Every year our colleagues on the Observer produce a wonderful tribute to the people we lost in the preceding year.
Some of the most important voices the world lost this year – remembered by those who knew them best
This year’s includes memories of Aretha Franklin by Arista founder Clive Davis and of Stephen Hawking by his research student Bernard Carr. You can read those pieces as well as tributes to Anthony Bourdain, Kofi Annan, Ursula K Le Guin and Tom Wolfe. Then, we round off our end-of-year special with the Guardian critics’ picks of the best film, art, TV and pop albums.
I’ve never been more grateful for the opportunity to work than with Aretha Franklin. When we first met in the late 1970s, I felt I’d already known her for years. Her Atlantic Records career in the late 1960s, with Jerry Wexler, was just fantastic – so many hits, but more importantly, so many classic songs [including I Say a Little Prayer, Think, Chain of Fools]. They had something different about them, and they defined the genre of R&B. By the late 70s, the things Aretha was doing were somewhat trendy, and they failed. She got restless. So she called me up and said: “How about we get together? Come to mine. I’ll cook you dinner.” That’s how she was.
I was at Arista [the label Davis founded in 1974], trying to broaden its reach. I’d done rock with Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, and it wasn’t my intention to come up with a new Respect. But I liked the idea of working with someone as formidable as Aretha, and as a singer, I knew no one could beat her. I also knew absolutely that she should still be relevant. And there she was at her house, down to earth, saying: “I know the difference these days, Clive. I’m approaching 40. I don’t have hits any more. I want hits.” It was a challenge because that was new territory then. But she had this strength, plus this incredible instrument – and she did it.
Aretha was really candid, with a great sense of humour, and I became her confidant. We spent so many nights at some of New York’s best restaurants – she loved fine dining, though she also loved her soul food and shortbreads. She was very much at home being a homebody. Although there was another side of her: she very much knew she was the “queen of soul”. Not in an offensive way, but no one could pretend to be like her. You’d see people meeting her – even presidents – and they’d behave like disciples. Only Dylan and the Beatles, to my mind, belonged in that same rarefied category as her.
Aretha was very aware politically, her whole life. I remember going with her to Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, after discussing which song might be appropriate for her to sing. She chose I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables, but built into it Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. Remembering her vocal genius delivering those words now, sending chills through everybody in the audience … no artist I’ve worked with gave me the feeling she did.
She was singing so beautifully to the end. Her performance of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman at the Carole King concert in 2016 was unforgettable – the curtains opening, and this woman full of life, in her long fur coat, then sitting down to play the piano. The way she builds the song, taking it higher and higher, the audience standing cheering her on, Barack Obama shedding a tear. You won’t believe this is a woman two years away from her passing.
The last time I saw her was the night after I last saw her play at the 25th anniversary gala for the Elton John Aids Foundation [in November 2017]. We were all shocked at the weight she had lost, but she made no mention of it – this was a show, in her eyes, nine or 10 songs, and not a token performance. And still astonishing. We went to her favourite restaurant a night later, and I talked to her about a tribute concert to her that I’d been asked to put together, featuring younger artists, and she was thrilled. I never thought it would be a memorial. How unique she was.
‘You’d see people meeting her and they would behave like disciples’