How one Detroit columnist covered Aretha Franklin’s life and death

August 30, 2018

Rochelle Riley’s phone rang last year.

It was Aretha Franklin.

“And she said ‘hi, it’s Aretha,’ and I went, ‘Oh my God, she’s calling me,’” the Detroit Free Press columnist remembered.

The journalist and the queen of soul had met and spoken before, but this time, Franklin accidentally called the wrong number. (Riley’s number was listed next to the person Franklin was trying to reach.)

“And I said ‘Ms. Franklin, it’s Rochelle Riley.’”

She was half-dressed, getting ready for an evening out, but Aretha Franklin was on the line, so they kept talking, which eventually led to a column about Franklin’s plans to open a supper club in downtown Detroit.

Riley could have stood there all night.

“There was nothing else important,” she said. “There was nothing else going on.”

Riley isn’t “the” Aretha Franklin reporter. She wants to make sure that’s clear. She wasn’t invited to the late Queen of Soul’s holiday parties. They weren’t friends.

They were news writer and newsmaker. They were also fan and icon. And through all those roles, the two women got to know each other.

Riley grew up in Tarboro, North Carolina listening to gospel, Motown, Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin.

“That was my mother’s music,” she said.

And it became her music as a mother, too. She played Franklin’s “Respect” as she taught her daughter how to clean the house, both of them dusting and sweeping to the beat.

One of the first things she thought when she moved to Detroit 18 years ago was, "well, Aretha Franklin’s here somewhere."

Riley first interviewed Franklin five years ago for a piece on the role her father played in the civil rights movement. The first time they met, it was as fellow Detroiters at the Lafayette Coney Island, where Franklin sent her driver in for a hot dog and waited with the window down.

“It was just like bumping into somebody from church,” Riley said.

Last year, ahead of rumors that Franklin was retiring, Riley wrote a column thanking the singer.

“There are moments etched in time by your voice — and in those dozens of songs, I heard you telling my story without even knowing me,” she wrote.

After that column ran, Riley went to a Smokey Robinson show at Detroit’s Chene Park. She went backstage, and Franklin was there.

They hugged, and Riley said she hoped Franklin got the chance to read the thank you column.

“Of course I did," Riley remembered Franklin responding. "It brought me to tears."

“And I was done. Having that moment, for me, kind of brought me full circle."

So how do you cover an icon, not just in death with reminders to treat the moment with reverence and reflections on that person’s impact?

You have to treat them like anyone else, Riley said, ordinary or extraordinary, big or small.

“Find their truth,” she said, “and try to tell the truth of their lives.”

Riley, who was about to start book leave before Franklin’s death, plans to be at Friday’s private funeral. She expects it could go on as long as Rosa Parks’, which lasted for a little more than six hours.

Billionaire Dan Gilbert described Franklin’s impact best in an interview after her death, Riley said.

He couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t in his life.

“And I feel that same way. I don’t remember a time when her music wasn’t a part of my life,” she said. “Every song, every title, every lyric, every chord, every nuance, there’s been something in my life that played out to that music.”

Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley and Aretha Franklin backstage at a Smokey Robinson concert. (Submitted photo)