Linda Solomon captures her friend Aretha Franklin’s private moments through her new book, ‘The Queen Next Door.’
Photos by Linda Solomon
Five years ago, Linda Solomon received a Facebook friend request from Kay Cunningham.
“Who?” Solomon pondered. Not knowing a Kay Cunningham, Solomon simply didn’t respond.
A couple of days later, Solomon received another message.
“Linda, you didn’t friend me back. It’s me, Aretha.”
As in Franklin.
So, of course, Solomon accepted Franklin’s friend request. Franklin had only 22 Facebook friends on her private page at the time of her death on Aug. 16, 2018. And Solomon was one of them.
“I was so blessed to be able to get to know her all of these years. I will cherish those times,” says Solomon of the woman who gave her the ultimate career boost when she was starting out as a photojournalist in 1983. Solomon was 29 at the time and a columnist for the Detroit News. Franklin gave Solomon the go-ahead to shoot her performance on the local television show Kelly & Company. She next invited Solomon to meet and cover her family at a reception at the Manoogian Mansion in Detroit.
“That was a life-changing photo assignment for me,” says Solomon, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame and founder of her nonprofit Pictures of Hope, which provides digital cameras and photography tutorials to children living in shelters in the United States.
“Aretha really helped me with my career. She knew I was just starting out, and she gave me exclusive opportunities. Not only was she a civil rights activist, but she was a women’s activist. She really went out of her way to give me access and help me. She could see I was respectful of her and I would never be intrusive. I was there to capture the moments.”
And that was the start of Solomon’s treasured 35-year friendship.
“Everybody in Detroit has an Aretha story,” Solomon says. “She was art and she was ‘The Queen.’”
“The Queen” is Solomon’s inspiration for her just-released book, The Queen Next Door: Aretha Franklin, an Intimate Portrait. Solomon’s sister, Jill Rappaport, a well-known television journalist, came up with the book’s title, an homage to Franklin’s quote: “I am the lady next door when I am not on stage.” A foreword is written by composer Burt Bacharach; an afterword is by Aretha’s niece Sabrina Vonné Owens.
“It’s very important for people to know that after Motown left Detroit in the late ’60s, Aretha singlehandedly brought music back to Detroit,” Solomon says. “The book features the part of Aretha’s life when she was giving back to the city in the most incredible way by hiring Detroit-based musicians, florists and caterers.”
When the time came to publish the book, Solomon knew Franklin would have only wanted a local publisher, so she reached out to her friend, Mary Lou Zieve, former chairman of the board for the Wayne State University Press (WSUP).
“I made a shidduch (match),” says Zieve of Bloomfield Hills about arranging the meeting between Solomon and WSUP. “Linda is a lovely friend and very talented photographer. It’s only natural she would use a Detroit printer.”
The book was released last week by Wayne State University Press, which is housed in the building named for Zieve’s late father, Leonard N. Simons.
Solomon credits her all-women editorial staff at Wayne State University Press for helping her put out the 244-page hardcover book filled with 140 images of Franklin’s most-private, candid moments and iconic career highlights.
“I wanted it to be like a photo album that Aretha would have had on her coffee table,” says Solomon, who enlisted the help of her 91-year-old mother, Mona Rappaport, to help her sift through hundreds and hundreds of photos in Solomon’s Birmingham studio. “It’s
really a tribute to Aretha and her devotion to her family and her love of Detroit. She was such a private person; I always respected her privacy. The photos in the book really capture the side of her she didn’t share with the public.”
Franklin’s birthday, Christmas and masquerade parties were legendary. Solomon saved all of Franklin’s personally addressed invitations in metallic ink to “Linda and Barry,” Solomon’s husband. Sixty guests were invited to come in costume to Franklin’s Bloomfield Hills home on Scenic Court in 1988. The Queen of Soul herself came as Queen Nefertiti, and Solomon chose that favorite photo to be the cover of her book.
“Her parties were the best. You never knew which famous entertainers would show up,” Solomon says. “You would drive up and find a 30-piece orchestra playing on her driveway. Fifteen minutes later, she’d have a mariachi band. Then Peabo Bryson singing in her living room followed by Sinbad the comic.”
The parties would be for only about 40 of Franklin’s closest friends, including the Four Tops and the Spinners, family, “Linda and Barry” and Franklin’s longtime doctor, Dr. Seymour Ziegelman and his wife, Loretta.
