Saturday, August 04, 2007

Aretha Franklin Has a Concert, a Musical and 2 CDs on Her Plate

Busy 'Ree

Aretha Franklin has a concert, a musical and 2 CDs on her plate, but she isn't getting married -- yet

Susan Whitall / The Detroit News

With two new CDs in the pipeline, a film and/or musical version of her life story in the works and persistent marriage rumors to bat down, Aretha Franklin has more than enough to keep her busy during the tail end of a long, hot summer.

Franklin could toss together a greatest hits show for her Aug. 12 DTE Energy Music Theatre date, satisfy her fans thoroughly and be done with it, but that isn't how the Queen of Soul rolls.

As a Washington Post reviewer noted after her early July show at the Wolf Trap amphitheater in Virginia: "Even at 65, with her spotlighted space in the popular music pantheon locked down, the venerated singer tends to attack her lines like a prizefighter. Her approach is wily, fierce and fabulous."

There's a simple reason why the singer considered the leading female vocalist of her generation doesn't phone it in:

"It's for the love of the music," Franklin says by phone. "That and I try to keep my presentation fresh and entertaining, so people don't feel like, 'Oh, well, I know what she's going to do. Right here she's going to do this.' You don't want your presentation to become stifled to that point."

That's not to say you won't hear "Respect" or any of the hits. But although she's best known for bringing the passion of gospel to pop music in her classic 1960s Atlantic Records recordings, Franklin's creativity has always reached beyond the obvious, to opera and points beyond.

And she can swing.

One song in her current set is the old standard "Beyond the Sea," the finger-snapping Bobby Darin tune recorded in 1960.

"I have a good time with that," Franklin says. "It's a great song. The audience loves it, and they all know it."

Another jazzy favorite of some Franklin fans is her version of "Moody's Mood (for Love)." The song was first recorded in 1952 by King Pleasure, who sang snappy, beatnik lyrics to a melody based on James Moody's saxophone solo in "I'm in the Mood for Love."

King Pleasure's version is a laid-back, hipster vocalese; Franklin recorded a faster, bebop version on her Quincy Jones-produced 1973 album "Hey Now Hey." But if you liked her Jones-produced version, she says she can top that.

"You would have heard a far better version of that song if you'd been out in San Diego, Calif. (in 2005), when James Moody himself came onstage and did it with me," Franklin says. "Oh! You missed it. What a night, what a night. The concert site is down on the water, and James Moody is in his 80s, but let me tell you, he is as skilled and as vocal as ever. He hit a lick or two and surprised me; he made me step back. I said, 'Oh, no, you won't!' At 83! That shows how skilled he still is."

Musical moves forward

In between select concert dates, Franklin is taking care of business, which includes casting decisions for "From These Roots," the musical version of her life story. Whether the musical will be a Disney film, network TV miniseries, theatrical production or all of the above, is being worked out.

"We have the proper people in place for the play, a major play producer, and I have a negotiation in progress for one of the networks as a telefilm, and at the Disney studios, a gentleman by the name of Brad in the film department is waiting for a script for a possible film," Franklin says.

So far the only Detroiter confirmed to play a role is gospel singer Karen Clark Sheard of Detroit's famed Clark family, who will play Kitty Parham of the Ward Singers.

Franklin tapped a suave Hollywood star to play her north end neighbor, Smokey Robinson.

"I have a commitment from Terrence Howard to play Smokey," Franklin says. "Blair Underwood is who I'm interested in for my brother Cecil, and I have a call in to his agent. Cicely Tyson would be perfect for my grandmother, and we put in a call in to her agent.

"The people that have been really, really hard to cast are my sisters, Erma and Carolyn. I have not come up with anyone yet. Out of all the people out there, they've been the hardest, as well as my dad, to cast."

One day, the singer was in her living room, gazing at a portrait of her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, in profile. Something about the picture made her think of the actor Billy Dee Williams. Then in July, in New York, on an 18-day vacation, she ran into the actor.

"As you know, my dad was a very handsome man, as is Billy Dee," Franklin relates. "Well, we got to New York, and I walked into the hotel, and who is standing at the desk! Billy Dee. Unbelievable!"

The two sat talking for an hour in the hotel foyer. Franklin told the actor about the movie, and he said he'd love to play her father.

"It may sound a little far-fetched, but Billy Dee is a great actor. He has the physical aspects of my father's physique, his facial structure, his height, his build. And he did play the part of Dr. King once. ... So he knows this area very well. As well, I thought we would use my dad's records. He would not have to delve into that, if he could just get the oratory and all that together, so he is a very strong possibility."

Albums yes, wedding no

Franklin has an album, "A Woman Falling Out of Love," on her own Aretha Records and an album for J Records that are set for release soon, maybe even simultaneously. She is currently negotiating a contract with Clive Davis, for J, and her Aretha Records release might be via the Internet.

"I think Clive's record is going to come out first, or at least, simultaneously," Franklin says. "I have two new sides that I just finished, one with John Legend, 'What You Come to Do (Put on Your Dancing Shoes)' and one with myself and Fantasia, called 'Let Me Put You on the Game.' It's really hot," she says, smiling through the phone line.

The hook line on the song she does with Legend: "Everybody turn it up, we gonna burn it up "

So OK, why is half the world trying to marry Franklin off?

It's been reported in some fuzzy pockets of the Internet, first that she's marrying, then that she's not marrying, complete with photos of Franklin walking in New York with her beau, Will Wilkerson. (Franklin was married twice before.)

"Didn't I tell you that story? We were in New York, just walking down Seventh Avenue, Will, and the security people," Franklin says. "A photographer followed us from the hotel, and he yelled out, 'Hey Aretha, what are you doing in town?' I said 'I'm here for a fitting, to get a gown.' But I didn't say it was for awedding gown.Uh-uh.I have no plans to be married soon."

The singer appears to be having fun now, just the way things are. She's just back from the July vacation in New York and the Hamptons, and she raves about the Metropolitan Museum's Egyptian show, her walk along Decorator's Row, and a visit to the new Le Cirque restaurant, although she teases that the food at her June gospel revival (provided by Detroit restaurateur Mr. Fo-Fo) was even better.

Still loves to perform

Franklin relishes the fact that, in a world where B.B. King puts on a stellar show at 82, a singer in her mid-60s might be just peaking.

"Ella (Fitzgerald) was well into what, her late 70s? Singers just go on and on. I love it. If you take care of yourself, you can do it a long time."

As for DTE Energy in Clarkston, a place she, and we, still call by its old name, Pine Knob, Franklin says she loves playing outdoor shows, especially if a warm Michigan breeze is cosseting those vocal cords.

"I love a good party, and there is going to be a big one at Pine Knob on the 12th of August," Franklin declares. "Myself and H.B. (Barnum, her conductor) and the singers, and another surprise or two. We'll do some hits, some things you haven't heard, gonna do a little jazz, a little classical."

And maybe a whisper in her ear about "Moody's Mood (for Love)" bore some fruit?

" 'Moody's Mood for Love'? Alright, I'm gonna put that in the show," Franklin says. "I'm gonna see if 'H' can write a quick arrangement. That would be a good song for Pine Knob, because you have a lot of jazz lovers in Detroit.

"We might be out there 'til well after midnight," the singer promises.

You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or swhitall@

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