Bowie, Eurythmics and Wham!: Mike Garson, Annie Lennox & George Michael remember Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, who sadly lost her battle with cancer yesterday, is the most charted act in the history of the American Billboard charts. With an astonishing 77 Hot 100 entries, 17 top ten pop singles, and 100 R’n’B entries, with songs like Respect, Think and I Say A Little Prayer among some of the best known songs in soul music.

There are three or four other songs with which the First Lady of Soul will always be associated, as Mike Garson, Annie Lennox & Dave Stewart and, with the benefit of archive quotes, David Bowie and George Michael, remember fondly. They really don’t make ’em like this any more…

Sounding like a misheard refrain of another well known Franklin hit, “Strange, strange, strange,” was how David Bowie described his March 1975 experience as a first-and-only-time Grammy presen­ter — the night Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. hosted the show — was at New York’s Uris Theatre to present the best female R&B vocal performance award to Aretha, for her version of Ashford & Simpson’s Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing. (Bowie him­self wouldn’t win a Grammy of his own for another 10 years, and even then it was for a video, Blue Jean. He wouldn’t be awarded another for his music until after his passing.)

Franklin’s cohort Clive Davis remembers seeing the unnaturally Thin White Duke that night and described him as “a vision in an incredibly elegant tuxedo with white tie and his eye-catching shades of orange and yellow hair.” Before the show, Bowie had a talk with his new friend John Lennon. The two Brits had just collaborated what would become David’s first No.1 single in America, Fame. But in full self-pitying mode he told the ex-Beatle “I didn’t think America really got what I did, that I was misunderstood. Remember that I was in my 20s and out of my head.” A few months after the telecast, Bowie reflected on the awards.

“The Grammys were very significant for me — it was like walking a tightrope,” he said a few months after the telecast. “There were mostly aging, middle-class show business people in that audience. It was a question of entertaining them or coming off like just another rock singer. I really did feel I was David Bowie and not a rock singer. It was very strange. Strange, strange, strange.”

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After being introduced by an incongruously admiring Andy Williams, Bowie gave a rambling speech about Lennon and Yoko Ono finding “within their intimate world a message and language of love.” (Bowie was on industrial amounts of cocaine. He even makes an indiscreet reference to it in the above clip.) Whatever he was on about, Lennon looked uncomfortable. In an interview in 1999, The Dame said of his moment with the Queen of Soul: “So the big moment came and I ripped open the envelope and announced, “The winner is Miss Aretha Franklin.” Aretha steps forward, and with not so much as a glance in my direction, snatches the trophy out of my hands and says, “Thank you everybody. I’m so happy I could even kiss David Bowie.” Which she didn’t! And she promptly spun around swanned off stage right. So I slunk off stage left. And John bounds over and gives me a theatrical kiss and a hug and says “See, Dave. America loves ya.'”

Mike Garson

David Bowie and Mike Garson during the recording of Young Americans in Philadelphia, 1974

A noted master of jazz, classical, fusion, and experimental genres, few musicians had as much impact on or involvement with Bowie’s career as Mike Garson. The New Yorker was the artist’s on/off go-to pianist across a 33 year period, making his grand mark on eleven of The Dame’s studio albums, a further eight live sets and countless tours and side projects. In November 2006, he accompanied David and Alicia Keys during a unique duet of Changes at the Black Ball, an AIDS benefit in New York City which was to become The Thin White Duke’s final public performance. Garson remains a highly sought-after session musician with an utterly unique sound of his own.

First of all, we’ve lost one of the greatest artists we’ve ever had. I got familiar with her when I was living in Brooklyn in 1966, 1967. Her talent was undeniable. That’s nothing nobody else knows, but I have just a small window of insight into how she could affect a white, English singer who I happened to be working with, David Bowie.

We’re driving in the limo through the United States, doing the Aladdin Sane tour. I’m watching David take the whole country. He’s got this great set of headphones on and he’s listening to Aretha Franklin, and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is very different for him. What does he have in mind?” Well, David being well ahead of his time, he was already planning the Young Americans album. He was hearing me play gospel piano on a lot of the tracks. He was thinking of those great songs and he’s absorbing like a sponge, like the ultimate chameleon, the essence of this great, great singer and individual, who also had a very strong social conscience.

Aretha was so connected to Martin Luther King. She had a bigger viewpoint than just her own greatness as a singer. She was bringing something to the black community. Especially then, that was so important. I remember watching on television when she won a Grammy, seeing David introduce her, you could see the love and the connection. And if one watches that on YouTube, he’s being David: he’s funny, he’s quirky, he’s brilliant, he’s looking beyond great, dressed to the hilt. You could see her respect for him. But he snuck in one word in the midst of all the craziness of the 70s. And it was just the word “love”.

“I’m so happy I could kiss David Bowie!” The Dame barely concealed his displeasure at The Queen’s faux-pas

Despite whatever was going on in his life, or her life, or the world, they understood the essence of love. People forget that about people like Aretha or Whitney Houston or David or Prince. People forget, I think because they get involved in their personalities, that every one of these artists was raising the consciousness level of the planet through love and through music, which is probably the most powerful healing force. There’s probably an amazing choir up there now where they’re all singing.

