Aretha Franklin: The 'Fresh Air' Interview

Jan 8, 2016
Originally published on August 13, 2018 6:30 pm

Aretha Franklin is more than a woman, more than a diva and more than an entertainer. Aretha Franklin is an American institution. Franklin has received plenty of honors over her decades-spanning career — so much so that the chalice of accolades runneth over. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2005. And Franklin sang "My Country, 'Tis Of Thee" at President Barack Obama's first inauguration.

The Queen of Soul rarely gave interviews, so we were delighted when she sat down for a Fresh Air interview in 1999. Franklin spoke about her father's gospel influence, growing up with Sam Cooke, crossing over to pop music and more.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Carole King was one of five Kennedy Center honorees who received Lifetime Artistic Achievement Awards at a celebration last month. In her honor, the 70-year-old Aretha Franklin, wearing a mink coat and diamonds, sat down at the piano. And once again, sang the definitive version of one of Carole King's greatest songs.


ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Looking out on the morning rain, I used to feel so uninspired. And when I knew I had to face another day, Lord, it made me feel so tired. Before the day I met you, life was so unkind, but you’re the key to my peace of mind 'cause you make me feel, you make me feel, you make me feel like a natural woman. When my soul was in the lost and found, a mighty-good man came along to claim it.

BIANCULLI: Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center honors, which saluted Carole King and other recipients of Lifetime Artistic Achievement Awards - George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Seiji Ozawa and Cicely Tyson. The ceremonies were broadcast last week on CBS. Aretha Franklin has received plenty of honors herself, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she sang "My Country, 'Tis Of Thee" at President Obama's first inauguration. She rarely gives interviews, so we were delighted when she sat down with Terry Gross in 1999. You can always hear the sound of the church in Aretha Franklin's music. That's because it's where she got her start. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was a famous preacher in Detroit. That's where her conversation with Terry began.



Let's talk a little bit about the influences on you during your formative years. First of all, let's talk a little bit about your father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin. He was one of the most popular preachers of his generation. He was nationally known through his tours and through I think radio broadcasts as well as recordings. You say in the book that church nurses carried smelling salts to revive worshipers who were overcome to the point of fainting by the spirit or by your father's sermons. What was it like for you to watch your father speak and people fainting in turn?

A. FRANKLIN: Well, it was tremendous. I loved going to church. I enjoyed being a part of the choir and just doing things in and around the church. But as a young girl, I certainly enjoyed watching and listening to my dad.

GROSS: You toured with your father through churches through the Deep South. And I'm wondering what it was like for you during the days of segregation to tour through the Deep South - you know, how that compared to what you were used to in Detroit.

A. FRANKLIN: Well, it certainly was not what I was used to or accustomed to in Detroit. There were times that we were asked to go to the back of the restaurant, say, or we couldn't use the bathrooms. We got information that - Gulf - you could use the bathrooms there if you - and we didn't buy gas where we could not use the restrooms. So we went to Gulf a lot, I must tell you.

GROSS: You say about your father he was a minister. He was also a man, and that some women pursued him aggressively night and day.

A. FRANKLIN: They did.

GROSS: So he wasn't uncomfortable with that.

A. FRANKLIN: I have no idea. I never discussed it with him, and he never discussed that sort of thing with his children. But as children, we could certainly see that women were kind of aggressively taking off behind him. He was single at the time, and sometimes you might see it with ladies sitting on the front row, a little high - skirts a little high, a little short - you know, when women are interested.

GROSS: I thought I'd play an excerpt from what is perhaps his most famous recorded sermon, "The Eagle Stirreth Her Nest." Since we'll only be hearing an excerpt just to get a sense of his style of preaching, can you tell us a little bit about what the sermon was actually about?

A. FRANKLIN: Having to do, as I equate it, to life, to children, to the parental function in the raising of one's children. And in certain other ways, there are parallels to your personal life.

GROSS: My guest is Aretha Franklin. She has a new autobiography. Let's hear an excerpt of the sermon preached by her father, Rev. C.L. Franklin.


C.L. FRANKLIN: It is said that - that a man who had a poultry farm and that he raised chickens for the market. And one day in one of his broods, he discovered a strange looking bird that was very much unlike the other chickens on the yard.


C.L. FRANKLIN: And the man didn't pay too much attention. But he noticed as time went on that this strange-looking bird was unusual.


C.L. FRANKLIN: He outgrew the other little chickens.


C.L. FRANKLIN: Oh, Lord, and then one day a man who knew eagles when he saw it, came along and saw that little eagle walking in the yard. And he said to his friend do you know that you have an eagle here? And what you ought to do is build a cage. After a while, when he's a little older, he's going to get tired of the ground.


C.L. FRANKLIN: Yes, he will. He's going to rise up on the pinion of his wings. Yeah, so one day when the eagle had gotten grown, Lord God, and his wings were 12 feet from tip to tip, oh, Lord, he began to get restless in the cage.


C.L. FRANKLIN: Yes, he did. He began to walk around and be uneasy.


