Aretha, we hardly knew you

No doubt, you’ve read all of the tributes to Aretha Franklin since the news of her death broke yesterday.

The radio stations of the world have been playing her music non-stop in many cases, and appropriately so. The newspaper music critics have published their top-10 lists of her music.

But it’s biographer David Ritz’ account in Rolling Stone of the time she performed a Puccini aria at the Grammys that won the day.

During the winter of 1998, I traveled with Aretha to New York where she was to sing at the Grammys. She was in high spirits. At a MusiCares charity concert, she sang “Nessun Dorma,” the Puccini aria, which she’d prepared with a vocal coach in Detroit. She sang splendidly. We dined at Le Cirque 2000, one of the city’s toniest restaurants. Over a sumptuous five-course meal, she renewed her vow to overcome her fear of flying and return to Paris, where she hadn’t performed in 30 years. At the Grammys, she rendered a rousing rendition of “Respect.” A half hour later, Pavarotti was set to sing the same “Nessun Dorma” Aretha had sung three days before, but cancelled at the last minute. Aretha was asked to replace him.

In her dressing room, seated before a mirror, she breathed deeply before turning to producer Ken Erhlich to ask a single question. Would the orchestra be playing the same arrangement she had used at MusiCares? They would not. Different arrangement, different key, bigger orchestra, not to mention the addition of a 20-voice choir. Was there a recording of the arrangement? Yes. Erhlich handed her the tape. How long before she was to sing the aria live for a worldwide audience of untold millions? Twenty minutes.

“Fine,” was all she said.

As she listened to the tape, her eyes remained opened, her face expressionless. She listened to the orchestration twice through before quietly saying, “I can do it.”

Years later — 2015 — she repeated the performance — in her key — for the pope in Philadelphia.

If you love beauty, you’re going to need a tissue.

Ritz worked for years to convince Aretha to let him be her biographer and she finally relented. Her closest friends told him she never let her guard down to provide real introspection, but Ritz was convinced he could.

I didn’t. I found what we wrote — From These Roots (1999) — shallow and void of introspection. During the process, Aretha and I remained civil to another, but she clearly rejected my approach and fashioned the book according to her fantasy of an idyllic life. That was her right. We’re all free to mythologize ourselves any way we please.

The grief that Franklin leaves behind is also a recognition that we never really knew her.