When Aretha Franklin passed away on August 16, 2018, her legacy left behind monumental songs, inspiring moments, and countless memories. What surprised many, however, was the (late) realization that the Queen of Soul sang the theme song of A Different World. After Phoebe Snow’s rendition during the first season, Franklin’s version would take over for Seasons Two through Six before Boyz II Men closed it out for the final season. Ultimately, Franklin’s version was the one that fans of the show would connect with the series.
Dawnn Lewis, who starred as Jaleesa, also co-wrote and co-composed the theme song, while Debbie Allen famously joined the show ahead of Season Two to become its executive producer.
VIBE spoke to Lewis and Allen about Franklin’s version, what it meant to have her there, memories with the late legend, and if we can expect A Different World reboot.
VIBE: Dawnn, what was it like to have Aretha Franklin sing the song you co-wrote?
Dawnn Lewis: I was incredibly honored. I was beyond honored. I was beyond honored when Phoebe Snow did it because I was a huge Phoebe Snow fan and Aretha was the next two notches up in excellence and I was very, very honored. Very, very flattered. That’s something I get to keep in my legacy book.
What was it like to meet her in person?
DL: I don’t even remember what award show where we would have met, and I’ve seen her backstage. You get speechless because Aretha Franklin knows your name. Like, ‘Why do you know?’ I’m supposed to come up to you and tell you what an amazing influence you’ve been on me and the first thing out of your mouth is you know my name and please keep up the good work and I love your show. She was that kind of person. She was not reserved or withholding of compliment. It was genuine.
But for her to express that she was appreciative of the show and a fan of the show, and then afterward, how much fun she had in the studio recording it… She had no idea that it was going to become as popular as it did and people walking up to her and singing the song to her. (Laughs) ‘All right, okay, I’m glad you like it.’
Debbie Allen: Our paths have crossed so many times because of what I do and certainly who she is and we were just always friends. I remember talking to her, she was always fond of me and Phylicia [Rashad]. She was celebrating the kind of things we were doing, the image that we were projecting for our community. She had a great sense of humor, she was something. One of our last times together was at the Kennedy Center Honors, which she, of course, had received in previous years. She was there when we were celebrating Al Pacino.
I’m just happy that I was lucky to know her and actually get to work with her and to be friends. I remember her calling me on the phone and asking about my dance school and asking about me and Phylicia. She was just curious about what we were doing, she was… it was not even about any work-related thing. It was just really a friendship. She was loving us and wanted to know how we were and what we were doing.
How do you think Aretha Franklin’s legacy will live on?
DA: Her legacy will live forever because she’s the Queen. What she has given the world in the way of her music and her voice and the kind of music, all of it. She’s just given the world something so great that we will be singing “Respect,” “Day Dreaming,” “Three Way Love.” I mean there’s so many, and her gospel albums. Her “Amazing Grace.” I think in her passage onto the great way and joining God’s choir, she left us an incredible legacy of music to listen to, to perform to, to create new works based on her, more stories about her. There’s just a long, long list. What she left, she left us a legacy.
Would you be interested in A Different World reboot?
DL: We as the cast have gone on in so many different directions in our careers. We’re still friends, so we wouldn’t mind doing a project together and if it wasn’t a specific reboot of that show, it could be a creation of some new series that just happens to incorporate us.
DA: I had been trying for probably a decade to do it, honestly, I really have. The whole cast wanted it to happen and [A Different World’s producer] Marcy Carsey, I’ve spoken with her several times—especially after they did Roseanne. I’m like, ‘Come on, come on!’ There seems to be some kind of challenge with the complication of the writing credit or something, but yes, we’ve been wanting to do it for a long time and it would be a great time to do it right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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