Hank Winchester: Aretha Franklin taught us what it means to be a Detroiter

By Hank Winchester - Reporter

I feel as if Aretha Franklin has been a part of my life forever.   

My parents were fans. Her albums were played in our home. Her voice captured my attention at a young age.  I was fascinated to think someone with such incredible talent lived nearby.  After all, Aretha Franklin is a part of the fabric of Detroit. 

She is music. She is soul. She is Detroit.  I’ve been a fan and have probably watched almost every performance or interview, thanks to YouTube.

I’ve seen her live at the Palace, the Fox and at one of the most magical musical nights in Detroit: the Motown 50 Celebration.  

It included Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Kid Rock on the same stage, at the same time. Was this real? 

It was almost too much to take in. The most fun to watch was even the big stars there knew they couldn’t get steal the Queen’s spotlight.  They let her shine. 

Speaking of which, remember VH1’s Divas Live, in which Celine Dion and Mariah Carey tried to outsing Aretha? Nice try. Aretha laid it all out on stage, and at the end of her performance, the Queen took her well-deserved bow.

My favorite performance, though, took place at the 1998 Grammys.  Aretha Franklin was asked to fill in for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti at the last minute.  She sang and opera piece in front the A-list crowd. She was epic.  

I encourage you to watch the performance.  How in the world did she deliver that performance without any time to prepare? (Watch it below)

I’ll never forget the emotion she displayed when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  She cried as the medal was placed around her neck. I always felt she was thinking of her father in that moment and how proud he would be of the little girl who led the choir in his Detroit church.  

Look at what she accomplished. Look at her amazing life and career. Look as the President of the United States is giving her one of the most prestigious civilian awards.  

I’ve also had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Franklin several times over the years. (Her various publicists over the years would always remind us to refer to her as Ms. Franklin)

The one thing that always struck me was Aretha’s sense of humor.  She liked to laugh and liked to get the room going.  

When the cameras weren’t rolling, we talked about food (we both love ribs). We also talked about Detroit and the news of the day. She was very tapped in.  

Yes, she was a perfectionist -- and yes, we worried about the lighting, the temperature of the room and the questioning. But really, once she was there, and the mic was on and the camera was rolling, Ms. Franklin knew the drill.  After all she had done this for decades.  She knew what she wanted and we were happy to share her message on her terms.  

If you’re scrolling YouTube, check out her most recent appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman," and her interview with Wendy Williams at the Townsend in Birmingham. (Watch both below)

I’ll never forget her 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal.  Only Aretha can throw shade in a funny way. 

The reporter asked, “What do you think of Taylor Swift?” Aretha replied, “OK, great gowns, beautiful gowns.” It cracks me up every time I watch it. 

I remember interviewing her before the inauguration of President Obama.  I asked her about controlling her nerves.  She reminded me she had sung for several presidents, the pope and every other “big shot” out there.  

She wasn’t nervous. It was her stage, and her moment, and she owned it.

Beyond the talent, the honors and the countless awards, the thing I respected the most about Ms. Franklin was her dedication to Detroit.  She could easily have jumped ship and lived the life of the rich and famous in Los Angeles or New York -- but she didn’t.  

Detroit was home.  

Every time she represented our city, singing the anthem for the Pistons, or during the 2006 Super Bowl in Detroit, I felt this enormous sense of pride about Detroit.  

Say what you want about Detroit, America, but the greatest singer in the world lived here and loved our city. It gives me a chill just thinking about that. I love that she loved Detroit.

There will never be another Aretha.  She is and always will be the Queen of Soul and the Queen of Detroit.  You shared your God-given gift for decades with the world and you taught us locals what it really means to be a Detroiter: tough, resilient and unique. 

Thank you, Ms. Franklin. 

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