Aretha Franklin plans to tell her life story twice—first in a stage musical due out next year, followed by a film version.
But neither is likely to give the full picture. When it comes to her personal life, the world’s greatest female soul singer is notoriously guarded.
Speaking by phone, she deflects most questions in a terse, businesslike manner. Trying to get her to talk about herself is an exercise in futility.
“I think people already know who I am,” she says.
She’d also rather not discuss her father and mentor, preacher-singer C.L. Franklin. When asked what her dad taught her about music, she says, “just coaching.”
“Different kinds of coaching.”
Ask her to elaborate and she says, “I can’t give away my trade secrets.”
She already made that clear in “From These Roots,” her 1999 autobiography that some critics panned for its lack of details. Still, she’s basing the musical on the book, and Hollywood is eager to turn it into a movie.
“I’ve gotten a number of calls from companies who want to put it on the silver screen, asking how I feel about Jennifer Hudson playing me,” she says, speaking by phone from the Ritz Carlton in Toronto before a concert there. “Some of the other names in the hat are Fantasia and Queen Latifah.”
Whoever portrays her, don’t expect the movie to be remotely like “Ray,” which didn’t shy away from Ray Charles’ struggles with poverty, heroin and women. She saw “Ray,” but didn’t care for the warts-and-all approach.
“I don’t know anything about that part of Ray’s life,” she says. “What I do know is he was a musical genius and a very kind man.”
Of course, “musical genius” also applies to the Queen of Soul. In the `60s and `70s, she revolutionized R&B with a voice that mixed ecstasy - both sexual and spiritual—with pain and despair. She brought the fervor of gospel to the top of the pop charts in a way no other female singer did before her—or ever will again.
But for all her accomplishments, she remains an enigma.
“I think of Aretha as Our Lady of Mysterious Sorrows,” wrote her producer Jerry Wexler, in “Rhythm and the Blues.” “Anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical aura.”
She grew up in Detroit under tough circumstances: Her mother Barbara Franklin left the family when Aretha was 6 and died four years later. By age 16, Aretha had given birth to two children and dropped out of high school to sing with her father on the Baptist church circuit.
She found her calling in front of the mike and made her first recordings at 14. In 1960, at age 18, she was signed to Columbia Records by John Hammond, the legendary talent scout who signed Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
But Columbia tried to market her to white audiences with middle-of-the-road songs like “Over the Rainbow” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.” In 1966, she moved to Atlantic, which had a better understanding of R&B.
“Many of the artists on Atlantic were people I loved as a child, like Ruth Brown, the Drifters, LaVern Baker, Clyde McPhatter and on and on,” she says. Atlantic co-founder Ahmet Ertegun “took care of me with TLC and provided the launch pad for my career, which really took off at Atlantic.”
Talk about understatement. From 1967 to 1969, she recorded dozens of classics, including “Respect,” “Think,” “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like),” “Chain of Fools” and “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You).”
But her triumphs came amid a tumultuous period in her life, which included arrests for disorderly conduct and reckless driving. A 1968 Time cover story said her husband and manager, Ted White, “roughed her up in public” on more than one occasion. The couple divorced in 1969.
In 1978, she married actor Glynn Turman and divorced him in 1984 - the same year her father died: He had been shot by burglars in 1979 and was in a coma until his death.
All the while, she kept racking up Grammys and hits: “The Blues Brothers” (1980) introduced her to a new generation of fans, paving the way for her return to the pop charts with “Freeway of Love” (1985), ” I Knew You Were Waiting for Me” (1987) and “A Rose Is Still a Rose” (1998).
Since then, she hasn’t seen much chart success. She split with Arista Records after her last CD, 2003’s “So Damn Happy,” and has yet to find a label to put out her newly finished “A Woman Falling Out of Love.”
The disc features guest spots by country star Faith Hill and gospel singer Shirley Caesar, but no opera songs: Franklin can sing the daylights out of Puccini (a fact she proved at the 1998 Grammys) but she’d rather not incur the wrath of opera buffs by recording it.
“Opera fans are purists: They want to hear the original melody as it was written,” she says. “You have to be more restrained, which you don’t have to be with gospel. Gospel is all-out singing.”
But while she’ll talk about gospel or opera, she’s leery of discussing soul, the genre she’ll always be remembered for. Ask her to define it and she’ll only say “it’s related to African-American music, but there are different types.”
What type of soul does she sing?
“African-American,” she says with a laugh, refusing to elaborate.
Obviously, she’s not a big fan of interviews—or at least this particular one—but she’s not willing to say so. Tell her she’s a “reserved” interviewee, and she takes umbrage with the description.
“Where did that come from?” she says.
“I think I elaborate nicely.”