Aretha Franklin was a master of grudges.
For about 30 years, she routinely refused interviews with Time magazine, because she didn’t like something that it had once published about her mother.
She feuded with David Ritz, a co-author of her 1999 memoir, “Aretha: From These Roots,” after he published his own unauthorized biography of her. “Lies on top of lies, that’s all that is,” she once told me.
She beefed with the soul vocalist Luther Vandross, who had produced some of her work, including her hit album “Jump to It.” Ms. Franklin told me, “I certainly don’t need Luther Vandross to tell me how to sing.”
“He is a good singer though,” I replied.
“He’s a good singer,” Ms. Franklin said. “And I believe I was singing before he was.”
I once found myself on the receiving end of Ms. Franklin’s ire. It felt like I was an ant being burned with a magnifying glass. But Ms. Franklin’s willingness to nurse a grudge or prolong a feud wasn’t a flaw. It was an asset. She was intent on getting her way, and that was one of the aspects of her personality that made her great.
A new movie about Ms. Franklin’s life starring Jennifer Hudson, “Respect,” just arrived in theaters. This is on the heels of a mini-series about her life, “Genius: Aretha,” that aired on the National Geographic Channel earlier this year. But the broad, cinematic strokes of a great person’s life tell you only so much about what they were really like. Through the course of my work, I had the chance to see Aretha up close. Her personality was in the details.
I saw some of those details firsthand when I got on the wrong side of one of Franklin’s grudges. In an interview I did with her in 2014, I asked her to share her assessment of younger generations of vocal talent. She praised Alicia Keys: “Young performer, good writer, producer.” She was effusive about Whitney Houston: “Definitely a talent. She had a gift.” But when it came to Taylor Swift, she said only: “Great gowns, beautiful gowns.”
Ms. Franklin’s answer about Ms. Swift went viral. The culture embraced it as a master class in damning with faint praise. “Remember That Time Aretha Franklin Defined the Essence of Shade in Four Words About Taylor Swift?” Vulture asked in a 2018 headline. The “beautiful gowns” sound bite from my interview was made into GIFs, inspired several Twitter accounts, and spawned an entry in the online Urban Dictionary, which explained that “‘beautiful gowns' describes something that is so painfully, insufferably, inexplicably and unbearably mediocre.”
Shortly after my interview, I heard back from Ms. Franklin’s camp that she wasn’t happy about the way her response had been interpreted. I got the blame for it. Before the “beautiful gowns” incident, I used to hear from Ms. Franklin from time to time. The next invitation I got from her camp was for her funeral in August 2018.
I was sad about missing the opportunity to spend more time with the icon, but I took her grudge as an expression of her particular genius. Ms. Franklin was constantly bending the world to her will, and she had no time for those who didn’t fit her vision of the way things should be. Many other artists look to find a place in the world where they can shine. Ms. Franklin — as a Black woman in an industry rife with racism and sexism who had many traumas and struggles to overcome in her early life — had to make that place for herself.
Ms. Franklin famously kept a close eye on her finances. She often insisted on being paid in cash, at least in part, and kept her handbag in view while she performed. She exerted similar control over the public-facing narrative of her life — even handpicking Ms. Hudson to play her in the posthumous biopic. Her musical genius meant she could seize a signature song written by another performer, such as Otis Redding’s “Respect,” and make it her own. She could take Carole King’s piano ballad “You’ve Got a Friend,” meld it to the gospel standard “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” and create something that was uniquely Aretha.
Female musicians who are seen as demanding are often unfairly written off as divas — or worse. Lauryn Hill, for example, was portrayed as unhinged by some critics because of the tight control she exercised over her music and image. When female performers, such as Ms. Swift and Katy Perry or Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, seem to feud, they are criticized as petty. But male artists who clash in public — Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., or Drake and Meek Mill — go down as legends, their grudge matches only adding to their bad boy allure.
Holding a grudge holding was a go-to power play for Ms. Franklin because it showed that she was the Queen, and that people around her were subject to her whims. We all know Franklin demanded “r-e-s-p-e-c-t.” Feuds were one way that she extracted it, and nobody did it better.
I eventually heard back from someone close to Ms. Franklin that she would probably get over the whole “beautiful gowns” thing, but I’m sorry that I never got to talk to her about it directly.
One of the last times I saw her in person was at her 70th birthday party at The Helmsley Park Lane Hotel in Manhattan in 2012. There were maybe 80 guests at the event, and when I approached her, Ms. Franklin had the seating chart in her hand, and she was directing people to where they should go. Turns out, she had personally assigned all the seats. Sitting at the head of the table wasn’t enough for the Queen of Soul. She needed to know that everyone was right where she wanted them.
C.J. Farley, a former music critic for Time magazine and a former senior editor for The Wall Street Journal, is the author of the upcoming young adult novel “Zero O’Clock.”
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