In 2015, Aretha Franklin delivered one of her most indelible performances, singing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in tribute to the song’s co-writer, Carole King, at the Kennedy Center Honors. Before starting — and bringing a jubilant King and a teary President Obama to their feet — the singer did something she had done on countless stages before: nonchalantly tossed her purse (here, a sparkly clutch) on the piano. The move spoke volumes about how the singer took care of business.
It’s well known that Franklin, who died Aug. 16 of pancreatic cancer, demanded to be paid in cash, partly because she came up in an era when African-American artists were routinely ripped off by white promoters. “Aretha would put her reading glasses on her nose and she would be there while you counted out” the money, recalls Empire Entertainment’s JB Miller, who hired Franklin for numerous private and corporate gigs starting in the 1990s. “The purse would always make it onstage.”
And after the show, “you had your audience with her backstage as she paid everyone” — the band, backing singers and so on — in cash, recalls Narada Michael Walden, who in addition to producing Franklin’s 1985 Grammy-winning smash, “Freeway of Love,” occasionally played drums in her band.
Franklin was as exacting with her performance contracts as she was with her music. They had to accommodate two major challenges: her fear of flying and her 20- to 30-person entourage. Her willingness to only travel by bus and her health issues later in life limited her earning power. Franklin never landed on Forbes’ highest-paid celebrities list, with the magazine estimating her annual income in the low seven figures.
Since 2015, Franklin reported only six concerts to Billboard Boxscore, with an average per-show gross of $304,689. Among bus rental, gas, hotel rooms and per diems, moving Franklin and her entourage accounted for $50,000 to $100,000 in expenses alone, according to producer Michael Levitt, who worked with her on several events. “If you wanted Aretha on your show, her terms were nonnegotiable. It was her way, or no way,” says Levitt. But “Aretha was worth it. She always delivered, and it always seemed effortless on her part.”
Franklin didn’t suffer fools lightly, Levitt says, but she held herself to high standards as well. “Aretha was late for rehearsal [for Bill Clinton’s 50th birthday party] and when she arrived, she blamed me for not getting her the [rehearsal] information. I tried to explain that we sent a packet with all the call times to her and her team. She wasn’t having it and put me in my place. To get the wrath of Aretha Franklin was pretty devastating,” Levitt says. “The next day she arrived for the show run-through. Her bodyguard came up to me and said ‘Ms. Franklin would like to speak to you.’ I was anticipating part two of the wrath. [Instead], she said “Young man, I am so sorry. When I returned to my hotel last night, I discovered that you did indeed send over the proper information and for that, I owe you an apology.’ I truly appreciated that she cared enough to right that wrong. I mean, how many people can say they received an apology from the Queen of Soul?”
To avoid such misunderstandings, Franklin would often phone ahead herself to work out details. “There would be this fog: You wouldn’t know when she was coming in, how she was coming in, where she was staying,” says Miller. “Then, usually within 24 to 48 hours [before the event], you’d get a call from Aretha, and it would always be about something like making sure there’s no air-conditioning on. That was a big thing of hers…People that don’t know how to work with artists like that might get really intimidated and go, ‘Oh, she was a diva and threatened not to perform,’ but she cared a lot about the performance and she wanted it to be great. It was always an interesting road to get there.”
The Queen of Soul sang the most empowering popular song ever. But even though she was brimming with it, we don’t think of her as an artist with swagger.
Officially, “Respect” is a relationship song. That’s how Otis Redding wrote it. But love wasn’t what Aretha Franklin was interested in. The opening line is “What you want, baby, I got it.” But her “what” is a punch in the face. So Ms. Franklin’s rearrangement was about power. She had the right to be respected — by some dude, perhaps by her country. Just a little bit. What did love have to do with that?
Depending on the house you grew up in and how old you are, “Respect” is probably a song you learned early. The spelling lesson toward the end helps. So do the turret blasts of “sock it to me” that show up here and there. But, really, the reason you learn “Respect” is the way “Respect” is sung. Redding made it a burning plea. Ms. Franklin turned the plea into the most empowering popular recording ever made.
Ms. Franklin died on Thursday, at 76, which means “Respect” is going to be an even more prominent part of your life than usual. The next time you hear it, notice what you do with your hands. They’re going to point — at a person, a car or a carrot. They’ll rest on your hips. Your neck might roll. Your waist will do a thing. You’ll snarl. Odds are high that you’ll feel better than great. You’re guaranteed to feel indestructible.
Ms. Franklin’s respect lasts for two minutes and 28 seconds. That’s all — basically a round of boxing. Nothing that’s over so soon should give you that much strength. But that was Aretha Franklin: a quick trip to the emotional gym. Obviously, she was far more than that. We’re never going to have an artist with a career as long, absurdly bountiful, nourishing and constantly surprising as hers. We’re unlikely to see another superstar as abundantly steeped in real self-confidence — at so many different stages of life, in as many musical genres.
That self-confidence wasn’t evident only in the purses and perms and headdresses and floor-length furs; the buckets and buckets of great recordings; the famous demand that she always be paid before a show, in cash; or the Queen of Soul business — the stuff that keeps her monotonously synonymous with “diva.” It was there in whatever kept her from stopping and continuing to knock us dead. To paraphrase one of Ms. Franklin’s many (many) musical progeny: She slayed. “Respect” became an anthem for us, because it seemed like an anthem for her.
The song owned the summer of 1967. It arrived amid what must have seemed like never-ending turmoil — race riots, political assassinations, the Vietnam draft. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his championship title for refusing to serve in the war. So amid all this upheaval comes a singer from Detroit who’d been around most of the decade doing solid gospel R&B work. But there was something about this black woman’s asserting herself that seemed like a call to national arms. It wasn’t a polite song. It was hard. It was deliberate. It was sure. And that all came from Ms. Franklin — her rumbling, twanging, compartmentalized arrangement. It came, of course, from her singing.
Because lots of major pop stars now have great, big voices, maybe it’s easy to forget that most Americans had never heard anything quite as dependably great and shockingly big as Ms. Franklin’s. The reason we have watched “Showtime at the Apollo” or “American Idol” or “The Voice” is out of some desperate hope that somebody walks out there and sounds like Aretha. She established a standard for artistic vocal excellence, and it will outlast us all.