Handmade: Memories of partying with the Queen

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News
In this photo, taken by Jocelyn Brown in 1991, Aretha Franklin (left) wrapped in sable celebrates her 49th birthday along with fellow singer Mavis Staples of the Staple Singers at Aretha's birthday party.

I walked into the ladies room inside the International Center in Detroit's Greektown area, and to my surprise there she was -- the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin -- freshening up her makeup. "Someone pinch me, please, because I must be dreaming," I thought. But no, it was real.

As I stood next to this music icon, who took the world by storm with her amazing voice, I reminded myself for the umpteenth time that evening, that I was there on assignment to cover her 48th birthday bash, not as the adoring fan that I was. I, then, offered her one of my business cards. She politely took it, placing it in her purse, and thanking me in that soft-spoken voice. And, although she may have later tossed it in the nearest trash -- for that moment in time, I knew my contact information was inside the purse of Aretha Franklin, and it just doesn’t get more exciting than that!

Articles and photos on Aretha Franklin by Detroit News writer Jocelyn Brown. circa 1990s.

Long before the “Handmade” column, I covered numerous black-tie events around town for a weekly column I wrote for the paper called “Stepping Out,” and as a contributor to another one we had called “People.” My most cherished memories are the three times I was fortunate enough to be invited to cover Aretha’s birthday celebration. Twice, I even took my own photographs.

On this occasion, I arrived just moments before a shiny black limousine pulled up to the entrance. Could it be her? I hoped it was, as I tried to see through the dark tinted windows. I hesitated a bit, trying not to be too obvious, of course, as I was the only person standing there. Then, just seconds later, I saw Aretha being assisted out of the limousine wearing a white gown embellished with sequins, lace and chiffon, topped with a full-length fur coat. The Queen had arrived as a "vision in white," and in grand style!

We rode the elevator together (I was completely in awe!) up to the floor where some 300 hundred guests (among them singers Lou Rawls and Nancy Wilson, and comedian Marsha Warfield) awaited her arrival amid a candlelight setting. With pen and notebook in hand, I quickly got in a couple questions before the elevator doors opened. She told me her gown was by Valentino, and the fur was lynx and that she'd had it flown in from Rome.

The following year, Aretha celebrated at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, just two-days after finishing her new album, “What You See Is What You Sweat (Arista Records). Among the guests were former Miss U.S.A. Carole Gist, the Staple Singers, and Billy Henderson of the Spinners with wife Barbara. The Count Basie Orchestra kept music flowing throughout the night.

It wasn’t until three years later that I was given the opportunity to cover Aretha's birthday party again. I’d figured my days of partying with the Queen were over, but luckily I was invited to report on her 52nd birthday bash, held at Somerset Collection in Troy.

Guests were treated to delightful flavors of the south -- crab cakes and fried oysters as hors’ deouvres, and a strolling dinner buffet of roasted bayou peppers, red beans and rice, chicken and shrimp gumbo, fried okra and eggplant, and seafood jambalaya. Music was performed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, with Mercer Ellington conducting. Guests included singers Freda Payne and Bobby Womack.

Aretha knew how to captivate her audience, not only on stage, but in more intimate settings, as well. She knew what it took to throw a really good party -- good food, something she was known to love; good music, big surprises and big name entertainment acts.

At her Greektown bash, I asked how she came up with ideas for the entertainment, and she said, “I just thought it would be good for the party – good friends, good people.”

And, about the celebration at Somerset Collection, she told me, “I planned all of this along with my staff. And, I chose this location because I thought it would be a quaint place to have a good birthday party.”

(I RESPECT-fully thank the Queen of Soul for all the wonderful memories!)

Detroit News Columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.