Fredrick Sanders vividly remembers the day he met Aretha Franklin for the first and only time a few years ago when he and some fellow musicians were checking into a hotel for a gig.
“A year or two before she passed, I got to meet her. We were checking in. I looked over, and there’s Aretha,” he said, still sounding surprised. “She said, ‘Anyone of y’all write music? My arranger just died.’
“About four or five of us raised our hands.”
Sanders didn’t get the job working for Aretha that day, but he did get an unforgettable memory, a genuine moment.
Although Franklin is gone, Sanders did get to work for her recently, in a way that perhaps is even more special. Sanders, who is now the director of jazz studies at Weatherford College, played a crucial role in coordinating the music for National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha,” the latest in the Genius anthology series currently airing on Nat Geo TV and Hulu.
“They needed some direction on getting inside that type of sound,” Sanders described.
Sanders coordinated cues for critical moments in the filming, including when a young Aretha is taking piano lessons from James Cleveland and performing at an early age in her father’s church in Detroit.
“It was really powerful,” Sanders said. “Being a part of a group doing this is very humbling. It’s a very excellent high-level production.”
That chance meeting with the superstar helped Sanders on this project. In that short time, he realized firsthand what a down-to-earth person she was — something his wife’s family already knew.
“My wife’s family was very close to her. Her brother in the film was a personal friend of my wife’s uncle,” he said. “She was so personable.
“That’s something great about this. You get to see these people in other parts of their lives, not just Aretha performing on stage.”
Sanders worked closely with Jamelle Adisa, the music producer on the production. Terrance Blanchard scored the show, while Sanders underscored.
“He’s (Blanchard) a world-class trumpet player and arranger, but he doesn’t play organ and piano like I can play those arrangements,” Sanders said. “I went into songwriting mode. I took all of his notes of what he was requesting and just went to work hard. It was great, a lot of fun. I gave them the best quality I could.”
Sanders recalled a time during production when he had to play two parts of the piano at once, the teacher (Cleveland) and the student (Aretha) learning.
“But she was a musical freak of nature. She didn’t stumble a lot,” he said.
Like most musicians, Sanders grew up with the greatest admiration for the Queen of Soul. Long before Madonna, Shakira, or other single-name stars, the name Aretha could be mentioned, and anyone who even remotely liked music immediately knew who you were talking about.
But Sanders noted there was much more about Aretha to be a fan beyond her incredible musical ability.
“How could you not be a fan?” Sanders asked. “She was the epitome of everything that is American.”
Born in 1942, Franklin began her career singing gospel as a child at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father, C.L. Franklin, pastored. As an 18-year-old, Columbia Records signed her before she switched to Atlantic Records. Then the hits started coming, including the legendary “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
She recorded 112 singles on the Billboard charts, including 17 top-10 pop singles and 20 R&B No. 1 singles.
She received the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1987 she became the first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked her No. 1 on its list of the greatest singers of all time in 2010.
She was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2019 for her indelible contribution to American music and culture. A year later, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
“The amount of resources she used to help underprivileged kids … she was so much more than just a great musician,” Sanders said. “She lived her life serving others, through her music and in so many other ways.
“As long as people allow themselves to pursue excellence and knowledge, her legacy will be sustained.”
Asked if there will ever be another Aretha, Sanders answered, “There shouldn’t be, no.”