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Aretha, by Any Other Name

Lynell George is a Times staff writer

Hers is the voice that has grown up with us: Transistor-size, we tucked under our pillow; 45-rpm-size, we stacked on our changers for backyard parties; crisp and clear digital-size, it’s bellowed out, not just full bloom, but full of memories.

In a career that has spanned four decades and garnered more Grammys (15) than any other female artist, Aretha Franklin--The Queen of Soul--has gone the full stretch, with juice to spare.

Her hit 1998 album, “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” is another laurel. The collection, whose title track was written and produced by Lauryn Hill, has brought her still more Grammy nominations--best female R&B; vocal and best R&B; album.

And Franklin, at 56, isn’t ready to rest: She has just finished her autobiography, and she hopes to produce a documentary on the Rev. Jesse Jackson, develop a line of cooking videos and someday start a chain of restaurants in the Detroit area . . . Aretha’s Chicken and Waffles!

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But on the eve of this year’s Grammys, Aretha Franklin has a cold--brought on by the weather. And on top of that, she’s been weathering a lot more than a sore throat.

Last week, the Detroit Free Press reported that more than 30 lawsuits, totaling “just over $1 million” and mostly involving such matters as unpaid hotel and catering bills, have been filed against her since 1988.

Branding the report “malicious” in a written statement, she declared, “No one is owed anything today and I have no knowledge . . . of any suits with the state of Michigan. . . . I am very sorry that it had to come to the suit status; however this was not intentional. . . . I have never purchased any goods or services without the intention of paying my bills in a timely and responsible manner.”

Hoarse but recovering from it all, Franklin spoke from her home in Detroit about her gospel roots, her role in defining soul music in the ‘60s, and all those Grammys.

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Question: Just how cold is it?

Answer: Oh, it was wretched. Everybody in the group was sick. All of the singers. I had to cancel my pre-Grammy TV appearance on CBS and stay in bed.

Q: Looking back at your career, was there a particular moment--a concert, a day in the recording studio, an award, when it hit you: “I’ve made it!”

A: Mmmm, I think probably more a collection of events, but certainly a high point would have been the lifetime achievement award at the Grammys [in 1994]. What a splendid night. . . .

Q: What do you remember about it?

A: Oh, everything, just the award in itself. The fact that Danny Glover presented it to me, and my sons were there. And the standing ovation from the audience. Just everything. . . .

Q: You’re mentioned by so many artists--male, female, young, old--as a role model, a goal to work toward, an inspiration. But what has it been like for you to live up to your own expectations? At this point in your career, what are the goals that you set for yourself?

A: I think the hardest thing is losing the weight. That’s the hardest thing more than anything else--especially when you stop smoking. It just isn’t easy. And the thing that has really thrown a monkey wrench in it is the fact that I travel so much--once you get regularity going with the diet, it’s disrupted leaving and being in concert with a completely different kind of scheduling. . . . But I’m managing to keep it down to a fruit plate and a glass of orange juice now. I’ve come all the way from a couple of cheeseburgers after a concert [she laughs]. So I’m working, I’m working on it.

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Q. And as for the smoking, what made you decide that now was finally the time to stop?

A: I wasn’t liking what I was hearing with my voice for one thing. I knew I just needed to stop. And of course now [my voice] is different as night and day--the range, the clarity. Everything. I heard it immediately. It took more discipline to quit than anything else.

Q: It’s been said that you took a strong hand in creating and developing your own sound in the ‘60s. Was that considered bold or taboo for a woman at that time, to try to take hold of her image that way?

A: Probably at that time, the only other singer I can think of who was doing her own productions was Deniece Williams maybe. Perhaps Nick and Val [Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson], where a woman was involved in the production. They just let me do what I wanted to do. I was just grateful that I was not dictated to for one thing, but my contract gave me the room to not be dictated to. That they believed in my music and what it was I had to offer. And they let me fully and freely express that. It was just fate that I went to Atlantic, and that Atlantic was the kind of company that it was. Many of my favorite singers had been on their roster . . . like Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, the Clovers. So I think the fact that they were there and [executive] Jerry Wexler made the overture for me to come to the label was all a part of the master plan.

Q: Part of the lore is that you were spurred toward exploring secular music by Sam Cooke’s example.

A: Yes.

Q: What was your road like venturing out of sacred music and toward a recording contract? Was your family--most particularly your father--supportive?

