Aretha: Happy about 'Divas,' but the book — not so much

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

To say the Queen of Soul is happy with her new album "Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics" is to put it mildly.

"I absolutely love the CD," Franklin says, speaking from her tour bus as it motored down the highway to Atlanta.

"When Clive (Davis) brought me the list and the concept, I loved it and the songs. I bought many of those records. I probably bought all of them, with the exception of "Rolling in the Deep" and Sinead O'Connor (her take on Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U"), but I enjoyed "Rolling in the Deep," when the first time I watched Adele's promo video, with all those young people on the bus just having one wild time singing it. I said 'Absolutely, I want to do it, I love that melody.' "

The 10 songs on "Divas," which includes Etta James' signature song "At Last," Barbra Streisand's star-making "People," the standard "Teach Me Tonight," Alicia Keys' "No One," and the Supremes hit "You Keep Me Hangin' On" are the kind of songs that Franklin envied the first time she heard them.

"Singers will sometimes say, 'Man, I wish I'd have gotten to that song first … before the original artist,' " Franklin says. "These songs were like that."

Davis, her longtime friend and mentor as president of her record company in the '80s, executive-produced the album for RCA. The producers included Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Andre "3000" Benjamin and Harvey Mason Jr. It's her first major label release since 2003's "So Damn Happy" — not to mention, she notes, her first hit in a while.

"The Great Diva Classics" debuted in mid-October at No. 13 on Billboard's 200 album chart, and currently sits at 41.

Franklin hasn't heard yet what Adele thinks of her take on "Rolling."

"We don't know each other, we've never met," Franklin says, "but she's a fine singer and a very, very good writer." (Speaking of writing, Franklin, who wrote her own classics "Think," "Day Dreaming'" and "Dr. Feelgood," to name a few, says of her own songwriting that she's got "a few things on the piano" she's been working on.)

It was executive producer Franklin's idea to slip Ashford & Simpson's Motown classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" into the latter part of her version of "Rolling in the Deep."

"I do like to sit with a song, and I sat with all of the songs over that summer, going in and out of concerts, and musically I just heard it floating into 'Ain't No Mountain High.' Plus it would give me the Detroit connection."

But it was producer Mason who thought to slip her own "Respect" into Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman."

"When I first heard it, I went 'Whoa, where did that come from?' Then I said 'Well, wait a minute, this is about R&B and pop classics, so absolutely use 'Respect.' "

The singer does regret that she'll be out of town next week when her old friend Stevie Wonder performs his "Songs in the Key of Life" concert at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

"I saw Stevie in New York recently, we both did the Robert De Niro (Friars Club) tribute and Stevie was so good that night, it was ridiculous. He is one of the greatest singers of all time, no question."

Has she thought of doing a similar concert, performing "Lady Soul" in its entirety, for example?

"No, and that's going to be interesting, to see how well it works," she says. " 'Songs in the Key of Life' and 'Music of My Mind' are his two best albums. Stevie, the music maestro. It's ridiculous that after all these years we've never recorded together."

The closest thing for their fans is probably the YouTube video of the two singing Wonder's composition "Until You Come Back to Me," live.

It's been a busy fall for Franklin, who also performed at attorney Roy Black's annual gala at Miami's Hotel Fontainbleau to benefit children's charities, which she fit in between TV appearances to plug "Divas" and concerts.

After her Saturday night concert at Atlanta's Fox Theatre, Franklin's bus heads up to Maryland, then she's back home for a few days before leaving for a private party in Washington, D.C. Along the way, she's planning her annual Christmas party, personally choosing the entertainment, lighting and ambience for the Motor City Casino event as well as selecting each dish for her guests. "I really love doing that,' she says.

There is one more thing on her mind.

"There's a very trashy, trashy book on the street," Franklin says. She's referring to "Respect," a new, unauthorized biography of her written by David Ritz, ghostwriter to the stars, including Franklin's own 1999 memoir "From These Roots." Ritz claims in the foreword that he wasn't happy with what he felt was left out of that book, hence "Respect."

His claims about her "troubled" childhood and implications of a "sexual circus" at her father's church anger the singer.

"It's lies, lies, lies and then more lies," Franklin says. "I'm talking to a criminal attorney. If this isn't defamation, I don't know what would be, although I understand it's still hard to prove from the celebrity point of view.

"Celebrities give a lot of themselves, of their heart and soul, and time to performance and to charity. Then somebody comes out who blatantly disrespects you and attacks you, and tells a ton of lies. He even had the unmitigated gall to quote my (late) sisters (Erma and Carolyn) and brother Cecil). He has them saying things they never would say. My brother would have knocked him out."

When contacted, David Ritz responds via email, "She had every right to tell her story." He points out that in the foreword he writes, "all serious students of Aretha must begin with her sense of what is true" in her book.

"I honor her sense even as I challenge it. I respect her right to interpret her complex story even as I attempt to reinterpret and expand her interpretation. I meant those words," Ritz says.

"As for 'From These Roots:' I had edit approval and at that time I edited out some of the crazy things (Ritz) wanted to put in my, underscore my, book. Seemingly he has been carrying this hatred for years,' Franklin says. "If you look at what he's writing, it goes back a very long, long way. Unbeknownst to me, he's been carrying these resentments for years about being edited.

"How much nerve do you have? It's the downside of celebrity."

Hello, Dan? Call me, says Ree

The Queen of Soul reads newspapers and watches TV news, and she was interested to note that businessman Dan Gilbert took singer Usher on a mini-tour of some of his downtown properties, including 160 Fort St. (the Detroit News' new location) and the Dime building. The Queen was not amused.

"I saw that Usher was downtown with Dan Gilbert," Franklin said. "Well, I couldn't get an audience with Dan Gilbert. His rep said something about him being out of town on family business, but I never received a call from him. That was last summer. How are you going to come to Detroit and not talk to me? You can't get no respect."

Last year she had mused about the possibility of opening a restaurant in a Gilbert building -- perhaps "Aretha's Chicken and Waffles." But now she says she's more interested in investing than in her own business.

"It depends on what's coming up, what they're doing, and where I would like to invest," Franklin said. "But I guess maybe I could go to the City Council, get with city planning and get some information."