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Aretha Franklin Passes Away at 76; Discussion of Trump Taking John Brennan's Security Clearance. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired August 16, 2018 - 21:00   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: I'm Chris Cuomo. Welcome to PRIME TIME.

The "Queen of Soul" is gone from this earth, but she's going to live forever in song and spiritual healing. Aretha Franklin was 76. You know, God didn't give us the words to capture what her voice did to us and for us. But we have her music, and we're going to listen all through the show as her artistry and her political action are remembered by those who witnessed her magic.

Reverend Jesse Jackson was by her side during civil rights battles and for her final battle just yesterday. He joins us tonight.

Plus, she threatened to release more tapes and today, Omarosa did. We're going to play what she offers and see what it proves.

And the president continues to try to distract from news he doesn't like by playing power games with security clearances. He just announced he's preparing to pull more. Whose and why?

What do you say? It's a special night. Let's get after it.


CUOMO: Too soon. We all know that. But it was always going to be too soon to lose Aretha Franklin. Pancreatic cancer took a national treasure today. Take a listen.




CUOMO: Every time you hear it, you've got to move.

Aretha Franklin died at home in Detroit this morning at the age of 76. A voice from God. Whether you believe or not, you know her talent was unusually inspired. A range that expanded far beyond the music industry.

But she was not an entertainer. She was a cultural icon. She was a soul speaker. She used song and a stubborn resistance to the limitations of society to motivate racial justice, equality, and, of course, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Now at her bedside yesterday, praying alongside Aretha and her family

was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, one icon comforting another.

I always love to see you, sir. I'm sad that it's for this reason tonight.

REV. JESSE JACKSON, PRESIDENT, RAINBOW PUSH COALITON: Well, I'm sad. It's fair so say the earth lost a lot of music today and heaven must be excited because it has a new lead singer for the gospel choir.

CUOMO: That is true. I mean, if anybody has a voice that can lift with the angels, we know it was Aretha. Tell us, how was she at the end? Did you get a sense of peace for her?

JACKSON: Well, she was at peace. You know, she battled this cancer since about 2005, really almost 15 years and she just struggled with it. And I think in the poetic sense, while she did a last farewell to Detroit last summer, a big event at a church where they named a boulevard after her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin Boulevard in Chicago, and then with Elton John, a last event, her battling with cancer, fighting to help people with AIDS. She did an AIDS concert with Elton John. That says a lot about Aretha Franklin, someone other than herself.

CUOMO: You guys spent a lifetime together, fighting some of the toughest fights our society has seen. I've heard stories from you my whole life, and Harry Belafonte about how you were standing shoulder to shoulder, not just with Dr. King but with Aretha Franklin and how she helped the cause with more than just her voice.

What do you want people to know?

JACKSON: One must appreciate -- her father was an iconic minister and recording artist, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. For a long time, she was Reverend Franklin's daughter. He was a huge star in his own right.

And she grew up in a culture of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers and Albertina Walker and the Caravans (INAUDIBLE) and Pops Staples, and Staples singers, and Mahalia Jackson, Donna Washington. She brought that talent out of that cultural situation, and to know that.

But also, she had -- in the sense of, she had a dignity level. When she first began, one Sunday night, Reverend Franklin, I'm going to introduce my daughter to sing tonight. Listen to Aretha. She sang "Never Roll (ph)". And from "Never Roll (ph)", she became a star. And then Ave Maria, the other extreme.

And then the two records on Columbia, one dedicated to Donna Washington, and then highway, and then R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

But part from her singing, she used the platform and shared with a woman named (INAUDIBLE), tremendous artist of Atlanta, Georgia. She had to sing twice, the annual Aretha Franklin party, giving platforms. She couldn't make it our Rainbow PUSH Convention last summer. She's a tremendous opera artist, opera. Her name (INAUDIBLE) because her range from (INAUDIBLE) small church. She was a gift that never stopped giving, 60 years of -- 60 years of singing.

CUOMO: What do you want people to remember about her? We know the talent. You have generations of people now in this country will hear the music. Generations to come will appreciate it. But she was more than what she put out there with her voice.

What kind of achievements do you think people should remember about the legacy she leaves behind?

JACKSON: Well, she never used self-degrading, gender degrading, race degrading music to (INAUDIBLE). You will not find any Aretha's music that's self or race degrading. She also had a little bit about her music, even when she sang the blues, whether she was doing the gospel album with Reverend Cleveland, who was her -- the director of her father's choir, Reverend James Cleveland, doing blues or jazz or gospel, she mastered the whole range of songs.

