Last week Aretha Franklin reminded us that she’s still the Queen of Soul by dropping an incendiary rendition of Adele’s torch song, “Rolling In The Deep.” Within hours the song had invaded social media, racking up more than a million views on YouTube and stoking the buzz for her upcoming covers album, Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. Some accused the 72-year-old vocalist of relying on auto-tune and other studio tricks, but Ms. Franklin soon silenced the naysayers with a flawless performance on The Late Show With David Letterman.
The rapturous reception is a testament to the staying power of a performer whose career has endured for seven decades. At a listening party and panel discussion held at New York City’s elegant 92Y venue, VH1 sat down with the music monarch and her long-time collaborator, Sony Music Chief Creative Officer and industry icon Clive Davis, to discuss the new project, and how to make music that lasts.
It takes a diva to know a diva, and Aretha has nothing but admiration for Adele and her 2011 chart-busting disc, 21. “I loved her whole CD.” she tells us. On top of praising her voice, Franklin also offered Adele praise for her composition skills. “In addition to being a wonderful artist, she is an excellent writer. Very heavy lyrics. I love the lyrics and what she has to say.”
Although “Rolling In The Deep” was impossible to escape for the better part of a year, it was apparently a commercial that first made Franklin consider performing the hit. “I saw a promo [a Target ad featuring 11-year-old Denise Bestman] where kids were singing it on the bus and they were screaming it all over the place. ’We could have had it all!’ They were really having a good time with it. So I loved the song and I had a great time recording it.”
It was Clive Davis’ idea to team up with Franklin for a concept album of contemporary classics, and he initially sent the singer an extensive list of titles. “I picked the ones I thought were the best to perform, the most classic, and that I enjoyed the most,” she says. “I came up [in the business] with a lot of those songs, and I bought a lot of this music myself.” However, it was “Rolling In The Deep” that immediately stuck out.
Davis, who executive produced the album, envisioned the project as a return to vocal-centric performers of the past. Naturally, a title from powerhouse Adele fit the bill perfectly. “For me, I wanted this album to stand for the voice,” he says. “I feel that contemporary music, with very few exceptions, is missing the voice. You see an award show, you see a hundred extras on set dancing and special effects, and you don’t see that solo voice. That was the trademark of Adele. It’s no accident that it was her album that ended up selling 27 million copies worldwide.”
When you combine a legendary singer with the biggest hit of the past decade, the results are bound to be explosive. But even Davis was taken aback by the overwhelming response of the debut single. “It’s an amazing reaction if you share ’Rolling In The Deep’ with people. We’ve both been in the business for a while, and to see on Vevo and Youtube…We’re up over 2 million hits in two days! So we’re wildly excited.”
Due out on October 21st, Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics features production work from Babyface and Outkast’s Andre 3000. Those in attendance at the 92Y were treated to the first public unveilings of several tracks, including the jazz-tinged recording of Sinéad O’Connor’s (by way of Prince) “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and a reggae rendition of “No One” by Alicia Keys. “The album is filled with flavor,” says Davis. “Different touches and different flavors from cut to cut.”
Several tracks featured unexpected and intriguing mash-ups, including lines from Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor” cropping up in Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic “I Will Survive,” and the Motown standard “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” peaking out of “Rolling In The Deep.” The most affecting moment occurred midway through “I’m Every Woman,” when suddenly the music shifted into a searing verse from Otis Redding’s “Respect.” It served as Franklin’s affectionate nod to her most enduring musical legacy, nearly half a century later.
Despite the array of artists, songs and styles, Davis insists that the aim of the project was direct. “This album personifies taking great copyrights and bringing a new life to them, showing the timeless nature of these songs that can withstand wholly different treatments -whether it’s reggae, whether it’s jazz, whether it’s combining it with another song, [or] different tempo.” But the songs aren’t the only enduring part of the record. “You will see in these next years that follow that Aretha Franklin continues to soar above everyone else.”
So just how does Ms. Franklin, voted the Greatest Singer of All Time by Rolling Stone, continue to dazzle, continue to inspire, continue to reign supreme and record music that is built to last? She keeps one simple goal front and center. “Instead of saying I want to go to the top of the jazz charts, or I want to go to the top of the pop chart -or I want to make this kind of hit or that kind of hit- make the best of the music.”