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“Every Detroiter Has an Aretha Story”

A new book takes a loving look inside the singer’s private world, photographed by a Motor-City girlfriend. Here’s what she shared about their sisterhood.

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Linda Solomon
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From “Respect” to “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” (a duet with Annie Lennox), we grew up listening to her soul-stirring vocals. We felt empowered by every note she sang. Her honey-coated, Baptist church-honed voice gave us a voice.

Since her passing last year, we sisters miss Aretha but treasure all the memories to which she belted the soundtrack. Now we can enjoy a photo collection that intimately looks at her life and times. Author Linda Solomon, a dear friend who knew her for decades, first met the R&B and gospel great for a one-off newspaper assignment. The two hit it off, and Solomon found herself drawn into the Queen of Soul’s inner circle. “The Queen Next Door” is a heartwarming and poignantly human collection, lovingly created right in the singer’s adopted hometown, Detroit, and published locally by Wayne State University Press.

Lingering over the candid, behind-the-scenes images, we can’t help but smile when we see Aretha mixing it up with James “the Godfather of Soul” Brown, and dressed as Queen Neferttiti on the book’s cover, an image taken from her 1988 masquerade ball. Looking at the candid photos of Aretha posing in her legendary pink Cadillac, we remembered the first time we sang along to “Freeway of Love.” We were also surprised to learn that she had a secret personal Facebook profile under the pseudonym Kay Cunningham. Solomon was among Kay’s 22 Facebook friends and says that in her final years, the Queen posted selfies and prayers to find a cure for cancer.

The 18-time Grammy winner was one of a kind. She owned a limousine, rocked full-length furs and demanded to be paid for performances in cash, which she promptly stashed in her designer purse. But that was her public persona. In private, she was the lady next door who enjoyed simple things like hanging with her family, throwing a good party and doing her own grocery shopping. We chatted with the author about the Aretha only those closest to her knew:

Sisters from AARP: Do you have a favorite memory of Aretha?

Linda Solomon: There are so many. But probably the most fun was her masquerade ball. That is the cover photograph and she chose to be Queen Neferttiti. It’s interesting because in some of her fashion from the ’80s she really was a trendsetter. She wore turquoise nails and statement earrings before anyone. Even in the [“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”] video with Whoopi Goldberg and the Rolling Stones, she is wearing animal-print fabrics that are popular today. She was ahead of her time in fashion.

She was also a women’s rights activist. When I met her, I was 29, and she really helped me. As a woman, she knew that I was starting my career and she gave me unprecedented access. The photographs are exclusive. No one has any of those photographs. I was the only one there, backstage with her family when she received her American Music Award [in 1986]. That turned out to be the last time she appeared [at the AMAs]. She let me stand next to her and trusted me. She knew I wouldn’t be taking hundreds of photos. I would take what I needed and move on. I didn’t bother her or ask her to pose. I think the most interesting photos are candid photos. Many of the photos in the book are candid [shots] of her doing her thing. I really wanted to capture the natural woman. She made that song [(“You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”] so famous, and I wanted to reveal that in the book.

Sisters: What was your first impression of Aretha when you met her in 1983?

Linda Solomon: I had always loved her. I’m a Detroiter. I always had the opportunity to see the Motown stars, but never the opportunity to see Aretha — the Queen of Soul. She moved back to Detroit in 1982, but I heard she was going to be on a local talk show a year later in 1983. I was a columnist for the Detroit News, and I arranged to come down and waited for her outside the studio. My first impression was that she was kind and gracious. I told her how much I loved her and thanked her for coming home. And she was very sweet. I asked her if I could take one photograph and she [agreed]. As I was walking into the studio I said, “Miss Franklin, I understand you are going to be accompanying yourself on the piano,” and there's nothing greater than seeing Aretha Franklin accompany herself as a pianist and sing. I asked her if I could take two more photographs. She said, “Of course,” and that's what started our relationship.

Sisters: Before you met her, did you think she might be, and deservedly so, a diva?

Linda Solomon: I didn’t think of her that way. She was extremely warm once she got to know someone. As a journalist, I think she trusted me. And I would never ever violate that trust. I would always just take a few photographs. When I had what I needed for my column and then later on for television, I would enjoy the rest of the evening or event and not intrude upon her privacy by taking hundreds of photographs. I think she appreciated that. I think many divas probably would have asked to see the photos before they were published, but she never asked for photo approval. She let me photograph her in rehearsal without makeup with the Rolling Stones and James Brown. She was our queen in every sense of the word. She was devoted to Detroit. The book shows her philanthropy. Who would ever think that the Queen of Soul would answer the telephone and take pledges at a telethon? I think she lived an authentic life in Detroit. Every Detroiter has an Aretha story. It’s quite charming. She did her own grocery shopping. People would see her at the casual deli. She would always be with her family, enjoying her life.

Sisters: She was notoriously private. How did you win her trust?

Linda Solomon: I was sensitive to understanding her. I always featured her siblings in all of my stories and photographs, and I think she liked that. Family was first and foremost to Aretha. The book shares that message. I became very close to her family. Her brother, Reverend Cecil Franklin, was her manager and always called me with all of the things she was doing. He would say, “Miss Solomon, are you able to come today? We are doing a music video with Whoopi and the Rolling Stones. I was like, “I’ll be there! What time?” She didn’t go anywhere without her family — her nieces, her siblings and her sons. She was always devoted to her family and she appreciated that I understood, respected and captured that. Sometimes people would think, “Why not just concentrate on Aretha?” But, I didn’t ignore anyone. For example, when I was in her home for the first time I was in the hallway to her bedroom. It was adorned with gold and platinum records. I asked if I could take a photo of her in the hallway with her sister Erma, who was also her backup singer. I asked [Erma] to hold [a miniature] pink Cadillac. I think she liked the fact that I gave respect to all the people in her life that she loved.

Sisters: When did you last photograph Aretha?

Linda Solomon: It was 2005. There were times when I had to decline some of her invitations. I saved her voicemails. I felt terrible [about not being able to go], but she understood. I was working and I still am on my nationwide program for homeless children. When she became ill in 2010, I wanted to respect her privacy. I didn’t want to bother her during those years. I did include her in my book, The Key: Celebrated People Unlock Their Secrets to Life in 2007. I asked her, “What is the key to respect?” On the phone, she said, “The key to respect is acknowledging the world does not revolve around you alone.” That was one of the most special things I learned from her. That’s very important to remember and the way she lived her life.