Aretha Franklin has one of the most magnificent voices of her generation – of any generation. So it is charming and somehow humbling when, on the phone, that mighty voice pauses to sing the praises of Buffalo.
“It’s always wonderful to come back,” she said musically.
“I’m going to stop and visit Buffalo General Hospital,” she confides. Her mother was a nurse at Buffalo General. Young Aretha, after her family moved to Detroit and her parents divorced, would spend summers in Buffalo with her.
“And we’re going to go to Masten High School, where my older brother went. Vaughn Franklin. He ran track at Masten High. I’m going to take my nephew to see where his dad ran track.”
She added, thinking out loud: “We were thinking, school is out right now. I’d like to be able to talk to some of the kids. I’ll wait for when school is back in session.”
What generosity, you have to think.
Franklin lived in Buffalo only a few years. And she never sang here as a girl, she said, destroying an age-old local legend that held that she sang her first solos at Friendship Baptist Church, where her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was pastor.
“I was too young,” she said. “I started singing in Detroit.”
Yet she remains emotionally involved with our town. In her memoir, published a few years ago, Franklin waxed nostalgic about Buffalo.
“I loved those summer visits,” she wrote. “Mom lived in a duplex on Lyth Street in Cold Springs, a beautiful neighborhood in Buffalo. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, the area was middle-class black, characterized by good-sized and well-maintained homes, two-story structures of brick and wood. I remember Buffalo as a city of wide boulevards and towering trees that lightly shaded the streets where we played.”
She told of learning crocheting from a neighbor named Mrs. Pitman.
“To this day I enjoy crocheting various items for family and friends,” she wrote in her memoir. “I like maneuvering subtle pumpkin and pineapple stitches. As I crochet, I often think of those days in Buffalo and Mr. and Mrs. Pitman.”
On the phone, Franklin happily picks up where she left off in the book, talking about crocheting.
“I make berets,” she said. “I don’t make anything as intricate as the ladies I observed. She (Mrs. Pitman) was so advanced. She made beautiful tablecloths, with rose patterns. That’s how much work – oh, my God, a good year – to make one tablecloth. She would also have little high-heeled shoes that sat next to the lamp on the end table.”
Franklin talks so eagerly about Buffalo that you are tempted to keep the subject there. Otherwise, she is not the easiest person to interview. Some subjects lead nowhere. Some questions fall flat. Though she is always polite, she can be a woman of few words.
The topic of Buffalo seems to be an exception. Her affection for her semi-hometown seems genuine.
Jazz pianist Joe Brancato was playing at the Adam’s Mark Hotel one evening when, to his astonishment, Franklin walked in, wearing a Detroit Pistons jacket. The singer, who is famously afraid of flying, was on her way to a gig in the Hamptons.
He was struck by her low-key warmth.
“She came up to the piano, and she had a twenty and laid it on the piano,” he recalled. She said, ‘Hi, I’m Aretha Franklin.’ I said, ‘You certainly are.’ ”
The incident took place about a decade ago, but Brancato still remembers it in detail. He recalls the songs she requested: “The More I See You,” “Lara’s Theme” from “Dr. Zhivago” and the gloriously over-the-top “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.” Later, Brancato approached her table, crouched down, took a deep breath and asked her if she wanted to play.
“I thought, what can I give you? I can’t give the twenty back,” he said. He knew she played the piano. “I thought, do you want to sit in on my gig and enjoy playing?”
The diva demurred. “She probably would have liked to have played,” Brancato reflected. “She was looking around as if, I don’t know if I want to be noticed. I want to be personable, but I want to be left alone.”
Franklin is surprisingly outgoing for a major celebrity who has lived almost her whole life in a fishbowl.
She has landed in the tabloids for all kinds of reasons, involving her family, her marriages, her finances and her health. Just hint at her experiences with this kind of coverage, and she clams up.
Talking about music, like talking about Buffalo, makes her relax.
Franklin listens to music a lot at home, and she listens actively. She talks enthusiastically about singers she loves, from iconoclastic singer Andy Bey, whom Franklin used to hear when both of them were working in Greenwich Village, to breathy cabaret artist Blossom Dearie, with a voice as far from Franklin’s powerful pipes as you could imagine.
She listens to Stevie Wonder, to “The Music Of My Mind” and her favorite, “Songs In the Key of Life.” She talks with pleasure about her granddaughter, Victorie, singing the contemporary gospel song “Take Me To the King.” And she likes Beyonce.
One recording that recently struck her was Barbra Streisand singing Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz.
“It is so fast,” Franklin broods. “I said, she had to have recorded this song in sections. It is totally impossible to sing that fast that accurately. Have you heard that? You should! It is a superb performance.”
Franklin does not mind that she is talking to the classical critic.
“I love Chopin and Liszt. I love the melodies,” she said. “I do have a number of arias in my repertoire, The ‘Song to the Moon.’ ‘Vissi D’Arte.’ Whenever I sing a melody and I don’t know who it is, I find that it’s from ‘Tosca.’ ” She laughed. “I have a classical coach. When I hear a melody and don’t know what it is, I sing it to the coach and she tells me.”
Mention you play the piano, and it’s a great ice breaker. Franklin said she learned to play as a girl in Detroit, by watching gospel artist James Cleveland.
“James came from Chicago to work with the young adult choir at our church,” she said. “He would come by the house and often play. He was kind of teaching my sister and myself little things about the piano. He had his own group. I would just stand there and listen, and watch how he played the piano.
“Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum were very good friends of my father,” she added. “They would come into town and play on Saturday and come to church on Sunday. They would come to the house and play the piano. I would stand by the piano and listen to them. I would watch how they played the piano. My dad would give me records by Errol Garner and Art Tatum to see if I could emulate them.”
Unprompted, she keeps on talking.
“I remember standing at the piano and Art Tatum was playing. He had a cigarette at the side of his lips. The ash on that cigarette had gone out to about 12 inches. I swear to you, it looked like 12 inches. He never dropped it, and he never missed a key. The smoke was going up in his eye, but he never missed a key.”
She paused. The memory is so vivid, so charming, that you almost have to ask: Franklin accompanied herself on piano, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a few weeks ago when she accepted an honorary doctorate from Harvard. Might she play the piano at Artpark?
It’s doubtful, Franklin said – but she says it her own way.
“I sing,” she said, a smile in her voice. “Not the piano.”