I arrive at her swank Beverly Hills hotel room this week and to my surprise a very relaxed and cordial Miss Aretha Franklin answers the doorbell. With a big smile and a warm embrace, she receives me into her penthouse suite which is already overflowing with flowers and fancy foods.
It’s clear it’s the presidential suite and it was designed for the rich and famous and Miss Franklin, known around the world as simply Aretha, seems very much at home with all the luxury. It’s also clear that her famous friends, fans and business associates are thrilled that’s she’s back in Los Angeles and have provided a royal welcome to the woman also known as the undisputed Queen of Soul.
“I used to live here,” a very laidback Aretha Franklin tells me while resting comfortably on her French sofa. “I love L.A.” Already, she has set aside the high brow selections and had her assistants make a run to Pink’s Famous Hotdog Stand. “I had my Pink’s this morning and can’t wait to have FatBurger tomorrow.”
But deep within all the love for the city, she also announces very softly but definitely that “this is my last trip and my last performance in Los Angeles.”
Why? The Queen, who still refuses to fly since a 1984 bad flight aboard a twin engine plane, had just arrived in the City of Angels. She spent six days aboard her luxury bus and still the trip from her hometown of Detroit was just too much.
“We had to take the most southern route due to the weather,” she says. “It’s a long drive, it’s a very long drive and now I know how the people felt who came over in the covered wagons. I know exactly how they felt.” Six days on a bus - no matter how comfy - could make anyone road weary. “I’m always glad to be back in L.A., but this will be my last L.A. performance until I start flying again.” Fortunately for her fans, she is watching tapes to help her get over her fear of flying, but she’s not feeling the need to board a plane yet.
“I’m not going to put a time thing on it,” she adds. “I’ll just know when I’m ready to fly again and I’m not ready yet.”
The Queen Gets Some R.E.S.P.E.C.T
If everything indeed has a season, then this is again Miss Franklin’s time. She’s come to Los Angeles for two major concerts (Thursday, Feb 14 and Friday, Feb 15) at the new Nokia Theatre downtown and to pickup two major awards: the NAACP Images’ Vanguard Award and Grammy’s MusicCares Person of the Year honor.
In addition, the music icon who had delivered hit after hit for the last 47 years, is nominated for another Grammy, possibly her 20th, for her Gospel duet with Mary J. Blige. “This nomination is like the first,” she says. “I’ll be sitting there hoping that I’m gonna get it. This never gets old. To me, it’s a confirmation that people still love what you do.” Ms. Franklin will perform the nominated song, “Never Gonna Break My Faith” on the telecast Sunday night, Feb 10.
“It’s a very special time for me,” she tells the LA Sentinel exclusively. “There’s so much happening, I can barely keep up with it.” This from a woman who has already received the Presidential Medal of Freedom - the highest honor for any American citizen; nineteen Grammys, the 2nd highest of any female artist ever, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from her peers at the Recording Academy.
But somehow it seems she still deserves so much more. Consider her legacy: dozens of chart-toping records including such timeless classics as “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).” “RESPECT,” “Baby I Love You,” “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Jump to It,” “Freeway of Love,” and 100 other singles. You really can’t turn on the TV without hearing a commercial with her music in it, a movie without someone attempting to sing one of her songs and her gospel CD “Amazing Grace” still holds the record as the highest selling gospel CD of all time.
Ms. Franklin admits her guilty pleasure is watching the TV Show American Idol and seeing some of the contestants butchering her songs. “I just laugh usually and say no, baby.” As for her music standing the test of time, she chimes in, “I think it’s fabulous, not only are they standing up for when we did it, but they’re standing up 10-20 years from now. Musically - some of them still sound really good.”
So what can fans expect in her LA show? “Everything,” she tells the LA Sentinel. “I’m gonna sing as many as I can within the 2 nights, there will be some new things and there will be some surprises - I love surprises. It’s gonna be a really, really cool two nights.”
Why does she believe her fans have been so loyal over the years? “They know I’m real,” she says. “I don’t come with the funny stuff.”
During her time in LA, Ms. Franklin says she’s looking forward to catching up with some good friends like Motown Founder Berry Gordy and record executive and music mogul Clive Davis.
She’s also looking forward to being honored as Grammy’s MusicCare’s Person of the Year. At the event at the Los Angeles Convention Center Friday, Feb 8, many of her peers will gather to sing her praises for her extraordinary musical achievements but also her philanthropic commitments to various church and food banks in the Detroit metropolitan area.
“My father always taught me to help others and many many years ago he taught me to keep my feet on the ground” she explains.
The MusicCare’s tribute and all-star concert will feature some of Ms. Frankin’s favorite singers including John Legend, BeBe and CeCe Winans, Fantasia, Shirley Caesar, Herbie Hancock Robin Thicke, Faith Hill and Anthony Hamilton. “I love Anthony Hamilton’s music especially his song, no matter what the people say,” she added.
Also, that night her son and grandson will perform at the dinner. “That’s going to be special. They have a Christian hip hop group and they’re very good - they’re very, very good.”
As you might expect, some Hollywood agents also want to talk to the Queen of Soul while she’s in town. Since the release of her autobiography “From These Roots” telling of her journey from a child prodigy singing in her father’s Baptist church to concert stages around the world - Ms. Franklin continues to field offers to turn her life story into a movie.
“We have new deals on the table,” she says about the biopic. “I have to cast the person who plays me, my father and my brother - I’d like to see this happen.” But she’s not willing to give up total creative control.
Who does Ms. Franklin see in that starring role? She confirms she had tea and talks with Oscar-winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson. “It was interesting,” she says. Other names that come to mind include American Idol Winner Fantasia Barrino and Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry.
Who could believe all of this could happen for a woman who never really wanted to sing. (Her father, a minister, forced her to perform in church and for friends who dropped by the house including famed Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. )
Now -- if we can just get someone to help the Queen of Soul get over her fear of flying.
Her latest CD: Jewels In The Crown: All-Star Duets With The Queen
Aretha Franklin will be performing for 2 nights at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Thursday, February 14th and Friday, February 15th at 8pm.