Precious memories: Friend's connection with Aretha Franklin was heartfelt
Greg Dunmore and Aretha Franklin were friends for nearly 30 years, and in that time, he knew her to be more than the Queen of Soul:
He recalls a voracious reader, an astute political analyst, someone who enjoyed occasionally dishing out the 411 on others, a loving mother and above all, a good friend.
"I would see Aretha behind closed doors, without the makeup, without the look," said Dunmore, reflecting about his friend last week in downtown Detroit. "The Aretha I knew was not defined by her fame, her jewelry, her clothes, but something that was priceless: the content of her character."
Throughout the decades, Dunmore traveled with Franklin to New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. They took in a screening of “Titanic” while together in New York City in 1998. He watched coverage of the 2008 presidential election with Franklin in a suite at Motor City Casino and was there when Barack Obama won the presidency, as well as when she got the call that she would be heading to Washington, D.C., to perform at the inauguration.
Once Dunmore was in a vacation home in the Hamptons with Franklin when he mentioned he was a fan of the song “If We Never Said Goodbye” from “Sunset Boulevard,” and Franklin — no makeup, wearing slippers, cooking dinner — started belting out the tune.
It's moments like those that make Dunmore well up when he reminisces about his friendship with the Queen.
“It was a human, heartfelt connection, Dunmore says, “and it’s a blessing when you make those kinds of connections with kindred spirits. We were just two people that really enjoyed each other’s company.”
Dunmore is a journalist who has worked for the Michigan Chronicle and currently is a partner with Pulsebeat Media. His friendship with Franklin broke one of the profession’s cardinal rules: never become friends with a source.
But their connection went beyond sources and subjects, Dunmore says, and he never used their connection for personal gain or career advancement — sometimes to his detriment, he admits.
He remembers one time he was interviewing Franklin for BET after one of her concerts at New Bethel Baptist Church, and when he brought up her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, she broke down in tears. It’s the kind of Barbara Walters moment that TV news craves, but when it happened, Dunmore ordered the cameras to be shut off.
His bosses were enraged, “but I said, ‘you know what? She’s a friend of mine, and this is not the way she wants the world to see her.’ “ Later, Franklin thanked him for the gesture.
"It wasn't about me," he says, "it was about her."
Karen Dumas, former chief of communications and external affairs for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, characterized Dunmore's friendship with Franklin as special.
"I think they had a mutual respect and admiration and love for each other that was unique to them," she said. "Greg certainly upheld Ms. Franklin in a manner that other people did, but that was different because he knew her. A lot of people, when you have a person that’s famous, and especially from Detroit, everybody wants to claim them. But he had the privilege and the opportunity to get to know and love her in a way that not very many people did."
Dunmore, a graduate of Cornell University, met Franklin in 1990 when she wanted to book his mother, jazz singer Jo Thompson, for one of her parties at her Bloomfield Hills home. Dunmore was 30 at the time and had grown up a fan of Franklin’s, so he couldn’t believe it when she was on the other end of his phone.
As a celebrity journalist working in the entertainment field, Dunmore was used to being around big names. And growing up the son of journalist Albert Dunmore, one-time managing editor at the Michigan Chronicle, it wasn't unusual for celebs such as Sammy Davis Jr. to be near his family.
But Franklin wowed him, and he was dumbfounded to talk to her.
After about 15 minutes, “I realize I’m being guilty of the long-winded conversation,” says Dunmore, who is prone to conversational overload. “I’m consciously thinking: ‘I need to give her an out.’ So I said, ‘I’ve got to go,’ and she told me, ‘oh, I’m so enjoying this conversation.’ And I thought, ‘This great lady is enjoying our conversation!’”
When they met a few weeks later at the party, Dunmore was so overwhelmed that his teeth began chattering uncontrollably. “It was like I was having an anxiety attack,” he said. But he played it off as best he could, and their friendship grew from there.
