The Queen of Soul is alive and well and ready to "Rock Steady," as she sang in her chart-topping 1971 hit.
Nine months after unspecified surgery that had not just fans but the entire world focused on her health, Aretha Franklin is happily inhabiting the musical throne she's occupied for the better part of five decades, during which she's scored 45 Top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, received 20 Grammy Awards, was ranked at No. 1 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the Greatest Singers of All Time and became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
She's lost weight and is taking better care of herself. The Detroit native and Bloomfield Hills resident released a new album, "Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love," in May and is back on the stage — including in her home town, performing on Thursday (Aug. 25) at the DTE Energy Music Theatre.
And Franklin tells us she has a lot more planned, including another new album and a biopic that she's helping to produce. Taking a break from checking out the early rounds of the U.S. Open tennis tournament on TV, the Queen gave us an audience — and an update on everything she's up to.
Since you emerged after surgery last December, you look great. What's your secret:
Franklin: I'm watching my diet now, really watching it. I got to Whole Foods and pick up some things there that are better for me than what I had been using. I'm very disciplined now where my diet is concerned — more water, more walking.
Was that hard at first? You're reputed to be a pretty good cook.
Franklin: That's right, and I love food. But, you know, food doesn't exactly love you when you overeat. So you've got to be more disciplined. I now work out three times a week, either on the track or the treadmill as well.
What kind of effect has this had on your ability to perform and sing live?
Franklin: It's better for my maintenance in terms of my energy and my lasting power. I'm closing stronger, even stronger than ever. And I'm just loving it. My energy, everything is just great. The performances, the reviews, everything has been absolutely smashing. I'm having a really good time.
Were you surprised by the outpouring of support and concern during and after your surgery?
Franklin: Yes, absolutely I was, and I was very genuinely touched. I've been (shopping) in the market and people that of course I didn't even know would come up to me and tell me that they had prayed for me, and it genuinely is very, very touching and overwhelming, and I am most appreciative. It's a wonderful thing. With so many other things going on, the crime and some people who are not straight-up, it's nice to know there are still some very good and genuine, and lots of good and genuine people out there.
You had initially spoken about doing several shows at the Fox Theatre in June and filming them for a TV broadcast. Now you're doing a single night at DTE. What led to the change?
Franklin: My agent called me and just let me know the DTE people had called and would I like to do Pine Knob? I said, "Absolutely." I love doing Pine Knob. It's always nice being outdoors. I love eating outdoors. I love being outdoors. I wish we would be a little more European in our taste when it comes to outdoors and how beautiful things are outside as well as in. I do see some more sidewalk cafes in Detroit. I would love to see even more, but right now I'll take what we have.
What can we expect the show to be like on Thursday?
Franklin: I'm doing all the hits for sure, back to back. Hopefully the fans are going to hear everything they came to hear. I'm doing things from my new album...a little gospel, a little classical. I have Brazilian showgirls who are going to have fun with the audience. I have my dancers that came to audition for me a few years back...as well as other surprises.
What did you set out to do with "Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love"?
Franklin: The creative goal, I think, was just to include more of my material. I haven't been writing that much, but I did get two or three of my things in. And to get the best producers that were available at the time and to be contemporary as well as to give people what they want from me.
And despite the title, it's not all downcast. There's some hope in these songs, isn't there?
Franklin: Oh, sure, absolutely. Love's an institution. Marriage as well. But some work, some don't.
Are you thinking about a next album yet?
Franklin: There is another recording planned. I will record in January 2012, February, for a summer release on Aretha's Records -- lots of originals and some of the best duos that I can come up with, and the best creative ideas. I'm going to be recording my son Eddie in September for Aretha's Records; Eddie is coming along really, really fabulously now. He went back to school and has earned a degree in business administration and marketing, and we're going to do an album on him, too.
How do you like having your own record label?
Franklin: I love it. I really like being on this side of the fence as well. It's something more but not a lot more — nothing I can't handle. I was able to step into that posture pretty easily.
What's the latest on the biographical movie that's in the works?
Franklin: We are still hammering things out, all of the different financial aspect. We're hammering those out at this point. It's still moving, though, and we're moving towards closing.
Do we know who's directing yet?
Franklin: We do, but I don't want to use his name until it's on the doted line. I can tell you that he's had several blockbusters in the last five to maybe 10 years. Go back to the movie "Ray."
Any more thoughts about who you'd like to see play you in the film?
Franklin: I'm still thinking between several ladies, and then there is the director's book that we're going to go through. There's some people who don't have as big a name as other people, but they definitely have the fit and the ability to pull it off, so going to look through that book with them. But my personal choice at this point is still Halle Berry, who I saw at the Oprah (Winfrey) event and told me, "Aretha, I want to play you. I didn't know that I wouldn't have to sing." I said, "No, no one ever expected you to sing, Halle. I never thought of you as a singer."
