HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Aretha Franklin lived in my hometown of Detroit for most of her adult life. For someone who loved life and lived it big on stage, she led a low-key life there. She lived in Motown, but she was never a part of Motown records. She was a bit of a recluse. You didn’t read or hear about her being a part of the celebrity circuit of the Big 3 U.S. automakers in the Motor City. But one night in February 1985, the “Queen of Soul” helped General Motors launch the opening of its new assembly plant, in royal style—belting out her powerful vocals from the back seat of a new convertible Cadillac.
Aretha was already a coronated music icon and enjoying a 1980’s career rebound. In 1985, the comeback peaked with her album “Who’s Zoomin Who?” She sang, “We going riding on the freeway of love, in my pink Cadillac,” on the hit single, “Freeway of Love. It was on her first certified platinum album, with a rocking video, shot in Detroit. It played at the height of MTV’s popularity—a new audience for her. The Queen was back on her throne, and someone at GM was smart enough to see the connection.
GM was opening a new auto assembly plant, right on the Detroit-Hamtramck border. The 80s was a rough ride for GM and Detroit. Auto factories were closing, not opening. Autoworkers lost jobs, and the city lost tax money. So, this was not going to be your typical ribbon cutting opening ceremony. GM wanted pomp and Motor City royalty for the grandest of car plant openings. They signed on the Queen for their majestic moment.
Keep in mind, Detroit was where she honed that powerful voice. Her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin moved his family there in 1944, when she was 3 years old, as he took over the New Bethel Baptist Church. Her mother was a gifted gospel singer. Here, Aretha recorded gospel music with her father in the 1950s. She spurned an offer from Motown Records in 1960 and signed on with Columbia records instead. Her break-through pop success was at Atlantic Records, starting in 1967. She cemented her Queen status, with top-selling albums and Grammy awards. Her career hit a lull in 1975, until she went to Arista Records, the label of her 80’s comeback.
On that cold February 1985 Michigan night, bright lights, a makeshift stage, and white linen covered party tables filled the inside space where Cadillac Eldorados would soon roll off the assembly line. The crowd wore tuxedoes. The mayors of Detroit and Hamtramck mingled with GM executives, including the unpopular GM CEO Roger Smith, who oversaw the downsizing of GM in the 80’s.
Finally, on that stage pulled out a new, 2 seat convertible Cadillac. In a beautiful evening dress that fit in well with the execs in tuxes, she got out of the car, and took off. Her strong vocals, “City traffic movin’ way too slow, drop the pedal and go…go….go.” This was not lip sync to recorded music. She sang it live and loud. I remember her working up a sweat, on the slow rolling car, under the hot bright lights. She only did the one song, but that powerful voice captivated the bow-tied execs, who stood and danced to a song everyone knew well. This was before smartphones, so people actually watched and listened to her, instead of focusing their iPhones on her. She got a standing ovation and the car rolled backstage.
I was there covering the opening for CNN, working with correspondent Robert Vito, who was well-known himself in Detroit, having previously worked in local news in Detroit. Bob interviewed Reverend C.L. Franklin many times, who was a major player in the Detroit civil rights movement in the 1960s and 70s. But I don’t think Bob spoke with Aretha previously, and the interview got off to a rough start. The music was a bit loud for her to hear questions, and I think Bob was a bit nervous too. After all, this was Motor City royalty in front of our camera.
We interviewed her backstage after the performance. She was still a bit exhausted. She was excited about singing in a remake of “Jumping Jack Flash” with Rolling Stone Keith Richards, for a movie of the same name. I would later find out, her and Richards were good friends. “’Retha cooked for me!” Richards told the Detroit News backstage of the Stones 1989 Steel Wheels tour. We asked about other upcoming projects for her, and the return of making cars in the Motor City, bucking the trend of the 80s.
She told us she was proud to be a part of a Detroit comeback. It would be one of many comebacks for the city and the auto industry, from someone in the middle of her own comeback. She would win a Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for the song in 1986.
She would continue to live in the suburbs of Bloomfield Hills for most of her life. When I hear or see the video of “Freeway of Love,” I will never forget the live performance that night. The Queen was in a Cadillac chariot, for those who saw and heard her, we would never forget her.