Aretha Franklin eager for summer gigs, a new album and that biopic

by Brian McCollum

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

25 June 2012


DETROIT — Aretha Franklin’s latest hometown performance, she says, comes as her “voice is doing absolutely fabulous — just better, clear, higher, stronger than ever.”

Her Friday show at the Fox Theatre will bring the Detroit native to one of her favorite hometown venues, a site where she recalls “sitting as a little girl in the balcony watching Lionel Hampton.”

It’s been a busy spring for Franklin, who turned 70 in March while continuing to ride the momentum of her 2011 resurgence. The Fox is part of a summer concert itinerary that will include July dates in New Orleans, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

A trip last week to New York proved particularly fruitful.

First she caught the Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess,” where she was struck by the performance of lead actress Audra McDonald, a multiple Tony Award winner. The classically trained singer instantly moved onto Franklin’s ever-running wish list as plans come together for a movie about the Queen of Soul’s life.

“I was very impressed with her dramatic performance and vocal ability,” says Franklin. “So we know she can do Broadway. The question with Audra is: Can she deliver in the soul arena?

“Of course, Jennifer Hudson has always been on the list. But Audra is a new entry after I saw ‘Porgy and Bess.’”

Control over casting issues was the key sticking point, Franklin says, as she sought a new production deal for the film, whose screenplay will be based on her autobiography, “From These Roots,” and on lengthy conversations with screenwriter Taylor Hackford (“Ray”).

Hackford is due to submit a script by Aug. 15, Franklin says, and last week she enlisted director Tate Taylor (“The Help”) to move ahead with the project.

“I was negotiating with the other group for two years, and they were adamant about the casting. That became the deal-breaker,” she says. “They wanted to cast who was going to play me, my dad and the other principals. I felt like because it’s my story, I was the person who needs to be happy with this when it’s done.”

The film wasn’t the only point of her New York trip last week. On Thursday, after hobnobbing with President Obama and the first lady at a glitzy campaign fund-raiser at Sarah Jessica Parker’s home, Franklin headed to the Songwriters Hall of Fame dinner, where fellow Detroit icon Bob Seger was among the inductees.

There she met up with record mogul Clive Davis to “finish the paperwork” for their upcoming collaboration reunion — an album to be released this fall.

Recording will start in early August in Detroit, and she expects jazz great Mulgrew Miller and songwriting star Kenny (Babyface) Edmonds to be involved in the production. Aggrieved by heavy state taxes the last time she recorded in New York — Franklin says she was dinged for $30,000 — she is determined to do all her work in “one of our great studios out here in Michigan.”

As for her summer leisure plans, Franklin is jazzed about a couple of items: She’ll be heading to Smokey Robinson’s Sept. 15 show here, where he’s performing with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra — a pairing she pulled off herself for three nights in 1998.

And she’s excited about her new backyard smoker, which will keep her “kicking it out in the yard barbecuing.”

“You put your prime ribs in, and they come out so tender you can cut it with a fork, just falling off the bone,” she says. “And of course I’ll make my special barbecue sauce. We’ll have the family over and sit around this summer and kick it.”

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