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‘I emulated her a lot’: Remembering Aretha Franklin with St. Louis jazz great Denise Thimes

Several years ago, when Aretha Franklin (at left) was planning her birthday party in New York City, she gave Denise Thimes a call and asked the St. Louisan to sing for her.
Courtesy of Denise Thimes

Denise Thimes was still a young girl when she first interacted with Aretha Franklin in St. Louis during the late ’60s. But even then the Queen of Soul made a big impression on Thimes, who is now an accomplished vocalist herself.

“I emulated her a lot and never had a chance to, as a little girl, sing for her – which is what I wanted to do when she would come to our home,” Thimes told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “But to have done her birthday party [a few years ago] and to stand there and watch her watch me sing – Don, I had to fight back the tears the whole time.”

On Tuesday’s talk show, Thimes shared with listeners both her memories of Franklin, who passed away earlier this month, and several of her favorite songs from the music icon’s repertoire.

She described Franklin as “the very fiber of music in America.”

“Aretha was light,” Thimes said. “She had a sound that no one else had, and that is what got her to where she was. … Aretha, in my opinion, set a precedent of how singers should really sound.”

As the world continues to say goodbye to Franklin, who died of pancreatic cancer, the sadness still felt particularly heavy for Thimes, who launched the Mildred Thimes Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer in honor of her mother in 1997. 

Jazz vocalist Denise Thimes shared some of her favorite memories of the Queen of Soul, who she first met in the late ’60s.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Jazz vocalist Denise Thimes shared some of her favorite memories of the Queen of Soul, who she first met in the late ’60s.

“I sort of had pre-information that it was going down and [that Franklin’s health] was getting worse, and it’s just been really hard,” said Thimes, whose late father, radio legend Lou “Fatha” Thimes, promoted a couple of Franklin’s St. Louis concerts decades ago. “I’ve never mourned so hard for a celebrity-status kind of person but who I had the blessing of knowing on a personal level.”

And while she didn’t get the chance to sing for Franklin as a child, that opportunity did eventually come her way – in an unexpected fashion.

Thimes recalled picking up the phone several years ago and noticing that the call was showing up as an “unknown caller.”

“The voice on the other end asked to speak with me, and I very begrudgingly said, ‘Speaking,’ because I thought it was a telemarketer,” Thimes said. “And she said, ‘Hi, Denise, this is Aretha Franklin.’

The Queen of Soul was calling to personally invite Thimes to attend and sing at her birthday party at the Ritz Carlton in New York City.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.