He knew her to be reserved, dignified, always speaking with a controlled voice and impeccable grammar. She would invite him to go to the movies or to a museum, and he was sometimes intimidated by the invitation. She would tell him, "It's hard for me to interact with men, because I always have more than they do."
He remembers one time when he had invited her to a performance of his mother’s, and Franklin called him at 1 in the morning, fretting about what she was going to wear. “It’s my size,” she told him. “I can’t wear the dress I need to wear, and I’m not going to show up to your mother’s concert not looking gorgeous.”
As they were talking, "the weight issue was something she wanted to talk about," Dunmore said. "It wasn't a celebrity talking to a journalist, a woman talking to a man, it was two humans talking to each other about something that was obviously bothering her that she was aware of."
It wasn't the only time he talked to her about touchy matters. Knowing her reputation for diva-dom, one time Dunmore dove right in and broached the unspeakable with her.
“It’s a little delicate, and I meant this innocently, but I said, ‘Aretha, a lot of people think that you’re a b----,’ " Dunmore said.
When family members found out he said that to her, they were aghast. But Dunmore said he didn’t mean it maliciously, and she knew his heart was in the right place. Franklin took it in stride.
“She said, ‘Well Greg, I have my good days, and I have my bad ones.’ And that’s all she said about that.”
They were both Aries, their birthdays one day apart. Franklin often gave friends nicknames. She called Dunmore Mr. Bon Vivant, noting his taste for the finer things in life. They would talk about public affairs, world politics, business.
"She loved being able to have a normal conversation that wasn't about music, that wasn't about family drama, but just conversation that most of us would have," he says. "She would so cherish that, just to be with people, talking about things, like you and a friend would get together. She told me, 'Wow, this is really special.' You can't take that for granted."
The “Queen of Soul” tag was important to her, but Dunmore said he was shot down when he tried to tag her with what he felt was an even greater title: The Empress of Music.
“An empress is greater than a queen, they rule over an entire empire. I explained this to her, and she said, ‘Well, I don’t like that.’ I don’t think the word ‘empress’ registered in her brain the same way ‘queen’ did. It didn’t give her the emotional semantics.”
He took pride in always being able to make her laugh, and that was one of the gifts he gave to her on a consistent basis. He was with her one time and could tell she was down, and he gave her news he had just heard that Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream fame, had just had a daughter and named her Aretha. That brightened the Queen’s mood, he says.
“She turned to her assistant and said, ‘I feel like ice cream, and it better be Ben & Jerry’s!’”
Franklin was fond of getaways to local hotels and would hole up for the weekend at the Motor City Casino or the Westin in Southfield. Dunmore would sometimes accompany her, and she usually traveled with bodyguards, which made her feel protected.
They would often talk projects they were going to work on together: A magazine, a coffee table book, a movie where Franklin would play a college professor. “She said, ‘Why don’t you write it for me?’ But I never did it.”
They never talked about her illness, but he was well aware of it. The last time he saw her was about a month ago: She was exiting a car in front of her residence at the Riverfront Towers in downtown Detroit, and she was dressed in a mink coat and sneakers. He debated going up to her and greeting his friend, but she looked frail, and he decided not to. Later, her family members told him she would have loved to have seen him.
Dunmore was with Franklin’s family in the days leading up to her death. When he heard the news, it hit him like a punch to the chest.
“I’m not a crier,” he said, “but I was crying like you wouldn’t believe.” He helped lead the representatives from Swanson Funeral Home to her residence.
As funeral arrangements were finalized, Dunmore realized he was going to be in Dallas for a work assignment on the day of the funeral. He had to shuffle his plans. When he called the airline to switch his flight, he learned the flight had not been logged in the system.
"They said it was a computer glitch," Dunmore said. "They didn't understand it; they said that never happens. And in all my years of traveling, it's never happened to me before."
He chalked it up to fate, the same way a perfect week of weather turned gloomy the day Franklin died, or that a rainbow appeared over Comerica Park during the Detroit Tigers' tribute to Franklin days ago. He figured it's a sign that his friend wanted to have him by her side, one last time.