September 25, 2023

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‘Aretha Was the LeBron James in the Room’

There is even more genius to go around in the story that “Genius: Aretha Franklin” tells than just Aretha’s own. Her classic records wouldn’t have stood the test of more than four and five decades without the chemistry she and her voice formed with the musicians that gave the music its masterful groove. In portraying Franklin, Cynthia Erivo had the most herculean task in making the six-episode Nat Geo series, which is now up for on-demand streaming on Hulu. But the show’s executive music producer, Raphael Saadiq, had a considerable one, too, in coming up with tracks that really sounded like the famous players of Muscle Shoals and not musical shills.

Says Anthony Hemingway, the executive producer and one of the directors of “Genius”: “Not only is Raphael an incredibly accomplished musician, but he has such a diverse background – from creating hit albums, collaborating with trailblazing artists to writing and producing music and creating scores in film and TV. Like Aretha, he has also broken down barriers with the power of music.” After finding fame out of Oakland as part of the trio Tony, Toni, Toné in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Saadiq has become established as one of the modern R&B greats, not just as a solo artist but through his production for others keeping the classic flame alive, like Solange Knowles, Erykah Badu, TLC, Mary J. Blige, Jill Scott, John Legend, D’Angelo and Andra Day (with whom he just worked on the theme song for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”).

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With “Genius,” Warner Music Group was on board, so there was little question of having access to the master recordings of Franklin’s great Atlantic records, which are the focus of the bulk of the movie… and with Clive Davis as an executive producer, her Arista years were accessible, too. But rather than have Erivo sing to old tracks, Saadiq was charged with recreating that music. “There was never a question of taking the easier route,” Hemingway says, “and I knew Raphael was up for the challenge.”‘

Variety got Saadiq on the phone to talk about how he put a natural-sounding new band behind Erivo’s “Natural Woman.”

VARIETY: Were you working with the original master recordings for these tracks, or recreating the maasters, or some kind of combination?

SAADIQ: What we did was, we took the master and made sure that we were in sync with the master. Because Cynthia Erivo would sang with the master, and then we would take it and we would recreate it around Cynthia. We recreated the masters, all the way from before Muscle Shoals all the way up to Clive (Davis’ era), to Arista. I had a nice size team of musicians that I invited in. With the pandemic and COVID, it was really complicated. We could have six people at a time if we distanced from each other, so that’s what we primarily stuck to.

And Clive was very instrumental in talking to me a lot. He was very protective of Aretha, which he has every right to be. They were really good friends. For me, I was really into the Muscle Shoals era, and the gospel. Some of the other (era) I had to study a little bit more. I grew up with everything in my house, back to the James Cleveland gospel stuff. So I sort of jumped into it like I knew everything. But I didn’t actually know everything. [Laughs.]

A project like this might survive if something is a little off with any other aspect of production, but Cynthia’s performance and the music itself are the two things where the whole thing is going to crumble if those don’t feel 100% right. Any pressure?

Well, you know, often imitated, never duplicated, right? So I’ll put that out there first. Nobody’s ever gonna duplicate Aretha Franklin, and the Muscle Shoals guys, nobody’s going to duplicate that. I can’t speak for how Cynthiae felt. But for me, I didn’t feel any pressure about it. I mean, I felt like I was put there to do it, because I eat, breathe, sleep that music my whole life. And it wasn’t even my fault that I listened to it. It was my neighbors and my parents and everybody else around me that was just around me so much. It was more of a how to get it done, and how to make things right to make Cynthia Erivo feel comfortable and make Anthony and the producers and directors feel good about going forward.

How was it doing the recreation of the gospel stuff seen and heard in “Amazing Grace” for the better part of episode 6?

I grew up in Church of God in Christ and the Baptist church. I played in James Cleveland’s church when I was a kid. In high school, I played with James Cleveland. So that was in my wheelhouse. I was excited about that part. I went and watched “Amazing Grace” to study all the people who played on the record, but I even went back and watched “The Blues Brothers,” because it was the same musicians who played (with Franklin) in “The Blues Brothers” who played live with her at James Cleveland’s church. So the church part was something we did have to put together, but it was a lot of fun.

You’ve got what many people consider the greatest singer of all time in Aretha Franklin, and some would say that the “Amazing Grace” album and film might be the greatest performance from the greatest singer, or at least up there.

Tops, yeah. My favorite Aretha Franklin song, though, is a song called “Don’t Play That Song for Me.” Of course, I’m the type of person that really can’t have a favorite song because I kind of move by feelings, and it’s just so many different feelings that Aretha’s music gave me. But “Don’t Play That Song for Me” is one of my top three, I’ll just say that.

Was there any era where the music was more challenging to reproduce than you expected?

It pretty much went as we thought it would go. I guess the Pavarotti, the opera (performance Franklin did on the Grammys), was going to be a little bit more challenging. It just took us by surprise like it took everybody else by surprise that she could actually do that. But we looked at (recreating) that as a challenge. … When I got to the George Michael and Aretha Franklin song, the “I Knew You Were Waiting” duet, I didn’t think it would affect me like it did. Because we had taken this journey from the beginning, and now we’re near the end. Being that you don’t have George Michael or Aretha Franklin here, I felt some type of emotion building up in me. Aretha had played in so many genres, and then she sort of popped the big pop record in that era with George Michael. So when I got to that point, it just kind of hit me like, “Okay, this is wild. This is the queen.”

