Aretha Franklin & Clive Davis - photo by Michael Sherer
Before I address the event, I’d like to provide some key context. Aretha Franklin, 72, has been recording for fifty eight years, and is revered to a degree that few singers are. In my view, her best period was the late ‘60’s while recording for Atlantic Records, her second label after Columbia. One of the main reasons for that was due to the great guidance of its vice president, the late Jerry Wexler. Wex, as he was commonly known, also produced Aretha’s best records for the company, and right from the start. The key to this was bringing Franklin back to her church roots with Southern musicians, and making it a soulful, gritty affair. This was in stark contrast to what the late John Hammond did at Columbia, which was to mold Franklin as a “middle of the road” singer in a Rosemary Clooney type fashion. It was only when Franklin was set in Wexler’s cast that she could become her true self and be dubbed “The Queen Of Soul.”
Clive Davis, 82, has been in the record business for about fifty four years, initially as an attorney for Columbia Records, and then later, to his great surprise, was promoted to be its president by the late Goddard Lieberson. Starting his own labels Arista and J Records followed. He’s also a quality A & R man and executive producer. He currently holds the position of Sony Music Chief Creative Officer. With a worth of a staggering $800 million, he’s done quite all right for himself.
In ‘79, a couple of years after Wexler had left Atlantic, Franklin and Davis met to discuss her joining his label, Arista. Franklin was impressed with how Davis and Arista’s team had resurrected the career of Dionne Warwick, a close friend of Franklin’s, after Warwick had left Warner Brothers. In Davis, Franklin found another very hands on collaborator as she had with Wexler. Several hits, mostly in the ‘80’s, followed. They were far more commercial than her material for Atlantic, but they were in keeping with the sound of the times.
Eleven years had passed before Franklin and Davis last worked together, but they were very much hand in hand for Franklin’s latest CD, called “Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics,” for which Davis is the executive producer. It’s being released on RCA Records on October 21st. Comprised of songs previously recorded by exclusively female artists, it was up to Franklin and her team to bring new life to them. This has been achieved, at least with the songs I heard. Davis devised the concept, and selected a batch of songs, which Franklin then chose from. It was narrowed down to ten. They include “Midnight Train to Georgia” from Gladys Knight & The Pips, “Rolling In The Deep” from Adele, “At Last” from Etta James, ‘‘I Will Survive” from Gloria Gaynor. “No One” from Alicia Keys, “I’m Every Woman” from Chaka Kahn, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from Diana Ross and “People” from Barbra Streisand. “The album is filled with flavor,” said Davis during the event, moderated by the very capable and personable Anthony DeCurtis. “Different touches and different flavors really, from cut to cut,” concluded Davis. The producers are Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Harvey Mason Jr. and Andre 3000 of Outkast.
DeCurtis, 63, a veteran music writer, critic and lecturer in the creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania, is often employed by the Y for his moderating and interviewing skills. In this case it was especially logical, as DeCurtis assisted Davis with his autobiography, called “The Soundtrack of My Life,” which was released in early ‘13.
A few of the forthcoming CD’s songs were selected and played for the first public airing at the Y. Davis swayed in his seat to the music while Franklin was more subdued. Davis is more extroverted than Franklin generally, and spoke more than she did. They talked about the evolution of the project, and about several of its songs. “Rolling In The Deep” is a centerpiece, and Davis excitedly noted that it received over two million hits on Youtube and Vevo in its first two days. The record was recorded in Franklin’s home area of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, near Detroit. It was Detroit, (The Motor City) that Franklin was raised since the age of five. (Her late father was the well known and very popular preacher, C.L. Franklin, who had his own church there.)
Franklin noted that the producers paid close attention to details, and were able to get the music to sound very full and sophisticated. Franklin also said that they gave her the freedom to sing the way she saw fit, and compared this to how the late Luther Vandross, an exceptional singer himself, would ask her to sing certain ways when he produced her “Jump To It” record in ‘82. This caused arguments, Franklin said. There were none with this recording, though.
Davis stressed how important it is to him personally to keep the legacy and music of Franklin alive and heard, and called her the greatest female singer ever. Rolling Stone magazine’s poll of this question yielded the same result. Franklin in turn spoke about her gratitude toward Davis for his care and attention to all facets of the record and her career in general. Davis also spoke about how a real and unique voice is often missing from performers that are ubiquitous on the T.V. shows and mass media that is our culture, and how precious it is when one does posses it.
As is standard, questions were taken at the end, with DeCurtis reading pre written cards from the audience. There were some interesting ones, such as who Franklin would like to see portray her if a bio film were made. She wasn’t sure who to choose. Another was what Franklin feels makes a good singer. Her answer cited several attributes, such as experience, passion, relating to the music, etc.
With over sixty five years of singing experience behind her, Franklin is still at it, and will hopefully have many more years ahead. Cheers to that!