Aretha Franklin: A Natural Woman - Up Close & Personal
By David Nathan
September 1978, in person interview at Aretha’s home in Encino, California…
In one of the very rare interviews she grants, 'Lady Soul' gives this in-depth story to David Nathan at her beautiful Encino, California home, a definitive conversation for Aretha’s many global admirers…
DN: Looking back over your illustrious career, what would you say have been some of the highlights?
AF: Well, let's see. Several performances come to mind. One in 1968, maybe '69, at Madison Square Garden where we honored my father, Rev. C.L. Franklin. There were a lot of really nice people there for that — Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Jesse Jackson. I got a chance to sing there with my sisters, Erma and Carolyn. And then we took the same show to the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles a few months later. Then, a few New York dates like a concert at Lincoln Center when I performed with Carolyn, and Radio City in 1974 which involved a lot of choreography and production. And the Hollywood Bowl in 1973 — that was great. Plus I was very honored when I was asked to sing at the pre-Inaugural Ball and the Inauguration for President Carter in 1977. Then, appearances in Europe have been very enjoyable. Really, those are some of the things I've certainly enjoyed the most.
DN: And what albums do you look back on in particular — ones that you may like listening to yourself?
AF: There are particular cuts I listen to on a lot of albums but I think I'd say the Fillmore West Album, "Never Loved A Man" (the first one on Atlantic), "Sparkle", "Almighty Fire", the latest one. And there are a couple on Columbia — "The Tender, Moving, Swinging" and "Soft And Beautiful".
DN: When you listen to them, do you analyze you own performance?
AF: No, not really, I just listen to enjoy them.
DN: Everyone is familiar with the title that you were given back in '67, '69, "Lady Soul". How did you feel about it then — and has it been really a pressure living up to it?
AF: No — not at all! In fact, I'd have to say it felt rather natural when people started using it. Naturally, I felt very grateful.
DN: When you signed with Atlantic back in '67, did you ever expect to be reaching millions of people all over the world?
AF: To be honest, I just wanted to make some good records. When I was younger, I wanted to sing, I enjoyed it — and of course, still do! But, no, I didn't quite expect things to happen the way they did. My father did — which was great — but yes, it kinda came as a surprise to me.
DN: And the fact that your music has touched so many people?
AF: That's something to be really grateful for too. If I can touch other people with my music, maybe help them have a better day, that's wonderful. There are certainly artists who do that for me.
DN: How about your period with Columbia Records? How do you feel about that?
AF: Being with CBS was good for me, it was a beginning. We had a fair amount of airplay and some of the records did quite well. I feel that we got an audience there who have stayed with us all through the years.
DN: And when you reflect over the years on the general music scene, what are your thoughts?
AF: That some of the things that were happening then were right for then and some of them could be right for today too. Music has gotten far more sophisticated with all those extra touches but I feel that R&B is still basically the same. It's just also had that sophisticated touch but the basic feeling is the same. Although we don't hear the doo-wops anymore! But music has gone through a lot of merging — jazz and r&b, pop and r&b, even country. But it still boils down to a good lyric and a good melody.
DN: And how about disco?
AF: I like it! I didn't think it would be as big as it is and I was kinda surprised that it was more than just a fad. But people seem to really like it and it's bringing them out into the clubs, dancing and meeting. I think the way clubs have become far more attractive now is a big help — the lighting, special effects and so on.
DN: Do you ever go to any discos yourself?
AF: Sure! Not very often now — but occasionally. I've been to Studio 54 in New York and the Speakeasy in L.A. and a disco down in Acapulco. I enjoy them, although sometimes the music can be very loud. It's nice because you can hear all your favorite artists at one time too. Plus, it's good for us girls who want to shed a few pounds!
DN: Do you think you might consider doing a disco record yourself?
AF: It's very possible — in fact I think I can say that we will at some point, yes.
DN: When you're home, who do you listen to?
AF: Well, everybody really! I listen to the radio a lot and from that I judge what albums I want to buy. I used to just buy nearly everything that came out but nowadays, you really have to listen to one or two cuts before you can decide whether to buy an album. But my favorites…Barry White, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Rufus, The Emotions, the Four Tops — I love them! Earth, Wind & Fire, Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. And there are people who are friends — like Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye and Stevie (Wonder). I like them as people and I like their music in particular — they always seem to have good material on their albums.
