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September 21, 2009 1:21 PM

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The Queen and I: Chatting With Aretha Franklin

Aretha FranklinPhoto by Thomas Whiteside Last Monday, I spent an hour alone with Aretha Franklin in her hotel suite in New York. Room service had just delivered a cart of tea sandwiches and crudités. "Are you sure you won't...

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin
Photo by Thomas Whiteside

Last Monday, I spent an hour alone with Aretha Franklin in her hotel suite in New York. Room service had just delivered a cart of tea sandwiches and crudités.

"Are you sure you won't join me?" Franklin asked as I entered the room. "They ARE good." (I hesitantly put a few pieces of fruit on a plate. Lame, I know, but I could barely speak, let alone eat a sandwich.)

Taking a seat on a floral couch, Franklin seemed ready, if a bit hesitant, for this, a rare interview. "Is it all right if I record this conversation?" I asked, motioning with a shaky finger to my Sony. "No, I would prefer it if you didn't," she said. Oh God. "How about if I start recording and if you ever want me to turn it off, I'll stop it?" I said. She nodded. I turned my device on.

Here, excerpts from my hour with the Queen of Soul:

WWD: What do you think of the copy-cat versions of your inauguration hat and the news that an 'Aretha Hat' style was selling out at Mr. Song Millinery in Detroit, where your chapeau was made?
Aretha Franklin: I've seen women wearing the hat in different colors; it's just WONDERFUL in different colors. I saw a woman at the NAACP annual dinner wearing a two-tier white stole and she had the hat in white and it was just glorious. And I was on the podium, and she came up to the podium and looked up and she just went [points to hat]. And I said, "it looks great."

WWD: When you were starting out, the business must have been a lot different. What do you think about contemporary music, and who do you like?
AF: I like the legends, that's who I like. I like the legends and then there are a few hip hop artists that I like.

WWD: Who are the legends?
AF: Well, let's see. The singers. Myself, Patti [Labelle], there's Gladys [Knight], Peabo Bryson, SINGERS. Streisand. Classical artists, Renée Fleming, Ray Charles, all of the Atlantic artists, mostly, Bobby Womack, I love singers, first.

WWD: What do you think of "retro-soul" artists like Amy Winehouse, Adele and Duffy?
AF: I like [Winehouse's] background [band]; they're super. I don't dislike her, but I really like her background.

WWD: Are you going to any New York Fashion Week activities while you're in town?
AF: I wanted to get to something with fashion week that I was reading about -- Anna Wintour and her idea of keeping the stores open late.

WWD: Fashion's Night Out?
AF: Mmmhmmm. I thought that was a wonderful idea. There's something really special about that. GREAT idea.

WWD: Do you still enjoy performing live?
AF: Absolutely. First love.

WWD: What do you like about it?
AF: I just love the spontaneity of it, the give and take with the audience.

WWD: I was just listening to one of your recordings on your 1971 album, "Aretha Live at Fillmore West," when you brought Ray Charles on stage to sing "Spirit in the Dark" with you.
AF: What a night, what a night!

WWD: Do you still have nights like that, where things really gel like that?
AF: Oh yeah. Last year, I was at the Nokia [Theater] in L.A. They have a great place out there by the name of Pink's Hotdogs -- the best hotdog in the country.

WWD: It's worth waiting on line for?
AF: Ohhhh yeah. I perfectly understand why people are in such long lines out in L.A. for Pink's Hotdogs. [Pink's Hotdogs] came to my concert and they brought a huge container of Pink's -- with all of the condiments and everything -- and on the false exit, I passed them out to the audience. We had a really great time. That was one of the best concerts, one of the best nights. Just having fun with the audience.

WWD: Who is your audience nowadays?
AF: My audience is very versatile, very mixed. From young adults to 80 [year-olds]. A beautiful cross section of people, of young and old, male and female.

WWD: How do you pick your stage outfits now?
AF: Now, because of my...the overweight business, most of my gowns are custom. Not all, but many of them. And that way I can sit with the designer and have a look that I want.

WWD: What kind of stuff do you like for casual wear, when you're not in gowns?
AF: I like jeans a lot. They're very easy, relaxed. Pullovers. I like a broad selection of clothing.

WWD: Do you have any gripes with what kids wear nowadays?
AF: I don't care for the sagging jeans. I don't really like that.

WWD: Are you OK with what your grandchildren [Jordan, age 15; Victory, age 10, and Gracie, age 3] wear?
AF: My grandchildren are very well-dressed.

WWD: Do you take them shopping?
AF: Yes, I do [but] it's really, really hard to find things for boys. If I were a designer, I would design boys' things. But when we went out to the Hamptons [last summer], my grandson went right to J. Crew. And I went in there and I found a couple nice things, too. Wide-brimmed [hats], which were costing five or six hundred in Saks -- a hundred and fifty dollars in J. Crew. The same hat! The same beautiful straw. And I love Patricia Underwood straws. Beautiful hats, though, in J. Crew.

WWD: Did you give President Obama any advice at the inauguration?
AF: I? Of course not.

WWD: You've been performing your whole life, and in the public eye. You must have a few words of wisdom to impart.
AF: The words of wisdom I gave to [Obama] were the words of wisdom of my father. I gave him about 13 volumes of my father [Rev. C.L. Franklin's] sermons. I felt that [Obama] being a young man in such a prominent and important position, the words of an older, experienced man, spiritually, would give him a little more wisdom.

WWD: How do you think Obama's doing so far?
AF: I think he's doing fabulously well. I understand the health [care] issue and all of that, but I think he's doing fabulously well. I don't think you can correct the problems in this country in two or three months. Its going to take time, just is. And you got to give him time.

WWD: Have you spent much time with the First Lady?
AF: No, we haven't met, unfortunately. I didn't come face to face with them at the inauguration, but I'm expecting and looking forward to that.

WWD: J. Crew is one of the First Lady's favorite stores, too.
AF: Yeah, I heard her say that. I love the black [Peter Soronen] gown that she wore to one of the first White House soirées, it was strapless....She was gorgeous to the max that night, she was gorgeous to the max. I loved the mixture of the [Tom Binns] pearls and the crystals [on the gown].
She is very well put-together. Desiree Rogers is very well put-together, as is his senior adviser, Valerie Jarrett. They're all very well put-together. Fabulous women, you know?

WWD: What do you still want to achieve?
AF: Getting back to flying [is my] number one [and] two prioretay, OK? I REALLY want to go back to Europe next year. And I won't miss the Queen's Silver Jubilee next year, not if I can get off the ground. Her [last] birthday had a fabulous invitation and I was so disappointed when I decided I really was not ready to fly again. What a bummer.

WWD: What do you do when you're not singing or performing?
AF: When I'm not singing and not performing, I do what Luther Vandross and I used to say -- a whole lot of nothing.

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