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'Fresh Air' Celebrates Queen Of Soul Aretha Franklin


This is FRESH AIR. When Pulitzer Prize winners were announced earlier this week, Aretha Franklin was honored with a special citation for what the jury called her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades. Franklin died last August at the age of 76.

Her talents are also being celebrated with the release of a new documentary about her gospel performance recorded in 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles. Sydney Pollack directed a version of the film decades ago, but it was never released because of problems synchronizing the images and sound. Digital experts have solved those problems, and the film, called "Amazing Grace," is now in theaters.

Today we're going to hear some of Terry's conversation with Aretha Franklin recorded in 1999. We will start with an excerpt of that gospel performance in 1972.


ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) What a friend we have in Jesus - all, all, our sins and griefs to bear. What, what a privilege it is to carry everything to God in prayer. Gotta (ph) sing it one more time. What, what a friend we, we have in Jesus - all, all our sins and our griefs to bear. Whoa (ph), what a privilege it is to just carry, oh, everything, everything to God in prayer, whoa.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Let's talk a little bit about the influences on you during your formative years. Your father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, he was one of the most popular preachers of his generation. He was nationally known through his tours and through, I think, radio broadcasts as well as recordings.

You say in the book that church nurses carried smelling salts to revive worshippers who were overcome to the point of fainting by the Spirit or by your father's sermons. What was it like for you to watch your father speak and people fainting in church?

FRANKLIN: Well, it was tremendous. I loved going to church. But as a young girl, I certainly enjoyed watching and listening to my dad.

GROSS: You toured with your father through churches, through the Deep South. And I'm wondering what it was like for you during the days of segregation to tour through the Deep South - you know, how that compared to what you were used to in Detroit.

FRANKLIN: Well, it certainly was not what I was used to or accustomed to in Detroit. There were times that we were asked to go to the back of the restaurant, say, or we couldn't use the bathrooms. We got information that Gulf - you could use the bathrooms there if you - and we didn't buy gas where we could not use the restrooms. So we went to Gulf a lot, I must tell you.

GROSS: Many singers who grew up in the church weren't allowed by their parents to listen to or to perform pop music. It wasn't that way in your family. What did your father think about pop music and jazz?

FRANKLIN: My dad, I think, appreciated gifted artists. We just didn't have that problem in our home. "Rockin' With Leroy" used to come on when I would come in from school. It was a very, very big R&B broadcast of the day when I was a young girl. My dad really appreciated music, and he never tried to limit us in any way with respect to music or anything like that.

GROSS: Well, as you describe in your new autobiography, great performers like Nat Cole and Art Tatum knew your father and would sometimes be in your living room at the piano. That must have been something.

FRANKLIN: Yes, that's true. Art Tatum was often a visitor in our home. He was a very good friend of my dad's - Oscar Peterson and Arthur Prysock, Mahalia Jackson, of course James. And he loved Sam - Sam Cooke. And he just really very broadly appreciated one's artistry when they were truly gifted and really good.


FRANKLIN: (Singing) Darling, you send me - darling, you send me - darling, you send me - honest you do - honest you do - honest you do - whoa, oh, oh, you thrill me. Darling, you thrill me. Baby, you - you thrill me - honest you do - honest you do - honest you do. At first, I thought it was infatuation.


GROSS: Now, you were friends with Sam Cooke - the great gospel-singer-turned-soul-singer. How did you meet?

FRANKLIN: Sam and I met at a Sunday evening program that we had at our church back in the early '50s, and I was sitting there waiting for the program to start after church. And I just happened to look back over my shoulder, and I saw this group of people coming down the aisle. And, oh, my God, the man that was leading them - Sam and his brother, LC. And these guys were really super-sharp. They had on beautiful blue and - navy blue and brown trench coats.

And I had never seen anyone quite as attractive - not a male as attractive - as Sam was. And so prior to the program, my soul was kind of being stirred in another way.

GROSS: Well, now, he crossed over from gospel to pop before you did. What impact did it have on you when you heard him having a hit pop song on the radio?

FRANKLIN: We were going down the highway. We were somewhere in the South. And my sister and I, and the driver and maybe one or two other people in the car - we knew that he had left the gospel field. And, of course, I was rather sad about that. But as we were driving, we knew that he had recorded. And just out of the dark came this fabulous voice, and it was Sam. And it was his first record. And he was singing, "You Send Me," and there was just pandemonium in the car.

My sister and I just had a fit. Oh, my God, it's Sam. It's Sam. It's his record. You know, it was like that - "You Send Me." This is - it's his record, you know. And there was just so much excitement in the car. The driver really had to pull over.

GROSS: So did that make you think, maybe I should consider making pop records?

FRANKLIN: Well, I don't know at the time. I don't think that was my feeling, and it wasn't to begin with. I was interested in changing fields as well, but I was not as confident, I guess, as Sam was to begin with. And finally, I said, well, if Sam made it, maybe I could, too. And I was willing to give it a try.

GROSS: In 1966, after your contract with Columbia Records was up, you moved to Atlantic Records, which was the home of rhythm and blues greats like The Drifters, The Clovers, Ruth Brown and Ray Charles. The producer Jerry Wexler took you down to a studio in Muscle Shoals, Ala., that was famous for its great session men - which included Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.

Now, Spooner Oldham tells a story that when he heard you sit down at the piano and play your first chord, he thought, wow, that's really great, and that he who - and he's a pianist - that he should let you play piano while he moved over to electric piano playing behind you.

Were you pleased that he agreed that you should be the one at the piano?

FRANKLIN: I remember that particular session. It was the very first session, so naturally, yes, I remember it. And we really were kind of struggling at that point to get to the music. It just wasn't quite coming off - although we had dynamite players.

We had the Muscle Shoals section, and they were really very, very hot - cutting a lot of good, greasy stuff or what you would call greasy in that day. But we weren't getting to the music in the way that we should have - it just wasn't coming off. And finally, someone said, Aretha, why don't you sit down and play? And I did. And it just happened. It all just happened. We arrived, and we arrived very quickly.


FRANKLIN: (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T - find out what it means to me. R-E-S-P-E-C-T - take care, TCB, oh. A little respect - whoa, babe, a little respect. I get tired - keep on trying. You're running out of fools, and I ain't lying. Start when you come home or you might walk in...

DAVIES: Aretha Franklin spoke with Terry Gross in 1979. This week, Franklin was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, and a new documentary about her 1972 gospel performance called "Amazing Grace" is now in theaters. Franklin died last August at the age of 76.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Long Day's Journey Into Night." This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.