Aretha: Her story was in her songs

Six songs tell you as much about Aretha Franklin as any memoir ever could. The Queen of Soul was not much for talking about her life, so with the help of Oprah Winfrey, Paul Simon, Questlove and others, we peel back the layers of emotion, technique and lived experience she packed into these key performances.

Franklin performs at the Chicago Theater in 1986. (Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

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Aretha Franklin’s performance at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Fest was a defining moment ... for the festival. (Monique Jacot/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

‘Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)’

There’s magic in making ‘sit’ a four-syllable word

In 1994, the first time the Roots played the Montreux Jazz Fest, event founder Claude Nobs took the band’s frontman Questlove to his house to watch a film of Aretha Franklin performing at the festival in 1971. “He told me, ‘This is the reason I dedicate my life to Montreux Jazz,’ ” Questlove recalls.

It had taken Nobs years to get Aretha to play there. She had canceled repeatedly, made extravagant demands — a bigger dressing room, an extra suite — and he had tried to woo her with flowers and candy, he later told Franklin biographer David Ritz. “It was hell trying to arrange the date.”

Now, though, in June 1971, she was there onstage, in a flowing gown and dangling earrings — relaxed but in control of her music and her audience. Though she often hired local musicians on the cheap while touring Europe, this time she had brought her regular band, saxophone great King Curtis and the Kingpins. But as she sat at the Steinway midway through her 10-song set, it was clear that this young woman, not yet 30, was not merely the singer but the de facto bandleader. Watching her now, Questlove still finds it astonishing.

Questlove

“It’s literally her in a zone so deep and so spiritual,” said the Roots’ frontman.

“Aretha doesn’t get the credit because she’s not dancing around like James Brown. A lot of his body movement accentuates the band that’s behind him, but, you know, she has just as much power, if anything more power, sitting at the piano commanding her band.”

And then, eight songs in, came the high point: “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business).”

She started with a piano roll, then paused.

“Does anybody feel like hearing the blues?” she coyly asked her audience. “You don’t think it’s too early for the blues right now?”

She resumed playing and began to sing. “I don’t want nobody . . . always . . . sss-sss-sss-sitting around . . . ”

It went on for six or seven seconds, that sss-sss-sss. Search as much as you like; she never sang the song quite like that in any other recorded performance. “It just becomes something beyond onomatopoeia or chanting,” says Questlove. “To watch her pronounce the word ‘sit’ for six seconds, it’s just unheard of. That’s when you’re lost in a zone, that’s when you’re really into your craft.”

When she wrote “Dr. Feelgood” — for her breakthrough 1967 album “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” — she was married. Unhappily. To the co-writer of the song. Ted White was her husband, her manager and her tormentor, the man she married in 1961 against her father’s wishes, when she was just 19.

The marriage was yet another miserable aspect of her personal life that Franklin would attempt to keep under wraps, long after it was over, in her effort to project an “upbeat, straight ahead” persona. The melancholy truth had been at least partially exposed in a 1968 Time cover story, which described White “roughing her up” in public at an Atlanta hotel and Franklin’s depressive tendencies: “She sleeps til afternoon, then mopes in front of the television set, chain-smoking Kools and snacking compulsively.”

“Dr. Feelgood” was the B-side of her smash hit “Respect.” The title gives the game away. And the action within is basically about the singer wishing for time alone with “my man.” She doesn’t need a doctor, she doesn’t need pills.

I love ya girl, but I don’t no have time

To sit with you, and chit with you, and sit and chitchat and smile

In that 1968 Time story, the comedian Godfrey Cambridge noted that most soul songs have the same theme: “A woman works all day cooking and cleaning a house for white folks, then comes home and has to cook and clean for her man. Sex is the only thing she’s got to look forward to, to set her up to face the next day.”

“Dr. Feelgood” wraps itself around so much that defined her. It is spiritual and sexual, sometimes within the same couplet. “Oh! Yeah! Oooh!/Oh, good God almighty. The man sure makes me feel real . . . goooooooood!”

When producer Jerry Wexler first heard the demo, it brought to mind a Bessie Smith song, soaked in sexuality. “Don’t put it to Aretha like that,” White told Wexler. “She doesn’t like to think she writes sexy songs.”

The Montreux “Feelgood” is all about the build, the balloon ready to burst, the tears, the tension, the everything. A vocal exorcism.

