“Oooh, your kisses, sweeter than honey/ But guess what? So’s my money.”
Writing about Aretha in a 2016 profile for The New Yorker, writer David Remnick noted that as she sat readying herself for a performance, she was surrounded by small stacks of hundred-dollar bills.
The money, he explained, was her fee for singing that night in Ontario, because Aretha only sang once she had been paid upfront. The money, by contract, could only be paid directly to Aretha Franklin, and until it was safely in hand, the show would not go on. Once handed over, that cash would be swept into the rather large bag the Queen of Soul carried on her at all times – and that bag was either given to her security team directly or taken on stage with her and never left her sight during the performance.
The bag, in fact, was such a prominent feature of an Aretha Franklin performance that it became a cue for fans to know when the show was really over. Once Aretha took her bag with her off the stage, the house lights were turned up and the show was over.
According to longtime friend Tavis Smiley, as a female African American singer in the 1960s, Aretha Franklin was very familiar with African American artists, even massively popular ones, who frequently got ripped off.
“It’s the era she grew up in — she saw so many people, like Ray Charles and B. B. King, get ripped off,” Smiley, a television host and author, told Remnick. “There is the sense in her very often that people are out to harm you. And she won’t have it. You are not going to disrespect her.”
Of course, Aretha did moderate that policy somewhat as her career evolved and stacks of $100 bills would require suitcases, not handbags, to carry around – and having that amount of cash on hand created logistical problems for venues. And so, those who booked her only had to pay the first $25,000 of her fee upfront, to go directly into the bag. The rest could be handled through other channels.
So, what did Aretha Franklin do with all that cash?
According to the 2014 book “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin,” talent agent Dick Alen said that she used the money delivered at her shows to pay her staff “off the books.”
“She deducted no taxes and made no records. I’d beg her to implement some system of documentation, but she refused,” he told the author.
And, really – who was going to say no to the Queen of Soul?
Because, as Tavis Smiley noted of Aretha Franklin, beyond her musical genius, beyond the legend and beyond her ability to move the world with her music, was a woman who knew what she wanted – and was committed to controlling what she brought to the world, when she brought it and how she was paid for it.
Respect wasn’t just something she sang about, Smiley noted – it was what she commanded.
“‘Respect’ is not just a song to Aretha. It’s the mantra for her life,” he noted.
Rest in Peace, Aretha. A woman who died as beloved as she was respected.