A: My father was very supportive of whatever it was I wanted to do. And he certainly appreciated Sam as well as a vocalist. My father had a very broad appreciation for artists of genius. He had friends who would visit the church--like Art Tatum, who was a genius, undoubtedly, no question about it. One of the world’s greatest pianists, certainly second to no one. And Lionel Hampton . . . was a friend of his. So he certainly had musical acumen and savoir-faire as an artist himself, as a singer. He didn’t sing a lot, but he could have sung with the best of them. He sang at home and at church.

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Q: Did he help guide you through the first years as you were trying to make decisions?

A: Yes. Just with his support and taking me to New York and getting me situated there to begin with at the YWCA. I stayed at the Y for about two weeks, and then I moved into a small hotel there, . . . then I moved in with my manager. And at that point Sam had signed with RCA Victor and I had signed with Columbia. And I only understood much later that he had fought to get me to sign with RCA but I was not aware of that. . . . Columbia was the biggest record company in the world. They were national and international, and I didn’t need to go any further than right there.

Q: What made you decide to leave Columbia?

A: I left after about seven years. They picked up options that they had. And after about seven years and the invitation from Jerry [Wexler], we went to Atlantic.

Q: And that’s when everything started to take off for you. Was the response a surprise?

A: We were blown away. We were all blown away when the hits came rolling in, “Respect” and “I Never Loved a Man,” because we had recorded for about seven years with not very much of anything. And to hear that I had actually had a gold record was really mind-blowing. I just know we did a lot of jumping and screaming.

Q: Through your recordings, you brought a spiritual passion to pop music. How did you learn to balance both the sacred and secular worlds?

A: Hmmmm. I don’t know if I did learn to balance both. I just do what I do.

Q: What advice do you have for contemporary gospel artists like Kirk Franklin or John P. Kee who walk that line?

A: Yeah, I love what they are doing as far as being contemporary. I really like John P. Kee and Kirk Franklin a lot. They have beautiful melodies. Great rhythms and things like that. But just don’t forget to respect the tradition of gospel. And what has been traditionally gospel and what has been and is and will be traditionally gospel. After they have come and gone, it will be there. There are certain artists who are going to carry on that tradition, and I’m one of them.

Q: With your last album charting in the Top 40, the fourth in as many decades, what did that mean to you on not just a professional but an emotional level?

A: It was great! A rose is still a rose--and I had some great writers like Lauryn Hill who wrote [the title single] and produced it and did a great video.

Q: What was it like to work with her?

A: It was cool. She’s very professional, as I am, and so we certainly had common ground there. And just basically nice people. Very aware young lady. Very conscientious.

Q: There are so many purists out there--die-hard R&B; babies--who dismiss rap and hip-hop. What are your feelings about the genre?

A: Oh, I like some of it. Some of it I like. You know, of course, I come from the old school of R&B.; Which is the old school and the new school and going to be some of the future school when hip-hop is not here. R&B; is still going to be around. But some of the hip-hop I like. I think you have some very talented people in it, like [Sean] Puffy [Combs]. . . . He does just great videos. They are so colorful and exciting. I would love for him to do my next video.

Lauryn and Mariah, and I like this girl Kelly Price and I like Brandy. I think that Brandy is going to be one of the best young artists out there. Erykah Badu is good. I love her material and I love her wit. Her wit is really cute and sharp. Jermaine Dupri I like. But those to me are the really hottest and the most together artists of the hip-hop generation. I don’t know everybody, but of the ones that I have met and heard. And Mary J. Blige. She’s really cool.

Q: Is there a form or style of music that you haven’t explored yet that you would like to?

A: Yes, well, I’m working on the arias now. I just performed with the Fort Wayne Symphony, and I have an aria album coming out almost immediately.

Q: What was it like last year to sub for Pavarotti at the Grammys at the last minute?

A: It was tremendous! I met him in New York at the MusiCares dinner, which is where I first sang “Nessun dorma,” from Puccini’s “Turandot.”

Q: And Grammy night you only had eight minutes to prepare?

A: It was about that, somewhere about six to eight minutes. We were running around like wild backstage. Running into each other. Bumping heads. Shouting--"Where is the boom box? Anybody have a boom box back here!?"--because they had something on track that I could hear. The producer was running up and down the steps and it was really a wild scene. . . . Thank goodness I had sung it the week before and I pretty much knew it. And I just had to try to pull it off.

Q: Will you make it to the Grammys this year?

A: I wish that I were. I probably won’t. But I will be watching and I’ll be rooting--for myself! [she laughs] Other people in other categories. But when you get in my category, I’m rooting for me.


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