Living Legend. Lady Soul. The Undisputed Queen of Soul. These are the monikers that precede 18-time Grammy Award winner and Hall of Famer, Aretha Franklin. Her closest friends, however, know her simply as ReRe, the Detroit-bred gospel singer whose voice could turn an entire church out before she was even a teenager. By the time she went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in 1958, at 16, she had already recorded her first album and signed to J.V.B. Records. Ten years later, she would sing at the funeral of the assassinated leader. Just before the 50th anniversary of King's famous March on Washington, EBONY.com reminisced with "one of the Greatest Artists of All Time" on the life and legacy of Dr. King.
EBONY: What is your fondest memory of singing in the church?
ARETHA FRANKLIN: Well, I sung with the junior choir and also played the piano for them occasionally. I had several songs that I led, one of them, “Jesus be a Fence Around Me,” and my very first song that I sung in church was, “I’m Sealed Til the Day of Redemption.” That was my song.
EBONY: Soon after your junior choir days, you also were able to tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of his famous March on Washington, so what was that like for you as a young person out there touring with this historic figure? Did you know at the time how significant he’d be to history? And what was he like for you?
AF: Well I don’t think anyone knew how significant he would be in history, but everyone knew what he was trying to do and certainly trying to gain equal rights for African Americans and minorities. And I asked my dad if it would be OK if I went [on the tour with Dr. King]. He said if that’s what I wanted to do, he thought it would be OK, so I went out for a number of dates with Dr. King. Harry Belafonte came out and of course, Andrew Young was there and Jesse [Jackson] came in and out. And then there was another young lady who came out named Queen Esther Morrow who very, very much sounded like Mahalia Jackson, very, very good vocalist and she traveled with us.
One evening, we were down in Texas and I was sitting in the choir stand behind the pulpit, and there was a loud bang and everyone thought someone had shot in the church. Dr. King dropped down behind the pulpit, I dropped down in the choir stand on the floor. Folks were scattering everywhere. But they found out later that something had happened to the fan in the back of the house that made it go off like that. We had some evenings!
EBONY: And so what was that like for you, being on the ground in the choir stand?
AF: Well, frightening! You didn’t know exactly what was going on or what might happened. I was a kid. I guess I was about 16. But we went right on from there.
EBONY: What was he like for you, as a 16-year-old girl touring with him, what was your relationship like?
AF: Well, he and my dad were great friends and my dad from time to time, being the older gentleman would counsel Dr. King sometimes. I always had a great admiration for him and his sense of decency and the justice that he wanted. He was a good man. Just a plain old good man, good person, and you can’t help but admire that. He had values and principles and very high standards, very articulate, you know.
EBONY: Tell us something we would be surprised to know about who the real Dr. King was that you were able to pick up touring with him.
AF: Well, this is something you have to hear, I don’t know how this will read [in print], but Dr. King used to be my dad’s houseguest from time to time when he would come to Detroit. And the lady that cooked for us, her name was Katherine and I named her “Katherine the Great.” Everybody that came in, Jesse or Dr. King, whoever [my dad’s] houseguest was, [Rev. Samuel] “Billy” Kyles [(in fact, that’s where I got the song, “Never Grow Old” from, Billy Kyle). And Billy used to sing with one of the great choirs of all time out of Chicago.
So anyway, Katherine used to cook for everybody and Dr. King came down in the breakfast room and Katherine was down in the kitchen. She asked him, she said, “Dr. King, what would you like for breakfast this morning?” And he said, “Well, I don’t know, Katherine. What do you have?” And she said, “Well Rev. [my dad] likes to have some salt pork and rice and biscuits in the morning. I’ve got some sausage, sometimes he likes sausage or just plain bacon,” and so on. Now she couldn’t pronounce the word “sausage” very well, she called it soy-chage. And said, “We have some bacon, some ham and some soy-chage.” [Laughs] And so, to show you what a gracious man he was, he said, “Well Katherine, I think I’ll have some rice, some biscuits and some of that soy-chage.” [Laughs] I love soy-chage, too, how about you?
EBONY: [Laughs] Absolutely, I do! You have had such a great impact, not just on music and having 18 Grammy’s but being the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement. There have been so many things you have done. How would you describe what your legacy is?
AF: Well, I don’t know. Hopefully the music has been uplifting and supporting. A spiritual stronghold for people who need that and people who don’t know anything about the church and the Lord. I’m very appreciative of all of the awards I’ve been given. People don’t have to give you anything, so I absolutely appreciate that. Hopefully I have presented myself on a level that any young lady would be delighted to follow.
EBONY: Well you’ve definitely done that. You’ve been such an inspiration to so many generations of women. So let’s talk about your sons. What do you hope for them?
AF: My two sons have signed with Aretha’s Records. My grandson, Jordan, has signed with Aretha’s Records as well. He’s a natural. He’s a great writer and an excellent young producer. And my son Kecalf, is Christian/Hip-Hop. And he loves Lecrae a lot; they just had a cover on TIME Magazine, I think. And I’m delighted because they brought the genre that he’s coming in on. People didn’t know a lot about Christian Hip-Hop so they are pioneers. I’m hoping Kecalf will have great success in that field.
EBONY: Speaking of TIME, you were the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of that magazine. What do you remember about that experience? What was it like for you?
AF: That was tremendous, absolutely tremendous. I was certainly aware of the magnitude of the magazine and I recall the day that we did that [shoot]. We were watching JFK [funeral] service on TV, his internment. I remember watching that and thinking how sad and unfortunate it was.
EBONY: We’ve been hearing about your biopic for a few years now and you’ve mentioned that Karen Clark Sheard would be involved. Is there any progress on that production and who you’d like to star in it?
AF: Karen would be playing Kitty Parham, one of the lead singers of the world-famous Clara Ward Singers. Who will play me? I’m not sure yet, but [I will say] there are three finalists.
Brooke Obie writes "The Spiritual Life" column every Tuesday on EBONY.com and the award-winning blog DistrictDiva.com. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.