Aretha Franklin sings pieces of her upcoming album with record producers Don Was, center, and Kenny 'Babyface' Edmonds. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)
Southfield —After hearing Aretha Franklin run through a number of songs for her forthcoming album on Thursday, producer Don Was teased her. “I saw you on TV this morning,” he said. “You were saying you hoped I brought some Grammys in my suitcase.”
Franklin laughed. On Wednesday she had talked about the Grammys Was helped Bonnie Raitt earn for her 1989 album “Nick of Time.”
“I wouldn’t mind another Grammy,” said Franklin. “That wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all.”
“How many do you have?” co-producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds asked. “Nineteen,” Franklin said.
“We’ve got to get it over 20,” Was said. “I feel compelled.”
The two superstar producers were at the Westin hotel in Southfield to have a pre-production meeting with Franklin for an album she is recording for Clive Davis for Sony Music. It would be her first major label release in some years. Recording will tentatively take place in Detroit in November, with a release, her producers hope, in spring 2014.
Cozied into a silver fur against the rainy day chill, Franklin sang and played piano in her uniquely soulful, jazzy style. These were her own “feel” arrangements on some 10-11 songs, including Sarah Vaughan’s “Brokenhearted Melody,” Barbra Streisand’s first major hit, “People,” and the jazz standard “Teach Me Tonight.”
Was, who grew up in Oak Park, flew in from his Los Angeles home. He smiled and nodded as Franklin played and sang. “This is the greatest day of my life,” Was said. “This is the greatest concert I ever saw. I don’t want to gush too much, or you’ll fire me,” he said to Franklin, “but when you sang ‘Teach Me Tonight,’ my heart stopped.”
“Don and I were fighting back tears as we listened,” Edmonds said, as Was nodded. Both men told Franklin that they wanted her to play piano on the songs.
“You’ve done all the work for us, in coming up with these arrangements, we can just walk into the studio,” Edmonds joked.
“Hundreds of people can play piano like me,” Franklin replied.
“Not with your feel,” said Was. “You play the way you sing.”
“The way she plays, even when she thinks it’s wrong, it’s right,” Edmonds said.
“Well maybe we could record it both ways, with me, but also with another pianist,” she suggested.
This would be the first time since her legendary Atlantic Records sessions of the 1960s that Franklin would play piano on her own recordings, she said. Producer Jerry Wexler famously centered each song’s arrangement on what Franklin had already worked out on the piano.
As Franklin sang and played, both Edmonds and Was recorded her, Edmonds on his laptop computer, and Was on his iPhone. When there was a question about a lyric, Edmonds would call the song up on his iPad and play it.
The two men could barely contain their glee at the assignment.
“I’m going to capture the greatest voice of our time, singing some of the greatest songs of all time,” Edmonds said.
Later, asked what some of his early memories are of Franklin as an artist, Was recalled a time when he was selling 8-tracks from a store at Eight Mile and Livernois. “I played her Atlantic Records albums constantly!”
“Don and I have spent a good deal of our careers working with artists, with our eyes closed,” Edmonds said, as Was nodded. “This is something I want to do with my eyes wide open, knowing that I’m dealing with greatness.”