DN: You mentioned Roberta & Donny and there are a lot of duos coming out now. Have you ever thought about doing one yourself?
AF: Well, it's a funny thing you should mention that!! We're in the process of working on that situation right now and we'll have a record out real soon — but I can't tell you who it's gonna be! I'd like to — but we just haven't finished all the paper work. But it's someone who's compatible musically. It will be my first real up-front duet — because I did a couple at Columbia. We had "Love Is The Only Thing" back in 1960 with Paul Owens — but it didn't do all that well. And then the guy on "Mockingbird" around 1965 that's Nate Nelson — he used to be one of the Flamingos. On both occasions, we were both there for the sessions, yes.
DN: Turning now to your own recent albums. What are your thoughts on them and the fact that they didn't do as well as perhaps they might?
AF: Musically and artistically both "Sweet Passion" and "Almighty Fire" were fine with me. But unfortunately, I'd have to say that there wasn't enough promotion or proper marketing on them. That's what I think was the basic problem. Yes, I registered my disappointment with the company but there isn't much you can do about it — except hope it doesn't happen again. The thing is that if people don't hear your records on the radio they are not going to know about them.
DN: Like "Break It To Me Gently" should have been a big pop record.
AF: Yes, the company took it to No.1 on the r&b charts and couldn't cross it.
DN: There are people who probably buy every one of your albums but there are those others who may like one or two cuts on an album and they must hear them to know about them.
AF: Yes, that's definite.
DN: You worked with Curtis Mayfield on two albums — "Sparkle" and "Almighty Fire". How was working with him and what do you think of the albums?
AF: Curtis is great once we get inside the studio. It's all the preparation, it's all the things that go on before we get to that point. We're very compatible once he and I are in there. What happens is he'll send me material to review and I'll send him things I like too. I'm happy with "Almighty Fire" although the material is kinda six of one and a half dozen of the other. I thought some of it was better than the material on the "Sparkle" album although that had much more of a concept to it.
DN: There's a cut on "Almighty Fire which you wrote with your husband, (Glynn Turman). It doesn't sound as if you did it when you did the rest of the material.
AF: No, you're quite right, we didn't! We did it out here in Los Angeles and we kinda produced it ourselves because Curtis wasn't even there when we recorded it. We decided to keep it real simple — just piano and vocals. Glynn and I wrote the song in about an hour. What happened was that I came up with a melody and we both really liked it — and Glynn came through with the lyrics. I'm really glad people seem to like it.
DN: Have you written any more songs together?
AF: Well, we've put together a song as an entry for the theme for a movie, "Morning Glory" which we are also trying to put into motion, with a role for me in the movie itself — but that's about all we've done as far as writing goes right now.
DN: The way "I'm Your Speed" sounds perhaps you should produce yourself more often.
AF: Oh no! That's just too many hats — it's a lot of responsibility. It's enough singing and writing material. I wouldn't even think about it — no, it's not going to happen. Writing the tunes and just perfecting your own vocal performances is enough work. Now I do co-produce things because you've always got someone else you can relate to and exchange ideas with.
DN: I understand you've recorded "You Light Up My Life" which has been getting standing ovations in your live shows.
AF: Yes, I did that with H.B. Barnum — we produced it together. His arangement is beautiful and we recorded it recently out there in L.A. Atlantic has it now and I think it's going to be the next single. Yes, I think it will do well because people seem to like the song anyway. In fact, I really liked Debbie Boone's version myself.
DN: Yes, you've been successful with songs that have been pop hits before — like "Bridge Over Troubled Waters". Obviously, you like the songs, right?
AF: There are a lot of songs that I really like but obviously we can't record them all! That's why there are certain pop records I buy — because I'd like to think about doing them myself. That's one of the reasons I liked the "Soft & Beautiful" album on Columbia — it had some nice standard songs on it.
DN: Would you say that was where your 'head' was at?
AF: I like all good music — whatever it is. But I do like mellow things too, yes and going back to what we were saying about albums I like, I think I dig that other Columbia album, ("Tender, Moving, Swinging") because it's got the kind of material we haven't had much opportunity to do lately. Hopefully, we'll be able to change that!