“It’s literally her in a zone so deep and so spiritual that it just — I won’t even say reduced her — it elevated her to primitive expression,” says Questlove. “That’s her version of [John] Coltrane’s primitive screaming on ‘My Favorite Things.’ That’s her version of Sly Stone’s yelling at the end of ‘Sing a Simple Song.’ That’s her expression of Pharoah Sanders, ‘The Creator has a Master Plan.’ When you zone out into primitive expression, I don’t know, it’s almost like tantric sex.”

Franklin surprised Carole King by performing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to King in 2015. (Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS via Getty Images)

‘Natural Woman’ and ‘Bridge’

They weren’t adaptations. They were transformations.

Aretha Franklin didn’t merely interpret songs. She did whatever she felt she needed to make them her own. Tempos changed, words were added or shed, entire verses ignored. Take two of Franklin’s greatest adaptations: She recast Carole King’s tender demo for “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” as a jubilant affirmation. It cracked the Top 10 in 1967. She took “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon & Garfunkel’s masterpiece, and released her own version in the spring of 1971, just a year after the original hit No. 1. Both authors spoke to The Washington Post about the unnerving and awe-inspiring experience of hearing her reinvent their words and melodies.

Carole King, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”

[King co-wrote the song with her then-husband and collaborator, Gerry Goffin, and Jerry Wexler in 1967.] We were walking on Broadway. And [producer] Jerry Wexler’s limo glides up along the street, and the window comes down. And he says, “Hey, I got a title for you. I want you to write a song for Aretha Franklin. Think you can do it?” “Yeah, sure, sure we can.” And on the way home we listened to WMJR, the rhythm-and-blues station in New Jersey for inspiration. And I, who did not grow up in church, was somewhat familiar with that slow, 6/8 gospel rhythm, and we heard some songs like that on the way home.

Carole King

The singer-songwriter thought Franklin’s version of her own song “was a joyous cry. ‘You make me feel!’”

And when we got home, I went to the piano and just started playing those chords, and Gerry started singing. We knew her general background. That she grew up in her daddy’s church and her preferred style was gospel music. Jerry had that title. He had the gift of being able to say very complex things in very simple words. And that’s what he did. . . . Her [version] was a joyous cry. “You make me feel!” It’s joyous. I have never heard anybody sing anything with that much joy except maybe gospel singers who sing about God. I couldn’t outdo Aretha for joy or celebration or anything else. [In 2015, when King was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors, Franklin sang her song in a surprise tribute.] My enormous appreciation for it, which started when she first came out in the mink coat. Okay! You go! Wow — that’s Aretha. She’s doing it in style. And then she sits down on the piano. And if you look at the video, you see me turn to someone behind me, which was my daughter and manager Sherry. And I said to her, “She’s playing!” Because, I mean, in her later years she was not doing that much. And she’s such a gifted pianist. And I knew that. So I was just beside myself with joy. And then she begins to sing and, you know, I’m over the moon.

(The Kennedy Center)

Paul Simon, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”

I was listening to gospel quartets. The Swan Silvertones, in particular. That’s where the title came from. It comes from a gospel line in “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep,” and Reverend [Claude] Jeter, he tosses that line out almost like an ad-lib: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water if you trust in my name.” [Franklin released her version in March 1971, about a year after Simon & Garfunkel, with a new opening line, “Don’t trouble the water, why don’t you just let it be,” that seemed to stray from Simon’s meaning.] Yeah, it bothered me. Not terribly.

Paul Simon

He was bothered by a lyric change but was honored to hear “a definitive black church version of the song.”

Not anything near enough for me to lose my elation at the fact that here was a definitive black church version of the song. What I mostly got from it was what that song sounded like. What the authentic sound of the roots of that song would be. Simon and Garfunkel, aside from a couple of early hits, was really not a folk duo and certainly “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is not a folk song, nor did we approach it as a folk song. It was approached as a gospel, as a hymn. Artie [Garfunkel] and Roy Halee, who was our engineer and co-producer, said, “It’s so great, you have to write the third verse” and I said “No, no, no. I said everything I want to say.” They said, “No, the song should get big.” And so I wrote the “Sail on, silver girl” part in the studio. And I always felt that it sort of didn’t attach to the other two verses in a way that I would have preferred if I had more time to write it. But as it turns out, that last verse seems to have a lot of power. I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe because it’s so positive. And, of course, Aretha kept that.

Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009. (Henny Ray Abrams/AP)

‘Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves’

It was a short ad-lib, but it added so much

Four-and-a-half minutes after the first snare hit in “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” Aretha Franklin delivers six words that you won’t find on any lyric sheet:

“Equal pay, hear what we say.”

