After a particularly grueling trip to California last year, Aretha Franklin decided she wants to try to overcome her fear of flying. Earlier this year, she announced she plans to start flying again after three decades.
"It's the first time in 33 years," she says via phone from her Detroit-area home. "This bus is getting a little wearing as much as I love it. After that trip to California, I said, 'I need to get off the bus and back on the plane.' You got to be willing to try to do it. I'm willing. I flew for 23 years with no problem, so I should be able to get off the ground with no sweat. Maybe a little something to begin with but after that, that should be it."
The Queen of Soul, 73, sounds determined to remain relevant and stay on the road. Franklin, who punctuates her short answers with a steady "mmmm hmmm," embraced contemporary music on her most recent album, 2014's Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics. On it, she covers a number of classics, some old and some new. She even takes on Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," defiantly calling her rendition "the Aretha version." Her powerhouse vocals still pack a real punch on the tune — not that she means to disrespect the British singer who's arguably the reigning world champ when it comes to present-day divas.
"I think Adele is a very good artist," Franklin says. "She's an excellent writer, and she has a kind of different story, one that you don't hear every day. I like her writings. She has great hooks, and she's doing wonderfully well."
Franklin says that her album's producer, Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, gave her "a free reign" in the studio and let her experiment with songs such as "I Will Survive," which she turns into a mashup with Destiny's Child "Survivor."
"It's a very easy song to sing," she says of the Gloria Gaynor tune. "I just had fun with it. Most of the songs on the album I had bought as a consumer."
With a little help from Andre 3000, she turns Prince's "Nothing Compares to U" into a jazzy big-band number.
"He was really cool," she says of the rapper from Outkast. "He's a very quiet producer. He's very laid-back and professional and listening intently and asking for what he wanted. He did the rearranging on the song. I wanted to do it slow, and he liked the tempo. Once I heard it in tempo, I realized it was a departure from the original, so I figured why not."
Franklin famously got her start singing at the church. But once she embraced secular music, she became a huge R&B and soul star who delivered classic hits such as "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
"Right out of the Baptist Bethel church, I got my early training in the junior choir and I played piano for the choir on occasion," she says. "Traveling with my dad on the weekends I got my early experience onstage. I had a good childhood. It was lovely. We came here from Buffalo, and we've been here since I was 6 years old. My childhood was mostly roller skates, hot dogs, and hamburgers and milkshakes at a place, which was not far from the New Bethel Baptist church on Hastings. I would go there after I would sing and have my regular burger and shake. Other than that, it was the Arcadia Roller Rink, which was the rink at the time. I was there on Tuesdays, Wednesday, Fridays, and Sundays."
The success of Sam Cooke prompted her decision to sing secular music.
"After he left and went to the secular field, I loved those records so much because I love music," she says. "I wondered if I could do the same thing. My dad said if that was what I wanted to do, it was OK. I think the transition was very easy. I never left the church. The church is a constant with me, and I just broadened my musical horizons."
She says that when she first recorded the 1965Otis Redding tune "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," she didn't have any sense that it would become her signature tune thanks, in part, to the way she sings "sock it to me" on the track.
"People in the neighborhood were saying 'sock it to me' and ... my sister Caroline and myself thought it would be good to use that line. But we never even got a dime [from the popularization of the phrase]. I certainly did not [foresee the song becoming an anthem for women's rights and civil rights], but there's nothing wrong with it. Everyone deserves respect. It's perfectly alright with me," she says.
Franklin said she's not currently working on a new studio album. But she continues to field offers for a biopic from a few groups, namely, the team behind the N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton and a certain Oprah Winfrey.
"I am preparing to go to Florida later in the year for a short Florida stint and a tribute to Natalie Cole at the Boca County Club," she says. "I don't know why the networks didn't carry more news about her death. You didn't hear anything on the networks. We were not that close but we were friendly and mutually respectful."
And when we ask if she thinks she'll ever retire from performing, she practically scoffs at the question.
"I will be singing all the way," she says. "Definitely not. It's not good to go and sit down anywhere, especially after having been very active. That's just not a good idea."
Aretha Franklin performs at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 13, at the Colosseum at Caesar's Windsor, ON; 377 Riverside Drive East, Tickets: $39.55-$107.35 (CAD)
Jef Niesel is the music editor for our sister paper, The Cleveland Scene.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.