And I think today, I thought a lot today that today, for Aretha Franklin and voices like Diana Ross wouldn't be heard on radio. They've been pushed off by other qualities of music I think oftentimes are more degrading and less wholesome.

But her sense of social justice, I remember Dr. King couldn't make the payroll, and we were struggling. And she and Harry Belafonte did an 11-city tour for free. And she stepped on the stage in Houston, Texas.

On that stage, Dr. King was about to give her a bouquet of flowers. Someone put tear gas in the fan, (INAUDIBLE) but she was back the next day. Tough as nails. Tough and yet tender.

Then, of course, she sang "Precious Lord" at Dr. King's funeral. She never stopped making the occasion. I miss her so much already.

CUOMO: Well, we are going to miss her right now. You know, it's funny how life works, Reverend, how just in a time when the country is kind of reintroducing itself to what it wants to be about in terms of tolerance and how it wants to treat one another in terms of the complexion of their skin and the content of their character, as Dr. King would put it, we lose such a huge voice of a time that we thought we had settled this once and for all.

Why? Why do you think we lose someone like Aretha? Is it a reminder?

JACKSON: Remember that Elton John, you know, was a multi-cultural event when she sang last summer, about 9 percent white. It's white, black, brown, she had a sense of universality. She felt (ph) her music common ground and yet she felt dignity was non-negotiable. So I remember that.

And, of course, her cooking. Aretha could cook. Have cook, would eat.


CUOMO: Reverend Jackson, we could go on all night. I want to give a lot of different angles to this coverage. You are always welcome on this show, sir. Thank you for being there by your friend's side and for being with us tonight.

JACKSON: Thank you, sir.

CUOMO: Be well, Reverend.

Big voice. Epic career. Everlasting impact. Up now, how a new generation is learning to hail the queen. She will never die.


CUOMO: We have news tonight, but nothing matters more than this. Aretha franklin is gone.

Why talk about the queen of soul when all we have ever needed to do is listen?




CUOMO: She got Jake and Elwood off her feet. She got an entire generation to do the same. How did it start?

A 14-year-old who would captivate a gospel church, then a country, and then rally a world for seven decades. She was born March 25th, 1942, in the Jim Crow South in Memphis, Tennessee.

Gospel music was in her house. It was in her soul. She moved her father's congregation, who was a big deal preacher in his own right and a big civil rights advocate.

So she sang in the church, and a star was born. Listen to more from her early years.




CUOMO: Man, she was something special. I always loved watching her play at the same time she sings because you could really see how she was putting it all together, you know?

So then what happens? 1961, she releases her first album for Columbia Records. Now, they did what made sense at the time. They tried to make her like other black ingenues, pushing jazz, show tunes.

But she was not ordinary. Her soul, her connection to gospel would be her glory, "Natural Woman", "Chain of Fools", the iconic smash "Respect". She turned a cover song into an anthem for men and women. It reached number one on the Billboard pop chart. Let's hear some more.




CUOMO: So, the more she reached inside, the more the masses found in her. In April 1968, she sang at the memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

June, 1972, she releases a live gospel album "Amazing Grace," and this just changed the game. It sold more than 2 million copies.

January 1987, she becomes the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Then what happens? Well, her pipes start to earn her all types of awards and accolades. She was more than an entertainer. She was a voice. She was a vessel that delivered others to a place of pain and longing and desperation for more and better -- justice.

You know, politicians can give a great speech. They can inspire. But what Aretha could do was literally transport you, take you somewhere where you could feel the pain, realize the promise of potential change. So powerful, in 1994 she was chosen for the Kennedy Center Honors. She was just 52 at the time, made her one of the youngest people to ever earn that honor.

A decade later, President Bush 43 awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In January 2008, she won her 18th and final Grammy for Best Gospel Performance for "Never Going to Break My Faith" with Mary J. Blige. Have you heard that? You must.

2009, she gave a memorable performance at President Obama's first inauguration. You remember that? Take a listen.




CUOMO: Imagine the change for her marching in the streets as a young woman, hoping that someday a president would see her as equal, to go to having a president the same skin shade as her own.

She never stopped breaking records. In 2014, she became the first woman to earn 100 Billboard hits. The next year, she sang "Amazing Grace" for Pope Francis during his visit to Philadelphia. That was tremendous -- you should have seen the look on his face. We were there covering it.

