Aretha Franklin Knew How To Make Us Laugh, Too
The late, great Aretha Franklin delivered world-class soul ballads like "Ain't No Way" that plumbed the depths of romantic experience and made it feel as if your heart had been squeezed dry like a defeated sponge. Her brazen self-determination anthems, including "Think" and "Respect," were electrically-charged lightning bolts of funk that emblematized the movement politics of the turbulent 1960s and '70s. The Queen of Soul was a goosebumps-generating singer capable of making weighty music about loss and love and the vicissitudes of life.
She could also be a bit of a hoot.
Friends and family have long reported how Aretha — who tended to carry herself with a regal going-to-church, Sunday Best composure — possessed a penchant for deadpan wisecracks. As reported in David Ritz's unauthorized 2014 biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Aretha undercut her default aloofness with an elbow-in-the-rib every now and then. For example: She loved to pepper her live concert act with comedic vocal impressions of artists like Diana Ross, Sarah Vaughan, Dionne Warwick and Della Reese.
In the 1970s, Aretha regularly guested on TV's variety hour The Flip Wilson Show, where she repeated those impressions. In one endearing episode, Aretha shares the piano stool with Wilson, and the two go back and forth in an off-the-cuff comedic tête-à-tête. Aretha, while slightly reserved, seemed totally at ease playing for laughs: We'd see her go there again during a convivial cameo on Candice Bergen's TV smash Murphy Brown.
Aretha's brassy appearance in John Landis' eternal 1980 comedy The Blues Brothers forever endeared her to successive generations of frat bros, and she returned 20 years later to sing "Respect" in the sequel, Blues Brothers 2000. With just a handful of significant acting roles (she also had a walk-on part in the early '70s docu-fiction series Room 222), we can only speculate about an alternative future in which Aretha spent more time exercising her comedy chops.
In these cases, Aretha's humor was intentional and deliberate. At other times, we were laughing at the gap between her intended objective and the final outcome — like in the 2010s, when social media smart alecks started overdubbing Aretha's interview clips and using them as fodder in viral web series like Got 2B Real. Whatever the case, Aretha's joviality took diverse forms: she could be joyful, downright sassy, droll, bawdy, insouciant, diva-campy, and so much more. None of it ever diminished her regal status as the Queen of Soul. Instead, it was just the opposite: Aretha's high-spirited abandon made her seem much more accessible, down-home and charismatic.
Aretha's underrated songwriting, for example, is full of good-humored sistagirl camp. There's no shortage of recorded examples of Aretha getting feisty, especially if a desirable man was involved. 1967's steam-heat classic "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business)" is a perfect example: She breaks the news to her girlfriends that since her man is on his way and she's about to get it on, she doesn't have the time "to sit and chit and sit and chit-chat and smile." That same sassy attitude is also the driving force behind her proto-feminist flip of Otis Redding's "Respect," especially when it comes to Aretha and her background-singing sisters' slang imperatives, like "sock it to me" and "take care, TCB" (taking care of business). Of course, these songs also evince Aretha's other emotional priorities, too — defiance, assertiveness, self-satisfaction — but we can't discount the exhilarating mirth that undergirds them.
Neck-poppin', finger-snappin' fierceness is also in full effect on 1982's Luther Vandross-produced "Jump to It." In recounting the recording session in Ritz's 2014 biography, Vandross says that Aretha improvised the song's monologue about her best girlfriend Kitty "dishing the dirt on who drop-kicked who." Just like in the earlier "Dr. Feelgood," Aretha's ready, on a moment's notice, to ditch her pal for a hot man whom she'll "jump to." "Girl, I got to go!" she merrily blurts out. In moments like these, we're reminded that Aretha came from of a long line of sharp-tongued blues mamas who used ribald humor to maximum effect.
There's also Aretha's playful jive talk on the Narada Michael Walden-produced "Freeway of Love" when she tells her man "So drop the top baby / And let's cruise on into this better than ever street." The story of her hit "Who's Zoomin' Who?" is even funnier. Trying to come up with ideas for the song, co-producer Walden asked Aretha to name her strategies for relaxation. Her sassy response had to do with spotting a cute man at a club: "I might look his way, he might look mine, and just when he thinks the fish is about to take the bait, the fish jumps off the line and he's wondering, 'Baby, who's zooming who.'" Inspired by The Queen of Soul's impromptu humor, Walden and co-composer Preston Glass used her exact phrases to devise the lyric, and Aretha is naturally co-credited as a songwriter.
Aretha's playful zest wasn't just limited to lyrics. In the mid-1970s, the soul icon started making increasingly outlandish fashion choices. At Jimmy Carter's 1977 Presidential inauguration gala, for example, Aretha rockets through tunes "Rock with Me" and "Perdido" wearing a red sparkling dress with a fur mane that looks like it might have once been responsible for strangling someone. Aretha's style emergencies continued unabated for the next four decades, earning her the enduring wrath of fashion police — but also, I'd imagine, their secret admiration. As easy (and maybe sexist) as it is to mock Aretha's predilection for idiosyncratic style, her true fans always loved her for being so boldly, wackily, unapologetically herself. In the 2014 David Ritz bio, Aretha's late sister Carolyn says this of Aretha's fashion choices:
"I think there's a method to her madness. ... Her wild stage outfits bring her even more attention ... You may not like what she's wearing, but you'll notice what she has on. The first rule of a long-lasting diva like Aretha is always You will not ignore me."
