Last week, the never-irrelevant Queen of Soul/Displeased Dowager Who's This Close To Hitting You Over the Head with Her Purse Aretha Franklin made more headlines via a Wall Street Journal interview, in which she was asked to assess some contemporary singers.
She had nice things to say about Adele ("Young singer, good singer"), reasonable things to say about Alicia Keys ("Young performer, good writer"), and respectful things to say about Whitney Houston ("Whitney was a talent, definitely a talent, she had a gift... and Cissy's baby"). She had nothing to say about Nicki Minaj ("Nicki Minaj, hmmmm...I'm gonna pass on that one!") and, most hilariously, she had this to say about Taylor Swift: "OK, great gowns, beautiful gowns."
[There was a video here]
That—the complete and utter reduction of Swift to a walking hanger—is shade, and it's just the most recent helping from a dish that Ree has been serving for decades. That much is clear in David Ritz's recent and exhaustive biography on Aretha titled Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. It's a fascinating, delicious depiction of the life of a woman who'd rather not be depicted—at least, not with any level of depth.
Ritz was inspired to write the book after co-writing Franklin's widely panned 1999 memoir Aretha: From These Roots. Franklin hit up Ritz to help her write the follow-up to Roots, and he suggested they go deeper than last time, as many (including Ritz) were disappointed by how tight-lipped Franklin was while telling her own story. She refused, saying she'd like to focus on her life since that book was released—essentially, she was looking to round up her various awards and honors, which she felt were not properly noticed by the press. He, in turn, declined, and wrote what is essentially an oral history using interviews from Franklin's family members, friends, and collaborators. The result is a book so juicy, it is dripping.
What I found most surprising about Respect is just how insecure Franklin is and apparently always was regarding her contemporaries. Yes, the undisputed Queen of Soul, whose musical genius extends beyond her objectively wondrous voice and into piano playing and song arranging, apparently feels threatened by other singers (most of whom would admit to being lesser in terms of ability, by the way). At least that's what it seems like when going through the several accounts of Franklin's shady behavior toward and less-than-kind words for other singers, especially women. Here is how Aretha's own sister Erma Franklin put it:
Aretha's always had problems with her female contemporaries. Her fantasy is that they would all disappear and she and she alone would be the only singer. Her fantasy is to eliminate the competition. By not acknowledging them—whether it's Gladys [Knight] or Mavis [Staples] or even younger artists like Natalie [Cole] or Whitney [Houston]—in her mind, she's making them go away.
Using examples from Respect and other sources, here is an index of notable recipients of queenly shade:
Cole broke out in 1975 singing a series of Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy songs that Franklin had turned down. Here is how Cole described Franklin's reception to Ritz:
The first time I saw Aretha was at an industry banquet. She gave me an icy stare and then turned her back on me. It took me weeks to recover. I mean, this is the woman whom I revere! She began this make-believe feud that I still don't understand. I give her the highest respect—then, now, and always.
Franklin was quoted in Jet in 1977:
It's easy for a singer to sometimes pick up on another singer's sound, but that's just copying. It's really a compliment that she sounds like me on some songs. In fact, when I listen to her I hear little things that remind me of myself at the beginning of my career. I think Natalie's doing a fine job but in my estimation she's just a beginner.
I don't think she has the ability or the equipment to take anything from me and I'd say that to Natalie herself.
"(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" writer and diva in her own right Carole King gingerly described Franklin's attempt to steal Dion's thunder during the VH1 Divas Live concert in 1998, and the manner in which Dion boomed back:
Producer Joel Dorn described Franklin's reaction to listening to her Atlantic labelmate Roberta Flack's first album:
Although they are vastly different artists, Aretha saw Roberta as a threat. She actually go up and walked out while I was playing her that first Roberta album. She later complained to Ahmet [Ertegun] that it wasn't appropriate for Atlantic to be trying to break another female soul singer.
Yes, Franklin's own sister. Carolyn was originally approached by Curtis Mayfield to record the soundtrack album of the 1976 film Sparkle. Aretha used her clout to snatch the opportunity from her less-famous sibling. Via Aretha and Carolyn's sister Erma:
Aretha should have left it alone. She should have let Carolyn sing those Sparkle songs and then, afterwards, do her own record with Curtis [Mayfield]. But somehow Aretha got a copy of the songs. They were so good that she felt she had to sing them
Yes, Franklin's other sister. When Erma was in talks for her first record deal, which was to be on Epic (the sister label of Columbia, to which Aretha was signed at the time), Aretha had a big problem with it. Erma recalled to Ritz:
The man also said that I would be on Epic, which was a different brand than Columbia. They were part of the same company but I'd have my own producers and an identity separate from Aretha. I thought she would be thrilled. She wasn't. She threw a fit. She told Daddy that she didn't want me on Epic, that it would hurt her career and that people would be confused by too many singing Franklin sisters.
Whitney flew to Detroit, all excited about singing with her Auntie Ree. But when Auntie Ree walked in the studio, she didn't enter as Auntie Ree. She entered as Queen Aretha the original diva. At the same time, Whitney was the biggest music star in the world and didn't realize that Aretha felt that she had something to prove. Aretha came with her game face. Whitney was acting like a furry puppy dog. Aretha was like a boxer staring down her opponent.
Franklin later supposedly regretted her aggression and wondered to Walden if she should apologize.
