President Trump's comments proved, as ever, controversial, and not simply because Aretha Franklin's appearances at his properties hardly amounted to a sustained employment relationship. More pointedly, even if she had worked for him, what was the relevance of that fact on the day of her death?

Share story

Aretha Franklin hadn’t ventured far from her adopted hometown of Detroit for three years. But in the final weeks of 1988, the “Queen of Soul” boarded a custom-made bus, foregoing more traditional modes of transport, and set off for Atlantic City.

On short notice, and with little fanfare, she had been booked to perform at Trump’s Castle, a casino opened three years earlier by Donald Trump in the garish Xanadu of sun and slot machines on the Jersey Shore.

 
(Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times, 2009)
(Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times, 2009)

Remembering Aretha Franklin

“We’ve got twenty-two people with us on the bus, plus all of the new exquisite, lavish gowns I’m wearing in the show,” she said, according to a 1989 biography by Mark Bego, “Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul.”

A particularly prized outfit, she said, was a gold coat in which she would take her final bow and indulge her audience with an encore. “It has four feet of white fox cuffs that drop all the way from my wrists to my knees!”

Most Read Nation & World Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The real estate mogul had opened the casino — his second in Atlantic City — in 1985, the same year that Franklin released “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” the album that powered her resurgence in the 1980s — a flashy decade of perms and washed jean jackets that buzzed with the music of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Duran Duran.

“It’s got action, it’s got nightlife — the whole deal,” Trump said in a commercial for his casino and resort.

Three decades later, Trump’s Castle is defunct. He’s president of the United States. And Aretha Franklin has died. She passed away Thursday from pancreatic cancer at the age of 76.

Trump reacted to news of the singer’s death during a Cabinet meeting the same day, offering his condolences to her family.

“She worked for me on numerous occasions,” he said. He also celebrated the “extraordinary legacy” of the soul, pop and R&B virtuoso, calling her “terrific.”

Trump’s comments proved, as ever, controversial, and not simply because her appearances at his properties hardly amounted to a sustained employment relationship. More pointedly, even if she had worked for him, some asked, what was the relevance of that fact on the day of her death?

“I find it disturbing and sad, and a reflection of his endless narcissism,” said David Ritz, who spent years with Franklin seeking to understand the guarded performer for his 2014 biography, “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin.” He also worked with Franklin on her 1999 autobiography, “Aretha: From These Roots.”

Trump’s comments contrasted with the standard tributes honoring Franklin. Barack Obama called the singer “a glimpse of the divine.” She performed at his inauguration in 2009, and was a frequent guest of his at the White House. In 2015, her performance of “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors brought the nation’s first black president to tears.

Franklin also performed at pre-inauguration concerts for Bill Clinton in 1993 and Jimmy Carter in 1977.

“Like people all around the world, Hillary and I are thinking about Aretha Franklin tonight,” Clinton said in a statement, adding that the pair was “listening to her music that has been such an important part of our lives the last 50 years.” Two years ago, Franklin serenaded donors to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in a suburb of Detroit.

Ritz asked why Trump couldn’t have simply joined legions of Americans in praising the departed singer.

“That’s all we need,” he said in an interview early Friday. “A great artist is gone. It’s just sad that he has to go there, and attach her to himself.”

Ritz said he saw the statement as consistent with Trump’s demeaning language about women and minorities, though far less severe than some of his recent observations about black women. He pointed to the president’s denigration this week of Omarosa Manigault Newman, formerly his top black aide, as “that dog.”

During the 2016 campaign, Trump once sought to tout his support among black voters by pointing to a man at his rally and declaring, “Look at my African-American over here.”

In the case of Franklin, Trump was claiming “some type of bond” with the singer, Ritz said. “Though I’m certain there was none.”

“Her great allegiance was to the Democratic Party,” Ritz said. “She was a huge Obama supporter, she thought of herself as a Democrat and she was vocal, obviously, as an activist in the civil rights movement.”

Lyrics appealing to a lover for respect and freedom doubled as proclamations of American hope — and indignation — as the nation struggled to make itself more equal and inclusive.

“Think about what you’re trying to do to me,” she chants in “Think.”

“Let your mind go, let yourself be free.”

“She was a highly political singer,” Ritz said. “Part of why these songs have such an anthemic tone to them, why they seem to be such big songs, is because she imbues them not only with that kind of gospel optimism, praise and worship, but also anger. There’s a righteous indignation. She’s hardly a passive, get-along, go-along singer.”

Franklin crooned at the Rev. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968, and at the Democratic National Convention the same year.

So, too, it turns out, did Franklin perform on several occasions at Trump properties.

Her appearance at Trump’s Castle in 1988 — for which she journeyed across the country by bus — was documented by The Morning Call. The daily newspaper in Allentown, Pa., said the casino “redeems itself” with the much-anticipated appearance of “the once and future Queen of Soul” following a disappointing debut by singer Latoya Jackson the previous season.

“The Friday, Saturday and Sunday dates, which sold out in less than an hour, represent a very rare chance to see the reclusive Franklin perform,” the paper noted.

At a 1988 performance at the Castle — presumably the same one — Franklin allowed employees at the casino to watch her rehearse for more than 2.5 hours during their shift breaks, according to the Press of Atlantic City.

A highlight of the weekend, according to Bego’s biography, was Franklin’s performance of “Freedom of Love,” the Grammy Award-winning hit released as the first single from “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”

“In an automotive motif, the dancers wore assembly-line jumpsuits, and rolled car tires across the stage, while Aretha sang,” Bego wrote. “When the three-day engagement was over, Aretha hopped aboard her luxury bus, and headed back on the freeway to Detroit.”

In the following decades, Franklin made several appearances at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, the Jersey Shore newspaper reported. During a 2012 performance, she asked the audience, “It’s party time. You’ll come to party? Do you have on dancing shoes?”

“We’re going back to old Atlantic Records label,” she said.

Franklin’s presence in the city of pleasures on the Jersey Shore predated her gigs at Trump’s casinos — predated even the rise of the first casino in Atlantic City in 1978.

Ralph Hunter, the founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, told the Press of Atlantic City that Franklin performed at the now-shuttered Club Harlem in the 1960s.

She grew to be a regular at the city’s casinos in the late 1980s, and Ritz, her co-author and biographer, said it’s not surprising that she delighted audiences at Trump properties. “They all did,” he said of the nation’s star singers. Michael Jackson appeared with Trump at the 1990 opening of his Taj Mahal casino. “To have Michael at the Taj Mahal — he’s my friend, he’s a tremendous talent, and it’s really my honor,” Trump said.

“It’s a big day for me,” he added.

Franklin lit up showrooms at Trump’s casinos. She also stayed at his hotels.

In 2010, Franklin checked in at the Trump International Hotel in New York while she negotiated with Rhino Records executives over a possible record deal, according to Ritz’s biography of the artist.

The singer had an entire floor of the hotel to herself, recalled Rhino’s head of artists and repertoire. Her suite was stiflingly hot, as Franklin didn’t like air conditioning. And it was filled with large flower arrangements — birthday gifts from Elton John and Mariah Carey.

The record deal fell through.