And last November, she gave her final public performance at a gala for Elton John's AIDS foundation. Let's a take a listen.




CUOMO: Fighting the way she was, her body had changed. She was deep into her battle. But that voice and her spirit could just not be compromised.

And today, we got a new generation embracing her music, and I want you to hear that.


CUOMO: You know, you got to hear the next generation taking it up. That's why the queen will never die. Soul to soul, the music moves on. Maybe, maybe someday we will find another who can reach inside and take us somewhere we would never be able to go otherwise.

But for now, there is only one, and her name will live on forever. Thank you, Aretha.

We're not done celebrating the life of the queen. We have some other news to get to as well. There was another Omarosa tape dumped today. It's a different Trump on this secret recording. Who it is, what it's about, and what it may prove, next.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: The president took his revenge on John Brennan, and now, Trump has reportedly told his advisers he's eager to strip more security clearances. This is according to "The Washington Post." This is a story that is just developing now.

So, let's add it to the great debate. Jennifer Granholm and Mike Shields.

Good to see you both here.

Mike Shields, let's start with you.

What practical purpose does this serve? As everybody says, process aside, these are former guys. They haven't seen classified information in a long time. How does this punishment wind up promoting the president's interests?

MIKE SHIELDS, FORMER RNC CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, look, I think that Brennan has done a huge disservice to the men and women in our intelligence community. I have tremendous respect for the thousands of men and women who work every day to keep us safe.

I'm glad to hear Democrats finally admitting that these people matter. They're now coming to their defense and talking about the intelligence community. They're right. It's important. And so -- (CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: Hold on a second, Mike. Did you just say now the Democrats are coming to their defense?

SHIELDS: Oh, sure. They've been maligned -- they were called warmongers during the Iraq War when President Bush was in office.

CUOMO: Did that size up --

SHIELDS: Now, they're the lionized intelligence community that we have to protect, right?

CUOMO: Does that size up? So you think --

SHIELDS: I love that. I think that's great.

Great. We're bipartisan. We love the intelligence community. That's awesome. People like Brennan --

CUOMO: Wait. Hold on. So, you're criticizing the Democrats for hypocrisy of going after the intelligence community and now supporting them, but you say you support the intelligence community but have no criticism for the president who has called them the worst things we have ever heard about them. You just ignore that.

SHIELDS: Well, let me finish -- let me finish my point.

CUOMO: Oh, I didn't know you were going to add to it. Go ahead.

SHIELDS: I'm going to add to it.

So, guys like Brennan coming out as an example for millions of Americans to look at and being such a partisan, frankly, hack, questioning the president's intelligence, talking about things that have nothing to do with intelligence actually, coming on television and just basically being a partisan.

That's what people see the intelligence community and it allows the attacks on the intelligence community because Americans go, wait a minute. This guy was inside and he was supposedly keeping us safe. He's now putting his partisan sort of views out there, maybe he was partisan all along. That fosters distrust in the intelligence community.

What we should have is people that allow partisans like me to come on TV and talk about politics, and intel guys say, you know what? I'm going to put the country first. I'm not going to leave the intelligence agencies and become a partisan who attacks the president every day --


SHIELDS: -- because he's putting into question millions of Americans' views of this.


SHIELDS: And so, yes, he got his clearance -- he -- when you have a security clearance, you know that you could get it ripped away from you if do you stupid things.

CUOMO: Yes, I'm not saying you can't do it. I just -- I don't know what practical effect it has other than petty revenge.

But, Jennifer, it's interesting that Mike isn't concerned about the president doing exactly those kinds of things in terms of undermining confidence in the intelligence community by telling people not to listen to them, but what do you make of Brennan getting his clearance stripped?

JENNIFER GRANHOLM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I'd like to know from Mike what he thinks about Admiral McRaven's column today coming out and saying --


GRANHOLM: -- that he sides with Brennan.

CUOMO: Is he a hack too?

GRANHOLM: And he -- is he a hack?

SHIELDS: No, you know, he said something really interesting in his column. He said leaders should set an example. Exactly right. So, don't become partisan when you leave the intelligence community. Don't cast aspersions upon people that you should represent.


GRANHOLM: But, see, both of these men have served administrations of both parties. Neither of them have been partisan. But just because --


SHIELDS: Not true. Brennan was very partisan when he worked for President Obama. Very partisan.

