SOME PEOPLE are going around saying that Aretha Franklin is the Queen Of Soul, many people are buying her records, and one person (show compère Johnnie Walker) even said that she was the best coloured girl singer ever to make records.
Now it isn't every girl singer who is fortunate enough to have these things said about her or happen to her, whether you go along with them or not. After chasing around and about the metropolis, I tracked Aretha down to her hotel (in the Penthouse Suite) and asked her a few questions, some of which she answered in length and detail, others which received a mere smile of reply.
As her voice is her fortune, does she do anything to protect it?
"I do vocalistics, if that's what you mean. I was afraid that when I came to Europe I'd end up with laryngitis for the whole trip but I've been lucky this time. My voice changes as I change climate – it goes down about two octaves when I come to a climate like this" (Aretha had been not too happy about our weather, in fact she was welcoming quitting our shores to go back to the USA).
How did she feel when her first record for Atlantic, 'I Never Loved A Man', began to shoot up the US charts, after she had been singing so long without a hit?
"To tell the truth, I never expected that song to be a hit. I was surprised. I could see more potential in 'Respect', in fact I can say I knew that would be a hit song. Sometimes I can't get a song right in the recording studio though. We usually work things out beforehand, not like the Memphis studio where they don't plan things like that, but can end up with a master. We usually know what we're going to do. I sing and the musicians kind of fit things around me. Two of my favourite songs incidentally are 'Rock-A-Bye' which was on Columbia, and 'Chain Of Fools'."
Accompanying Aretha was Ted White, her manager and husband. I asked Aretha if it helped to have Ted as a manager.
"Oh yes. I don't have to worry about the business side. As he's my husband I know I can trust him! I just worry about the singing."
Ted explained that although Aretha had no hits when she was on Columbia (CBS here), there was no question of Aretha's style being "suppressed" by that label.
"I'd call it more of an exploration by Columbia. They gave Aretha the chance to sing all sorts of things", he explained.
"But it was more kind of 'easy listening' as they say in Cash Box," said Aretha. "I started off there with more powerful material – very similar to the kind of thing I'm recording now with Atlantic – and went on to slower music. But I can say that my big records and my success has been due to the backing which Atlantic have put behind me. I can say that I wouldn't have had these hit records if it wasn't for Atlantic, and their organisation."
Aretha reads a lot of newspapers, not too many books, and likes mostly simple things and straightforward people. What did she think about British audiences and how do they compare with their US counterparts?
"I thought maybe they'd like me," she smiled. "But I never expected this, truly. It was so wonderful. My American audiences are pretty mixed. I get all sorts of people, old and young. It's nice. I don't record with my band though, we use Atlantic musicians."
Did Aretha look back much on old times when she wasn't so successful? Did she enjoy them?
"Oh, we had good times right enough. I was in a group, a gospel group with my sisters Erma and Carol. Carol is with me here as part of my backing group. We split up and went our separate ways, to do different things. My big ambition later on when I was with Columbia was to have a big record. Ted and I have written quite a few songs – but the name on the label credits would be 'White' – we write under my married name. I like writing, and don't confine myself to just the words, or just the music. But I don't particularly write songs with myself in mind."
Ted White explained that they had recently founded the Aretha Franklin Foundation, which gave to charity, and this was an activity Aretha had long been interested in. Aretha's father still sings gospel and has recorded over thirty gospel albums for the Chess label. Aretha's favourite female vocalists are Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Clara Ward. And she digs Charles Aznavour – she even wants to cut an album of his songs when she gets the chance.
I asked Aretha that as she'll undoubtedly be singing in many years time, would she still be doing numbers like 'Respect' and 'Think' (her latest single)?
"No, I shouldn't think so," she laughed. "Music changes, and I'm gonna change right along with it.
© Norman Jopling, 1968