Retired choreographer Louis Johnson worked with Aretha Franklin for 40 years, choreographing her concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, Lincoln Center and many other venues. A member of the New York Ballet Company, he’s also well-versed in other types of dance. He choreographed jazz and modern styles for the Queen of Soul (although he joked that Franklin always wanted to do ballet) and supplied her with dancers for her shows. He now has a tribute to Franklin in his room on his nightstand: red roses stand in a beautiful vase with a photo of a younger, slimmer Franklin positioned in front of them. He smiled as he says he used to call her “Skinny Inny.”
Professionally, Johnson remembered Franklin as being a very good student who easily learned her moves. On a personal level, he happily remembered her as “a wonderful person, and so warm.”
I would come to her house and she would cook me a whole meal—soul food,” he said.
Johnson tenderly recalled when Franklin invited him to her home in Detroit just after her father had died, when his body was still in the upstairs bedroom. “She said ‘Come, I want you to see my father.’” Johnson stated. (I remarked to Johnson that they were obviously very close. Her father’s longtime illness and death were devastating to her, so she must have felt extremely close to him to show him her father’s body. “Yes,” Johnson said quietly.)
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” Johnson remarked. “She was a kind lady and respected everything you did.”
He added, “I’m devastated by her passing. You see the picture over there … Aretha was so sweet. She was like the girl next door. I will always remember her kindness. She always wanted to give you whatever you wanted.” He smiled.
George Faison, choreographer and friend to Franklin for more than 45 years, shared. “I knew Aretha Franklin as a great artist that grew up, that sang the songs that kind of illuminated my life. The songs that spoke of the pain of our mothers, the love of our mothers, the pathos, the joy, the sorrow and, all through that, I realized that we had really great times with Aretha. She explained our pain and our pathos explicitly.
“The last time she spoke to the nation is when she sang the national anthem and she was old enough to have the voice that would carry the century of America’s growth, pain and progress, all of it in her voice. She was the mother of us all. It’s just unbelievable that we won’t have that voice. But that voice led us for so many years. I gave us so much strength for a very long time. We’re so grateful to God to have had her. We love Aretha.
“We knew each other personally and professionally. What was most important about Aretha is that she was one of the first people to sing about the issue of domestic violence. She sang about the pain that Black women were experiencing in their daily lives, and demanding respect. She stood up for Black women—respect. The civil rights era, she was all of that. She had an urgent call for freedom, serenity, love and r-e-s-p-e-c-t and created amazing love songs and ballad. That voice will be with us always. I choreographed her shows, she always love to add that bit of class to her shows. She was a wonderful woman. Her songs had a story to tell of wisdom and truth, it was to awaken people that something urgent was happening and some truth was going to be told.
“I hope people remember her courage, the vigil she kept with the truth. In the end she did all of it her way and she was bound in the truth. She never wavered from her principles and what she believed in. That’s the most painful part, you’re going to miss her, but she left us a legacy that will inspire us to do better. Loved her, loved her!”
Gwendolyn Quinn was Aretha Franklin’s publicist from 1997 to 2001, and then in 2002 she started her own company. “Aretha heard I started my own company and she called me,” Quinn said. “‘I heard you started your own company. I want to sign with you.’ And she was my first marquee client. … I’m her publicist of record.”
Quinn recalled, “The one thing I liked and cherished about her was you knew where you stood with her. She was a very generous person with her time and her resources. She brought nice gifts for you, she was always praising the people that worked for her. One of the things I’ll never forget is she had performed at Radio City Music Hall and she was saying, so and so is here and then she was thanking certain people in the audience and she thanked me personally. She had them put the spotlight on me and said, ‘She’s one of the baddest publicists.’
“She was very thoughtful. One of the unique things about being with her was she hadn’t had a manager since her brother passed and that was 40 years, so she managed herself. So, as her publicist I had to deal with her directly. I didn’t have a buffer. I dealt directly with her on everything. So I always had to figure out ‘How am I going to say this to Aretha?’ When you talk to an artist you have to select your words carefully. I don’t think her death has hit me [yet] because I’ve been helping the family with making arrangements. There’s been a huge outpouring of love for her.
“What I’ll miss most about her is her realness. She didn’t bite her tongue. I like dealing with people where you know where they are coming from, a lot of people are not like that today. I’m going to miss her coming to New York. She loved to come to New York and go to the theater. She would love going to dinner, seeing the shows, and then having the people from the show come to her hotel room for dessert. She would have a group of us, her Aretha Franklin delegation, and we would go with her to shows. She took me when she was going to perform for the pope. She took you places only a queen could take you. I think I’m just going to miss her. I’m so glad she got the love outpouring and support, she deserves it. She was a down to earth diva.”
Barbara Harris, Franklin’s publicist early on in her career, spoke affectionately of her friend. “I met Aretha when I worked for Ruth Bowen at Queen Booking. She booked Aretha over 40 years. I met her maybe ’67, ’68. She walked in one morning with her husband Ted White. She was an adorable person, size 6/8. She was quiet and shy. Then I worked as a publicist at Atlantic Records from 1969 and our paths crossed again. I worked with her in the early ‘70s-’72 or ’73. She was very quiet and very shy, but a talent beyond words. There will never be another person like Aretha. And the coverage and tributes she’s been getting since she passed are just amazing. She is revered all over the world.
“My fondest memory? I saw her Aug. 26, 2017. She was playing at the Mann Center outside of Philadelphia. That was her last concert and I went to see her. I was fortunate enough to get tickets and someone arranged for me to go backstage. There were over 10,000 at the concert, it was just amazing, an outside concert and the weather couldn’t have been better. It was fit for a queen that evening. And she gave a performance like I hadn’t heard from her or seen since the early ‘70s when she started. She was energized, it was amazing, and when she sat down to play the piano the place went bananas, because no one could play the piano and sing like Aretha. And she was ill at the time. After the show I went backstage with two of my friends. When we were leaving, she called my name and said, ‘Barbara, you’ve always been a class act.’ I almost fell down. My eyes filled with tears. That was the last contact and the fondest memory.
“She left a library of beautiful music. I don’t think anyone really had the magnitude that she had on us. It’s like losing a personal relative. It has been my pleasure to have known her and been in her company. I feel blessed to have known her.
“I want people to remember that she was a wonderful person. She was kind, not only talented. With the Civil Rights Movement when Martin Luther King couldn’t make payroll she paid it. But she did it anonymously. She didn’t want the fanfare. I’m so glad I’m able to go to the funeral.”
Aretha Franklin died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 16 at the age of 76. A viewing will take place on Aug. 28 and Aug. 29 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit. The public is invited to attend from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. An additional viewing has been scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 30, from noon to 4 p.m., at New Bethel Baptist Church. Funeral services will be held Aug. 31 at the Greater Grace Temple for family and close friends.