GRANHOLM: Just because they criticize the president, now all of a sudden, these are partisan hacks.

People who worked for Brennan were very clear that he was not a partisan. So you can say it on the outside because he feels a duty now to say something to save our country. He feels a moral obligation to step up, which is obviously what Admiral McRaven also feels, is that this president is a danger to democracy.


SHIELDS: So, does Brennan feel a moral obligation to constantly say -- does Brennan feel a moral obligation to constantly say, oh, there's collusion? So, someone who's formally in the intelligence agency saying it, offering no evidence, there has been no evidence of collusion, but he wants to attack the president. What does that -- how does that shape Americans' views of their intelligence community that are working very hard to keep us safe every day?

GRANHOLM: You guys keep saying -- OK.

SHIELDS: It is a smear on them for them to do that.

GRANHIOLM: You keep saying that there's no -- no, I mean, you keep saying as though you know -- let's just -- can we stipulate that Brennan might have more information than you do? And can we also say that even what is known publicly gives somebody the right to say, yes, it appears that the president and the Russians were having some sort of exchange, whether it was through intermediaries or not, whether it's through the WikiLeaks thing or the meeting at Trump Tower?

For you to say there's absolutely no collusion, no way, when the president was having conversations with people in the White House, with Russians in the White House about having gotten rid of that Russia thing, so you can't say there was nothing. And he said in his piece today -- Brennan did -- that he doesn't know whether it's criminal conspiracy, and he's not saying that, but that there wasn't any communication is hogwash that there wasn't some kind of collusion.

SHIELDS: But how irresponsible for someone who is supposed to be a respected leader -- this isn't just some guy that came off the street --


GRANHOLM: But how irresponsible it would be for him to say nothing.

SHIELDS: It's irresponsible to say, there's collusion, I have no evidence of it. Just I'm going to say that. I'm also good to criticize the president's politics. I'm going to criticize him on things that don't pertain to intelligence.

If he had stuck to intelligence --


SHIELDS: Hang on, let me finish. If he had stuck to intelligence, then he would have more credibility.

But when he starts attacking the president because of his own political views, that's -- let me give you an example. If there is a ref in the NBA and he retires and goes, by the way, I hate the Lakers, the Lakers are terrible. People might think, wow, when you were a ref, you probably weren't giving the Lakers a fair shake. I wonder if all the refs were like that.

Now, all the refs are called into question because of someone's irresponsible behavior when they left the responsible job that they have.

(CROSSTALK) CUOMO: Look, I hear you. I love the passion, and I don't think you're wrong, by the way. I do think these intel guys usually hold their tongues for a reason.


CUOMO: Because you want to make sure people see that. Of course they have the right, but it's about what is right.

SHIELDS: Exactly.

CUOMO: But there is this stench of hypocrisy coming out of because you don't see the president as equally or greater an egregious example of the same ills. The man has pilloried the intelligence community from jump in a way we've never seen. He dismisses the reality of Russian interference only to the extent that it suits his own personal political aims, and you criticize none of that.

But an intel guy, who is far less influential than the president, he says things, and you say he's lacking the fundamental integrity, and he's not dealing with it, and he's undermining the intelligence community. But you are not similarly bothered by the president.

How not?

SHIELDS: Because the president is fighting back against these guys --


SHIELDS: -- and the president is watching things like Bruce Ohr at the FBI, someone who's not been in government, comes in and becomes the president of the United States, and then watches people not getting investigated for things that Mark Penn, a Democrat, wrote a great column today about this. That we're just sort of ignoring that there are legitimate things that need to be investigated so that we can have confidence in our intelligence and FBI community.


SHIELDS: That's what the president is talking about. He's not being a partisan hack in the way that John Brennan is, as someone we're supposed to look at with respect as a former intelligence chief.


CUOMO: Let me play this piece of tape for Omarosa for Jennifer to you, I'm going to give you this tape, because there's nowhere else to go on that discussion. Mike, I take your position. It's good to have it out there for the audience to process.

Omarosa dropped a tape today. I want people to hear it because it's a very different character and complexion of what we heard before.


LARA TRUMP, WIFE OF ERIC TRUMP: You sound a little like, obviously, that there are some things you've got in the back pocket to pull out. Clearly, if you come on board the campaign, like, we can't have -- we got to --


LARA TRUMP: -- everything, everybody positive, right?

