Louise Goffin Recalls A Close Encounter With Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin’s name in popular culture has come to mean more to us than just the voice behind so many of the best records of the twentieth century. Aretha grounded us in what mattered: love, community, civil rights, belief in a spiritual intelligence that united us – be it Jesus or a notion of freedom for all.
What’s not in dispute is that she was the best singer ever to grace popular records. Any singer who ever got near a microphone wanted to project even a drop of her super power. She had everything in her voice a singer could dream of, and she was a soulful piano player who could accompany herself and lead a band.
One day when my father Gerry Goffin was walking in New York City, record mogul Jerry Wexler was in a taxi and saw my father on the street and yelled out, “Gerry! I got a title for you! ‘Natural Woman’!”
My father went home and he and my mom, Carole King, wrote “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman.”
My mom wrote the music and melody and my dad wrote the lyrics. Those lyrics that mined deep and true insight into the feelings of a woman. A real woman. A church-going Black Woman. A tell-it-like-it-is, no bullshit, authentic soul mama who wouldn’t love just anyone, and was singing to someone who gave her reason to believe in love and in herself again. Aretha sang about how she used to feel “so uninspired” and when she knew she “had to face another day,” she said, “Lord, it made me feel so tired.” My father wrote those lines and started verse two with, “When my soul was in the lost and found, you came along to claim it.”
We believed her when she said up until that point “life was so unkind.” It’s a love letter of gratitude to someone who raises you up. I’m certain my father was writing it to my mom, and those words could be sung in churches as a song of praise. But Aretha made this one of the most iconic female songs of all time.
In 2015, my mom invited her whole family to the White House to witness her receiving her the esteemed Kennedy Center Honor, alongside George Lucas, Rita Moreno, Seiji Ozawa, and Cicely Tyson. My mother’s generosity is one of her hallmarks. For her, it’s always been family first. I got to pose in a group photo with my arm around President Obama’s waist.
My phone is full of behind-the-scenes moments, too many to count. I was raised right by both my parents: I’d rather be respected by those I respect than dare to squander a celebrity’s trust by asking to take a selfie with them.
Saturday, December, 5, 2015, the night before the filming of the famous broadcast, there was a dinner with a black tie dress code in the White House State dining room, where honorees were to receive their Kennedy Honor Medallions. James Taylor made the presentation to my mother. The performers for the following night were still supposed to be a surprise, but James Taylor was most definitely in the House. We were all seated and into our dessert when another cat was let out of the bag. Aretha nonchalantly walked across the room with little fanfare, wearing that coat, which in time earned the worldwide hashtag #coatdrop after her performance the following night.
My mom saw her walk in and ran to tell us, “Aretha is here!” Flanked with family around her, we went over to the table where Aretha and Clive Davis were seated. We couldn’t help but wonder, “What surprises are the Kennedy Center Honors cooking up with Aretha?”
Sunday, December 6, 2015, I was seated in the front row of the performance. When Aretha sat down at the piano, I saw my childhood cat blown up bigger than life behind her. Who knew when I was growing up that my cat — who had a name my sister and I couldn’t pronounce as kids (our dad named him “Telemachus,” a literary character from the epic Greek poem known as The Iliad) — would be made so famous, first by the cover of Tapestry, and now as the backdrop to the Queen of Soul’s performance of “Natural Woman.”
We all know what happened next: Aretha played, she sang, she hit that note and dropped her fur coat! My mother grabbed her heart, President Obama cried. We all cried. And damn, to be there in person was reason enough for bragging rights.
But then, after the Honors Gala Performance, we all gathered for what was called the Supper Dinner. When I found the tables where we were to be seated, my boyfriend got there first and came running over to me and said, “Go look at your name card!”
On the plate to my left was Aretha’s name. All I could think was, “I’m not worthy! What will I say to her?” I sat next to her the whole dinner after her iconic performance, and damn if I was going disappear into feeling shy for the whole of the night!
People are people, and I’m gonna be social!
I asked Aretha about her family, how she liked living in Detroit, how she didn’t like air travel. She told me she once lived in Encino and she was glad she had air conditioning because it got too hot in the summer. I asked what she did to take care of her voice when it’s hot and dry and she said, “That’s a secret.” Aretha told me she was blessed to have a lot of grandchildren. She never told me her middle name was Louise. I asked her how many times she’d been to the White House before and cool as can be she said, “Quite a few.”
I let there be silences. And, of course, she was sitting next to Clive Davis on her other side. As I was sitting there silent beside her, I kept thinking about my father who had died the year before. I knew to pay attention to an opportunity he would’ve liked to have had, and quietly spoke to him in my mind. “Daddy, I’m sitting next to Aretha Franklin! Is there anything you want me to say to her?”
The imagined response was clear as could be. I heard his response, in his inimitable Brooklyn accent, say to me, “Yeah. Can you thank her for singing ‘Natural Woman’ for me?”
I broke the silence of the moment and turned to Aretha. “My father isn’t here today, but I feel he would want to say thank you for making such a great record of ‘Natural Woman.’” Without missing a beat she said, “You’re welcome.”
More silence passed and I asked her about her plans to record. She lit up with excitement and said she was starting new album in January (2016). She said she’s getting her band together and going into the studio. And then she looked at me and asked, “Do you think you could help me out?”
What? “Yeah!” I’m thinking, “I can fly to Detroit and write songs and help out in any way you want Aretha, you just name it!”
She turned and said, “My zipper is hard to reach, can you kindly zip it up for me?” Sure enough, the zipper had slid all the way down to her waist on the gold dress she was wearing. I felt honored and trusted. “Lord have mercy on me! I am zipping the Queen of Soul into her dress!”
Although I didn’t dare ask Aretha to take a selfie with me, my niece who was watching the whole encounter wisely snapped a photo from across the table on her phone.
I think I did good. I read an interview with Aretha a year later where she said she had met Carole’s daughters and they were so nice. Later I wrote a song for her to sing and sent it to Clive Davis. It took eight months for me to get Clive on the phone, but it was baptism by fire.
You know you’ve really made it when you can get Clive on the phone to say, “I like the song.”
The esteemed honorees of The Kennedy Center all received Laurels and Medallions, but I will forever cherish the honor I received: that of zipping The Queen of Soul back into her gold dress.
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