The tributes and testaments started even before official word was issued that Aretha Franklin had passed away. Knowing that I have interviewed so many of the greatest musicians of the last half century, more than one news outlet contacted me looking for a possible recorded interview that they could excerpt, but I never had the honor of talking with Aretha Franklin ( maybe it was just as well: she was notoriously difficult with male interviewers, and a few years ago I watched her bemused look as normally capable tv talk host Tavis Smiley made a fool of himself gushing over her on his PBS show ). But I did get to experience Ms. Franklin electrify a room…a very very big room… jam-packed with thousands of very big titles, wallets, and egos to match, all to launch a very big idea back in the second week of September 2000, XM Satellite Radio.
You see, a year before XM made history by actually making the 100+ subscription radio channels available in September 2001, an introductory gala was held for national press, politicians, and Wall Street investors at Washington DC’s cavernous Union Station at the foot of Capitol Hill headlining Aretha Franklin, and so I asked three of the original XM brain trust at the pioneering organization charged with getting the “right” performer about how the selection was made. “Choosing the Queen of Soul was easy,” said Lon Levin, XM Satellite Radio co-founder. “I have a fond memory of that night watching her with Lee Abrams and Steely Dan/ Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter. She was the greatest and we were fortunate that she shared her gift with us that evening.” Original XM EVP/ Content and Programming Lee Abrams recalls, “It was a group decision. We wanted someone such as Aretha Franklin who crossed format barriers and was timeless, a performer who fit the XM vibe perfectly. Who made the shortlist? She did.”
The logistics for advancing the date for Aretha Franklin’s appearance fell to a cadre of XM executives much more accustomed to schmoozing Wall Street bankers and Detroit Big Three automakers than a Detroit show band. “Just like John Madden, Aretha didn’t fly,” explains original XM VP/ Operations Dave Logan. “For the gig, she rolled in by buses caravan style from Bloomfield Hills MI. XM CFO Heinz Stubblefield had to sign off on a withdrawal of $60,000 in cash, and Gary Hahn had the pleasure of delivering the briefcase to Aretha’s hotel suite.”
No doubt Ms. Franklin knew all too well that she was a single businesswoman operating in a heavily male dominated entertainment industry, and The Queen wanted the members of her court to know first hand who buttered their biscuit, according to Logan. “You see, Aretha Franklin personally paid each member of her band in cash after the gig, complete with any critique of the individual musician’s performance that night.” R-e-s-p-e-c-t, y’all! – Redbeard