Sam Moore Remembers Aretha Franklin: ‘She Was the Greatest’

Aretha Franklin Vintage Image Tribute
Sony Music Archives

I hear people ask, “Who’s gonna be the next queen?” Shut up! Aretha Franklin was the one. She could take a jazz song and make it Aretha. She could take blues and make it Aretha. Puccini’s aria “Nessun Dorma”: She could make it Aretha. There were only two people who could do that — her and Ray Charles.

At the Grammys in 1998, when Pavarotti had a cold and canceled, the producers had an emergency on their hands. They asked: Could she do “Nessun Dorma”? She had been studying opera and she had sung the aria two nights earlier at the MusiCares dinner. That first night, she did it in her key, with her arrangement. But when she was called to fill in for Pavarotti at the Grammys, with almost no rehearsal, she had to do it in his key, with his arrangement. She’d always been great, but this proved she was the greatest.

My wife is still embarrassed by what I did at the MusiCares dinner, but I couldn’t help myself. The woman got up there, started to sing, and the only person I know that could hit that note would have been Pavarotti. Aretha stepped back on that note and popped a button. I jumped up and I cursed, “Goddamn, this bitch can sing!”

I met her when she was 15. She already had an album out, but she was on a gospel caravan, just playing for her dad, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, and when he would get into the sermon, she would ad-lib behind him on the piano or the organ. The first time I heard her singing, she was singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” We had a lot of gospel child prodigies, but I had never heard a 15-year-old do what Aretha Louise did to that song.

She played piano on my first solo album, “Plenty Good Lovin’.” King Curtis was in the studio working on my album as well as one of hers. I left the control room to talk with some musicians, and when I came back, guess who was there? Aretha. She had never done that for anybody.

When you could get her to sit at the piano, it was amazing what would happen with that interplay with her vocals and her timing. It was always amazing to see her standing at the mic, controlling that audience, but she was most dangerous when she would sit down and play.

I covered her hit “Don’t Play That Song” some years back, and then I sang it at a tribute to Aretha at Carnegie Hall last year. I’ll tell you why: She’s got 18 Grammys, but did you know she got one of them for [a cover of the Sam & Dave hit] “Hold On, I’m Comin’”? I said, “OK, you got a Grammy off of one of mine, I’m going to get a Grammy for stealing one of yours!”

I’ll miss clowning with her. Most people don’t know the Aretha that could cut up and joke and be a character. My wife and I were invited to a concert she did at Radio City Music Hall, and the Four Tops were on the bill with her. At the encore, when it came time for her to do a duet with the Tops’ Levi Stubbs, Aretha did a costume change and came out wearing a leotard, tutu and ballet shoes. And she was not teeny at this point, but all of a sudden she took a leap into the air into Levi’s arms. He couldn’t catch her, and they both tumbled, and it was hysterical. That’s how everybody behaved offstage, but here they were being that ridiculous onstage, and she was enjoying the hell out of it.

Aretha only wanted attention when she had to get attention. Other than that, she was a mother. She wasn’t all over the news. When she was sick, she was private about that, and she would still book a show and go do it. She didn’t give up or give out. … In her voice, you could hear the sadness. You could hear the thing that she carried around with her. The sadness is part of what made her great.

I’m celebrating. I’m not mourning, because she’s not sick, she’s not hurting, she’s not struggling — she is resting. And I hope she will tell the good Lord that I want the same thing, and to meet her again when it’s time.

— As told to Chris Willman

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Sam Moore was half of the R&B duo Sam & Dave, renowned for hits including “Soul Man,” “Hold On, I’m Comin’ ” and “I Thank You.”