C.L. FRANKLIN: The man watched him as he walked around uneasy. Oh, Lord, he said Lord, my heart goes out to him.


C.L. FRANKLIN: I believe I'll go and open the door and set the eagle free. Oh, Lord, he went there and opened the door.


C.L. FRANKLIN: Yeah. The eagle walked out, yes, spreaded his wings, then took him down. Yeah, one of these days, one of these days, my soul is an eagle in the cage that the Lord had made for me. My, soul, my soul, my soul is caged in, in this old body, yes it is. And one of these days the man who made the cage will open the door and let my soul go. Yes, he will. You ought to be able to see me take the wings of my soul. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, one of these days, one of these old days, one of these old days - did you hear me say I fly away? I fly away and be at rest. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah one of these old days, one of these old days. And when troubles and trials are over.

GROSS: That's Aretha Franklin's late father, Rev. C.L. Franklin. Many singers who grew up in the church weren't allowed by their parents to listen to or to perform pop music. It wasn't that way in your family. Great performers like Nat Cole and Art Tatum knew your father and would sometimes be in your living room at the piano. That must've been something.

A. FRANKLIN: Yes, that's true. Art Tatum was often a visitor in our home. He was a very good friend of my dad's, Oscar Peterson and Arthur Price Mahalia Jackson, of course, James. And he loved Sam - Sam Cooke. And he just really very broadly appreciated one's artistry when they were truly gifted and really good.

BIANCULLI: Aretha Franklin speaking to Terry Gross in 1999. Aretha Franklin performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last month to salute new Kennedy Center honoree, Carole King. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from 1999 with Aretha Franklin.


GROSS: Now, you're friends with Sam Cooke, the great gospel singer turned soul singer. How did you meet?

A. FRANKLIN: Sam and I met at a Sunday evening program that we had at our church back in the early '50s. And I was sitting there waiting for the program to start after church, and I just happened to look back over my shoulder and I saw this group of people coming down the aisle. And, oh, my God, the man that was leading them - Sam and his brother LC. These guys were really super sharp. They had on beautiful blue and - navy blue and brown trench coats. And I had never seen anyone quite as attractive - not a male as attractive as Sam was. And so (laughter) prior to the program my soul was kind of being stirred in another way.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, now, he crossed over from gospel to pop before you did. What impact did it have on you when you heard him having a hit pop song on the radio?

A. FRANKLIN: What impact did it have on me when Sam crossed over? We were going down the highway. We were somewhere in the South and - my sister and I and the driver and maybe one or two other people in the car. We knew that he had left the gospel field and of course I was rather sad about that. But as we were driving, we knew that he had recorded, and just out of the dark came this fabulous voice and it was Sam. And it was his first record, and he was singing "You Send Me." And there was just pandemonium in the car. My sister and I just had a fit. "You Send Me" - this is - it's his record, you know? And there was just so much excitement in the car, the driver really had to pull over.

GROSS: Well, you were living in Detroit, so when you decided to make pop records, I mean, the obvious choice, I suppose, would've been Motown, especially since Berry Gordy was a friend of the family. I guess Motown was a very new label at the time. But did you consider Motown?

A. FRANKLIN: Actually, no, I really did not. My dad and I had talked about it, and we really kind of had our sights set on Columbia Records out of New York. We knew that Columbia was a worldwide label, and I think the feeling probably was that the promotion would be better than, say, a Motown - or the distribution and the promotion and so on. And so we just kind of maintained that feeling that Columbia - and other major record labels were the people that we wanted to talk to.

GROSS: Let's hear a session that you recorded when you were at Columbia Records. Now, this is a period when you were recording with strings and voices behind you. Did you feel comfortable with this kind of setting?

A. FRANKLIN: Oh, I loved that. I loved it.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear your version of "Skylark."


A. FRANKLIN: (Singing) Skylark, have you anything to say to me? Won't you tell me where my love can be? Is there a meadow in the mist where someone's waiting to be kissed? Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring? Where my heart can go journeying over the shadows and the rain to a blossomed covered lane. And in your lonely flight...

GROSS: That's Aretha Franklin from the early part of her pop recording career - Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark." Now, you were playing a lot of clubs during those early years, and a lot of those clubs were jazz clubs. And the people who you shared a bill with included John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Was this a new kind of music for you?

A. FRANKLIN: Not exactly a new kind of music. As a very small girl I listened to Charlie Parker and loved him and Max Roach and people like that. I had not been in the jazz environment having been brought up in the church. But once I got to New York and I was signed to perform at The Village Gate and the Vanguard and clubs like that and these - the Vanguard was one of the most elite, if not the most elite, jazz club out there.

GROSS: What was different about the jazz environment? What was - what were some of the things you hadn't been exposed to before?

A. FRANKLIN: Well, I certainly had not been exposed to Charlie Mingus reaching over and I think he slapped the pianist that one night.


GROSS: Sounds like Mingus.


A. FRANKLIN: Sitting in the audience then - this was at The Village Gate. And he kept right on playing. You know, nobody missed a beat.