With that simple line, Franklin reframed Annie Lennox’s up-tempo 1985 feminist anthem — which somehow managed to get a phrase like “the conscious liberation of the female state” onto MTV and the Billboard top 20 — and reminded us that for every advance worth celebrating, a pretty significant hurdle remained.

A Franklin superfan named Oprah Winfrey was listening.

She was a 31-year-old local TV host in Chicago. “And ‘Sisters,’ ” Winfrey says today, “felt like a song written for me.”

When she decided to take her show national in 1986, she would find inspiration in that call for equal pay, telling her bosses that her female producers needed to be better compensated. They resisted. “ ‘They’re in the same office doing the same thing,’ ” Winfrey recalls them saying. “ ‘They don’t have mortgages. They’re just a bunch of girls.’ ” That first Christmas after the show hit big, Winfrey rolled up thousands of dollars and gave them to her staff at the holiday party. And she went back to management to demand changes. “Either they’re going to get more money or I’m not going to work,” Winfrey told them. “And then we’re not going to have a show.”

Oprah Winfrey

At a turning point in her early TV career, it “felt like a song written for me.”

She kept “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” on steady rotation that year.

Aretha Franklin wasn’t at Selma or the March on Washington. Her political influence was more as muse than an on-the-ground agitator, her songs like “Respect” played by civil rights workers as they regrouped after being jailed for protesting. “Her music gave us a greater sense of determination to never give up or give in, and to keep the faith,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said after her death.

But that seemed to matter little during her career lull of the late 1970s. A series of records stiffed, including 1979’s disco disaster “La Diva.” She slowly rebuilt her career in the early ’80s, with a memorable cameo in “The Blues Brothers” and the 1982 R&B hit “Jump To It” — until 1985, when Franklin released “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” It would be her last platinum album, propelled in part by “Sisters.”

The Scottish pop star with the orange buzz-cut, who had spiked soul music with synthesizers on “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” was an unlikely Franklin collaborator. She had posed for an album cover behind a leather mask and clenched fists; aesthetically, anyway, she seemed a more overtly political figure than the diva from Detroit.

But “Sisters” was less a protest than a celebration, with a video celebrating Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Amelia Earhart and American suffragists.

Now there was a time when they used to say

That behind every great man.

There had to be a great woman.

But in these times of change you know

That it’s no longer true.

So we’re comin’ out of the kitchen

’Cause there’s somethin’ we forgot to say to you.

Franklin was not Lennox’s first choice. She and her Eurythmics collaborator David Stewart first tried Tina Turner, who sent word back that she thought the song was too political. That’s when Clive Davis suggested Franklin. Lennox was shocked when Davis called back to tell her they were good to go to Detroit.

“Aretha Franklin?” she asked. “Are you sure?”

She felt a little star-struck. Growing up on the remote northeast coast of Scotland, Lennox remembered singing “I Say A Little Prayer” to herself after hearing Franklin’s version on the radio as she got ready for school. “As a singer, it’s very hard to put these things into words,” she says. “But I think the thing about Aretha is there’s a casualness about the way she sounds. That would then go from casual to, like, white-hot, like transcendence, power. There’s nothing like it.”

In the Detroit studio, she and Stewart watched Franklin chain-smoking Kools. “That really shocked me because as a singer I took good care of my voice and her voice is so extraordinary and so I couldn’t put the two things together,” says Lennox. “It just amazed me that she could still produce such an incredible voice.”

Franklin also seemed down. Her father had died the year before, as had Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. Her second marriage had ended and she had been sued by the state of New York for back taxes. But Franklin never spoke about the sadness of her personal life. “There was no way I could express the pain,” she said later in “From These Roots,” her memoir. “I merely went on.”

At one point, she sat at the piano and played Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were.” Then she began to cry. Lennox wasn’t sure how to respond. A comforting hug seemed too forward. Lennox sensed an emotional wall — “a wall that you could not break through and that you just were better to sort of stay on the other side of,” she says. “I was trying to figure it out. She wasn’t vibrant. I didn’t experience her as being happy. But she was polite, and she was willing to sing.”

Nothing about Franklin’s performance on “Sisters” sounds morose. Midway through the first verse, her voice arrives to float over, up, down and through the music. Then there’s her ad-lib. In the video, it is actually Lennox who mouths the call for “equal pay,” but that’s just because of the way the camera fell on the lip sync. But Lennox can still remember when Franklin threw out the phrase, and the message that it delivered.

“I was like, ‘Yes, she really gets it.’ I wanted her to feel proud. I wanted her to feel this was a song she could feel was powerful and strong. And then she said ‘equal pay. That’s what we say.’’

