Aretha Franklin was not only the Queen of Soul, but the Queen of legendary shade. Shade so pervasive that the moon tweeted condolences. Stories have peppered Franklin’s legend and lore, from ignoring other female vocalists to high-level diva antics and long-standing feuds with not only her contemporaries but her actual sisters.
Many such stories were featured in David Ritz’s unauthorized 2014 biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin (which Franklin denounced as “Lies, lies, lies and then more lies,”). In the digital age, we’ve watched other unfold in real time.
Since her death, Franklin’s infamous shade and pettiness have been a controversial topic on social media Many argue that celebrating her unflattering side sullies her legacy. It’d be a disservice to her memory not to celebrate her shade; it was a huge part of who she was, and Franklin’s realness played a key part in her incredible artistry. Her behavior wasn’t always rooted in trivial slights or jealousy, either. She didn’t take no mess and wasn’t going to let a slight – perceived or real – go unchecked. Her timing was impeccable and her methods of delivery unmatched, which suggests she knew she was shady, and masterfully so.
Franklin’s former talent agent Ruth Bowen told Ritz that “Falling-outs (were) her specialty,” but legendary session musician and longtime collaborator Billy Preston explained to the biographer why her shade and antics didn’t matter in the long-run: “She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the sh** out of you.”
Below, we run down some of the Queen’s top moments of royal shade.
For the inaugural VH1 Divas Live in 1998, Gloria Estefan, Shania Twain, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Franklin closed the show with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. It was meant to be an ensemble performance with surprise guest (and the song’s composer) Carole King, but Franklin led the entire song – since it is her song – and sang over Dion during her part.
The two worked together on Franklin’s “comeback” album Jump to It (1982), and then again on her album Get It Right (1983).
Vandross was excited to work with an idol, but deflated by their first phone call, a formal conversation where she introduced herself as “Ms. Franklin” and referred to him as “Mr. Vandross.”
He recounted the call to biographer Ritz, “The Aretha that I had heard through my entire childhood on the radio – warm and down-home – wasn’t the Aretha I heard on the phone.” The formality and tension continued into the studio. “There were a few sharp disagreements. Aretha doesn’t like her vocals critiqued – and understandably.”
Franklin’s version in Aretha: From These Roots aligned with Vandross on that point. “… Luther wanted to tell me how to sing when it was me whom he had learned much about how to sing. My point was simple: If he wanted to tell the artists how to sing, why didn’t he sing it himself?”
Ultimately, Vandross won that shade-off. As they argued over the intro for “Jump to It”, he got the last word.
‘”Who’s the one with the most hits here?’” she asked. Of course, the answer was her. I just had one; she had dozens. ‘But who’s the one with the latest hit?’ I asked. She didn’t answer. She stormed out.”
As is the case with many of Franklin’s feuds, this wasn’t based on lack of respect for talent. In fact, it was usually spawned by the opposite. Franklin concluded in her autobiography, “We have a lot of mutual respect for each other. Even when we are not talking, we are still cool.”
During Franklin’s early career at Columbia, she was positioned as a jazz and blues artist, but she wanted to be a pop star. Meanwhile, Dionne Warwick was one of the more successful pop vocalists of the ’60s thanks to composers Burt Bacharach and Hal David. By several accounts, Franklin was jealous. Once she was established as a soul and R&B star, Franklin threw down a sonic gauntlet, covering Warwick’s hit “I Say a Little Prayer for You” just a year after release.
Where Warwick’s original version was mellow and shiny, Franklin’s was emotive and gritty. Adding insult to injury, it featured Cissy Houston, Warwick’s aunt, and Whitney’s mom, on background vocals. While it didn’t reach the same heights as Warwick’s on the charts, Franklin’s became the definitive version – even for Bacharach and David. Bacharach told NPR in 2010, “It’s a better record than the record we made.”
In 2011 Franklin sat down for a one-on-one with Wendy Williams, and while Williams – known for her own shade – was deferential and respectful, she caught a couple of light jabs.
Mavis Staples was maybe Franklin’s closest contemporary, vocally; they both had that good ol’ church anointing on their voices. When they paired up for two songs on Franklin’s One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (1987), Franklin got a little shook, according to Erma’s account in Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin.“
Aretha listened to those duets, she was convinced that Mavis’s voice overwhelmed hers. Singing with the one other gospel singer who could rightfully be called her equal, Aretha felt threatened. I told her she had nothing to worry about, that the two of them sounded great together,” Erma said. “Their voices were completely complementary. But Aretha didn’t hear it that way. She put Mavis’s voice so low in the mix that you could barely hear it. It became an ordeal and caused a serious falling-out.”