Aretha had many other whimsical quirks, most of which are also reported in the 2014 Ritz biography: For such a regal figure, she was also a sofa-grazing soap opera fanatic, reportedly transfixed on The Young and the Restless; at one point, she even tried her hand at writing a script. And once, at a Friars Club roast of Arista boss Clive Davis, Aretha sported a ballet tutu and started twirling about with a troupe from the City Center Ballet Company. Apparently, Aretha hadn't intended the outfit or the dancing to be humorous, but hey.
As she got older, in and around the 2000s, Aretha morphed into the archetype of a zero-f**** grandma, seemingly not caring what anyone thought about her, and refusing to modify her sometimes kooky behavior to suit social conventions. I recall witnessing audiences chuckle at public events when she'd bring her luxe handbag on stage and park it at her side. (Biographer Ritz says it's because she was worried about having her funds, which were paid to her in cash at these events, stolen; she learned the strategy from James Brown.) Aretha will never be forgotten for her hilariously self-indulgent, four-and-a-half minute rendition of the National Anthem before a very patient audience at a 2016 Lions and Vikings Thanksgiving game.
In some ways, Aretha Franklin has always been a bit of a comedy icon on the low. In 2015, when asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter to opine about the talent of Taylor Swift, Aretha could only muster up the rather shady "great gowns, beautiful gowns." Twenty-first century Aretha became infamous with the millennial set thanks to the unfiltered facial expressions she'd make during televised interviews that could so easily be turned into LOL-inducing GIFs. And let's not forget that YouTube clip of Aretha hamming it up on a spirited, winking live concert cover of Mariah Carey's suggestive "Touch My Body."
Aretha's long history of much-publicized diva squabbles — especially with peer superstars like Natalie Cole and Gladys Knight — is part and parcel of her celebrity. Aretha's fans relished such melodramatic lore in spades. The flipside of those battles has to do with Aretha's less savory sides, thoughtfully explored in the 2014 Ritz biography: she appeared to be insecure, competitive and ruled by a lack of self-scrutiny and a fear of losing control. Toward the end of her life, riddled with a type of pancreatic cancer, Aretha supposedly stated that she didn't want anyone, even her close friends, to know the details of her suffering, even on her deathbed.
Ironically, then, for an icon so bent on keeping control, Aretha had little trouble letting go and taking immense creative risks during her live performances, more so than most other R&B singers of her generation. Those risks, where she's often throwing caution to the wind and teetering right at the edge of disaster, were part of what made The Queen such an exhilarating and fun performer, rather than a stiff or imperial one.
Once, sporting a ginormous beehive-style hairdo at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Aretha sang the National Anthem, but comically flubbed the words. Year later, in 2008, Barack Obama altered history as the first biracial, black man to become elected to the highest office in the land; Aretha Franklin, as usual, was center stage at this world-historical event, singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." NPR's Ann Powers already smartly deconstructed the Queen of Soul's iconic performance that day. But what's notable is that Aretha chose to sing the song live in the blistering January cold — frosty weather can immobilize the vocal cords — rather than to lip sync as most singers might elect to do. In an interview, Aretha explained that singing live — no matter how risky — felt like the right choice in that monumental moment. Beyond the singing, what many people remember about that performance is Aretha's gray hat, replete with an astonishing fashion don't: an oversize bow in the front. It was Baptist church finery mixed with campy British royal wedding chic!
There are two other standout performances that capture Aretha's trademark mixture of daffiness and audacity. At the 1998 Grammy Awards, iconic classical tenor Luciano Pavarotti backed out of his live telecast performance of the Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma" at the very last minute. Aretha, attending the award ceremony that night, got wind of Pavarotti's absence. Since she'd performed the aria at a previous event, she volunteered to wing it live with no orchestra rehearsal. While Aretha's triumphant, rendition of the Italian aria resulted in endless debates about the quality of her singing and whether she'd stretched herself too far trying to sing opera, her version stands as one of the most heroic, jaw-dropping live television performances in history. It also happens to be chuckle-worthy, because Aretha bends the operatic showstopper toward her inimitable soulful style and still comes out swinging at the end, punching her hands up to the sky on the aria's famous last word: "Vincerò," which translates from Italian as "I will win!"
In 2015, legendary songwriter Carole King received the Kennedy Center Honor; at the ceremony, Aretha paid tribute to King by performing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which King co-wrote. In the telecast video, King shakes in joy watching Aretha tackle her iconic ballad, and President Obama visibly sheds a tear himself. The highlight happens mid-way through the song, when Aretha, sporting a luxurious fur coat, rises from the piano, and delivers the song center stage. Wailing out of the bridge, she flings the fur coat to the floor, like a haughty aristocrat, moved by the spirit of the moment.
Naturally, the audience erupts in applause, in praise of Aretha's innate sense of drama, and her ability to bask in fearless self-satisfaction. What also makes the moment so special is that septuagenarian Aretha, exposing her bare arms and shoulders, not only confirms her sexy womanhood, but she confirms for us, by doing something only a much younger ingénue would dare to do, that she would never capitulate to age. That Kennedy Center performance remains one of Aretha's most winning live moments because it truly reminds us that she's a regal soul survivor, happy to perform her Queendom in a way that is idiosyncratically, authentically her. While there's nothing goofy or intentionally humorous about the performance, it's yet another example of her penchant to go for an implicitly campy diva moment in the midst of an arch-serious historical event. Only Aretha could make it work.
What Aretha's lifetime of freewheeling exuberance demonstrates is that the best soul music is rooted in an artistic commitment to creative spontaneity, and a desire to turn every performance into an improvisational singularity that can never be repeated the same way twice. Skill, command and exceptional accomplishment are what we came to expect of any given Aretha Franklin performance. But that she sometimes delivered those heroic performance with an ebullient sense of cheeky abandon and vital exuberance ... that's really what it means to stop the show.