Even in her most private moments, Aretha Franklin ...

Even in her most private moments, Aretha Franklin was always a queen

Aretha Franklin backstage in the 1980s. Photo by Linda Solomon.

In The Queen Next Door, Linda Solomon captures the artist out of the public eye — but always shining, whether in sequins or solitude

In her later years, Aretha Franklin — long set in her diva ways  – fiercely guarded her privacy and limited her public appearances as she struggled with health issues. Her death in August of last year left fans around the world in mourning, and heartbroken that we’d be hearing no more from the Queen of Soul — because decades of essential music still isn’t nearly enough.

The Queen Next Door, however, is the next best thing. Published by Wayne State University Press this month, the coffee table book of photographs by Linda Solomon offers a rare glimpse of Franklin’s life out of the spotlight. Solomon first shot the Queen for her Detroit News column in 1983 and quickly, unexpectedly, became her personal photographer. 

Solomon’s photographs, mainly from the 1980s and early ‘90s, show Franklin when she was top of the charts and top of her game, making her mark on Detroit’s social scene and bringing her peers to town for epic collaborations. (Franklin famously didn’t fly.) The supporting characters who crop up in the book include local leaders and international celebs, like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, James Brown, Whoopi Goldberg, Mayor Coleman Young, Keith Richards and more. In behind-the-scenes photos, you see her practicing for performances, at ease with her peers.

James Brown and Aretha Franklin prepare for their first joint performance at Club Taboo in Detroit in 1987.
Aretha performing with James Brown for the first time, at Club Taboo in Detroit, 1987. Credit: Linda Solomon, from The Queen Next Door.

“I had unprecedented access for those great years,” Solomon told Detour. “I really wanted to concentrate on the years when nobody had a cell phone, where they weren’t already putting photos on Instagram before an event was over.

“The book is really significant because it could never happen today with a Beyonce or a JLo — everything has already been shared a million times, so … there’s an exclusivity, a rarity and a realness [in the photos].”

Aretha Franklin performing onstage in  a leotard and kimono in the 1980s. Photo from THE QUEEN NEXT DOOR, by Linda Solomon.
Aretha on stage in Metro Detroit in 1985. Credit: Linda Solomon, from The Queen Next Door.

On-stage, Franklin was the epitome of glamorous magnetism, and her fashion is a top highlight of the book. (My favorite look, in 1985: a white leotard with gold and silver sequins, nude fishnets, and a pink and red floral kimono.) But in the book, you also get to see Franklin when she’s out of the public eye: smoking a cigarette, hamming it up, lost in introspection and, almost always, surrounded by family. 

Solomon shares delightful snippets of what it was like to work with Franklin, and what grew into a “relaxed friendship.” They’d chat on the phone about diets and trends, and Solomon had over 100 numbers saved for the icon — by the time she called one left on her voicemail, it was often disconnected.

The book offers a peek of Franklin’s private Facebook page and her elaborate Christmas party, where the invitations once came with a handmade miniature violin. You see a world-class artist exploring her hobbies, whether practicing French, performing with a ballet troupe in a tutu or helping others.

Aretha Franklin telethon photo from THE QUEEN NEXT DOOR. Credit: Linda Solomon
Aretha quietly taking pledges at the WDIV Easter Seals telethon, 1985. Credit: Linda Solomon, from The Queen Next Door.

The Queen Next Door is a love letter to someone beloved by millions — endlessly captivating, even as she was just going about her business as the “lady next door.” Check out the book yourself to get to know the Queen of Soul a little better, from the stage to her living room.

Solomon will be at the Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch on Sunday, Nov. 3, at Ann Arbor District Library on Nov. 8 and at Pages Bookshop in Detroit on Nov. 21. 

All photos courtesy of Linda Solomon, from the book The Queen Next Door. Top photo: Aretha waiting backstage before appearing at the American Music Awards via satellite, 1986. 

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl