Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics
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Producer Narada Michael Walden Talks Working With Aretha Franklin On 'Who's Zoomin' Who?'
Aretha Franklin was just in her early 40s when she began working on her 29th studio album, Who's Zoomin' Who?, released 35 years ago this month.
In 2020, a pop icon recording a hit record at that age would be no big deal whatsoever. Especially when you consider just how relevant the Queen of Soul herself remained until her final days upon her passing in 2018 at 76, and how such modern acts in their 40s as The Chicks and Fiona Apple are achieving these new heights in their respective careers during this period in their lives. Age means nothing anymore in pop, regardless of what an older model of the music industry might say.
However, in 1985, the music industry was a far, far more misogynistic beast. While some might have harped on Ms. Franklin's age upon her entering the studio with percussion master Narada Michael Walden, the singer doubled down on the success she saw Tina Turner have with Private Dancer and grabbed the modern sound of the mid-'80s with as much ferocity as she did on such unstoppable classics as Aretha Now and Spirit In The Dark.
Walden was also having the best year ever in 1985, producing hits not just for Aretha but Whitney Houston, Clarence Clemons (who guests on the smash single "Freeway of Love"), Dionne Warwick and Jermaine Stewart as well that year plus his own solo album The Nature of Things. Oh yes, and the soundtrack to the John Travolta/Jamie Lee Curtis Rolling Stone rom-com Perfect, which featured Berlin, Nona Hendryx, Thompson Twins, Wham!, Lou Reed and others. But as the former Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer tells GRAMMY.com in this exclusive interview, being able to work with Aretha that winter to formulate a sound that empowered her to directly compete with all of these modern acts remains at the very pinnacle of a career that continues to forge ahead non-stop with the upcoming release of his excellent new LP Immortality this August.
What follows is a lengthy and revealing chat about the path that brought Aretha and Narada together and the creation of a sound that would come to define R&B in the mid-'80s in the form of a most essential title in the Aretha Franklin catalog.
It's quite amazing to listen to Who's Zoomin' Who? in 2020 and recognize how much the themes of this album of empowerment, perseverance and sisterhood resonate even more amidst the #MeToo era.
Aretha is that kind of person, someone who always punctuated everything that she did and everything that she sang with her own convictions. And she always took time to learn it, so she could infuse her own sense of soul, so that everything she sang had purpose. She paid attention, and it was all memorized—she knew exactly what she wanted to do and knew all the words. I brought the lyrics into the studio with me, but she didn't need them because they were all in her head.
We would cut the tracks and present them to Aretha, who'd say that she liked it and would take it home to learn it. Then she would take her time showing up to the studio in Detroit, United Sound. But when she arrived, everything would be memorized. It was incredible. I was knocked out by how professional she was.
She must have been quite a presence in the studio.
I can tell you this, I was petrified to look her right in the eyes when I first met her. She was so powerful that when you looked in her eyes you saw just how magnanimous she is and was. With her, you bowed down and stayed down! [Laughs.]
It really is wild to consider how recording in your early 40s is such a different trip in 2020 than it was in 1985, right?
Right. We're living longer, and Aretha lived longer, too. And it's her music that continually keeps us young and hip and current. Right up until her death, she was asking me to write songs for her. She was extremely current right up until the end.
What do you think about how much your production style in 1985 not only on the Aretha album but all your work during that period is being explored and reimagined by the younger generation of pop artists? Do you hear a lot of it on the radio?
I hear a lot of that recipe of Linn Drum combined with my own percussion combined with electronic drum pads, which were set up like a classic kit but would trigger the sound when I played them. It was a combination of all those things. We also all loved The Time, and I really loved that synthesized bass Randy Jackson used to play with one finger. Stevie Wonder was using that sound at the time, too. That was all kind of new, and we forged right into it. Anything we could do that was attention getting, that made you pay attention, stand up and come to the dance floor or play it on the radio, we did all those things to make it smashing. We really wanted to make big, big, big hits that would last forever.
Did any producers at the time inspire your ambition?
Always. I always believed in digesting what's current and what's hot, and I believe in marrying a song with what's current in terms of studio production to see if it has strong legs. Then I mix it up like gumbo. But the key was that combination of real drums and real handclaps and real tambourines and real piano, but mixed in with the futuristic synthesizers. That was always on my brain at the time, because of that combo of something old and something new. It was very important. And then Tina Turner came out with "What's Love Got To Do With It" and Private Dancer, which was made by men from the U.K. in the members of Heaven 17! We saw how they were forging ahead with their idea of soul music and keeping it current with their machines. So when that came to America, we grabbed a hold of it to use with Aretha. It was very, very much my intention to give Aretha more hit records.
How did the collaboration process begin with Aretha for this album?
When I first started working with her on this album, I brought two songs: "Until You Say You Love Me," which is a personal favorite of mine. Her father, the great Reverend CL Franklin, had just died after being in a coma for two years. So that thaw had been lifting of her in that she wanted to get back into the studio again. So this was the first song she was recording since her father passed. I remember she murdered it in one take. It was frightening. Then we got to the song that would become "Who's Zoomin' Who?" When I first called him, Clive Davis suggested I give Aretha a phone call. So I called her on the telephone and asked her what she did for fun. And she said, "I go out to a nightclub, and in the club I might see a guy in the corner who looks good. And if he looks at me when I look at him, it's like who's zoomin' who?" So I wrote that down. She was like, "He thinks he's got me, but the fish was already off the hook!" [Laughs.] That's how she normally talked. So I wrote these lyrics from that phone call, gave 'em back to her in the form of the title song and it became a smash.
Have you heard anything about Zoom trying to acquire the rights to the song from Aretha's estate for possible advertising opportunities?
I haven't, but I sure hope so! I would love to have there be a thing where they use the song for their campaigns. I think it would be great! It would be perfect, because she was so far ahead of our time with that phrase. Now here we are, and millions of people are connecting through Zoom every day. To have it used in some capacity would be wonderful, and I know Aretha would've loved that, too.
How did "Freeway of Love" come about?
It was actually a song I had written for my own album, and Jeffrey Cohen helped me on it. We've written a lot of songs together, including on Who's Zoomin' Who?. But it was Preston Glass, who also writes with me, who said, "Hey what about that song 'Freeway of Love' for Aretha?" I said to him, "You're a genius, bro, I would've never thought of that!" So we looked at the lyrics to the song and wanted to make sure it was updated for Aretha. She made that song hers, just like she did with Otis Redding's "Respect." That's what she does—she'll take a song and make it her own version, which will be very different from the original. She was really good at making something "Aretha."
How did you recruit Clarence Clemons to play sax on "Freeway"?
Roy Bittan suggested bringing Clarence on board. And Roy got a hold of him. So he came down to the studio and he put sax on that thing and he just smoked it! We became the best friends ever soon after, so much so that he moved to California to work on his solo album Hero with me.
"Push" is another highlight of Who's Zoomin' Who? Do you recall Peter Wolf's mindset heading into his duet with Aretha?
Peter Wolf was very nervous about the song. He and I went out to dinner the night before recording to get to know each other, and he really understood that he was about to go in the boxing ring with The Queen. And that made him nervous. But he did a very good job. Also, don't forget before I went to Detroit I put down in the studio the blueprint of the guy/girl vocals how I thought they should be on the song, which made it a lot easier when we went into the studio. He had all his parts memorized beforehand, so he could improvise with Aretha and they were able to interact having both known the song.
You had a lot of projects popping in 1985. Did any of them interfere with your work on Who's Zoomin' Who?
I was so focused on making this album, because I knew if I had gotten it right that we could win GRAMMYs and it would be a huge thing. I saw that NARAS gave Aretha a GRAMMY in 1982 for her rendition of "Hold On, I'm Coming." I was like, if they are giving her a GRAMMY for a song that wasn't a big hit for Aretha, we are gonna give her some original material in the now that will dominate because they had so much love for her already. Then I got a phone call from Jerry Griffin in the middle of making Who's Zoomin' Who? and he said, "You gotta come in and do a song for me." I was like, "What is it? I can't do that right now." And he replied, "No, no, we are recording Whitney Houston—Cissy Houston's daughter—and I have a hook for this song 'How Will I Know' and I need you to produce it." I kept telling him I couldn't do it, but he insisted I made the time. So it was a really big deal to stop recording Who's Zoomin' Who? with Aretha to spend a day or two to cut "How Will I Know" in the middle of that. So I flew to New York to get Whitney's vocals and flew back to finish with Aretha. But I had so much love for Cissy Houston, and I knew that "How Will I Know" would be a smash.
Considering everything you were working on in 1985, it seems like there weren't enough hours in a day to get it all done. How did you manage the balance of that year?
I gotta give credit to my grandfather, who had such a high work ethic out in Kalamazoo. He was a custodian, and he cleaned all the buildings downtown. He would get up at three or four in the morning and clean up all these places before they even opened. Then I look at my spiritual guru Sri Chimoy. He would meditate at five in the morning and go out and run two hours at 7. And, of course, John McLaughlin, his work ethic was so high. It looked like it was a lot of work being in Mahavishnu Orchestra, and it was. But honestly, it was all done with delight, joy and a thrill. The fact we were even able to do those things, it was a big deal. Because it wasn't hard work for us. It was like flying.