Omaha Symphony Director Remembers Working With Aretha Franklin

Omaha Symphony Music Director Thomas Wilkins With Aretha Franklin

As the world mourns the loss of the Queen of Soul, Omaha Symphony Music Director Thomas Wilkins is remembering the legendary musician.

Wilkins spent time with Franklin as the conductor during a string of time when the Queen of Soul tried her hand at performing opera. Wilkins tells NewsRadio 1110 KFAB that Franklin wasn't immediately sold on him leading her backing symphony. "We started our relationship when I was a conductor with the Detroit Symphony. She got it into her head that she wanted to opera arias with her own twist, but she needed a conductor, not her pianist who was her music director. So the symphony said, 'You know, you should use our guy.' At first she was hesitant, but then all of a sudden I became her favorite conductor." Franklin would go on to use Wilkins anytime she would want to perform the opera arias, flying Wilkins out to wherever she was performing. 

Wilkins says he always understood the gravity of who he was working with, a legend. But he says even though she was a powerhouse, she was also incredibly gracious. "She was a deeply warm person, she accepted me into her circle." He shared a story about being able to share a limo with Franklin, while headed to a show in Philadelphia. The Queen was always known for her distaste for air conditioning before performances, as she saw it was a detriment to her vocal cords. "It was a hot, summer day in Philadelphia, so I was on a miserable limousine ride, but it was still great because I was with Aretha."

Franklin was a true entertainer and Wilkins says she gave her everything, every single time she stepped out on that stage. "The minute she walked out on stage, everything that was in her DNA as an artist and as a performer came out. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand within seconds. That was the moment, that for me, was the eyeopener. That this is legend. The thing that I will be always inspired by were those moments on stage when she gave 110% and that's really not cliche. She was just everything when she was on stage. It was all about the music, and all about getting that music to the audience. So, as an artist, for me, that was a great source of inspiration."

The thing that Wilkins keeps coming back to, is how warm and accepting Franklin was. How much she cared for those around her. "I'm always struck mostly by how warm, and kind, and loving a person is as a human being. She was, you know, the 'diva' of R&B and Soul music and yet she was purely, fully human."

Although their time together as musicians had ended, Wilkins says Franklin would still call and leave voicemails just to reconnect. 

That, is something the maestro says he will cherish for the rest of his life. 



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