Arms raised in triumph and jubilation, Franklin punctuates her performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammy Awards in 1998. She was a last-minute stand-in for Luciano Pavarotti. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

‘Nessun Dorma’

Sing an aria for Pavarotti, then do it again

Early in 1998, Mary Callaghan Lynch got a call from one of Aretha Franklin’s assistants. The star needed somebody to teach her how to sing opera — specifically, a certain aria. Callaghan Lynch, a soprano and founder of the Motor City Lyric Opera, was thrilled. “I am passionate about bringing opera to the masses,” she said, “so I thought, ‘This is cool, that someone of Aretha’s stature would do an aria.’ ”

The occasion was the February MusicCares gala honoring Luciano Pavarotti, who had asked Franklin to sing one of his favorites. Two nights later, on Feb. 25, 1998, they were scheduled to perform at the Grammy Awards. The live broadcast was underway when a staffer ran up to producer Ken Ehrlich with a piece of paper. It had Pavarotti’s hotel phone number scribbled on it.

Ehrlich: Which is strange because everybody was already there. I did call him back and was kind of shocked to learn, and I will never forget his exact words, “I am sick. I cannot sing for you. I will come to sing for you next year. What will you do?” I think I probably stood there stunned for 30 seconds. . . . Then the thought came to me that Aretha had sung “Nessun Dorma” [the night before]. And I thought, I think what I really need to do is to see if she thinks she could sing this song again. She was sitting there eating a piece of chicken. . . . And basically I looked her in the eye and said, “How would you like to sing twice tonight?”

Paul Shaffer (bandleader): The show’s being broadcast and they say, “Pavarotti is not coming. Aretha, will you do it — but you’ve got to do it in Pavarotti’s key?” And she just said yes. And focused on that, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Mary Callaghan Lynch

“[Aretha] had such trust and confidence in her own voice,” said the Motor City Lyric Opera founder.

Callaghan Lynch: Aretha always loved opera. . . . She had an incredible ear, she loved Puccini and I don’t know the history between Luciano and her. Maybe he was aware of that. The fact he would ask her to learn this aria is bold. It’s a tenor aria, and that’s his signature aria. That’s the only reason it made sense.

Ehrlich: As I was walking her from her dressing room to the stage, and she first saw this 45-piece orchestra and 30 singers who were going to accompany her, she said to me, “Oh, Ken, this is going to be great.” And then she took my hand and said, “Ken, turn off the air conditioning.” You don’t turn off the air conditioning in a place like Radio City Music Hall in 10 minutes. If you heard that she was difficult, probably some of it was related to this thing — air conditioning. She never understood from anyone, including me, that you can’t get a building up to 90 degrees and have people sit there. And when she heard air conditioning . . . it threw her off. I was victim to this because not four months later I had her on the “Divas” show, and she walked out of the Beacon because the air was on.

Questlove (frontman and drummer for the Roots): During the commercial, when we found out that Pavarotti was sick and that Aretha was a last-minute replacement, we just kept buzzing in the audience. “Wait, Aretha Franklin’s going to sing opera? Get out of here!”

Callaghan Lynch: I’m watching the Grammys and I’m going, “Oh my God. What is happening here?” She just took it down an octave. . . . Anyone who knows opera is like, ‘How did she do that, and how did she stay in the musical frame and keep it together,” which she would do. And she had such trust and confidence in her own voice.

Questlove: God, if I had an iPhone to get the collective mouth-drop of the audience that watched her actually perform the song. A lot of people remember the Soy Bomb Bob Dylan moment of the night and, mind you, that’s the night I won my first Grammy. That wasn’t even the highlight of my night. Me watching Aretha Franklin do that, that was the highlight.

Two weeks before her death last year, Franklin texted Callaghan Lynch.

Callaghan Lynch: I knew she was sick but she didn’t tell me what it was. I didn’t know she was that sick. And she would text to me and say, “Mary, I really want to work on this aria.” It was a beautiful aria, ‘Marietta’s Lied.’ And it’s in German. I said, “Aretha, German is no joke. Italian, you have the open vowels.” But she was fearless. She was like, “I can do this.” . . . She said, “Can we meet?” And I said, “Sure, we have a place in Northern Michigan.” It’s like a four-hour drive, and I’m literally heading out the door and she texts me, “Mary, I’m so sorry, I have to reschedule. But we will work again.”

