Aretha Franklin: ‘My last year in concert’

The Queen of Soul will record new album with Stevie Wonder but won’t perform live after 2017, except for ‘select’ events

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

There’s never a bad time to see the Queen of Soul in concert, but if you can believe what she’s saying about retiring from live performance, you may want to run, not walk, to buy tickets the minute her next concert is announced.

Aretha Franklin, performs "Until You Come Back To Me" at DTE Energy Music Theater in 2014, has announced that she’ll retire from live concerts in 2017.

Franklin will record, but she won’t be performing live after 2017, except for some “select” events, she confided in a Tuesday afternoon phone interview with WDIV-TV (Local 4) news anchor Evrod Cassimy.

“This will be my last year,” Franklin said. “I will be recording, but this will be my last year in concert. This is it.”

The forthcoming album, her first since 2014’s “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” will include several tracks written and produced by Stevie Wonder.

“I am exuberant about it,” she told the station. “I can’t wait to get into the studio. Several of the songs will be produced by Stevie and, of course, there’s only one Stevie, right?”

This isn’t the first time Franklin has worked with her friend Stevie. She recorded the definitive version of his song “’Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” written by Wonder (with his former Motown producer Clarence Paul and Morris Broadnax).

Wonder’s supple melody and Franklin’s lissome voice created a Top 10 hit for her in 1973.

The Queen of Soul has had a longer career than most, a testament to the timelessness and resilience of her voice, as well as an innate musicality that puts her head and shoulders above the average gifted singer.

It was her peerless piano work that prompted Jerry Wexler’s crafted arrangements of her songs, kicking off a string of hits for her at Atlantic Records starting with “(I Never Loved a Man) The Way I Loved You” in 1967. She had already had a lengthy career in gospel music, traveling with her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Missionary Church, on his Gospel Caravan before signing to Columbia in 1960, recording pop and jazz standards.

Her musical talent, not just her soulful voice, led her to be the first woman inducted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

In recent years, Franklin has had a busy schedule for performers, much less a singer born in the 1940s. Although she has been in generally good health since an ailment took her out of commission in 2010, she had to cancel several shows last August on the advice of her doctors.

While she is able to relax on her tour bus — Franklin still doesn’t fly — that means a trip to the West Coast to do concerts is a grueling odyssey taking many days.

Her travels have not been in vain. In the last decade, while others of her generation gave up, or their voices did, Franklin’s voice seemed to gain an even more soulful, warm resonance and she sounded better than she has in years, drawing some of her best reviews.

She stunned critics who underestimated her as simply a genius R&B and pop singer when she stepped in at the last minute to replace ailing tenor Luciano Pavarotti at the Grammy telecast in 1998, delivering the operatic aria “Nessun Dorma” without even a key change.

One of her most admired performances was her jaw and mink-dropping rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors program honoring Carole King.

King, who co-wrote the song with her late ex-husband, Gerry Goffin, could barely sit still, she was so excited while watching Franklin sing. Nearby, President Barack Obama brushed away tears.

Her beautiful, gospel-inflected four-and-a-half minute rendition of the national anthem in November, before the Detroit Lions-Minnesota Vikings Thanksgiving Day game, drew praise, although some wags teased that the Queen of Soul had “possession” longer than the Lions did.

Franklin kicked off several years of White House concerts and almost singlehandedly revived the hat industry with her performance at President Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009, of “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” wearing the famous gray felt Mr. Song chapeau.

Stepping back from a hectic concert schedule will allow Franklin to spend more time with her grandchildren, she says.

In recent years, she has proudly featured her talented singing granddaughter Victorie in the entertainment portion of her yearly holiday soiree. At her most recent soiree in December, Victorie, now a lanky teenager, sang, as did her younger sister, Grace.

Franklin seemed more relaxed than usual at her party this year, enjoying performances by Jody Watley and L.J. Reynolds of the Dramatics, while calling out greetings to guests, including boxer Tommy Hearns, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and her many Detroit TV media friends.

“I feel very, very enriched and satisfied with respect to where my career came from and where it is now,” Franklin told Local 4.

But having been famous, feted and still making pop cultural waves into her 70s, how long will Franklin be able to slow down and stay out of the spotlight before she gets restless?

As she told Cassimy, “I’m not going to go anywhere and just sit down and do nothing. That wouldn’t be good, either.”

Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com.