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Aretha Franklin was honored recently by the National Portrait Gallery with a “Portrait of a Nation” prize, given out to some of the people who appear in its collection. Gwen Ifill spoke with the Queen of Soul about her career, her voice and her legacy.
Aretha Franklin been given many honors over the years, but, last week, she was honored in a new way, as Gwen and I emceed the inaugural American Portrait Gallery event to honor the portraits of a nation.
Gwen is back with a conversation with the Queen of Soul about her remarkable career and her big plans still coming up.
It was an evening to honor legends, from designers to heroes from the world of sport and the military.
But it was the Queen of Soul who got the red carpet crowd to their feet. Mid-concert, Detroit's own Aretha Franklin added another prestigious honor to her extensive collection.
There is only one Aretha Franklin.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
The National Portrait Gallery's first Portrait of America Award.
Franklin's likeness hangs at the Washington museum.
ARETHA FRANKLIN, Portrait of a Nation Prize Winner: We were ladies and gentlemen, and we weren't overnight stars. It was gradual. And, for me, I just try to keep my head out of the clouds, keep my feet on the ground.
The 73-year-old Franklin has been honored for her jazz, rock, pop, classical, and gospel singing. She is the first female and just the fourth artist overall to place 100 career titles on Billboard's hot R&B/hip-hop songs chart.
Franklin is no stranger to Washington, performing at tree lightings, inaugurations and White House concerts. In 2005, she received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This latest honor guarantees that her image will live alongside her soundtrack.
National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet says Franklin was a natural choice.
KIM SAJET, Director, National Portrait Gallery:
The portrait of Aretha is a gateway. I think straight away, standing in front of it, I get a sense of, obviously, she's singing. She's got this big hair moment. There's a lot of color.
But, also, her name is spelt in capital letters at the bottom of this print, "ARETHA." She actually probably is one of the very few handful of people in this country we know exactly by their first name who we are talking about.
She's a lesson for all of us, being smart and tenacious, had a dogged determinedness about herself, which I think many of us can admire.
After her performance at the Gallery, I sat down with Franklin, who is seen worldwide as the diva, the queen, the consummate entertainer.
Tell me, how do you think of yourself?
A lady next door.
But nobody thinks of you that way, none of your fans, none of the people in that room tonight.
Sure. Yes. Yes.
They think of you as much more than that.
Well, no, they don't see me in that setting, right.
So, then, how do you handle the weight of the diva-ness of this all? Because, I mean, there's a little bit of that in you. You have a lot of flair.
I love to sing. It's just a natural thing for me.
And in the span of a six-decade music career, there was never anything else she wanted to do.
So, is part of you, you know, always going to be Reverend C.L. Franklin's daughter?
I'm a preacher's kid, too, so I…
I knew you — P.K., OK.
But I — I am a P.K. But I don't sing quite like you.
Oh, well, we don't all sing.
We have other gifts.
Yes, you have other gifts.
I want to ask you about that, because one of the things that comes up with people who are immensely successful about what they choose is what brought about the success, who urged you, or who didn't stop you.
Well, my mentor was Clara Ward of the famous Ward gospel singers of Philadelphia.
And my dad was my coach. He coached me. And just my natural love for music is what drove me.
Do you keep watch of the young people who are huge out there, and think, that person was the young me?
When I see choirs, the junior choir.
In each and every one of those cases, and tonight too?
You devoted a lot of it to gospel, which I think surprised some of the audiences. Do you do that routinely?
No, I just — I was listening to some of the C.D.s earlier today, and I wasn't happy with my opening song. It just wasn't what I wanted it to be
And then up popped "I Came to Lift Him Up," and I said, that's it, that's it. That's what I want to sing.
It's Sunday, and what could be better? This is the lord's day.
But I see you do that when it's not Sunday.
And I wonder if part of you feels…
Yes. No, you don't have to have any special day.
One recent capstone to her career, an invitation to perform for Pope Francis when he visited Philadelphia. She jumped at the chance.
It was wonderful, a very, very gracious man, a very gracious man.
And did you get that he got what you were bringing to this?
I think that he did, yes. Uh-huh. He's all about the word, bottom line.
But when did you cross the line from gospel to pop?
I didn't cross the line. Gospel goes with me wherever I go. Gospel is a constant with me.
So when people hear you sing…
So, I just broadened my musical horizons.
Yes. So when people hear you sing "Pink Cadillac," there's gospel in that?
No, that's secular.
That is secular, yes.
I asked her if technology, including auto-tuning and other digital enhancement, has changed the music industry's definition of success.
My generation, we came along, we had to really know our craft.
And my dad helped me do that long before I left home. People really don't have to give you anything, so appreciate what people give you. And just don't let that go to your head, whatever it is they give you.
But is it different or harder or more difficult than it was when you were coming up?
Yes, it is. It's a lot more difficult now, because you have a lot more artists out here now, particularly in hip-hop, and rappers, and singers, and so on. The competition is extremely high, so you really have got to have something going on.
Franklin still has a lot going on, including upcoming projects with old friends, artists she's known, but not recorded with for decades.
I love to record with Stevie and Smokey.
Have you never recorded with Stevie?
No, we haven't.
George Benson and I are going to do some things together. I have got a lot of fabulous recording ideas.
Will you ever consider stopping?
No, not ever, no. I'm not ever going to retire. That's — that wouldn't be good, for one, just to go somewhere and sit down and do nothing. Please. No, that's not moi.
It's not moi.
That is not moi.
Ms. Franklin, thank you very much for talking to us.
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