Jimmy Carter's Inaugural ball in January, it was Aretha's voice that held the country spellbound when she sang "God Bless America" accapella at the close of the event and it was a true tribute to her artistry that indeed she was selected.
Since then, Aretha's been a regular on television shows, having hosted "The Midnight Special" and appearing on Johnny Carson's famous "Tonight Show" and, good news for all Aretha's ardent fans, she's just finished work on a new album.
Co-produced with none other than Lamont Dozier, the album — "Sweet Passions" has just been released in the States and is already giving Aretha a strong foothold on the charts.
In one of the very rare interviews that Aretha gives (she called B&S' resident American correspondent at 6.30 pm one evening whilst he was quietly napping and watching reruns of "I Love Lucy" and completely freaked him out! In fact, I confess that initially I thought it was someone playing a joke on me!), she informed B&S that she found Lamont "very easy to work with.
"He's a really nice guy and it was a pleasure doing the sessions. Lamont brought over some material one day and we went over it, sorting out songs that I liked and so on. And that's really how we did it.
"On top of that, I had some songs myself — there are four on the album including the title track, "Sweet Passions". "Meadows in The Springtime" and we also included "When I Think About You", which we did on the television spots recently".
In addition, the album features Aretha's current chart item in "Break It To Me Gently" which was produced by none other than Mr Marvin Hamlish, who also co-wrote the song with Carole Sager. Mr. Hamlish is of course the gentleman behind "The Sting's" theme music and also part penned the classic "Way We Were".
Aretha didn't consider working with Marvin in any way out of context. "What happened was that Marvin had the song and he called me up and told me he'd like for me to hear it and he came over, played it to me — and the next day we were in the studio recording it!"
Considering the wide variety of material that Aretha has recorded over the years, it would obviously be a mistake to lock her into one bag and consider that all her producers should be R&B oriented. We wondered if she'd ever thought about working with Bacharach & David, for instance.
"Well, that might be an interesting combination," Aretha stated. "I've always dug the material they did with Dionne and, as you know, I've recorded some of their songs.
"It's the lyrical content that I particularly like. You see, that's what really means something to me. What the song is saying — that's why I'm particular about choosing my material."
Certainly, the material on Aretha's new album is up to her usual high standards and she's very happy with the album, anticipating that she may work with Lamont again in the future.
Right now, Aretha says, she's concentrating on "getting a part in a movie. That's something I really want to do now. It's top priority for me. And I'd also like to try my hand at doing a soundtrack, you know, scoring a film."
Additionally, Aretha says there's the possibility of doing a television special soon and she's planning to go out on the road during the next few weeks for some dates in connection with the Kool Jazz Festival.
"I'm also aiming to get to New York real soon. In fact, the only reason we haven't been there recently to perform has been the lack of availability of a theatre on Broadway, because that's what I would like to do. It seems that you have to book about eight or nine months ahead of time to get an opening with all the plays being on there for such long runs, but there is a possibility of an opening maybe in June.
"But certainly, I do want to get back and perform there, and here in Los Angeles, as soon as we can get the right venues. I certainly want our loyal record-buyers to know that we have no intention of forgetting about them!"
And just in case Aretha's many long-standing European fans feel left out, she's got news for them too! "Yes, I'll definitely be coming back over later in the year," she says.
"We're planning to go to England, France, Switzerland and a couple of places I've never performed before like Austria and Denmark. Yes, I'm really looking forward to it because I haven't been over there in some time. It should be great," enthuses Aretha.
Aretha's been living out in California for about a year and a half now.
"Yes, I really like it out here!" she was quick to point out. "It's really nice — the people are friendly, I dig it. Plus, there's the open spaces, the grass, being next to nature. It kinda reminds me of Detroit — so I guess it's home away from home.
"No, I don't find it too quiet because we always keep busy doing something. I miss New York from a performing point of view but like I say, we do plan to rectify that real soon."
Aretha revealed that her future plans include "some real surprises! If I told you, they wouldn't be surprises anymore, right? But there may be some things outside of music — time will tell what we're gonna do!" she laughs teasingly.
One thing Aretha does state though: "The one thing I wanna keep on doing is making good records" and that's probably the best news of all, for all the millions of folk across the world who still acknowledge the Lady as Queen of Soul!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.