“This was when Aretha was in her 40s. She was having a blast and there’s no other way to describe it,” Solomon says. “She was there to enjoy it all. She was really happy to just sit on her couch and listen to all of these great entertainers in her living room. She went all out, from the food to the flowers.”
When she wasn’t hosting parties, you would find her limousine — “Yes, she owned her own limousines,” Solomon says — parked outside of Beans & Cornbread restaurant, Steve’s Deli, the former Big Boy next door to the Jewish Federation on Telegraph or even Kroger where she would do her own grocery shopping.
“Aretha would call me, and we would gossip and chat as girlfriends. She was loads of fun,” says Solomon, who was the only photographer invited to cover the Franklin family private gathering prior to the memorial church service on Aug. 31, 2018. “I cherish our friendship. Her family was so incredibly fabulous and nice to me. They treated me like a member of the family.
“And she was really ahead of her time in fashion. She was wearing animal prints, statement earrings and turquoise nail polish in the ’80s when no one else was doing it.”
Pure Detroit. Pure Aretha.
Aretha’s bond with her doctor
Until Dr. Seymour Ziegelman retired in 2009, he was Aretha Franklin’s — and all “the Franklin girls’” — gynecologist for almost 40 years. In fact, it was Franklin who introduced Ziegelman to photojournalist Linda Solomon and he became her doctor as well. Linda and her husband, Barry, and Ziegelman and his wife, Loretta, were regular guests at Franklin’s festive parties.
How was it treating the city’s most beloved icons?
“It was really quite easy,” Ziegelman of West Bloomfield recalls. “I had this fabulous medical assistant for 35 years who was the intermediary when Aretha came into the office with six gigantic bodyguards. I found the reason why our relationship was so comfortable was because I treated her like any other patient I saw.”
Including telling the 18-time Grammy Award winner to quit smoking.
“Of course, she blamed me for gaining so much weight after she stopped. Here she had this zillion dollar voice and she’d be smoking — even in my office,” he says.
Ziegelman said he was her “go-to person” for all things medical. He last talked to Franklin a month before she passed away to give input on her treatment. She called him.
“This is a person who had more cell phone numbers in her lifetime than the Federal Treasury has gold coins,” Ziegelman laughs.
Reflecting on what a special person Franklin was, Ziegelman recalls when Franklin was playing a concert in Austin, where Ziegelman’s daughter, Julie, lived. Franklin set aside six tickets for her and his granddaughters. At the end of her performance, Franklin announced “Julie Ziegelman” to the entire audience and brought her up on stage.
It’s been well-documented that Franklin had a long-standing fear of flying dating back more than 30 years. About 15 years ago, Ziegelman says, Franklin was preparing to go out on tour and started taking flight phobia classes at Wayne County Airport.
“Aretha would occasionally call me and ask, ‘Would you go to Japan with me?’ I would reply, ‘To do what?’ She’d say, ‘I’m going to do a tour.’ I’d say, ‘But, Aretha, you don’t fly.’ She’d respond, ‘Well, I’m working on it.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, when you’re ready, give me a call and I’ll go with you.’”
• Book signing: 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, ArtLoft, 4160 Cass Ave., Midtown Detroit. (313) 818-0023. Queen Edition shirts and totes by CFranks designer, Aretha’s niece, Cristal Franklin, available. A portion of the proceeds benefit the Aretha Franklin Fund for Neuroendocrine Cancer Research.
• National book launch: 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Film Theatre. Panelists include former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, Aretha’s nieces Sabrina Vonné Owens and Cristal Franklin, as well as Aretha’s cousin and backup vocalist Brenda Corbett and sister-in-law Earline Franklin. Aretha’s lifelong friends Beverly Bradley, Thelma Stubbs-Mitchell (sister of Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops) and Barbara Henderson (wife of Billy Henderson of the Spinners), among others, will join the discussion. Panelists will share intimate stories about Aretha. Also, a choir with a surprise guest vocalist will perform Aretha’s hit songs.
Paying homage to Aretha’s love of pink Cadillacs, Cadillac is sponsoring the event and will provide a complimentary book to each attendee.
This free event is open to the public, but space is limited. RSVP at bit.ly/2LK1Rbk.
• Book signing, fashion show: 6-9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, Saks Fifth Avenue Troy, sponsored by skinnytees, with all proceeds from book sales going to Solomon’s Pictures of Hope Foundation. Includes live music, fashion show and holiday pop-ups. To RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org.