Aretha Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, wipes her brow while she performs during the filming of “Amazing Grace” in 1972. (Neon)

‘Amazing Grace’

A moment of righteousness — ‘How sweet the sound!’ — caught on film

“Amazing Grace,” a concert documentary released this spring, 47 years after it was filmed, opens with Aretha Franklin sitting at the piano in a simple, long white dress at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles.

This is not the fur-dropping, VH1 diva who might stomp off a stage with barely an explanation. In “Amazing Grace,” she barely speaks, letting gospel icon the Rev. James Cleveland do the talking. She rarely looks up from the microphone. Never mind the rapturous audience in the pews, including Mick Jagger himself dancing and clapping along in a back row.

When her niece, Sabrina Owens, saw it recently, she was struck by how shy and vulnerable Franklin seemed. But she was not surprised by her intensity.

“She was there to work,” says Owens. “Whenever she was about to perform, Aretha went into what I like to call a zone, and when she went into that zone, she did not like interference.”

CeCe Winans

To the gospel star, the “Amazing Grace” album proved “that everybody would embrace” the genre.

“Amazing Grace,” the album that came out of this session, was a high point of Franklin’s 1970s recording career — and a crucial bridge from her “Respect” fan base to her church roots, says gospel star CeCe Winans, who came up a generation behind Franklin.

“It proved that everybody would embrace gospel music,” Winans says. “That it didn’t deserve to just be in a box. It brought the music to people who wouldn’t normally go to church or listen to gospel radio. That was a huge victory.”

Sam Cooke, Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley also felt the same tug between the church and the charts. But what set Franklin apart is the depth of her connection to gospel. It is what she grew up with, as a preteen singer releasing singles under the guidance of her pastor father.

John Newton’s two-century-old hymn is a touchstone for serious artists in somber settings, almost a memorial cliche. Yet when Franklin performs it, the song recaptures the raw emotion that drove the man who wrote it, a repentant sinner praying for God’s grace in a moment of moral peril.

(Neon)

She performed a hymn as naturally as she took on a Burt Bacharach tune. And gospel clearly provided an emotional salve for a woman who walled-off her private life after some crushing experiences with the media. Franklin may not have wanted to talk about her marriages or her preteen pregnancy or the way she coped, whether with food, drink or nicotine. But she could sing her way through whatever troubled her.

“You sing that song,” says Winans, “and you know that it’s because of the grace of God and the love of that that she made it through the struggle and the challenge.”

Yet “Amazing Grace,” the documentary, almost never saw the light of day.

Warner Bros. hired rising director Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie,” “The Way We Were”) to film the concert. But he lacked experience with live musical performances, and his team neglected to sync the sound and picture. For years, the footage seemed unsalvageable. But just before his death in 2008, Pollack talked with composer and record company executive Alan Elliott about reviving the project, and digital film advances made it possible for Elliott to create a solid cut of “Amazing Grace.”

Just before a planned release in 2011, though, Franklin filed suit against Elliott to stop it. Why? There are several theories. Franklin, who was legendary for carrying her purse onstage with her, had expected a solid payday for this project, but no one was going to make big money from a concert documentary in 2011. Elliott also speculates that Franklin still felt burned by the film’s failure to get off the ground in 1972, when she may have yearned for a shot at becoming a movie star, as peers such as Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand were attempting.

Owens doesn’t care to speculate. Around 2015, Elliott approached her for help and sent her a cut of the film. Owens, who had never heard of it, was stunned after watching it. Owens spoke to Franklin about “Amazing Grace” but didn’t try to change her mind.

“I did not ask her, ‘Why don’t you want this released?’ I did not ask her about her business. She said, ‘Yeah, I really liked it. I loved the film.’ But she didn’t get into why she didn’t want it released. There are boundaries, and I knew what the boundaries were.”

As executor of her aunt’s estate, Owens found that releasing “Amazing Grace” was an easy decision. The film was handsomely produced and quite moving. Nothing about it reflected poorly on her aunt.

Does she regret that Franklin didn’t get to hear the widespread acclaim for the concert film?

“I am a spiritual person,” Owens says, “and I am just hoping that in some way Aretha and her other family members are looking down at us and seeing the joy and all the accolades that the film released and she’s happy about it.”

Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers, The Washington Post's national arts reporter, covers everything from fine arts to popular culture. He's the author of "Walk This Way: Run-DMC, Aerosmith, and the Song That Changed American Music Forever." He is also the host of "Edge of Fame," a podcast co-produced by WBUR Boston.

About this story

Produced by Amy Argetsinger and Alexa McMahon. Photo editing by Mark Gail. Edited by Jim Webster and Wayne Lockwood. Design and development by Jake Crump.

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