So the only thing that we have to consider, where we're talking salary as far as the campaign is concerned, is that, as you know, everything is public. And that all the money that we raise and that pays salaries is directly from donors, small dollar donors for the most part.


CUOMO: Does that bother you, Jennifer Granholm?

GRANHOLM: Of course, of course. It's another version of the president trying -- or his minions trying to silence people. So whether they have to sign NDAs, whether they get their security clearances revoked, whether they get paid $15,000 a month in hush money, all of these are versions of the same thing. And I would say that even the discrediting of the media, which we saw the 350 editorials about today, is another version of that.

This is a man who ran for president and didn't understand that when you get into the Oval Office, it's about transparency. It's about the people. It's about letting people know, not covering up what you don't want them to know.

He says the media is the enemy of the press. It's Donald Trump who is the -- excuse me, the media is the enemy of the people. Donald Trump --


SHIELDS: Wait a minute. Are we talking about the Omarosa right now or we --


GRANHOLM: No, no, I'm just saying it's a version of the same thing, Mike. And you as the former chief of staff for the RNC, my guess is you probably didn't sign off on a bunch of NDAs.

SHIELDS: Actually, I'm glad you brought that up.

GRANHOLM: Or $15,000 a month contracts from people who were disgruntled.

SHIELDS: You obviously ran campaigns and, Chris, you've been on campaigns.

CUOMO: Last word, Mike, go ahead.

SHIELDS: I've been involved with campaigns for over 20 years. Every time I hired somebody on a campaign, I said, you have to toe the line about what the boss believes. You subjugate your own values to the team. You can't go off and say what you think.

CUOMO: Not by contract.

SHIELDS: That's what Lara is saying to her.

CUOMO: Not by contract.


SHIELDS: Absolutely by contract.


CUOMO: Not by contract.

GRANHOLM: And by paying $15,000 a month for the purpose of hushing her up.

CUOMO: You show me NDAs where you pay people for silence and it was about more than classified and confidential information. You won't say one.


SHIELDS: But what I would do is I would fire somebody. You would too -- you would fire someone off your campaign if they started speaking about -- disagreeing with your --


CUOMO: We've got to leave it there. It's about money and silencing people.

GRANHOLM: Paid for by the party.

CUOMO: Right. But we got to go.

This was helpful. It really was. No, it was. Jennifer, thank you very much. Mike, I like it. You're disagreeing with --


SHIELDS: Thank you for the R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

CUOMO: -- common space. All right.


CUOMO: Now, we're balancing tonight. I had to get that news in there because it's a pivot point politically about what's going on with that.

But Aretha Franklin is the main story, OK? We're going to pay tribute. We're doing it in different ways. My next guest spent years trying to score an interview with the

legend. Somehow, he was able to earn her R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and he got more than an interview. He got invited to her 70th birthday party, and he had a real connection. Stories you've never heard about the queen from the good man on your screen, next.


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: Even if you believe in nothing, you feel yourself shouting "Amen" when you listen to Aretha. Her voice was declared a precious natural resource by the state of Michigan. And truly she was like water, air, and sunshine to so many, nourishing something deep inside.

No less than Tyler Perry was one of the so, so many who fed off the queen. He sent this special message for you today.

I was at -- what you were just watching -- the Kennedy Center Honors, sitting in the box with the Obamas. Aretha walked out on the stage to sing "Natural Woman". Her voice filled the room with electricity and soul. After she was done, President Obama turned to me and said, "That's why she is the Queen of Soul. The way she uses that voice."

I thought about that today. She used her voice to sing us through good times and bad, from assassinations and celebrations, from civil rights to women's rights. I wish more people would use their voice to uplift rather than tear down. That's the power of using your voice for good. That's the power of Aretha Franklin.

Our thanks to Tyler Perry and an amen to Tyler Perry for what he just put out there.

The entire statement -- there's more to hear in that, go to @chriscuomo on Twitter. It's all there.

But I want to transition to a journalist who knew and interviewed Aretha Franklin over the last 20 years. He is "The Wall Street Journal's" Christopher John Farley.

It's great to have you on.


CUOMO: I'm sorry it's for this occasion.


CUOMO: But it's important to remember what she means, especially right now.

You couldn't get in the door, kid. How did you finally convince her, I want to talk to you?

FARLEY: She's a hard woman to get to know. For five years, I had to talk to her -- her people, her handlers, say I want to do this interview, because she'd had some sort of issue with "Time" magazine before. She hadn't talked to us for about 30 years.