DN: And what about your songwriting?
AF: I wrote quite a few of the songs on "Sweet Passion" — "Meadows In Springtime", "When I Think About You" and the title song. Sure, I do have a stockpile of songs that I've written over the years and I listen to them to review them for future use all the time. But you can only include nine or ten cuts on one album — so some things have to get put back. And then sometimes, you'll put a song back for the next album and it never gets recorded. I have plenty of material like that.
DN: People frequently wonder if your songs reflect your own personal situation when you write or record them.
AF: Well, sometimes they're personal and sometimes they're just based on a situation I might see. People may think that they're personal but that's up to them. It doesn't stop me from writing because I still feel comfortable doing that regardless of what people may see in the songs.
DN: A lot of black entertainers are moving into areas now. Like forming their own record labels. Earth, Wind & Fire, Barry White and so on.
AF: Yes, and that's something we're considering doing right at this precise moment. In fact, by the end of the month, we should have all the facts about whether it's something we should go ahead and do or not. There are certainly people I'd like to have on the label and yes, it will include me as an artist. We've been thinking about it for some time now and we had started to work on it a few years back but it wasn't the right time. It's the project that has top priority for me right now.
DN: And you're doing some other new and adventurous things, right?
AF: Yes indeed! We're getting into merchandising. That will involve my own line of play clothes for the ladies and the teens; a line of hats which I'm designing and my own make up. I've done some designs before — clothes — that I was due to get with a top designer, Bob Mackie, on — but we never hooked up.
DN: In fact, as far as your own wardrobe goes, how much input do you have into that?
AF: Quite a bit bit I leave a lot up to the designers themselves. Most of what I wear I select myself and the people I choose to do the designs as people who cater for the 'well-dressed woman'. Some things look good on me and some things may not sometimes — it's really about feeling good about what you wear. You can't please everybody and as long as I'm comfortable with what I wear, I think that's what's important. Occasionally, maybe one of my family will tell me if they don't like something but that's rare!
DN: During your Carnegie Hall concert in New York at the end of May, you included a segment of your show dedicated to Josephine Baker.
AF: Yes, I figured people in the big cities would particularly like that — especially in New York where she's played in concert. The reaction was mixed — we had the pros and the cons. I'd like to think it was more pro than con! I enjoyed doing it and I really hoped people would too.
DN: And yon also do impersonations of some other entertainers, right?
AF: Yes, that was a segment that always goes down well. I haven't had a chance to find out what the ladies in question think but I've spoken to Mavis (Staples) and her family saw it and liked it. Mavis and I are good friends and she said that from what she heard, it was alright! No, it wasn't hard for me to do — although I don't think I'd ever get into comedy myself. My favorite comedians? Well, Red Foxx, Flip Wilson and a new guy who performed at my wedding, Paul Mooney — he's in "The Buddy Holly Story" playing Sam Cooke.
DN: Speaking of your wedding, how has your marriage changed your life?
AF: It hasn't really. Glynn is a vegetarian — although he eats some poultry and fish — so I cook for him separately — because I still like some meat on my plate! I'll fix him vegetable caseroles, things like that.
DN: You're something of a gourmet, right?
AF: Well, let's just say I switch around the kitchen! I have quite a few recipes of my own and we are gonna put them together in a cook book eventually. You know, we were going to do that a few years back when I lost a lot of weight — with a 'before' and 'after' picture but I've gained a few pounds back since then so it would be more like 'before' and 'before' right now!! But maybe we'll wait till I lose some weight again — I'm on a diet right now and it's just about not eating so much of what you like rather than cutting things out completely. But what I need is more exercise — and that's something I don't do enough of. It's what my kids call the pits!!
DN: How do you look upon marriage in general?
AF: I don't feel that everyone has to deal with a piece of paper. But it's always been here and I think it always will be. Personally, I agree with the tradition that love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage! I think, though, that it's an individual thing up the people involved. I do feel though that people are getting back to some of the more traditional, basic things in life. Take just foods — what we see happening around us is that people are getting more and more concerned about what is actually in their food. That might be one of the reasons more and more people are becoming vegetarians. In fact, we've started growing some of our own vegetables in the garden. It's the first time — we've got carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage — it's gonna be fun having fresh vegetables to eat.
