Out behind her Michigan home, down by the pool and the twin drum-barrel barbecues, Aretha Franklin is trying vainly to coax her pet dog Ginger into posing for pictures. Gently scooping Ginger up, Aretha, like a ventriloquist doing puppy-talk, explains to the photographer on her pet’s behalf: “I’m shy, but I run all over the place when I want to.” To longtime fans of the Queen of Soul, Aretha could just as well be speaking for herself.
In an era of talkative tabloid stars and camera-conscious navel queens, Aretha, 43, guards her privacy even more carefully than her five-octave pipes. Mention last year’s divorce from actor Glynn Turman, and she’ll explain that “it is really personal.” Ask about the death of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, and Aretha will again demur. “Not now,” she will say quietly.
Happily, Aretha’s reticence on the public record has never extended to those made of vinyl. Who’s Zoomin’ Who, her 22nd LP, has recently zoomed into the Top 20, propelled by a hammer-hard dance beat and Aretha’s own typically intense gospel-style vocals. Bolstered by duets with Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and rocker Peter Wolf, plus instrumental solos from Springsteen saxman Clarence demons and guitarist Carlos Santana, the album has already produced one Top 5 single (the sexually suggestive Freeway of Love) and sold a heady 700,000 copies since its release in late June.
As always, the singer has welcomed the sales but not the public scrutiny they inevitably generate. And that sort of contradiction is apparent everywhere in Aretha’s life. A spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, she nevertheless puffs through a pack of menthols each day (down from more than two). Her house is an impressive six-bedroom white colonial tucked away on three acres in tony Bloomfield Hills, but in one bathroom hangs a Hilton Hotel towel collected on a previous road trip. Her home’s decor is eclectic: a modern suede sectional—slightly stained and cigarette-burned from her use of it as an office—opposite a Louis XVI-style desk, a display of fuzzy snapshots on one wall, gold records on another, a baby grand across from a TV that is constantly on, providing video Muzak. Even the casual lunch for her guests this day seems a strange mix: canned ginger ale and take-out pizza—served on a silver platter.
Since 1983 Aretha has stuck close to these surroundings. It was then, during a late-night flight home from Atlanta, that the small plane she was on “did one of those dipsy-doodles” in midair and shocked the singer into a sudden fear of flying. The all-but-paralyzing aerophobia, still a problem, led to a string of canceled or postponed projects, including a starring role in a stage bio of Mahalia Jackson, the lead in a Broadway musical about Bessie Smith, and an appearance at the 1984 Democratic Convention.
Yet this was only the latest in a series of blows that began with the 1979 shooting of her father during a burglary at his home. As the head of Detroit’s then 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist Church, the elder Franklin steered Aretha, one of five children, through her first gospel recording when she was 14 and later oversaw her transition into a soul singer of such late-’60s hits as Respect and I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).
“She and my dad were very, very, very close,” says Aretha’s sister Erma. “She depended on him and his advice, and when she was living in California, she’d call him three or four times a day.” Stunned by the shooting that left her father in an irreversible coma, Aretha began an almost weekly pilgrimage back to Detroit and in 1982 finally bought the house she now occupies. During her father’s five years of unconsciousness, “she spent over a half million dollars on him, $1,500 a week just for nurses,” says Erma. “But she still can’t talk about it, not even with her own family. You can’t even say the word ‘death’ around her. You have to say ‘passed away’ or find some other expression.”
The move from Los Angeles back to home turf was followed by a divorce from second husband Turman after nearly six years of marriage. “We’re still great friends, supportive of each other; I see his kids when I’m out in California,” she says, but goes no further. These days Aretha’s own four sons take priority. Now 14 to 29, three of them attend high school or college in the Midwest, and a fourth is a musician and songwriter in California. There is also a new love, a Detroit businessman whom Aretha cheerily describes as “a very charming man, very articulate and responsible. That means a lot to me; he doesn’t tell you one thing and then do something else.”
If all goes as planned, however, the two may soon be spending time apart. Aretha claims she’s beating her aerophobia with the help of a therapist, a Federal Aviation Administration kit and the videotape of an old Phil Donahue show on the subject. “I’ll begin with short flights, getting back into the swing of it,” she promises. Some incentive may come from last month’s release of a second single, the title song from Who’s Zoomin’ Who—a move that should increase the clamor for concert appearances. With three more albums already contracted, along with a command performance in London tentatively scheduled for November (“I’ll take the Concorde”), it may just be time for Tina to take a breather and Diana to hang up her gowns. From the sound of it, at least, the Queen of Soul is back at last.