But, finally, she gave me an audience, told me to come down to Detroit, meet her at the Golden Mushroom, a restaurant that since closed. And we started early, went late, closed the restaurant down. By the end, you know, she started off with a handshake, ended with a hug.

We were conversing like we were old college chums. It was just beautiful.

CUOMO: What did you learn?

FARLEY: Well, one thing I learned is that she's not just about pain. People always talk about the pain she went through, the struggles, all that. She told me at one point that, you know, her music wasn't just about pain and troubles. She drew from all kinds of things.

She wasn't just this singular dimensional person, that she did soul. She did rock. She'd do any kind of music that came down the pike, that she saw herself as a singer who could tackle it all.

She was very ambitious. She thought a lot of her music. She thought a lot about herself, and you could hear it in the way she talked to you and the music that she put out.

CUOMO: So powerful she made Italians paint Cadillacs pink.

So, in terms of cultural resonance, her being called an icon, that's not hype. What did she mean to us?

FARLEY: Well, here's the thing -- you know, she had a hit record in every decade of her pop career. So she had longevity going for her.

You know, music is one of the best things we do in America. I mean, we invented ragtime and jazz and blues and rock and rap. But when you think of the great voices America has ever put out, she's at the top of the list. That's saying something.

And the thing that we do best as Americans in terms of art, she was the best at it. And she wasn't just a singer. She was a terrific pianist.

She told me once she was thinking about putting out an album of instrumentals. She was a great arranger. If you listen to the songs "Amazing Grace," her gospel album, you can see the skills she has in arranging songs and recreating them and making them her own, you know, songs like "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and "Holy, Holy", and other songs she took on from other performers and made them her own.

And she was also someone who I think had a vision for her music, for her albums. She tackled new things every time.

CUOMO: She had a vision for us. I mean artists, of course, activist.

FARLEY: Right. CUOMO: Especially, you know, we were talking before we started. Right now, we lose Aretha? You know, not arguably when you would need her most, but we are in such a critical time and her powers would have been so persuasive in this moment.

FARLEY: But here's the thing. I don't think we've lost her. You know, a lot of times when performers like Aretha Franklin pass on, people say we'll never see their like again. Not the case with Aretha Franklin because she's someone who influenced so many other singers, we're going to hear her voice echo in the voices of others for years to come. Mariah Carey. We're going to hear it -- SZA, a younger singer.

We're going to keep on hearing the kinds of approaches she used to music, the way that she created this persona that no one else had of a strong, independent woman. We're going to hear that in Lady Gaga's voice and her persona.

So, Aretha Franklin's gone, but she's not dead. We're going to keep on hearing her.

CUOMO: The queen is dead. Long live the queen.

FARLEY: Exactly.

CUOMO: Christopher Farley, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

FARLEY: Thank you. Appreciate it. Thanks.

CUOMO: Appreciate it.

All right. So, so how did Don Lemon become Aretha's text buddy? He is here to tell us and to explain what he feels has been lost.

And then I have a song that you haven't heard yet tonight that literally changed my life. What it is and why, coming up.


CUOMO: I learned today that one of our pals is actually a texting buddy of the icon Aretha Franklin.

Don Lemon is here to tell us about it.

How did this happen?

DON LEMON, CNN HOST, "CNN TONIGHT": Well, I mean, we were more than texting buddies. That's how it started. I considered her a friend. She saw me on television, and I think the -- well, the first time I interviewed her when Ed Bradley died, and she loved Ed Bradley, and she called in to talk about, and we became friends, and she asked for my phone number from one of the producers, and she started texting me and calling me, and we became friends and hung out.

And it was amazing. Can you imagine this little kid? She was the same age as my mother. They're about seven months apart. And this icon that I grew up listening to every single day pretty much in my household was -- I'm all of a sudden friends with her.

It was amazing, out of body, but she's just a regular -- as regular as you can be if you're Aretha Franklin. But we were just talking about regular things when we talked.

CUOMO: Tough suffers no fools, but what did you learn about her that people should know?

LEMON: She did not suffer fools very well by the way.

CUOMO: Nope.

LEMON: But if you were -- if you were good to her, she was good to you. And if you kept her confidence, she kept your confidence. And if you didn't keep her confidence, you weren't going to be her friend for a long time.

But I learned from her to stand up for what I believe in, do it from your heart, and make sure wherever you work, that they pay you what you are worth. That's what I learned from her. So thank you, Ms. Franklin, for that.

