Whitall: Reflections of covering the Queen of Soul

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News
Susan Whitall with Aretha Franklin at her holiday soiree in December 2016.

No matter how many times I interviewed Aretha Franklin over the years, I never quite got over the fact that I was talking to the Queen of Soul, one of the most iconic voices of the past 50 years.

I’m like any journalist — we become immune to awe and accustomed to never breaking a sweat in the company of famous people. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t saying to myself, “Am I really talking about Jennifer Hudson’s dress in a casual conversation with Aretha Franklin? How can that be?”

It was always wonderful to hear that warm, amused voice, so Memphis in its inflections, yet formal and polite, always “Miss” and “Mr.,” “yes, please” and “thank you.” But like most great artists, Aretha could be mercurial in her relationships with journalists. One day you were in her good graces; another day the big chill would descend if you’d written something with which she didn’t quite agree.

She could be incredibly kind, sending me flowers to thank me for a story that appeared in The Detroit News, impressing my colleagues to no end. And there was the time I was at her concert at DTE Energy Theatre, taking notes with my head down, when she called out my name from the stage. My friend threw an elbow into my side fierce enough that I looked up from my notes just as the last syllables of my name were rippling around the arena. Nobody quite gets over having the Queen of Soul say their name from the stage.

My fondest memory of interviewing Aretha is the time she put on a prayer vigil and concert for R&B/pop singer Luther Vandross, who was then recovering from a stroke. The event took place in May 2003 at Little Rock Baptist Church on Woodward in Detroit.

The pews were packed, and Aretha’s people had set aside several of the front rows for the media. Several of us got there early to make sure we got good seats. A competing reporter took dibs on a seat next to me, then jumped up to interview someone. She may or may not have asked me to save her seat, but when a reporter for a celebrity weekly claim-jumped the seat, I piped up, “Uh, somebody is already sitting there.” I’m not one to defend the rights of the competition, but right is right.

After the long vigil was over (Aretha sang, the Four Tops sang and there were many speeches and prayers), the media was informed that Franklin would speak to us after she had a light dinner. (Like most singers, Aretha didn’t like to eat before singing.) By the time she was ready to talk, the only two writers left were the celebrity scribe and me. When we were finally ushered into the Queen of Soul’s presence, the other reporter barged in front of me and immediately started peppering her with questions. Aretha didn’t answer.

It was like one of her classic songs, you had to wait to hear Aretha’s voice in that wonderful, almost lazy cadence, she never hurried the beat. After the din from the reporter’s mouth had abated, Aretha looked through her and nodded to me. “Miss Whitall, nice to see you,” she said, drawing out my name in that honeyed voice. Once you’ve had the Queen of Soul say your name, that’s it. Don’t let anyone else say your name again. “I just read one of your stories,” she said. “Now what was it? Hmm … I’ll think of it in a minute. Oh, yes!”

Then Aretha, bless her, proceeded to bore the pants off the other reporter, discussing one of my recent stories in great detail.

Then I asked Aretha some questions, and she answered me. Point, score, game to the Queen of Soul. Don’t rush her and most certainly don’t be rude, or she’d ice you so fast your head would spin.

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

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