As well as you knew the Atlantic-era recordings, was there anything that struck you afresh about that music and how masterfully they made it when you were recreating it? And part of the plot is her eagerness to be billed as a co-producer at a certain point in the early ’70s; do you feel like she truly took on that role along with Jerry Wexler?

No, I was pretty much aware of what they did and how great they were, as far as bringing their sonic efforts to that project — using the right instrumentation, the right horn section, or the right equipment. I’m such a geek about equipment. I mean, I can geek out about those guys for this whole interview. Yeah, they were just on point. They were ready. I felt like they were equipped for somebody like Aretha Franklin to walk through that door, and they were like, “We have everything you need.” And I still feel like Aretha was like the LeBron James in the room. I’m always using sports analogies. They were the Lakers, but they needed somebody to run it. And I think Aretha was perfect. Being a piano player, also, (because) a piano player and a vocalist really understands where they need to sit inside of a song.

So I really learned that Aretha really was a co-producer, because she knew where she needed to sit at as far as a vocalist. Some vocalists really know where they need to sit inside a song and how to make it feel like a record. And she was one of those performers who just hooked up with a great team. You know, sometimes it’s kind of sad how we get caught up in titles, like producing, co-producing and executive-producing, where we need to carve up titles. But without any titles being made, they were a match made in heaven, all of them together.

It’s not hard to imagine that there might be some truth to the pivot in the movie when she shows up at the studio and is surprised all these white guys can play like that, and they are startled at what a phenomenal pianist she is.

I mean, I was surprised by that when I heard the Staple Singers song “I’ll Take You There,” and saw it in the documentary when the bass player played the breakdown. When I saw the guy who played the bass line in my head, it was this Black dude from Memphis eating a nice little sandwich or something [laughs] before he just went in there and broke that bass line down. When I saw the guy that played it [David Hood], I was like, “Oh my God. Wow.” But it just shows you, music, it’s not always about that. It’s about a feeling.

And I think that’s something that this movie and Muscle Shoals and Aretha Franklin show, that we as people need to really have a great feeling about each other and about music and about art. This movie shows that, with Jerry Wexler and Aretha and her amazing ability to play piano and sing, and even with executives coming together and going, “This is a great team,” the way A&R used to put great people with great people… I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, but it’s a lost art, what they did.

So many of her great records are included here, but not “Respect” and a couple of the big hits. Obviously, there’s another movie coming up that has “Respect” as the title song. Honestly, it’s just fine without it, with so many other peaks. But was it a creative choice or a matter of the rights being locked up?

I’m not really sure, but I do believe that they couldn’t get the rights for “Respect” for some reason, maybe because it was in another movie already. But at the same time, I kind of felt like “Respect” was kind of over. I mean, I’m sure everybody would love to have it. I think in the beginning it felt like that was going to be a problem, not to have “Respect” and some other songs.

But I’ll tell you a little story. I was a musical director one time… And I don’t like being a musical director at all. I do it for good friends, and I did it for a good friend at this BET show, because they were honoring Stevie Wonder and a lot of people that I really love. There was this montage of music, and they wanted Fantasia, from “American Idol,” to sing an Aretha Franklin song, and they wanted her to sing “Respect.” I had a debate with the producers, and I was like, “We should sing ‘Don’t Play That Song.’” And nobody wanted it. Everybody wanted “Respect.” I was like, “It’s been done so much — a great song, but trust me, this song is going to turn it out.” I told Cedric the Entertainer, “Cedric, I can’t tell jokes. At least I don’t think I can — I think I’m funny, but I don’t know if I can go up there and tell jokes. But if you hire me to put this music together for you, get your money’s worth out of me. And let me tell you, this song will be the best song of the night.” And Fantasia cleaned the whole night out with “Don’t Play That Song.” for me.

So I kind of thought that way about “Respect” in respect to this film. in the beginning, I’m sure it was pretty much like “No ‘Respect’?” I mean, I could hear people saying that. But I don’t think Anthony Hemingway felt that way, either. Aretha has so many great songs that “Respect” doesn’t define who she is as a vocalist, or as a star. I mean, it’s one of her big records and one of her biggest IPs, hands down. But she has many jerseys hanging up in the rafters up there, hanging in the sky.

Did you ever meet her?

I only met her at the Grammys one time. She just looked at me like I was crazy and kind of didn’t say anything. She looked at me like she was gonna kill me. [Laughs.] But I think she thought I was just one of these little kids that’s walking around like, “Ayyy, Ms. Franklin!” But when I got past her, I think her kids kind of pulled her in and told her I was from her world of music. Like: “No, he’s one of us.” And then she looked at me and she waved.

When you were coming up through the ranks with the Tonys… I think that’s how you guys in Tony, Toni, Toné referred to yourselves, right?


Did you consciously feel then you were part of a tradition with Aretha in it, that the group was carrying on?

I’m definitely a part of Aretha’s family tree, 100%. Even (through studying) some of the vocals and harmonies of early Chaka Khan, and Vanessa Bell Armstrong, who is a gospel singer who was following in Aretha’s footsteps, and Walter Hawkins, and growing up with all this gospel and jazz and funk in Oakland, we were definitely a part of the makeup of what made Aretha Franklin. I was playing for preachers and pastors. There’s a church on every corner in Oakland. There’s a church and a liquor store, you know? That’s how you get it.

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