Aretha is both a singer and a song. Her music reaches inside us to pluck out sorrow and jump-start joy. Her tough-the-ceiling shouts and deep-in-the-basement moans stir up gospel heat and bedroom sweat. We love the song -- but we barely know the singer.
All these years, our images of Aretha Franklin, Detroit's long-time live-in legend, have been swiped from album covers, tabloid tattle sheets and the Grammy Award telecasts. She's the woman who tosses parties featuring live doves. The woman escorted by men you wish you could order from a Neiman Marcus catalogue.
The newspapers tell us all about her late-paid bills but little about the annual Aretha Franklin Scholarship awards. We know she likes watching soap operas but not that she reads biographies. We suspect she can boil up a tasty pot of greens but have no idea that she likes French food. We know she sometimes wears stop-and-stare gowns but not that she tried to launch a line of fashions.
But an upcoming book, Aretha From These Roots, brings us a few steps closer to the "real" Aretha. She introduces us to her traveling evangelist father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin; her singing sisters, Erma and Carolyn; her manager brother, Cecil; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who attended Aretha Franklin Day in Detroit in February, 1968, the last time she saw the civil rights leader alive.
She documents life as the single teen-aged mother of two sons, two troubled marriages and relationships with everyone from Dennis Edwards from the Temptations to Paul Owens of the Swan Silvertones, Ronnie Isley of the Isley Brothers, and someone she calls "Mr. Mystique."
We meet her buddies, colleagues, and rivals, including longtime friend Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Luther Vandross, Gladys Knight and Natalie Cole.
Though far from a tell-all, the book offers revealing glimpses of the first female performer to combine gospel with rhythm and blues, embellish it with jazz and stamp it with soul. It's a portrait of a singer who has won 15 Grammys, more than any other female, and changes with the times -- wearing denim jackets one day and lace the next.
But she's never lost what made her special -- her ability to find the heart of any song, no matter how worn out, and pump it full of life.
"She's able to find meaning in anything," says David Nathan, author of The Soulful Divas. "I listen to songs that in someone else's interpretation would have had no real meaning, but Aretha finds something."
Franklin grew up in Detroit's old north end, a black enclave around East Boston and Oakland, and later lived on the city's west side. She was a child of privilege, at one point living in a house with a built-in refrigerator. Because she hid behind the coats in the closet when the piano teacher showed up, she never learned to sight read music. But the family -- and neighborhood -- lived in a sea of street-corner and church sounds.
"Everybody wanted to be a singer," remembers Erma Franklin. Jackie Wilson and Smokey Robinson were in the house every day. In fact, Jackie proposed marriage to me when I was 10, and my auntie ran him off the back porch. We all sat on the porch singing until midnight and later if it was the weekend."
However, as the daughter of a minister whose recorded sermons made him famous throughout black American, Aretha always felt special. As she writes, "Pride was something Daddy gave us in abundance. I never felt inferior or less than. I was blessed to grow up in an environment where self-worth was underscored."
"Rev. Franklin, he could preach, he could pray and he could sing." Explains Bea Buck, a family friend who was the Rev. Franklin's secretary in the late 1950's. "He could really do the old gospel hymns. He would whoop. And Aretha sang like he preached."
Even in paradise, though, problems arose. When Aretha was six, her parents separated. She and three siblings remained in Detroit with her father, while her mother took their older brother, Vaughn, with her to Buffalo, N.Y., where her parents lived.
Aretha calls the rumors that her mother abandoned her "an absolute lie." Her mother, she says, couldn't afford to raise five children on a nurse's aide's salary, but telephoned and visited often and kept the children every summer.
When Aretha was 10, her mother died. The singer doesn't even try to describe the pain at this loss or discuss how it changed her life. By age 13, though, she was skating with wavy-haired boys who bent her backwards and whispered in her ears. She also was pregnant. Just as she turned 14, she had her first son, Clarence. At age 16, she became pregnant again with her son, Eddie.
Unlike some parents of that time, The Rev. Franklin did not send his daughter south the bear her babies in shadowy shame. According to Aretha, "he never made a serious issue of it. His only lecture was that I be responsible and care for my children." The Rev. Franklin took Aretha on the road with him, and while still in her teens, she recorded a gospel album for Chess Records.
By the age of 18, she had signed with Columbia Records, where she had a few minor hits. At the age of 24, she switched to Atlantic Records and exploded, playing the piano and handling the arrangements herself. She finally found the gritty groove that turned a song like "Respect" into an anthem for women and anybody else hungry for recognition.
Morris Broadnax, a Motown producer and songwriter in the 1960's, briefly worked as Aretha's personal assistant, cleaning her house and helping her care for her boys.
"I really don't think all of her talent has been realized (yet)," he said.
" ... A lot of time she was playing the piano or working on a tune or something. I was really inspired by the way she works and comes up with ideas."
In 1980, she signed with Arista Records, where she continued to crunch out hits. Nowadays, she's the sort of superstar who never has to eat what's on a hotel menu and travels with at least 20 people. After decades in the business, she continues to reinvent herself for a new generation.
"We can be pumping gas in a gas station and some kid will come out with their parents," says Joe Schaffner, Franklin's road manager for 40 years. "They know her from MTV videos and diva shows."
Adds Steve Holsey, Michigan Chronicles entertainment editor, "You never write her off. Artistically, I think she's bigger than any success or failure of the moment. She could make five albums in a row that were not successful and she's still head and shoulders above the competition."
So who is the real Aretha? Is she high-handed and haughty? Somber and sweet?
Friends say that when she's not on the road, the superstar enjoys staying at home in Bloomfield Hills, decorating, shopping, and planning the surprising parties she throws three or four times a year. Although she employs a cook, she prepares some dishes herself, including a mean banana pudding with vanilla wafers, according to David Ritz, who co-authored her book.
The real Aretha never drives nor flies, relying on limos or luxury buses. She listens to all kinds of music including classical and rhythm and blues. And as the public learned at last year's Grammy Awards, her voice can find meaning in a classical aria, too.
Her friend, Detroiter Gregory Dunmore, has gotten a chance to know the generous Aretha, the woman he says paid for David Ruffin's funeral and donates to battered women's shelters.
Others insist the superstar is sometimes withdrawn with strangers, putting up a fence at first meeting. But Katherine Adams, former Detroit television anchor and current media specialist, believes "reserved" is a better word.
"I think when you have had a life as an international recording artistyou do have people approaching you wanting to have just a little bit of what you have, whether that's energy, some of your wisdom or some of your wealth."
"In order to live in this world and survive, you've got to save some of yourself. I think she's a little reserved because she's trying to hold on to what she's got so when the time comes for her to output, she has something to give. It's a conservation of your energy and your spirit and your thoughts."
The truth is, Aretha is a singer and a song, a performer and a long-running performance. Fortunately, both go on.