By Thom Jennings
Niagara Gazette — It’s not everyday one gets to interview a performer with more than 20 Grammy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and is the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That is just a small sample of the achievements of Aretha Franklin, who is arguably the greatest female singer of all time, and undeniably one of the most influential women in popular music.
Aretha Franklin returns to the area for what promises to be another sellout performance at the Seneca Niagara Showroom. It not only marks a return to the area as a performer, has strong ties to Western New York. She lived in Buffalo when she was a child.
“We lived on Glenwood Avenue when my father was pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church, and my mother worked as a nurse at Buffalo General. I have very fond memories of Buffalo,” she said during an exclusive phone interview last week.
When I was doing my research for the interview I found the address and looked to see if the house is still there. It is and I gave her the house number.
“That is fabulous! We were going to drive around the Buffalo area either before or after the show to look for the house but I couldn’t remember the address. Voila, you gave it to me!”
Legend had it that Franklin’s first public singing performance was in Buffalo at her father’s church, but Ms. Franklin couldn’t remember if she ever sang at the church in Buffalo. Her father mover to Detroit where Aretha did begin her singing career singing gospel songs at her father’s church.
Franklin signed her first recording contract in 1960 and a year later her major label debut, “Aretha: With the Ray Bryant Combo,” was released when she was just 18 years old.
Franklin’s career began during The Civil Right Movement, and in the early days she faced some challenges when traveling by car in the south.
“There were some gas stations we couldn’t stop at but back then we always stopped at Gulf. Their restrooms were clean, and sometimes the other stations were a problem.”
Franklin worked with many great producers throughout her storied career, including John Hammond, Quincy Jones, Luther Vandross and Narada Michael Walden.
“They were really great to work with and they were all very cool, especially Luther (Vandross). I always said he did and didn’t miss his calling. He didn’t miss his calling as a singer, but his sense of humor was amazing. He could have you bending over and hurting your side he was so funny.”
In addition to her career as a singer, Aretha Franklin appeared in an iconic scene in “The Blues Brothers,” as Matt “Guitar” Murphy’s wife. I asked her how she landed the role.
“I got a call from my agent that John Landis wanted to speak to me about a project with Aykroyd and Belushi and I said ‘Absolutely.’ The only thing I didn’t like was that I had to be up at 7 a.m. Once you got there and got made up it was fun, but getting up that early wasn’t fun because I am more of a night person.”
Of all her legendary performances, Ms. Franklin’s breathtaking performance as a last minute stand-in for opera singer Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammy Awards stands out as one of her best. I asked her how it all came together.
“About three weeks before the Grammy’s MusiCares was paying tribute to Mr. Pavarotti and I worked with my classical coach to learn “Nessun Dorma.” I really crammed for the performance but wasn’t planning on adding it to my repertoire so afterwards I kind of forgot about it. Right before the Grammy performance the producers called me and told me what happened to Mr. Pavarotti and asked me if I could perform it. I panicked a bit, but then I pulled it together for the performance.”
With all of the awards she has received I asked Franklin which one means the most. She replied with the type of humility she always displays.
“I appreciate all of the awards. They are all special because people don’t have to give you anything.”
And I appreciated the interview; it was a very special moment for me.
The legendary Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, performs Saturday March 2 at the Seneca Niagara Casino Showroom at 8:00 p.m. A very limited amount tickets were available at press time through Ticketmaster.IF YOU GO • WHAT: Aretha Franklin • WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday • WHERE: Seneca Niagara Casino Showroom Thom Jennings covers the local music scene for Night & Day.