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Photojournalist forged friendship with Aretha during years covering her

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

The Queen of Soul was shy. Photographer Linda Solomon discovered that when she met the singer on the set of the Channel 7 show “Kelly & Company” in 1983.

Aretha Franklin is dressed to the nines for one of her famous birthday parties, this one at her home in 1994.

Aretha Franklin was poised and well-spoken, and when swathed in white mink and full diva mufti, she could seem imperial. When singing, she was a force of nature. But in personal encounters, Franklin was soft-spoken and reserved.

So, Solomon took the initiative.

“I went up to her and said I’d like to do a story on her, and she was very sweet about it,” the photojournalist said. The story and photo ran in Solomon’s Detroit News column “Star Tracks,” and as an avid reader of The Detroit News — and other papers — Franklin read every word. She liked the story, and a friendship blossomed between photojournalist and music icon.

Solomon, a Bloomfield Township resident who attended Birmingham Seaholm, the University of Arizona and the University of Michigan, chronicled the doings of both local and national names in her “Star Tracks” column from 1982-89.

Aretha Franklin, here in 1984, was a familiar presence in the Detroit social scene in the 19 80s, going to parties, concerts and sport events.

Today, with several books under her belt, Solomon runs the acclaimed Pictures of Hope nonprofit, has written books including “The Key,” and was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2011. But in 1983, she was still a bit of an upstart.

Once they became acquainted, the invitations to Franklin’s famous parties started coming.

 “I received an invitation to her Christmas party, at her house — I still have it,” Solomon said. “It was gorgeous, a miniature violin in an envelope. I flipped out. I thought, this is going to be so special, so fun.”

Solomon was touched that Franklin allowed her to get to know her family, as well. 

“I got to know her kids, her brother and her sisters,” she said. “They passed away at such young ages. Aretha had so many sadnesses in her life.”

Seen here in 1998, photographer Linda Solomon met Franklin in 1983 and would shoot many of her parties.

Indeed, in the space of a decade, Franklin lost several members of her immediate family. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, died in 1984 after lingering in a coma for five years, the victim of a shooting by burglars. Her younger sister Carolyn, who wrote several of her sister’s memorable songs, including “Ain’t No Way” and “Angel,” was just 43 when she died in 1988. Brother Cecil was 49 when he died in 1989, and older sister Erma, a recording artist and backup singer for Aretha, died in 2002, at age 64. All of her siblings, like Aretha, died of cancer.

“Cecil was her manager, and I can only imagine what a tremendous loss it was for Aretha when he died,” Solomon said.

But the ’80s wasn’t just about loss. Franklin released a series of well-received albums, especially 1985’s “Who’s Zoomin’ Who.” That album produced many gems, including “Freeway of Love,” which sat atop Billboard’s R&B Songs chart for five weeks and soared to No. 3 on the magazine’s Hot 100. The song jump-started her career and image for younger generations who, like the girl in Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen,” had no idea who the Queen of Soul was.

The ’80s also was a time when Franklin was enjoying her friends, her sons and extended family. And it was a go-go decade of constant parties and openings in Detroit, each one prowled by teams of gossip columnists. 

The singer was at a time in her life when she did not want to travel, so she was a familiar presence on the local scene — at record company parties, concerts and sporting events. And she drew producers to Detroit to film specials, award shows and MTV videos, because that was the only way they were going to get the Queen of Soul — on her own turf.

Aretha Franklin poses with the Michigan State Spartans cheerleading squad, which she hired to celebrate son Teddy White's graduation (in Communications) at a party at her Bloomfield house in June 1986.

One of Solomon’s favorite memories was covering a party Franklin threw to celebrate son Teddy White’s graduation from Michigan State in June 1986. Her Bloomfield Hills home was decorated with green and white streamers and pennants, guests dined on a buffet of tenderloin and barbecue, and the Michigan State Spartans cheerleading squad gave a special cheer for Teddy, set up by his fond mother.

The story included a photo of Franklin proudly kissing a smiling Teddy, then 22.

“That was adorable,” Solomon recalled. “She was so proud. I came to see what a devoted mom she was, how much she loved those boys and was so proud of them. It was a moment when she really expressed it, and I was so happy to see that side of her and watch her. Kecalf was young then (16); Eddie (28) was in a picture I took, and Clarence (30) was there.

“It’s important for people to know first and foremost that she was really devoted to her kids and loved them deeply.”

Aretha and son Teddy White, then 22, exchange a kiss at the party celebrating his Michigan State graduation in 1986.

Then there was the time in 1989 that James Brown came to Detroit, along with singers Joe Cocker, Robert Palmer, Wilson Pickett and Billy Vera to film an HBO/Cinemax concert film, “Soul Session.” The Godfather of Soul had to have the Queen of Soul in his special, so he packed up the rest of the cast and flew them to Detroit.

Franklin invited Solomon to come photograph Brown and the other singers at rehearsal. “She was wearing tennis shoes, doing a little dance,” she said. “She wasn’t wearing any makeup.”

Unlike today’s Instagram-ready pop starlets, Franklin did not micro-manage photographers, or her image.

“She allowed me to photograph her without makeup, because she knew I would be sensitive and careful. She was so sweet and easy to work with. She would say, ‘Hey, do your thing, Linda — I trust you.’”

Another rehearsal Solomon shot with an un-made up, down-to-earth Franklin was when she rehearsed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1997.

Aretha Franklin arrives at United Sound Systems in 1986 to film a video for the song "Jumpin' Jack Flash" that she recorded with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, as well as Ronnie Wood and Whoopi Goldberg for the film of the same name.

Just as often, Solomon captured Franklin in sequins and furs, evincing the glamor of idols such as ’50s diva Dinah Washington.

Sometimes Franklin’s humor would come across on stage a bit, but it was really her family and those fortunate enough to spend time with her who experienced her sardonic side.

“She could be very formal,” Solomon remembered, “You were always ‘Miss,’ and she always left her last name when she called, which made me laugh … but she would giggle — Aretha had a fabulous sense of humor. She could be sarcastic and self-deprecating about herself.”

In conversation, Franklin would bubble over with excitement about new plays she had seen on Broadway, rave about a restaurant she wanted you to try or a dress she admired (or didn’t) on another singer.

“One time she called me back and she was so excited, she had just seen the ‘Motown: the Musical’ preview on Broadway. She was raving about the star who played Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), and said she sounded exactly like Diana! She was so genuinely excited about it. And, of course, we would gossip about diets and (songwriter) Burt Bacharach, and fun stuff.”

Solomon wants people to know how much she saw Franklin stand up for women.

“Aretha did a lot for civil rights, but she also went out of her way for other women,” Solomon said. And for the women journalists she favored, “We were the lucky ones.”

Solomon received a thank-you bouquet of Franklin’s favorite flowers — yellow roses. “That shows a lot about her — she respected journalists. When she trusted you, you would always be in her life.”

Going forward, Solomon is putting together a book of her photos of Franklin over the years. She’s also hoping to honor her friend’s legacy in Detroit with a permanent memorial. Franklin’s family has sanctioned her efforts.

First, Solomon will organize an art installation, involving photography. 

“I want to work with the schools,” Solomon said. A museum is vital, too, she believes, because it would involve not only Franklin’s music and life, but her civil rights activism and that of her father and family. For that reason, “We can’t let it slip out of our hands,” Solomon said. “This needs to be downtown, in Detroit.”

“Aretha was the heart and soul of Detroit. It’s time now to give back to her.”

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