As It Happens

Drummer remembers 'powerful and amazing' experience of playing with Aretha Franklin

Drummer Gayelynn McKinney is trying to accept that she'll never perform with Aretha Franklin again.

Gayelynn McKinney toured with the Queen of Soul as recently as 2016.

Aretha Franklin dancing for the cameras. The "Queen of Soul" has died. She was 76. (Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
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Drummer Gayelynn McKinney is devastated that she'll never play with Aretha Franklin again. 

"Except for a record, I will not be able to sit behind her and play her music ever again with her," McKinney, who toured with Franklin, told As It Happens guest host Matt Galloway. 

Franklin died Thursday morning at her home in Detroit of advanced pancreatic cancer. She was 76. 

The Memphis-born singer started singing as a girl in her church, and went on to bring her powerful voice and the gospel sound to secular music. Franklin's hits, such as RespectI Say A Little Prayer and Chain Of Fools, earned her the title of one of the greatest singers of all time. 

McKinney — who first met Franklin when she was 17 — toured with the Queen of Soul as recently as 2016. She spoke with Galloway about what Aretha Franklin meant to her.

Here is part of that conversation. 

People knew that this day was coming but it's still hard. How are you remembering Aretha Franklin today?

I remember her as a very strong woman. A woman that was very passionate about her music and a woman that was also kind and giving.

Most of all I remember her and appreciate her for giving me the opportunity to be a part of her musical world and giving me a chance to know her a little bit.

I'm thinking about the first time I met her when I was 17.

Aretha Franklin, left, with drummer Gayelynn McKinney, right. (Submitted by Gayelynn McKinney)

Tell me about that. You were 17 years old, you first meet Aretha Franklin. What happened?

Both my parents were musicians and my father was a well loved jazz musician here in Detroit. His name was Harold McKinney and apparently he knew Aretha Franklin from back in the day.

And so he happened to tell me that we had a gig and I said, "Oh OK. So where is the gig Dad?" And he said, "Oh it's at Aretha Franklin's house."

And he said it so casually and nonchalant, you know and I was looking at him and I said, "Dad, did you say we were playing at Aretha Franklin's house?" And he said, "Yeah, yeah this weekend."  

So was that like walking into the house for the first time?

I was nervous because I didn't know what to expect. And, you know, when I got there I sat up and he brought me up there and he said, "Hey Aretha, this is my daughter Gayelynn."

She was very nice and said, "Well hi, how are you?" And I said, "I'm doing just fine."    

Trying not to pass out right now, that's what I was thinking.

Aretha Franklin sings during the inauguration ceremony for President-elect Barack Obama in Washington, January 20, 2009. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Years later after having gone to play at her house she calls you to tour with her. What was that call like?

I got a call and you know ... it would come up as no name. So usually I don't answer those calls, I just let them go on a voicemail.

For some reason, though, for some reason I was compelled to answer the phone.

So I did and the first thing I heard was "Gayelynn?" and it sounded like my mother so my immediate reaction was "Hi."

And she said, "This is Aretha." I said "Aretha?" "Yes, Aretha Franklin."

I said "Oh, well let me pull over," because I was driving  and I was like I need to pull over right now.

So I pulled over and she said "I want you to come on the road with me and do some shows."

We've listened to her music forever and we've seen her in concert but not as close as you were. What was it like to be that close to her when she was singing?

There was only one time really that was truly affected and it was an interesting night.

She was really pouring her soul into her singing that night and being candid to her audience. It was such a powerful ... moment that happened while she was singing because my eyes watered up, the audience was crying.

It was one of the most powerful and amazing shows I've ever done.

American soul singer Aretha Franklin. Her drummer and friend, Gayelynn McKinney, is remembering her for her powerful voice. (Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Even just talking about her, I mean, it makes you really emotional. What is it about losing her that is so powerful?

I think just the fact that she believed in me, to allow me to be a part of her musical space.

Except for a record, I will not be able to sit behind her and play her music ever again with her.

We're all listening to her music today ... what's a song of hers that you'll listen to today to remember her?

One of the songs I really enjoyed playing with her, because she was actually playing and singing, was A Brand New Me.

She would take this monstrous piano solo in the middle of the song and then ... go back to singing the heck out of it. So that was one of my favourites.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from CBC News. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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