DN: Another institution, like marriage, that people seem to be getting back to is religion.
AF: Well, I can't really say whether they are or not but I do know that gospel music is coming to the forefront now more than ever and I think that's one of the nice things that's happening. Like when Reverend James Cleveland was on the Grammies last year and they've got "Mahalia" on Broadway — things like that. Gospel has contributed so much to so many forms of music so it's nice to see people recognizing that.
DN: Yes, even in popular songs. People like Earth, Wind & Fire…
AF: Well, to me, their message is more inspirational than 'spiritual' per se. They do have some great songs in there, with some great messages that people obviously want to hear. In fact, they sent me some material — I haven't gotten to it yet.
DN: Now that would be a great combination — you and Maurice White.
AF: I'd love for Maurice to produce me. Yes, we've met — I also met Phillip and a couple of the guys — if it happened, it would be great.
DN: There are probably not too many top producers that are on that level.
AF: Right. I'd like to work with quite a few people — Johnny Bristol, Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, Stevie (Wonder) — although he's always so busy!
DN: Silly question. What is a typical day — if such a thing exists — like for you?
AF: Hmm, soap operas from 11.30 to 3.00.! I'm really into them, honestly. They are like ongoing sagas — I wouldn't call them exactly dramatic masterpieces — but I do enjoy them. Then, listening to some good records, playing the piano a little, things like that. And cooking, watching movies on T.V. — now I have that special channel I can catch all the movies I haven't gotten to see — like "Which Way Is Up" — I dug that. I haven't seen "Saturday Night Fever" but I'd like to see it and "Greek Tycoon" — that sounds real good.
DN: Do you do many vocal exercises?
AF: Well, I'll rehearse every now and again on vocal exercises. I went to a vocal class a few years back and it was very good.
DN: I can't imagine a vocal teacher telling you how to sing!!
AH: I did learn from the lessons, really. And I sing at home quite a bit — just building up my repertoire and so on.
DN: Aretha, some people feel that you haven't gotten to that elusive pinnacle in terms of total recognition from everyone yet? What do you think?
AF: I must say, I'm very happy with the awards, the citations, the gold records, the nominations, everything. I'm truly very thankful to everyone who's helped that to happen. And we mustn't be greedy, must we!!! Sure, I'd like to have another 23 gold records — it's always a thrill when I get just one, believe me. Now we're hoping for platinum, of course!
DN: What do you see yourself doing in five years time?
AF: Movies on a regular basis. It would be a logical next step and it's something I really want to do. I think it would be hard work but it would also be a lot of fun. Maybe some dramas, musicals, even a little comedy and definitely some romance!
DN: And television?
AF: Well, we have our special out, "Aretha In Concert" which was taped with the ITV Symphony Orchestra in Edmondton, Canada. Yes, I'd like to so something with special guests, that kind of program and we're talking to producers about that now.
DN: Some silly questions! What are your hobbies?
AF: Tennis, I like that a lot. Crotcheting and sketching a little. And I like to get with the golf balls every now and again. Movies — but like I said now I can see them at home. I don't go out that often to see them.
DN: And the secret of your success?
AF: Now if I told you that, it wouldn't be a secret anymore — right?!!
DN: And concluding:
AF: Well, I'm very happy for all the success that's come. I just want to do some more of everything. In fact, you could say that I'm really expanding my horizons. There are a lot of goals I haven't even begun to get to yet!
David Nathan post-interview notes:
Undoubtedly, my interview with Aretha was one of the most enjoyable ever conducted. Throughout, Aretha was cordial, charming and very personable — we left out the number of times she smiled and laughed because it was happening all throughout the interview. She was relaxed, happy and peaceful — noting "all the kids are on summer vaction right now which is why it's so quiet in here — they're usually zipping around all over the place!" but it's obvious that Aretha really enjoys and loves her family very much. It was great to have the privilege of seeing this natural woman being just that!
Special thanks to the folks at Atlantic Records for assisting — Simo Doe, Noreen Woods, Cathy Aquaviva, Bob Greenberg, Paul Cooper — but most especially thanks to the lady herself for her time, patience and cooperation.