Natalie Cole’s first hits were songs originally written for and passed on by Franklin. The media immediately compared the two singers, speculating that Cole might steal the Queen of Soul crown. Cole was also the first artist other than Franklin to win the Grammy for Best R&B Performance Female with “This Will Be”, ending Franklin’s eight-year streak.
Cole idolized Franklin but was met with coldness during their first in-person encounter. She told Ritz, “The first time I saw Aretha was at an industry banquet. She gave me an icy stare and then turned her back on me. It took me weeks to recover. I mean, this is the woman whom I revere! She began this make-believe feud that I still don’t understand. I give her the highest respect—then, now, and always.”
Franklin, understandably, wasn’t thrilled at the comparisons with someone newer and younger. She told Jet in 1977, “It’s easy for a singer to sometimes pick up on another singer’s sound, but that’s just copying. It’s really a compliment that she sounds like me on some songs. In fact, when I listen to her I hear little things that remind me of myself at the beginning of my career…I don’t think she has the ability or the equipment to take anything from me and I’d say that to Natalie herself.”
Franklin’s sisters Erma and Carolyn were also talented vocalists, groomed under father C.L. Franklin’s music ministry along with Aretha. They worked with her often (Carolyn wrote “Ain’t No Way”), but each had their own big career opportunities …that Franklin blocked. Erma shared that Curtis Mayfield originally tapped Carolyn to record the Sparkle soundtrack (1976), but once Aretha got wind, she jacked the project.
“She should have let Carolyn sing those Sparkle songs and then, afterward, do her own record with Curtis [Mayfield]. But somehow Aretha got a copy of the songs. They were so good that she felt she had to sing them.”
Erma also shared with Ritz that Aretha quickly shut down discussion of Erma getting a record deal with Columbia’s sister label, Epic. “The man also said that I would be on Epic, which was a different brand than Columbia. They were part of the same company but I’d have my own producers and an identity separate from Aretha. I thought she would be thrilled. She wasn’t. She threw a fit. She told Daddy that she didn’t want me on Epic, that it would hurt her career and that people would be confused by too many singing Franklin sisters.”
The source of Franklin’s (perhaps one-sided) feud with Patti Labelle is unknown, but Franklin took it all the way to the White House. At the 2014 Women of Soul celebration, the Queen entered with much-deserved fanfare, making her fur-clad way to the stage through a sea of adoring subjects. When Labelle reached out to take her hand, Franklin hit her with an elusive maneuver so smooth you almost heard an audible “You thought.”
Introducing Tina Turner for a 2008 Grammy awards performance, Beyoncè exclaimed, “Give it up for the queen!” Not the “Queen of Soul”, not the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (which is Turner’s moniker). Simply, “the queen.” Watching from home, Franklin took offense, and released an official statement: “I am not sure of whose toes I may have stepped on or whose ego I may have bruised between the Grammy writers and Beyoncé, however, I dismissed it as a cheap shot for controversy,” Franklin’s press release read. She added an extra bit of cloud cover: “In addition to that, I thank the Grammys and the voting academy for my 20th Grammy and love to Beyoncé anyway.”
Turner, however, was unbothered. When USA Today asked her to respond to Franklin’s statement, she laughed it off. “She’s the queen of soul, and I’m the queen of rock ‘n’ roll… Her ego must be so big to think she was the only one.”
In 2014 the Wall Street Journal inadvertently gifted the world with one of the greatest gifs and catchphrases of the digital age when they asked Franklin for quick-fire reactions to current pop divas. She was positive about Adele (“Good singer”) and Whitney Houston (“She had a gift”), but employed what we’ll call a diplomatic approach for some others.
Alicia Keys: “Good performer. Good writer, producer.”
Taylor Swift: “Great gowns. Beautiful gowns.”
Nicki Minaj: “I’m gonna pass on that one.”
At Whitney Houston’s funeral in 2012, Dionne Warwick, acting as master of ceremonies for the services, commented on Franklin’s absence. “Re’s not here, but she is here,” Warwick remarked. “She loves Whitney as if she were born to her. She is her godmother.” In fact, Franklin had been referred to as Houston’s godmother for years without denial or rebuttal, including during the 2011 Wendy Williams interview referenced above.
Yet for some reason, after mulling it over for five years, Franklin decided to go on record that she was not Houston’s godmother. She sent a fax to the Associated Press accusing Warwick of libel. Franklin said in a follow-up phone interview, “She blatantly lied on me…fully well knowing what she was doing.” She also expressed that she’d been “far too busy” over the years “to be anyone’s godmother.” The statement was likely triggered by Franklin and Warwick seeing each other the week prior at the premiere of Clive Davis’ documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives (Warwick signed with diva-maker Davis and Arista a year before Franklin). Franklin said Warwick tried to hug her when they saw each other. Her response? “I said, ‘oh hell no. You couldn’t be serious.’”