Tuesday, March 9, 2021

A Witness to a Queen’s Greatness

Gwendolyn Quinn with Aretha Franklin at one of Franklin’s legendary birthday celebrations in New York City (Photo Courtesy of Gwendolyn Quinn)

*It has been nearly two months since the death of Aretha Franklin, my longtime client, and friend. I’ve worked with Aretha for more than 20 years. Our professional relationship started during my tenure as Senior Director of Publicity at Arista Records in 1997. After my time at Arista, I went to work for another record company, and a year later, I formed GQ Media & Public Relations (now Gwendolyn Quinn Public Relations).

Shortly after I opened my company, Aretha heard I had started my firm and one day while on the phone with her, she agreed to sign with me. Aretha was my first marquee client.

Gwendolyn Quinn with Clive Davis at the Ultimate Arista Reunion in New York City (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gwendolyn Quinn)

Before I formed GQ Media & Public Relations, I had mentioned to my former boss, Arista’s Clive Davis, that I was starting my own company. He said, “Gwendolyn, you must always have a marquee client.” Well, Aretha Franklin was it for me.

While I worked at Arista, Aretha wasn’t the only high-profile client on my roster, but she was one of a few artists that I had one-on-one contact with regularly. Typically, when you work with a superstar client, there are usually layers of people you have to communicate with and/or there’s a protocol to follow that’s already set in place by management. Aretha didn’t have a manager; she had an agent, lawyer, publicist and her security team. She managed herself and handled all her affairs. With Aretha, there was no buffer; I communicated with and took my marching orders directly from her. I constantly had to figure out how I should approach her about this subject, and how do I tell her about that issue. Many times these matters were sensitive in nature. I often had to temper my words and posture to ensure I was presenting the right tone and the proper messaging. Since I was also known for being direct and outspoken, that was particularly challenging for me at times. Celebrities are regular people, too, and at times can be sensitive and temperamental.

Gwendolyn Quinn photographed with Aretha Franklin, Elton John and Will Wilkerson at Tony Bennett’s 80th Birthday Celebration at Lincoln Center in New York City (Photo Courtesy of Gwendolyn Quinn)

The one thing I loved about Aretha is you always knew where you stood, unlike other clients who only cared about what you could do for them and their careers. Aretha was already an icon way before I started working with her. She didn’t need me or my services, and she could have hired anyone to represent her, but she chose me. Aretha loved black people and had a heart for the sisters in the struggle.

Aretha was direct, too, and didn’t mince words. Through the years, people would often ask me, “How is it working for the Queen of Soul?” “How did you get along with her for so many years?” “What was it like?” I would say, “I didn’t get in her business, and I didn’t ask any personal questions.” And that strategy worked for many years. As we built our professional relationship, we also developed a friendship; she began to share various personal and professional stories with me. Things were not always rosy between us, but we had a relationship built on respect, and she knew I was a hard worker, and she trusted me. She also believed in me and my talent and abilities. Throughout our journey, we would take professional breaks and always remain in contact during those periods, and she would remind me that she always considered me a friend. Anyone that ever worked with Aretha experienced periodic vacation breaks. Along with other members of her team, we would all laugh and joke with each other about being put on extended vacations.

Gwendolyn Quinn with Aretha Franklin at a private dinner hosted by Franklin after her performance at The Pope’s visit to Philadelphia (Photo Courtesy of Gwendolyn Quinn)

I can say that during our long-term engagement, The Queen has taken me places only a Queen can. She was generous beyond measure. I am profoundly grateful that I had the opportunity to not only be her publicist but a friend, too. I learned a lot of lessons about life, publicity, and communications from Aretha.

In his remarks at Aretha’s Celebration of Life service, Clive Davis said that he was always aware that when he spent time with Aretha, it was a history-making moment. As I think about his statement, I realize how profound it was. Though I never processed it in those terms, I was keenly aware that Aretha was a history maker of epic proportions and that her impact on the global community would last forever. A famous musician once said to me that geniuses come along every one hundred to three hundred years, and it’s true. There will never be another Aretha Franklin.

Though I am starting to process my grief and this monumental loss, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her and the moments we shared, the many words of wisdom she imparted, and the funny and serious stories, especially those memories of her activism during the Civil Rights era and beyond.

Aretha was witty and had a great sense of humor. Once when I tried to persuade her to do something that would benefit me, which she later agreed to do, I didn’t have the sense to leave the issue alone, she said, “Gwen, you are overplaying your hand.” I laughed hysterically because she was right. With Aretha, it was straight talk all the time.

I was privileged to be there to the end of Aretha’s earthly existence and to assist the family with her Homegoing services. Though I can no longer communicate with Aretha in the flesh, I do have her in the spirit and many years of fond and unforgettable memories. I will continue to work with her family to build her legacy, and for that, I am honored.

Aretha Franklin had an indescribable impact on my life, and I’m so blessed that God allowed me to witness such greatness with His Queen. Aretha, thank you for all you have done for me, the world, and your many years of service, and your continued love and support of me. I will miss you immeasurably. Rest in God’s eternal peace.

Gwendolyn Quinn
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning over 25 years. She is the founder and creator of the African American Public Relations Collective (AAPRC) and the Global Communicator. Her weekly columns, “Inside Broadway,” “The Living Legends Series,” and “My Person of the Week” are published with EURWEB.com. She is also a contributor to BE.com, BE Pulse (via Medium.com) and the Huffington Post. Quinn is also a contributor to "Souls Revealed" and "Handle Your Entertainment Business." She is the curator of The Living Legends Foundation’s “The State of Black Music and Beyond” essay series published on the Huffington Post. Contact her at [email protected]

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