Knight cites several instances when Aretha snubbed her. According to Gladys, one time at the Grammys, the two women passed each other in the hall. When Gladys said hello, Aretha kept on walking, not bothering to acknowledge her. Aretha claimed that never happened. Gladys, in turn, claimed it happened all the time.
Additionally, Franklin performed a series of spot-on impressions of contemporaries such as Diana Ross, Sarah Vaughan, Dionne Warwick, and Della Reese on The Flip Wilson Show in 1972. She went on to incorporate a similar routine into her concerts for years to come. Here's Aretha doing Ross, Mavis Staples, and Knight:
Could these be interpreted as tributes? Sure. Could they also be interpreted as Aretha showing that her ability extends beyond doing what she does well and into doing what her contemporaries do well? You bet.
This is the famous dodge that happened earlier this year at the Women of Soul concert at the White House. It spawned a viral parody describing a LaBelle/Franklin fistfight, which spawned the threat of a $10 million lawsuit. What seemed like a potentially innocent oversight looks more like a snub in light of Knight's account of receiving Ree's cold shoulder(s).
In addition to the impersonation above, Franklin attempted to claim "It's My Turn" as her own, about a year after Ross had a hit with it. This proved effective in the late '60s when Franklin covered "I Say a Little Prayer" just months after Dionne Warwick made it a hit. Franklin's drop-dead brilliant version of that song was called the definitive version by its writer, Burt Bacharach.
Producer Arif Mardin recounted Franklin's "Turn" to Ritz:
But "It's My Turn" was only a year old, and it was far too early to forge a cover version. Aretha disagreed. She felt strongly that the song was more suited to her style than Diana's. Yes, but Diana already at the hit. "I don't care," Aretha said, "it's my turn."
[There was a video here]
Aretha enlisted Staples to appear on the followup to the 1972 landmark gospel album Amazing Grace, 1987's One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. The pair sang "Oh Happy Day" and "We Need Power" together. But when Aretha listened to the playback, she didn't like what she heard, according to her sister Erma:
Aretha listened to those duets, she was convinced that Mavis's voice overwhelmed hers. Singing with the one other gospel singer who could rightfully be called her equal, Aretha felt threatened. I told her she had nothing to worry about, that the two of them sounded great together. Their voices were completely complementary. But Aretha didn't hear it that way. She put Mavis's voice so low in the mix that you could barely hear it. It became an ordeal and caused a serious falling-out.
To be fair, you can hear Staples's voice, although Franklin's is louder on the two tracks.
Aretha took exception when Beyoncé introduced Tina Turner as "the Queen" during the 2008 Grammy Awards. This is because Aretha is the Queen, and there is only one Queen. She felt it necessary to issue an unprompted statement on the matter. It read:
I am not sure of whose toes I may have stepped on or whose ego I may have bruised between the Grammy writers and Beyoncé. However, I dismissed it as a cheap shot for controversy.
I thank the Grammys and the voting academy for my 20th Grammy and love to Beyoncé anyway.
I wanted to establish the groove with a long instrumental intro. Aretha didn't think the listener would wait that long to hear her voice. I assured her that the listener would be hooked on the groove and would be delighted to wait. She wanted to come in sooner. I said no. "Who's the one with the most hits here?" she asked. Of course the answer was her. I just had one; she had dozens. "But who's the one with the latest hit?" I asked. She didn't answer. She stormed out.
Franklin has, at times, given fellow singers due credit. She has repeatedly praised Jennifer Hudson ("Jennifer Hudson is coming along nicely" she said during a recent cable/local news satellite junket). A few years ago, she called Mariah Carey "gracious" and "nice" (though the absence of any commentary on Carey's voice could be read as shade). In 2007, she rattled off her favorite contemporary singers (and one rapper) to Jet, including: Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige, Trey Songz, Anthony Hamilton, Gerald Levert, and Nelly.
But her criticism and contempt for many of her contemporaries is notable for being one of the few parts of her inner life that she's open about. She grew distrustful of the press after a 1968 TIME cover story portrayed her in a less-than-positive light, characterizing her as a woman who "sleeps till afternoon, then mopes in front of the television set, chain-smoking Kools and snacking compulsively." She has referred to mystery boyfriends that those close to her say simply didn't exist (her implied affair with talk show host Tavis Smiley was fabricated entirely, say those who'd know). Remember when she almost died a few years ago? We still have no firm idea what that was all about.
Throughout Respect, Franklin is characterized as a woman who internalizes her pain, both when in public and in private. Perhaps that is why the emotion in her voice remains unsurpassed. What makes her a frustrating persona and underwhelming memoirist may be key to her art. In compartmentalizing her pain, she has allowed her music to soar. It's part of her artistic process. Even as someone who regularly dodges the truth, Franklin has given the world so much of her soul, and she has done it more literally than just about anyone else on the planet.
I like her even more after reading Ritz's book—even though she is allegedly fond of dressing up her truth by planting puff pieces in outlets like Jet, the underlying vulnerability in that deception is endearing. Franklin's brand is based on her being superhuman, but humanity has a way of catching up with those who deny it. Franklin is full of contradictions and regularly sabotages herself, but she is fundamentally fascinating. The book argues this fact, and its dozens of participants, with their many observations of and opinions about the woman at the center of it all, corroborate it.
Franklin has called Respect "lies, lies, lies and then more lies" and says she's speaking to a criminal attorney about suing for defamation. For anyone who has made their way through the book, this should come as no surprise at all.
[There was a video here]
[ Top image via Getty]