So this will be more your voice than an actor learning to sing, like Jamie (Foxx) did in "Ray" or Joaquin Phoenix did in "Walk the Line?"
Franklin: A lot ot movies come out where it's the original artist and they're songs are lip-sung to. That is what it would turn out if it's Halle. If not, if for instance it's Jennifer Hudson, she might sing one or two, but the rest would still be my original records. We're definitely going to use the original records. I may re-record some things, too.
What's the crux of the story you hope to tell with the film?
Franklin: Well, it is going to be a chronological depiction of my advent from Detroit to New York as a young, aspiring singer, work out there with the choreographer Cholly Atkins, who later came to Motown. It's going to be pretty straight-up, some things that are known, and some things that are not known.
Are you at all apprehensive about revealing things on the big screen?
Franklin: No. I think much of it people already know. People who have followed my career from A to Z, they already know some of the things, but as I've said there will be other things that are not known. You'll just have to wait and see what those are.
It's been 50 years since your first album for Columbia...
Franklin: Oh, no, it's only been 30! (laughs)
Does it feel like 50 years or 50 seconds -- or 500 years?
Franklin: No, definitely not. Maybe 20, not 50.
Do you ever allow yourself the opportunity to step back and go "Whoa!" and take some stock of everything you've done and accomplished?
Franklin: I have been all over YouTube this week watching my old performances. I watched some of the Dinah Shore things, I've watched some of the "Tonight" show things, I've watched the Grammys and just things that went all the way back to the 60s -- Merv Griffin, this one, that one. It's really great to just look back and listen and see and hear all of those things.
You're on Tony Bennett's upcoming "Duets II" album, singing "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" What was that like?
Franklin: That was wonderful. Let me tell you, Mr. Bennett is still singing; at 85, he is still into it. It must've been about 100 degrees in the studio because I don't like air (conditioning). Air dries my voice out, so they were gracious and wonderful enough to just turn the air off, and they used, like, the six-foot fans just to keep things as cool as possible. It was still pretty warm in there, but it was wonderful. He's doing his debut at the Metropolitan Opera (in New York) on Sept. 18, and I will be his special guest there and we're going to perform that song.
You're also receiving the Legend Award from the Society of Singers this year, the same night Smokey Robinson receives its Ella Award. That must be nice to be honored alongside an old friend.
Franklin: Yes, I'm thrilled the society of singers is offering that wonderful award to me. Smokey and I go all the way back. We're sandbox friends. We started when we were about eight and nine years old; he only lived about a block from me, and they were over our home all off the time and I was over in his home all the time. I can't be there but I'm still going to be there in spirit, and I'm going to do a recorded message for them and him.
Speaking of Smokey, did you ever come close to signing with Motown?
Franklin: Yes, my dad did go over and talk to Berry (Gordy Jr.), and they had a discussion about my recording and signing wtih him. But it didn't work out, I think because my father (the Rev. C.L. Franklin) wanted me to be with a national and an international label, a label that would have distribution worldwide. And at that time Berry didn't have that. So it was decided by my dad that we would sign with Columbia Records, which was worldwide and went national and international, and that's where I met John Hammond and did a little audition performance and off we went.
You're also performing at the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on Sunday, Aug. 28. What are you anticipating for that event?
Franklin: I think it's going to be tremendous, one more absolutely historical moment. I think I'm going to be performing "Precious Lord;" that's one of the things Dr. King always requested of me, so I may do that. We did the Dream Concert to raise money (for the monument) at Radio City (Music Hall)...and I agree with something that was said by a gentleman from Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity. He said Dr. King would be very pleased to see all these different kinds of people, different kinds of ethnic groups coming together for the unveiling. That was part of his dream, equality and justice for all, and I'm so honored to be able to sing for this great American hero.
What's your sense of what's going on in Detroit these days? Are you optimistic for the city's future?
Franklin: I think things are pretty good. I was listening to (Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager) Roy Roberts this morning, and I think that he's really on the one in terms of the schools and his ideas. I think he's going to be excellent in that position. (Detroit City Council President) Charles Pugh, I like him a lot. He's a very cerebral kind of person, city-thinking. I believe he has Detroit's best interests in mind. You've got a new turnover of the city council. I have not watched or read enough about Dave Bing to comment on him...but I think things are pretty good heading into the future.
Aretha Franklin performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75. Tickets are $75 and $55 pavilion, $15 lawn with a $44 lawn four-pack. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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