Aretha Franklin‘s death on Thursday at the age of 76 unleashed a torrent of tributes from across the cultural spectrum. Many were from artists who had known and worked with the legendary Queen of Soul, but few were as close as Motown icon Smokey Robinson.
The pair grew up together in a Detroit neighborhood that fostered a host of future stars. “Diana Ross lived four doors down the street,” Robinson, 78, recalled during an interview on Good Morning America on Friday. “The 4 Tops lived two blocks over and the Temptations lived three blocks over.” He met Franklin at the age of 8 after her family — including her famous father, Baptist minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin — moved to the city from Buffalo, New York. The future Miracles frontman met her elder brother first, who invited him to the Franklin family home.
“I hear music coming from a little room,” Robinson remembered of visiting their house. “I hear piano being played and I hear this little voice singing. I look in and there’s Aretha sitting at the piano singing and playing almost like she sang and played in her adult life. She was probably 5 years old or so and she just had it.”
It was a beginning of a friendship that remained strong and vibrant right up until Aug. 16, 2018. “Aretha and I were tight. We had a wonderful, wonderful friendship that lasted throughout her entire life. She was my longest friend on earth. All of my other friends that we grew up with are gone.”
Fame and fortune are notorious for tarnishing personal relationship, but Robinson says that never factored into their friendship. In fact, they usually ignored the spotlight completely.
“We always had a relationship that almost had nothing to do with show business,” he says. “There were a lot of us in that neighborhood, and those of us who were blessed enough to get our wish, or our dream, to be in show business — we just always had regular relationships. We very seldom, when we got together, even talked about show business.”
As a result, he saw a side of the famous diva that few would ever glimpse, beyond the regal outfits and million-dollar voice.
“Aretha had a great sense of humor. She was a very humorous woman,” he remembers. “She could throw down in the kitchen! She was just a great person. Great cook, great woman.”