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What Aretha thinks about Adele, Prince, and politics

Aretha Franklin looking quite regal at the 2013 National Christmas Tree Lighting.Carolyn Kaster/AP/File

When Aretha Franklin devotes a record to songs associated with divas, as she did in 2014 with the self-explanatory “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” you know she knows of which she speaks. Anointed the Queen of Soul years ago, Franklin, 74, has played for royalty and the pope, sang a portion of a Philadelphia concert backed by the former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice on piano, and recently turned up alongside Charles Mingus, the Beach Boys, Prince, and Janelle Monáe on President Obama’s newest summer playlist. In town to perform a “Diva”-centric show at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Friday night, Franklin chatted by phone about the songs and artists who appeal to her, the president’s legacy, and what remains for her to achieve.

Q. You cover a wide range of material on “Great Diva Classics,” from Etta James to Barbra Streisand and Adele. As a singer, what appeals to you most about a given song?


A. I kind of like to listen for the melody and the content. That’s what I’m more interested in. And what it has to say — musically, does it speak to me? And that’s pretty much it.

Q. It’s remarkable to hear you remake songs by contemporary artists like Adele and Alicia Keys in your own image. With the work schedule you maintain, do you find much time to check out up-and-coming singers?

A. Oh, I do. When I’m at home, my radio is on 24/7. I listen to different stations. I thoroughly enjoyed recording “Diva Classics” — as a consumer, I bought some of those records and enjoyed them by the artists that originally made them. So I just had a really super time re-doing them.

Q. It shows in your interpretations, the most surprising of which being the big-band swing version of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” you made with Andre 3000 of OutKast. And in April you sang “Purple Rain” at the White House. What was your connection to Prince?


A. Well, unfortunately Prince and I did not really get to meet each other. But I appreciated him as an artist, for sure. One of my favorites was “Little Red Corvette” — I really loved that. And on my birthday once, when I went to Minneapolis, he had another vocalist put some of my things on tape and sent it to me as a birthday present, which was really great.

Q. Last week, President Obama shared his latest playlists, and you’ve got a track in there alongside Prince, Jay Z, and the Beach Boys, among others.

A. Oh, yeah, I heard that! “Rock Steady.” That’s fabulous.

Q. You played his inauguration in 2009, and the Obamas were there when you brought the house down at the Kennedy Center Honors in December. Now that we’re reaching the end of his term, how would you assess President Obama’s legacy?

A. He’s had a tremendous, very challenging and trying eight years, I would say. I think that he has been very, very gracious in terms of how he has handled himself, with much dignity and with a lot of class. A whole lot of class.

Q. For many years you’ve been associated with the civil rights movement in the United States, party because of close ties to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson. Do you see an analogous spirit in the current-day Black Lives Matter movement?


A. The thing here is, first and foremost I am a singer. As a teenager I went out on tour with Dr. King, and I preceded him before he came on to speak, with another young singer by the name of Queen Esther Marrow. Reverend Jackson has been a longtime friend of the family, a friend of my dad’s; he was invited to come to Detroit as a young pastor, to attend services at our church and so on.

Q. So these circumstances have been woven into your life, but you’d prefer to not be portrayed as an activist?

A. I’m not an activist; I’m a singer. Professionally, that is my title — I am an entertainer and singer. Of course everyone is concerned today with the Black Lives Matter issue; hopefully there will be some solution to that before too long. Just the fact that it’s out on the table, it brings attention to the issue. And that is necessary, to have the necessary dialogue to resolve this matter.

Q. I saw you perform with Condoleezza Rice in Philadelphia in 2010, and I recall being struck by what a cooperative gesture it was at a time when politics were starting to grow divisive.

A. We had a great time that night, we really did. Ms. Rice being the classical pianist that she was, I just thought we could come together for a good cause, and that was to raise some money for indigent people. And we raised over $500,000 that night. Not bad.


Q. So having achieved so much over the course of your career, what dreams remain for you to fulfill?

A. Well, I’m renegotiating a new recording contract, and I’m looking forward to doing some things with George Benson and Stevie Wonder, hopefully. And also some plans that I have for Aretha’s Records, which has been incorporated. My son and my grandson are going to be two of the artists on Aretha’s Records, and then I have two classical divas.

Aretha Franklin

At Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, Aug. 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $34.50-$120. 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com

Interview was condensed and edited. Steve Smith can be reached at steven.smith@
. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.