Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, has accomplished much in her life. Rolling Stone has named her the No. 1 vocalist of the rock era. In 1987, she became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She has had 20 No. 1 singles. She won the first Grammy ever awarded to a female R&B vocalist. Her 1972 Amazing Grace album is the bestselling gospel album to date. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton, several honorary doctorates, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush and was inducted into the U.K. Music Hall of Fame. She is the youngest recipient of a Kennedy Center honor. She was the first black woman to appear on the cover of Time magazine, she appeared in 10 films, sang at two inaugurations (Clinton’s and Obama’s), was MusicCares’ Person of the Year, and was the Vanguard award winner from the NAACP and the recipient of 18 Grammy awards.
And what do most people want to know about?
The hat she wore at Barack Obama’s inauguration has become the buzz item of 2009. The oversized grey bow has become an international hit. There are tribute sites on the Internet, fan groups on Facebook and it’s all anyone wants to know about when I tell them I am preparing to interview Franklin, the American icon. They don’t say, “Ask her what was it like to work with the legendary producer Jerry Wexler.” (“A barrel of fun, a lot of laughs. He’d assemble the best songs, the best musicians for me.”) Or, “Ask her what contemporary singer she’s listening to now on her CD player.” (“Keyshia Cole.”) Or even, “Ask her if she ever thought she’d see a black U.S. president in her lifetime.” (“Yes, I did. After the Rev. Jesse Jackson made his run, I knew one day I’d see that happen.”) Nope, none of those questions were suggested. All anyone wanted to know was, “Ask her what happened to The Hat.”
So, of course, it was the first question I asked her. And it turns out The Hat has taken to its celebrity very well.
“Next week I’ve been invited to Washington D.C. for a ceremony,” Franklin reveals, “where the hat will become part of the Smithsonian collection.”
Franklin has become known for some outrageous fashion moves, often bigger-than-life, just like her personality and vocals, but her appearance at Obama’s inauguration immediately got tongues wagging. It takes a lot to upstage the new Prez, but one heather-gray, wool-felt, gigantic bow lined with Swarovski rhinestones did just that.
Aretha Franklin is used to making big statements, most often musically. She’s a diva who commands attention by just being, well, Aretha. So imagine my surprise at her totally down-home demeanor while we talk about the inauguration (“It was an honor just to be part of such a tremendous moment in history”), Obama as a rock star (“He’s not a rock star president. He’s much more than that. He’s extremely bright and has an extremely bright team working with him. He’s going to do some terrific things as president.”), her granddaughter Victory (“She just debuted at the Borgata [Hotel], and she sang Alicia Keys’ ‘No One.’ I thought, ‘I like that, I want to do that song.’”), her childhood (“Mahalia Jackson would be at my house [when I was a child], cooking, Christmas shopping with us, putting lunch together. She was a wonderful woman. She was devout in faith as I am. [She] was my mentor.”), and…fishing—Aretha Franklin fishing???!—(“I love fishing. I even caught the Catch of the Day.”)
Thousand-pound marlins aside, it’s her music that has made her such an American treasure. And Franklin will be bringing That Voice and Those Hits to the Capitol One Theater in Westbury, this weekend. While her rare performances are filled with past hits, Aretha says she always tries to stay current. She mentions Keyshia Cole often throughout our conversation, as well as Mariah Carey and Keys. But she reveals a new direction she wants to take in her career.
“I want to concentrate on my piano playing,” she says. “I’m going to devote more attention to the piano,” she says. “I’ve been listening a lot to Vladimir Horowitz and Oscar Peterson. Two great pianists. In the past, my voice took priority, but I want to concentrate on my piano playing now.”
Don’t fear, that God-given voice will still be heard. She will be releasing a new album in June, as well as an album of arias.
Aretha’s voice is what it’s all about. Of course, she has great songs like “Respect,” “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” and hundreds others, but it’s that slippery, wailing, raspy, soulful voice that brings it home with rich, heavenly swoops and a devilish, dipping alto.
“You’re either born to sing or not,” Franklin says. “It can be developed, but you need that ability to start off with.”
So what can the audience expect at her concert? “All of my hits, plus newer songs, a couple of arias and some surprises,” says Aretha, who is starting a mini-tour this week that brings her to Westbury, an impressive coup for the Capitol One Theatre. Franklin has a well-known fear of flying and it has kept her from making a fortune on the road like some of her contemporaries have done. But the plus side is that she gets to be selective about her bookings, and now has a tour bus that takes her to where she wants to go from her Michigan home.
“I am starting a fear of flying class,” she explains. “Flying has been a problem, but I love to perform. So I have a new tour bus and I just love it. It is really wonderful.”
After all these years, how does she stay engaged with some material that’s 40 years old? “I rework some of my older songs, just so it stays fresh,” she says.
How does she do that? “Oh, that’s a secret,” she answers, with a hearty laugh. “You’ll see.”
What she does let on is that her show in Westbury will be “a whooping good time.” I just wonder how many women will be adorned in Aretha hats.
Aretha Franklin will be performing at 8 p.m. at Capitol One Bank Theatre at Westbury, 960 Brush Hollow Rd., Westbury. Tickets are $81.50 and $71.50. Tickets available at www.livenation.com, at the Theatre box office, or 1-877-598-8694.