Annie Lennox

Aretha Franklin rehearses in a Detroit recording studio with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, 1985

Both vociferous champions of women’s rights, Lennox sang beside Franklin on their 1985 tale of female empowerment, Sisters Are Doin’ it for Themselves. The duet featured on Franklin’s comeback album, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? as well as the fifth Eurythmics long-player Be Yourself Tonight. Inspired by the suffragette moment, Lennox and her bandmate Dave Stewart wanted to bring another female voice to the mix, and had Tina Turner in mind; but when Turner was unavailable they turned to Franklin, whose thundering gospel croon brought the feminist anthem to life. Sisters went on to give the First Lady of Soul her first UK Top 10 hit for 27 years. It’s since been covered by the Spice Girls, Pointer Sisters, Hazell Dean and even Kylie Minogue & Danni Minogue. In 2011, Christina Aguilera, Martina McBride, Florence Welch, Jennifer Hudson, and Yolanda Adams teamed up to perform the song for a Franklin tribute at the 53rd Grammy Awards. Hudson was Aretha’s personal favourite to play her in the much booted biopic of her life.

As the One and Only ‘Queen of Soul,’ Aretha Franklin was simply peerless. She has reigned supreme, and will always be held in the highest firmament of stars as the most exceptional vocalist, performer and recording artist the world has ever been privileged to witness. Superlatives are often used to describe astonishing singers… but in my view, even superlatives cannot be sufficient. Everyone who loved Aretha will be saying little prayers of gratitude, respect and appreciation for the musical life force that enriched our lives. Her voice will soar forever.

In April of this year, Annie Lennox and David A. Stewart looked back at their Eurythmics career in a video interview posted online, and the pair reflected on their experience working Franklin.

“Somebody said, ‘What about Aretha Franklin?’ and we were like, ‘Hmm, yeah right.’” 

“That was Clive Davis, that someone. He put a phone call in to Aretha Franklin.”

“The next minute we’re on a plane to Detroit.”

“We were like ‘we are not worthy, we are… oh my god!”

“So we go in this tiny room … you can just about get  her, and it’s got a piano in it, and me. I thought she was going to ask me something, and she just sang The Way We Were and started crying. And it was one of those moments, like, ‘how did I end up here?’ Then she wiped the tears away a bit and she’s going ‘Yeah, so this song, and started talking to me.. and I was kind of speechless.”

Photographer Lynn Goldsmith also recollects the recording of the song at United Sound Systems in Michigan:

“I went with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart to Detroit for a recording session with Aretha Franklin of a song they’d written, Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves. Annie had just started practicing meditation, was a vegetarian, and was terrified about singing with the Queen of Soul. When we arrived, Aretha was eating chicken and smoking. She offered Annie some of the chicken, and I think her refusal was the first step in a number of concerns Aretha developed about singing with her. Annie, in awe of Aretha, and protective of her throat from the smoke, tried to stay back a bit. Aretha read through the lyrics and was not happy. She didn’t know much about the Eurythmics, and after seeing Annie’s close-cropped hair and men’s suit, Aretha assumed the song was a gay anthem. The vibe in the room was not good. Dave Stewart to the rescue. He put up the multitrack and the atmosphere changed. As soon as Annie started singing you could see Aretha take on a newfound respect for her and then she started to wail. It was Magic.”

George Michael

Aretha joins Yog during his Faith Tour in Auburn Hills, Michigan, August 1988. Pic by Chris Cuffaro

Aretha Franklin and George Michael collaborated on the Motownish track I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me), which was written by Simon Climie with Tina Turner in mind. Though when Clive Davis, the famed label boss who managed Aretha’s shock defection from Atlantic to Arista in the 1980s, was sent the demo he knew it was perfect for Franklin and the former Wham! singer. Hardly a surprise given their pop heavyweight status, the track earned George his first Grammy Award (the song best R&B performance by a duo or group) and was only his third single since leaving the pop group Wham!

It was also Aretha’s first and last transatlantic number one single, spending two weeks at the top of the UK chart in February 1987 and re-establishing Aretha on the global stage. Since 2005, the song has notched up 5.3 million streams in Britain.

The iconic singers spoke highly of each other over the years and Michael once recalled how, during the recording session, Aretha ate a rack of ribs before chucking the bones into a bin on the other side of the room. In his 1991 autobiography, Bare, George wrote: “She could hit that bucket in the corner like that! It was fantastic!”

Although Yog was well known artist in his own right, he did admit to feeling overwhelmed by the Queen of Soul’s talents and star status: “I was nervous. I knew that Aretha would get the melody and then take it all over the place, which sounds great, but the thing also needed tying down … I just tried to stay in character, keep it simple. It was very understated in comparison to what she did. Nobody can emulate Aretha Franklin. It’s stupid to try.”

Case in point: witness that jaw-dropping moment just after two and half minutes in where Aretha employs her incredible range to such mesmerising effect, swooping so unbelievably low that most people assumed it was George singing it until they saw the video.

“We did end up doing the chorus together, which was phenomenal—she wanted to do it that way. I’m standing there just freaking out. I’m on the other side of the mic from Aretha Franklin and she’s treating me like an equal—obviously I’m not, but she was treating me with such respect.”

Aretha joins Yog during his Faith Tour in Auburn Hills, Michigan, August 1988. Pic by Chris Cuffaro

Their relationship was far from one-sided, though. Aretha paid a warm ad affectionate tribute to George following his tragic death in December 2016. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, Aretha said: ‘The first time I heard George was with Wham! and I liked it then. He had a very unique sound, very different from anything that was out there. When Clive Davis suggested we get together for I Knew You Were Waiting, I was all ready.’

RIP Aretha, George and David. Truly three of a kind.

Steve Pafford

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