Jacksonville vocal teacher reveals the lesson Aretha Franklin taught her

Deborah McDuffie had the honor of working with Queen of Soul not once, but twice

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As people all over the world remembered the Aretha Franklin, a Northeast Florida woman reminisced on what it was like to work with the Queen of Soul.

Franklin died Thursday at age of 76. She recorded hundreds of tracks and had dozens of hits over the span of a half-century, including 20 that reached No. 1 on the R&B charts.

During the soul icon's more than 50-year career, Deborah McDuffie had the honor of working with Franklin not once, but twice.

McDuffie, the director of choral studies at Atlantic Coast High School who has an impressive music career of her own, co-produced Franklin in the early 1970s, and produced her again a decade later.

Before coming to the Jacksonville area, McDuffie was a music producer in New York. In the early 1970s, shortly after President Richard Nixon's resignation, McDuffie co-produced Coca-Cola's campaign called "Look Up America."

"The president of Coca-Cola said, 'We want to do a campaign to uplift the spirits of America,'" McDuffie recounted to News4Jax on Thursday.

To make the campaign even more forceful, Coca-Cola sought a celebrity to sing the jingle.

"But who better to sing something great like that, that has a gospel kind of feel to it and a depth of heart, than Aretha?" McDuffie said. 

"She was 'The Queen.' I mean, it was Ms. Franklin and the thing that amazes me most about her is musicianship. There are people who can sing off the charts, but her musicianship skills -- her piano playing, her knowledge of the intricacies of music -- was just fascinating to me."

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That was the first time McDuffie worked with Franklin. When she co-produced Coca-Cola's campaign, McDuffie said, she was young, only three to four years into her career.

For someone who had only been in the music industry for a minute, McDuffie said, it was an honor to work with Franklin. 

"She really was my first female role model because when I started in the industry as a producer, there were no women producers in jingles or in records," McDuffie said. "I was charting unchartered waters and to watch her work with such power and control, she literally took control of the room. And I say that in a positive way. And it gave me the platform for what I needed to do to be a successful producer."

What McDuffie did not know then was she would work with Franklin again a decade later.

But that time, McDuffie produced Franklin for a U.S. Census commercial campaign.

"It was one of the most cherished moments of my life having worked with her, just being in her presence," McDuffie said. "That's why they call her 'The Queen,' because I was truly in the midst of royalty."

Years later, the now-vocal teacher said she still carries a lesson Franklin taught her back when McDuffie was the student. 

"You have to touch people's hearts, and in order to touch people's hearts, you have to open your own heart and that's not an easy thing to do," McDuffie said. 

McDuffie said Franklin always showed up with heart. That's something McDuffie now teaches her students -- to show up with heart because, if you have heart, you have passion and you will always be successful.

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