Aretha Franklin’s personal photographer Linda Solomon is sharing intimate photos in her new book “The Queen Next Door.”
By Karen Dybis
Photography by Brett Mountain
Photographer Linda Solomon remembers Aretha Franklin, known to the world as the “Queen of Soul,” in the same way most people do — as a singer who expected the best out of herself and everyone around her. She demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Solomon, a former Detroit News columnist, met Franklin in 1983 and a lifelong friendship developed. Franklin allowed Solomon into her inner circle, and Solomon became her personal photographer. Over the years, Solomon and her camera got to know the legendary vocalist as a woman, a mother and, most significantly, as a collaborator.
The result of the decades-old friendship and Solomon’s reflections upon Franklin’s August 2018 death inspired the photographer to create a book about the singer’s less public side. The result is “The Queen Next Door: Aretha Franklin, an Intimate Portrait,” with a foreword by composer Burt Bacharach and an afterword by Sabrina Vonne’ Owens, Franklin’s niece.
This October, Wayne State University Press will publish the book with 140 full-color images, many never seen before. If the front cover of Franklin dressed as Queen Nefertiti is any indication, the book will be a unique biography, highlighting Franklin’s warmth, natural beauty, devotion to family, deep Detroit connection and even her silly side.
“When I initially submitted the proposal, it was primarily all photographs with identification and year and event,” says Solomon, who sorted through hundreds of photographs of Franklin she had stored in her Birmingham office.
“Then, Annie Martin, who is the editor-in-chief of Wayne State (University Press), said, ‘Linda, we really want to know more.’ (Martin) brought out things that made me reflect back on the first time I met Aretha and how I was able to have a friendship with her, which I cherished and always will,” Solomon says.
The way Solomon wanted to share this story “just felt so right,” Martin says.
“Linda has had an amazing career, and she knows everyone. But what makes her the best is her ability to protect those she loves, and Aretha is one of those people. Linda’s perspective is simply sharing the joy she had in spending time with Aretha and being in awe of this Queen’s talent and big heart,” Martin adds.
Solomon’s first meeting with Franklin came about, in part, because Solomon was on a deadline. The storyteller had heard Franklin was going to be a guest on a local morning talk show. Solomon called the producer and asked if she could piggyback on their scheduled meeting. Solomon’s Sunday column, known as “Star Tracks,” required her to meet each subject in person so she could not only tell their story, but also capture the accompanying photograph.
Solomon met Franklin in the parking lot and asked the diva’s permission to take a few photos outside. Solomon is known for her celebrity photography — she’s taken photos of actor Robert Redford, boxer Muhammad Ali and author Elmore Leonard — but also for highlighting people in natural light, giving them an otherworldly glow. Franklin agreed.
Once inside the television studio, Solomon asked again if she could photograph Franklin at the piano as she performed for the morning program. Franklin, a stickler for good manners, agreed again. Solomon recalls taking only a few photos but understanding just how rare these images were.
“To be able to photograph Aretha when she accompanied herself was always one of the most exciting and special times because no one could accompany Aretha like Aretha. She was a brilliant pianist. It was so special to see her at the piano and to capture her at that moment,” Solomon says.
The resulting column and photograph are highlighted in the book as a significant marker in their relationship. If Franklin liked a reporter’s coverage, they often received a bouquet of roses. If the singer did not? Well, they’d still hear about it.
“Aretha read her press. She read everything that was published about her. I had no idea. But this was a year in her life that was very difficult,” Solomon says. “Her father had been shot, and he remained in a coma. She came back to Detroit in 1982 to oversee him and be with him.”
Franklin called to thank her for the article, and a friendship was born. From there on out, Solomon would get a call, often from Franklin or from her brother, Cecil, who was Franklin’s business manager.
“He would call me and say, ‘Miss Solomon,’ he was very formal and very polite, ‘Aretha is going to be doing this.’ And I would say, ‘I’m there.’ I could have had a column about Aretha every single week,” says Solomon, whose office includes thousands of photographs and memories of her career and charitable projects, including Pictures of Hope.
Solomon’s favorite memories were of Franklin’s rehearsals, church performances and home parties, including her legendary Christmas festivities. The singer announced them with hand-addressed invitations. The soirees were grand, elegant and exuberant, the photographer says.
Franklin brought music back to Motown in the 1980s and 1990s, Solomon says, something that was especially significant given that Berry Gordy Jr. moved Motown Records and its headquarters in 1972 to California. Franklin recorded at Detroit studios, produced her videos here, held benefits for local organizations and insisted singers from Annie Lennox to James Brown come to the city.
“Everybody came back to Detroit because of Aretha,” Solomon says. “She brought music back to Detroit.”