Aretha Franklin and Peabo Bryson sing a duet at her birthday celebration in Detroit circa 1989. Photo: Ebony/Jet

Peabo Bryson, Avery Sunshine, Zac Brown Band, Sugarland, Indigo Girls and others share their love of Aretha Franklin

When Peabo Bryson met Aretha Franklin, they instantly became friends.

The soul balladeer known for his romantic duets with Roberta Flack (“Tonight I Celebrate My Love”), Celine Dion (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Regina Belle (“A Whole New World”) was commissioned by Franklin to sing at her birthday party in the 1980s. 

Merely being in her aura was enough to shift Bryson’s molecules. 

“To be asked to be in her presence was like a command performance from the queen. You were awestruck,” he said this week from his longtime Atlanta home. “Being a friend to her is an extraordinary experience. She’s not one of those people to mollycoddle a friendship. She either has confidence in it or she doesn’t.”

Over the years, Bryson said he and Franklin would have deep conversations about philosophy. But in Franklin’s world, where life often moved at a brisk clip, their conversations were frequently so short, “she would make Emily Post blush,” Bryson joked, invoking the famed etiquette author.

“She would ring you up and she’d go, ‘Hey, I read this and thought about you’ and read me several paragraphs of something she was reading that only she and I would know and like – we’re Aries like that – and ask my opinion. We would engage in some kind of debate about what it meant and suddenly, four minutes later, she’d say ‘OK, bye,’” Bryson recalled with a laugh.

He spoke with his friend a few times this year and was aware of her “serious” health issues. Theirs, he said, was a “unique and singular friendship.”

“Aretha is the original. There is nothing like it,” Bryson said. “I can’t think of anyone else who set such a comprehensive standard of excellence. As great as her body of work is, though, Aretha the woman is leaps and bounds above even her body of work.”

Atlanta-based soul singer Avery Sunshine sang for Aretha Franklin at her 2015 birthday party in New York. Photo courtesy of Avery Sunshine.

Atlanta-based soul singer Avery Sunshine also met Franklin through a party connection – again, at Franklin’s command.

Franklin enlisted Sunshine and husband/musical partner Dana Johnson to perform at her birthday party in 2015, at a restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton in Times Square. 

“She was such a teacher. Then to meet her and to feel honored by her…,” Sunshine said earlier this week. “When we were doing the set for her birthday, she and (record mogul) Clive (Davis) were four feet away. I knew they were watching, but it didn’t feel as if many of the people there were, so I was like, ‘I’m gonna do some cover songs and get the hell out of there.’ Aretha got up walked over to the piano and said if you don’t sing your hit (‘Call My Name’), I’m not giving you your check.’ I sat down at that piano so fast! It was one of those moments you couldn’t ever have conjured up in your mind. That in and of itself is a reminder to keep going. Just hearing her voice on the radio or someone humming her songs, it reminds me to keep moving, keep going.”

Johnson remembered another tidbit from the party – Franklin’s affinity for selfies.

“You hear the stories about how she’s kind of diva-ish, so I cautiously asked if she minded if I took a picture and she said, ‘Yeah! I like to take selfies!’ She was super cool, but she’s definitely Aretha Franklin. You got a queen-ish vibe,” he said with a chuckle. 

Dana Johnson, Avery Sunshine and Aretha Franklin posed for a selfie at Franklins' 2015 birthday party in New York. Photo courtesy of Dana Johnson.

Later that year, Sunshine and Johnson were invited to perform at another Franklin soiree – her Christmas party in Detroit.

“It might sound trite, but to have two opportunities in the same year…it was life changing,” Sunshine said. “There are not many people on this planet who affect every culture, touch every age group. I go to Japan and I can sing an Aretha Franklin song and they know it. It’s like Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston. It transcends.”

Most importantly, Sunshine has absorbed the essence of what made Franklin so meaningful to multiple generations of women.

“I feel like whatever she felt like doing, she did it. If there was a thought she had and she wanted to share it, she shared it. She was unapologetic. She did not apologize for feeling and existing and for being - and she also didn’t apologize for being so gifted. She taught and is still teaching to be that. Don’t ask for permission to be here.”

Coy Bowles, guitarist for the Zac Brown Band was deeply influenced by Franklin, as an artist and a person.

“Aretha Franklin was the best ever - period. No artist has ever even come close to matching her abilities,” he said. “Aretha has always been a huge influence in my art, and has challenged me as a musician for a long as I can remember by constantly giving me new examples of perfection to strive for. For example, I have an old recording of her singing ‘Amazing Grace’ and for years I’ve been sitting down trying to emulate her phrasing with slide guitar. I would slow the track down to where you could hear every little note bend and tweak of her voice. As a musician, it’s like Aretha was a teacher heaven sent. She was a true artist and a pioneer who became a champion for civil rights when she created a cultural shock-wave by singing ‘RESPECT’ for women at a time when our society really needed that message spread.

Aretha exuded class, grace and, in my opinion, held within her the most powerful voice of all time. We are all lucky to have been on this Earth at the same time as Aretha Franklin and I have no doubt her music will live on forever - continuing to connect people and fill souls. I know I’ll be listening to her for the rest of my life.”

Singer Candi Staton and Franklin “grew up on the road together,” as they traveled the nation doing gospel shows.

Staton, who currently lives in Madison, Ga., was part of the “Jewel Gospel Trio,” and Franklin would travel with her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, who was an influential pastor and singer.

Aretha Franklin, said Staton, would sing songs such as “Amazing Grace” or “Precious Lord” then her father would preach. Franklin, she said, was probably about 16 at the time.

“She always carried herself and dressed like a queen,” said Staton.”I learned a lot from that as a young artist who was getting out on my own. She never dressed like she was in a burlesque show.”

Many of the younger artists got started listening to Franklin. “She made her mark on the world and people always tried to mimic her . Everybody stands on somebody’s shoulders and a lot of people stood on hers.”

Sugarland’s Kristian Bush told the AJC, “I love the way Aretha's recordings take me into the room wherever she

is and wrap me in the emotion of her performance, no matter what recording or what emotion.”

Atlanta rapper/producer Drumma Boy recalled his earliest instances hearing Franklin’s music.

“My mom would always tell me stories of how she would put her womb up to the speaker and play ‘oldies but goodies.’ She said I would move and kick, and it felt like I was dancing! She was always singing ‘Sweet Baby Baby,’ ‘Respect,’ ‘Natural Woman’ and all her favorite songs. Growing up I started researching and doing my homework on artists and digging through crates my mom had....Aretha was one artist my mom had EVERY album and single released...She was a true inspiration to women and men giving us repeated anthems and merging the church with the dance floor. Her legacy will forever live on. Aretha we love you. RIP Memphis Queen.”

Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls offered a succinct, powerful statement: "Aretha is the greatest of all time. For me, she is the Soul of America." 

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