There are few performers for whom one name is sufficient (and no, this list does not include Yanni). Think Bruce, Garth, Iggy, Janis. And, of course, Aretha, variously known as the Queen of Soul, Goddess of Gospel, and the only person to emerge from Blues Brothers 2000 with her credibility intact.
To gain an audience with the immortal Ms. Franklin is quite the production number. On Friday, February 27th, she was holding court in New York's elegant, stately Le Cirque (ties and jackets mandatory for gentlemen). Before she entered, a pair of burly brothers cast their steely eyes over the assembled hacks and paparazzi, point-blank stares fixed on their faces. Once they'd given the all-clear, they took their positions at either end of the lavishly-appointed room and Franklin entered.
This caution is understandable, given that Franklin's unavoidably high public profile -- daughter of one of America's best-known preachers, friend of Jesse Jackson, singing mourner at Martin Luther King's funeral -- makes her a potential target for America's many nutters. But Franklin doesn't play the star role comfortably. "I'm the lady next door when I'm not on stage," she explains.
And it's true, her manner is more matronly than Madonnaish, although her succinct responses carried a certain air of "Yes, I've heard that question a million times before, but I'll answer it again if you want me to." When asked to define soul, for instance, she sighs "Oh my God. I've articulated that so much I've kind of run out. It's just depth of feeling that is conveyed from one person to another." And she cringes, just a little, when asked about life as an icon.
It's only when she sidetracks onto non-musical subjects, such as her fear of flying, her thoughts on astrology ("I know it's not something to live by, but I've applied some of the basics to people and they're kind of true") and her upcoming biography ("I'm up to 1982"), that Franklin's guard slowly starts to drop. Most everything else was met with a short, though polite response. "Yes, the Atlantic years were great." "There is some very good rap music and some very negative rap music." And so on.
Although two nights before this press get-together, Franklin had filled Pavarotti's size 14 loafers at the Grammys, today's main focus of attention was her new A Rose Is Still a Rose (Arista Records), the umpteempth album in a career with more peaks than the Himalayas.
While stylistically speaking, its smooth grooves are a world away from the soulfire of her immortal 1960s Atlantic recordings, A Rose hears Franklin in fine voice and a collaborative frame of mind. Clearly intent on bringing her sound into the '90s -- a la Madonna's electronica opus, Ray of Light -- Franklin joins forces with such hipsters as Sean "Puffy" Combs, Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin, and Fugee Lauryn Hill.
Franklin and Hill's work on the title track is a perfect balancing act of gut-level soul and catchy hip-hop-pop hooks, Franklin belting out the resilient lyric with typical gusto while Hill riffs on Edie Brickell's "What I Am."
"I'm interested in modern attitudes," Franklin explains in that honey-smooth voice of hers, loaded with history and import. "I really like people such as Erykah Badu, Janet, and Mariah Carey. Lauryn Hill, especially, is great. She reminds me of myself in the studio -- very kicked back. Lauryn came with her mother and she brought her new baby. We cooked up a lot of food and we chatted a while before we even started recording. After we were full to the gills, we started recording."
While her enthusiasm in working with a female soul-sister is obvious, Franklin had no qualms with the many men who help her out during A Rose. The Combs-produced number, "Never Leave You Again," is a slow burner, a moody groove whose slick production is tempered by Franklin's true vocal grit. "How Many Times" is the album's hefty power ballad, with production credits going out to Narada Michael Walden, the man behind her mid-80s career-reviving Freeway of Love. Elsewhere on A Rose, Narada produced "Watch My Back," which Franklin describes simply as "a funky track and highly danceable.
"I've seen him grow over the years," was Franklin's typically precise comment, when asked her opinion of Walden. "He's a first-class consummate producer."
For "In the Morning," Franklin hunkered down in the studio with producer Daryl Simmons, best known as former partner of Babyface and LA Reid. The end result is a haunting mood piece. Simmons also worked the controls for the medium-paced hustle of "In Case You Forgot."
As for her thoughts on collaborating with such an A-list of high-profile, idiosyncratic hit-makers, Franklin insists it was easy money. Egos, apparently, were checked at the studio door. "It was wonderful. It was just a merge between myself and their music. There is a kind of mutual respect between Puffy, Lauryn, all the others and myself. However," she adds, "I do have a lot of leeway to do what I want to do."
Lyrically speaking, Franklin states how she searches for "positive messages, romance," which come through loud and proud in the album's title track, and elsewhere. "I'm sensitive to women's issues," she says. " 'Cause there's a lot of abuse towards women going on today. To hear the statistics of how women are being treated is just staggering. [Therefore] to sing a song, I must find meaning in the lyric. And, of course, I must feel the groove."
Mind you, during the '90s Franklin hasn't had too much time to feel the groove. The time between A Rose and its predecessor, 1989's What You See, was a period so tough it probably gave her devout faith a thorough workout. As she recounts, "I've lost my brother, who was my manager, and my sister, so that accounts for the time I was not recording. But my faith always has been and always will be important to me."
Now it's as if Franklin is making up for her time spent in creative limbo. The next project on her schedule is mixing a live album, recorded at Carnegie Hall, which will be followed by another live album culled from a performance at her father's church, where she linked arms and voices with other gospel artists such as the Jackson Southernaires and Billy Preston. Somewhere in between she'll also be taking the unplugged option -- just herself and a piano -- as well as grooving in a classical vein with an operatic piece she plans to premiere in Washington DC.
And in her few spare moments, Franklin plans to build her own little musical empire, World Class Records. Although no one is signed quite yet, Franklin explains how, "I don't want a big roster of artists. I'd just like to work with, maybe, four artists: a female vocalist, a male vocalist, maybe a group and one or two others.
"I'm interested in keeping the music alive and certainly conducting myself in a responsible and positive way," Franklin surmises, when asked what keeps her motivated. "Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I'm using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I'm happy with that."