The world lost a host of luminaries in 2018 — among them magnificent mathematician Stephen Hawking, Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, American patriot (whether or not you agreed with his politics) John McCain.
But few of our elegies for celebrities who’ve passed on have reverberated through the cyberverse like the death last summer of soul singer Aretha Franklin. The day she passed, I was in Provincetown at Carnival. I walked in from the daily tea dance and turned on the news. There was Don Lemon, fighting back tears, talking about the loss of a legend — and the loss of his friend. I sat for hours watching him discuss her impact on friends and colleagues alike.
The quotes that follow were originally recorded in our cover story interview, but clipped for space. We knew there’d be a moment when we could let Lemon reflect on what she was like out of the limelight and what she meant to him.
And it was Franklin who first sought out Lemon, because she had become a fan of his frankness on the air and wanted to say so in person.
“That’s one reason she befriended me; because of what I did,” he says wistfully. “And she reached out to me. Out of the blue — I think it was one of our bookers who said, ‘Aretha Franklin wants to get in touch with you. Can I give her your number?” I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ Then she called, and that was the end of that.”
Spirit In the Dark
The first time we spoke, I was sitting in my office not long after. Someone said, ‘Aretha wants to call you.’ And I was like, yeah, right, sure it’s Aretha Franklin. But when, when she opened her mouth, you knew it was her. ‘Hi, this is Aretha.’ And I’m like, “Ms. Franklin!’ And she’s like, ‘Aretha.'”
Over time, he says the phone calls lead to actual get-togethers where “we’d go out and just do stuff. We would talk on the phone or we would text. I think had she lived longer, if she hadn’t been sick in the last couple of years, I think that we would have developed an even stronger friendship. But when she started to get sick, I started to see hear from her less and less. And so it was obvious what was going on.”
Nothing was more important to Franklin than showing her love for family — including those who were blood relatives and those who she gathered around her and treated like kin.
Lemon attended birthday celebrations where Franklin was always the center of attention, but also wanted “everyone to be included and have a good time,” he says. “So I always remember her fabulous birthday parties, and how she would sit there and hold court with her pocketbook by her side, with the cash in it to pay the band or whoever performed at her birthday party. And by the time the cake rolled around, she wanted everyone in the picture — everyone singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her. And then she’s like — at the end she would say, ‘Okay, enough pictures! I don’t want to take any more!!’ And everyone respected her wishes, because she was the queen.
Lemon did ultimately interview Franklin on television, when fellow newsman Ed Bradley passed. “She was always just real with me. If you go back and look at the transcript of that interview, she offered to make greens for me if I came to Detroit. That’s her.”
The day she died, Lemon paid tribute to the Queen of Soul by leading in and returning from commercial breaks with Franklin’s most beloved work rising and falling in the background. Her covers of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” “A Natural Woman” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” made their bond feel palpable right through the airwaves.
Giving Him Something He Can Feel
“I love her version of ‘You Send Me,'” he says. “‘Cause she’s playing the piano, and you really get a sense of how she plays and her musicianship. That’s my favorite, but I’d have to say all of them are my favorites. I mean, I love whatever era it was. I love “you make me feel…” I love ‘the moment I wake up…before I put on my makeup‘ in ‘Say A Little Prayer.’ They all have a little piece of her in them.”
Most will recall only the public Aretha Franklin, with her gospel fire and a voice big enough to express all a heart can feel. Lemon says he’ll always cherish her music, but it’s the time they shared that will stay with him forever.
I’ll just remember her in little moments, you know. Nothing big. But her grabbing your head or face when you’re like about to leave. Or in the middle of a party saying, ‘I love you. Keep doing it; you’re doing a great job. You’re doing good work. She was just very real that way.”
Last modified: March 12, 2019