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TV/Radio Preview: Queen of Soul hails royal treatment during WQED taping

Sunday, February 02, 2003

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

You may be pleased to know that the Queen of Soul herself has sampled local soul food and pronounced it "slammin'."

Aretha Franklin and a host of other soul greats, from Temptation Dennis Edwards to her old friend Freda Payne, were in town at the Benedum Center the week of Thanksgiving to tape the latest edition of WQED's "American Soundtrack" series, "Rhythm, Love and Soul" (which debuts at 8 p.m. tomorrow on WQED). At Franklin's suggestion, a holiday feast was prepared.

It's a bit of a Franklin tradition, started one year when she found herself in Vegas for the holidays.

"American Soundtrack: Rhythm, Love and Soul"

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow on WQED and simulcast on 3WS radio.

Starring: Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Mary Wilson, Gloria Gaynor, Edwin Starr, The Temptations and more.


"We were gonna be away from home for Thanksgiving," she says. "And everybody was kind of down in the dumps about it. So a lady who used to cook for me when I used to live in California, she came down with her girlfriend and she just brought platters -- large silver platters -- of turkey and dressing with all of the trimmings to Las Vegas, and it was so fabulous. So my agent was telling the people in Pittsburgh we wanted to do the same thing there since it was so close to Thanksgiving."

Instead of the turkey and dressing route, though, in they went with a soul food buffet, prepared by the Soul Food Connection.

"And baby, I want you to know," says Franklin, laughing, "they wore everybody out. Wore everybody out. Peach cobbler. Ohhh! By the time we got through, we were lying on the table. The macaroni and cheese was so good. The ribs! Everything was delicious. I was floored because I must tell you, I didn't know if it was gonna be that good. I was wondering if they can really cook in Pittsburgh. They were slammin'."

As was the Fish Market gumbo.

In fact, she told T.J. Lubinsky, the producer behind the "American Soundtrack" dynasty at QED, that it was the best she's ever had.

She ate there her first night in Pittsburgh, a day after laying her brother to rest, and as Lubinsky says, that gumbo "set the mood for that whole week -- that we really wanted her here, that we really respected and loved her and wanted her to feel good about being here in Pittsburgh."

Franklin also had good things to say -- specifically "very accommodating" and "wonderful" -- about the Westin Convention Center, where not just Franklin but all the performers stayed.

And the show itself? Did she enjoy that, too?

"Oh very much so," Franklin says. "I got to introduce the Temps, and they were really super. And Barbara Mason, I had never met before, I very much enjoyed her. And Carl Carlton. He's performed for me a couple of times in Detroit. And Freda Payne."

As for her own set, which featured both her signature hit, "Respect," the '60s classic "Chain of Fools" and the '80s hit, "Freeway of Love," Franklin says, "I guess I just said, 'What do I feel like singing here? What would the audience like to hear?' "

What the audience didn't get a chance to hear was Franklin's first attempt at Etta James' "At Last," performed as an outrageously flirtatious duet with Lou Rawls. Their performance at rehearsal, perhaps one of the more combustible duets in music history, brought a crowded room of seasoned soul professionals to their feet after bringing a smile to everybody's face.

It may have been the soul food.

As Franklin reports, "That was very impromptu, very spur of the moment."

She and Rawls, in fact, had never sung together before that day in Pittsburgh. But, as Franklin says, "We both have gospel backgrounds and come from the same church. For many years, when he was singing with the Pilgrim Travelers, my dad was traveling at the same time, and on occasion we would come together in the same arena or the same auditorium in different cities. And, of course, he was very close to Sam -- traveled with Sam Cooke a lot. Our paths just crossed a lot because we all sang gospel."

Franklin still sings gospel on occasion at churches in Detroit, appearing with her group, the Aretha Specials.

As for soul, this spring she's set to drop her first release since 1998's "A Rose Is Still a Rose," to which she says there's no comparison.

"Not musically," she says. "Nor will there be vocally, I don't think. This album coming up is a blockbuster. We're doing different things. We have different producers. Some of the producers that are on the album ... well, I'm one. I'm doing two new things that I've written, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are doing some things, Chuck Jackson, Clarence McDonald. Chuck did many of the Natalie Cole things. Burt Bacharach is coming in. He has a classic, as all of his things are. Chuck's song is a classic, too.

"We've got some blockbuster stuff. Narada Walden sent me some things, the gentleman who did 'The Freeway' and many other things for me -- 'Who's Zoomin' Who' and so on. Something for myself and Beyonce [Knowles]. I don't know if we're gonna do it, though. And then, Mary J. Blige sent me something that is just a dynamite song."

Working with Blige is a natural fit for Franklin, who worked -- and worked magic, in fact -- with Lauryn Hill her last time out.

"I like what I hear today," she says. "R&B has arrived beautiful."

After releasing the album, Franklin should be headed back to Pittsburgh on a "very, very special" tour she's calling her "semi-retirement" tour.

"Never retire," she says. "But semi-. I just won't be going to a lot of the areas that I have been traveling to."

Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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