BIANCULLI: Aretha Franklin speaking to Terry Gross in 1999. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from 1999 with Aretha Franklin.


GROSS: In 1966, after your contract with Columbia Records was up, you moved to Atlantic Records which was the home of rhythm and blues greats like Ruth Brown and Ray Charles. The producer Jerry Wexler took you down to a studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala. that was famous for its great session men, which included Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. And the first song that you recorded there was "I Never Loved A Man." Now, Spooner Oldham tells a story that when he heard you sit down at the piano and play your first chord, he thought, wow, that's really great, and that he who - and he's a pianist - that he should let you play piano while he moved over to electric piano playing behind you. What did you think of that arrangement? Were you pleased that he agreed that you should be the one at the piano?

A. FRANKLIN: I remember that particular session. It was the very first session so naturally, yes, I remember it. And we really were kind of struggling at that point to get to the music. It just wasn't quite coming off although we had dynamite players. We had the Muscle Shoals Section and they were really very, very hot, cutting them out of good, greasy stuff, or what you would call greasy in that day. But we weren't getting to the music in the way that we should have. It just wasn't coming off. And finally someone said, Aretha, why don't you sit down and play? And I did, and it just happened. It all just happened. We arrived, and we arrived very quickly.

GROSS: Well, Peter Guralnick, the music critic, describes this recording, "I Never Loved A Man," as one of the most momentous takes in the history of rhythm and blues, in fact, in the history of American vernacular music. Let's hear it. This is my guest, Aretha Franklin.


A. FRANKLIN: (Singing) You're a no good heartbreaker. You're a liar and you're a cheat. And I don't know why I let you do these things to me. My friends keep telling me that you ain't no good. Oh, but they don't know that I'd leave you if I could. I guess I'm uptight and I'm stuck like glue because I ain't never, I ain't never, I ain't never loved a - loved a man the way that I - I love you.

GROSS: Now, your second single was "Respect" which is, I believe, your still most requested song. How did you end up singing this Otis Redding song?

A. FRANKLIN: Well, I heard Mr. Redding's version of it. I just loved it. And I decided that I wanted to record it. And my sister Carolyn and I got together. I was living in a small apartment on the West Side of Detroit. And - piano by the window, watching the cars go by, and we came up with that infamous line, the sock it to me line. It was a cliche of the day. Actually, we didn't just come up with it, it was - it really was cliche. And some of the girls were saying that to the fellows, like, sock it to me in this way or sock it to me in that way. Nothing sexual, and it's not sexual. It was non-sexual, just a cliche line. But anyway, (unintelligible) picked it up, and it just kind of perpetuated itself and went on from there.

GROSS: Let's hear Aretha Franklin singing "Respect."


A. FRANKLIN: (Singing) What you want, baby, I got. What you need, do you know I got it. All I'm askin' is for little respect when you come home. Just a little bit. Hey, baby. Just a little bit. When you get home. Mister. I ain't going to do you wrong while you're gone. Ain't going to do you wrong 'cause I don't want to. All I'm asking is for a little respect when you come home. Just a little bit. Baby. Just a little bit. When you get home. Just a little bit. Yeah. Just a little bit. I'm about to give you all of my money, and all I'm asking in return, honey, is to give me my profits when you get home. Just a, just a, just a, just a, just a. Yeah, baby. When you get home. Just a little bit, just a little bit. Ooh, your kisses, sweeter than honey. And guess what? So is my money. All I want you to do for me is give it to me when you get home. Re, re, re. Whip it. Whip it to me. Respect. Just a little bit. Now. Just but a little bit. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me. R-E-S-P-E-C-T, take care, T-C-B. Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me. A little respect. Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me. Just a little bit. A little respect. Just a little bit. I get tired. Keep on trying. You're running out of fools, and I ain't lying. Just a little bit. Just a little bit. Re, re, re, re, re, re, re, re, re...

GROSS: That's Aretha Franklin, who has a new autobiography which is called, "Aretha: From These Roots." What did this song mean to you when you sang it? I mean, really part of the backdrop of this song - it was a hit during the civil rights movement, and I think, you know, respect had a lot of meanings in the song for your listeners. One was, you know, just the respect you wanted from a man in a relationship. But it also had, I think, a larger resonance with the civil rights movement, you know, a kind of larger social, cultural sense of respect.

A. FRANKLIN: Yes. In later times, it was picked up as a battle cry by the civil rights movement. But when I recorded it, it was pretty much a male-female kind of thing. And more in a general sense, from person-to-person - I'm going to give you respect and I'd like to have that respect back or I expect respect to be given back.

BIANCULLI: Aretha Franklin, speaking to Terry Gross in 1999. Aretha Franklin performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last month to salute new Kennedy Center honoree Carol King. On Monday's show...


RAY LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.

BIANCULLI: That's Ray Liotta, in perhaps his best-known role, in Martin Scorsese's film, "Goodfellas." He'll tell us about his movies and his life, including meeting the real wise guy his character in "Goodfellas" was based upon. Hope you can join us.


A. FRANKLIN: (Singing) When my soul was in the lost and found... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.