The Blues Brothers Led to a Comeback, but Aretha Franklin Is Still Soul Sister No. 1
Rodney Dangerfield may not get any, but Aretha Franklin has positively basked in it since she spelled out her desires in the song R-E-S-P-E-C-T in 1967. In recent years, though, the tributes, as well as her output, slowed, and there were even pretenders to her throne as the Queen of R&B. But Donna Summer, Natalie Cole and Diana Ross can cool it now: Lady Soul is back. Her new album, Aretha, is approaching gold, propelled by the joyous original single United Together and her current follow-up, a blistering version of What a Fool Believes (by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins). Another cut, her rendition of Otis Redding’s classic Can’t Turn You Loose, is up next week for a Grammy for best R&B vocal performance by a female—a category insiders reverently refer to as the “Aretha Award” since she won it eight times between 1967 and 1974.
At 38, the new Aretha isn’t just selling hot wax. Universal Pictures mounted a p.r. effort to get Aretha an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her debut in The Blues Brothers. She stole the movie from Rhythm & Buffoonery champs John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd with her scene as a soul-belting luncheonette proprietress. “I was very pleased with my performance,” she admits.
Aretha didn’t do badly either at a command performance at the London Palladium last fall celebrating the 80th birthday of Britain’s Queen Mother. In fact, she jokes that Queen Elizabeth swayed so hard in the royal box that her crown slipped. Aretha’s five-octave attack will be jolting less lofty joints as she begins an East Coast tour next week. Lately she’s also been scouring scripts for more substantial movie roles. “One of these days I’ll find the right one,” she says. “Then, BINGO-O-O.” One champion of her new career is Belushi. “She knocked everyone out,” he recalls. “I think one guy in the band wet his pants. She’s a fine, fine actress, and I’d work with her again anytime.”
But perhaps Aretha’s boldest career risk was leaving Atlantic Records, the label she’d been with for 13 years, for the more aggressive, pop-oriented Arista (its lineup includes Manilow, Manchester and Warwick). Arista president Olive Davis claims that he’s landed nothing less than “the greatest voice of our generation.” Says a more objective observer, jazz giant Quincy Jones: “Aretha’s always had a fire in her; music’s been her ticket to freedom.” Or, in Aretha-ese: “When I go into the studio I put everything into it. Even the kitchen sink.”
Not that she sings the blues over a dreary domestic routine. Aretha and her husband of nearly three years, actor Glynn Turman, 34, live in a comfortable two-story Encino home on three acres in the San Fernando Valley. With them are two of Aretha’s four sons (Clarence, 24, and Kecalf, 10) and Glynn’s two sons (Darrell, 18, and Russell, 15). With that brood, Aretha doesn’t just do her cooking in the studio. “I do it all—New Orleans gumbo, greens, ham hocks, chitlins, ribs and a great hickory-smoked barbecue sauce,” she boasts. When she eats it all, she can balloon—and then must sweat to shed pounds. She gets through her daily trimming calisthenics to the beat of her new LP. “It’s relaxing, upbeat and funky,” she finds.
Turman, last seen in the CBS docudrama Thornwell, bought them a 15-acre ranch 40 miles north of L.A., but his Arabian horses are out for Aretha. “I ride, all right,” she sneers. “Limos, my Alfa Romeo, anything with four wheels.” Her more sedentary tastes run to watching TV game shows, boxing and the L.A. Lakers basketball team.
But the newfound domestic tranquillity has been laced with pain for her since June of 1979, when her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, 61, pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church for 33 years and a civil rights activist, was shot twice in his Detroit home by armed robbers. He soon lapsed into a coma and Aretha has been visiting at least twice a month. (Her mother, Barbara Siggers, deserted the family when Aretha was 6 and died four years later.) “It’s been a very disconcerting, tragic year for her,” says her manager-brother, Cecil. “She did several benefits to help offset his medical bills and spent a great deal of time personally taking care of him.”
It was, after all, the charismatic preacher who taught her to sing in the Franklin home in Detroit. By age 12, Aretha, the second youngest of five children, sang in her dad’s choir and wasn’t much older when she went on his gospel tours with legendary testifiers like Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. But, like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke before her, she fused her gospel influences with the commercial forms of pop in the late ’60s, scoring an incredible string of era-defining hits like Baby, I Love You, Chain of Fools and A Natural Woman.
Ironically, it is the melding of disco (which she indirectly helped trailblaze) into pop and rock that is giving Lady Soul a new life on the charts. Jerry Wexler, her renowned former producer, observes that “Aretha is the perfect embodiment of the term soul, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her reshape the sound of the ’80s like she did in the ’60s.” Aretha isn’t arguing. “People have gone too long,” she says, “without hearing great new music, and I think they’re ready for some. I know I am!”