CUOMO: I'll tell you what, you know, going through it today in terms --

LEMON: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That's what that is.

CUOMO: A hundred percent. When I was trying to figure out, what parts do we emphasize? What's so important? It's almost impossible. You can't play with her song book because there are too many genres over too many different years, a hundred different Billboard hits, you're not going to capture it.

And then you have her social relevance.


CUOMO: You know, I grew up with Harry Belafonte, you know, a very good friend of my father. Harry obviously is still alive, still fighting the fight. And he told me the story about them using their own money to fill up the van so their marches could continue.

LEMON: Oh, yes.

CUOMO: She was there front lines.

LEMON: She was. And I asked her about that in an interview that you'll see it later on in my show. But I asked her about that.

She said, no, I wasn't on the front line, Don. That was Dr. King and people like John Lewis who will be in the show in just moments away. But she didn't consider herself to be on the front lines.

But her music was. When they will tell you that when they were fighting and struggling and going to jail -- going in and out of jail for rights, they would listen to Aretha Franklin for inspiration. She even offered to pay Angela Davis' bail when she was arrested. And she said, I think the quote was, you know, if you -- something about peace or comfort that you had to be uncomfortable if you -- you know, in order to seek some comfort or to seek some peace.

CUOMO: I'll look forward to hearing John Lewis describe her impact and what she'll mean going forward for the generation now and those to come.

Don Lemon, thank you for sharing your friendship with us. I appreciate it.



CUOMO: All right. So, what is Aretha's most powerful song? I don't know. You're not going to be able to give an answer to something like that. But I can tell you which of her performances meant so much to me that it literally changed me. It's a song you probably haven't heard her sing at least many times before. What, why and how, next.


CUOMO: The year was 1998. The Grammy's, Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

Aretha Franklin was there for a Blue's Brothers reunion bit that they were going to do. You remember that movie. Her voice was so powerful in it that she overwhelmed the production crew. Pavarotti was going to be at the Grammy's. He was supposed to sing, a famous operatic called "Nessun Dorma", "No One Shall Sleep".

It's a big song at the time, right? He does the rehearsal. Then later the same day, the night of the awards, he bails. What are they going to do?

They go to Aretha. It's just before the show, literally less than an hour. And they ask her if she can do it. This is opera. Not gospel. You know, not anything that she's known for, a song that a man had owned on the international stage.

She says let me hear him from the rehearsal earlier. She listens and says, yes, I can do that. Not only does she do it in front of a massive opera chorus and world audience, but the end of the song has this famous high note finish, you know, for Pavarotti. Listen to what happened.


CUOMO: I still get tingles and that doesn't do it justice. And I got tingles back then. That little boy, I was him. We all were who saw it. Holding onto her to survive the power of her voice and to be as close as we could be to what does more than any book or preacher to convince you there's something greater than us at play in this world.

Let's listen to a little more. (VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)

CUOMO: You know, look, we all vibe off the gospel and her power songs. The wonderful angelic flourishes, the wailing of whoa. And certainly, no one is going to say this opera song is a signature song for the queen, but it is often referred to as one of the best Grammy performances ever, certainly for her.

And it's for a reason that really mattered to me at the time and even more today. The ability to own something this hard that's not from her own experience, she didn't write it. It was written in a different language. And still communicates so much. Not to mention doing it last second. No real rehearsal on a major stage.

How? Talent? Takes more than that. Aretha Franklin was, of course, a great singer, but she was more. She was a muse.

The Greeks said there were nine muses but Aretha was enough on her own to inspire several generations. That's just so far. So why?

Supreme soul sister. Soul speaker. Evoker of the spirit. Energy came out of her as much as sound. Soul food.

You could literally feel it up close. It moved men and women half a world away. We would cry tears of joy when she sang of the hope for justice in better days and tears when she belted out words of oppression and injustice.

The woman who turned a cover song into an anthem. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. My favorite lines: your kisses sweeter than honey, and guess what? So is my money. Respect when you home or you might walk in and find out I'm gone.

Thank you, Aretha, for sharing your gift, for doing something that is more powerful than making people think or even making them act a certain way. You made us feel deeply, and that can lead to more than anything else.

The queen, my friends, is dead, but long live the queen.

Thank you for watching us tonight. Remember Aretha Franklin for her music and what she meant to so many for all the right reasons.

"CNN TONIGHT" with Don Lemon starts his coverage right now.