DETROIT — It wasn't supposed to be a milestone year in the Aretha Franklin annals.
But 2011, which began shrouded in health mystery before blossoming into a rousing resurgence for Franklin, turned out to be just that. And today the iconic singer is bright and upbeat as she reflects on a year of physical slimming and emotional growth.
"It's a kind of growth that just comes with time," she said. "And I've felt really, really great."
The public wasn't sure it would get to this point: This time last year, Franklin's global fan base held its breath as she underwent an undisclosed medical procedure that forced her out of view for months. With friends such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson jetting to her side, the Christmas season — Franklin's favorite time of the year — took on a downcast tone.
This yuletide found the singer in dramatically different spirits. Amid a steady schedule of public appearances, she's been exercising, carving out time for quiet domestic life and enjoying an inner peace. That's not just Franklin's take: Friends and associates say the new vibe is unmistakable.
You might say the Queen of Soul is back to being Aretha. When she hasn't been gearing up for the holidays at home, Franklin has been in New York, where she's been "pounding Fifth Avenue, pounding Madison Avenue, all the little shops on the side streets, investigating all the out-of-the-way places," she said. "I look for the mom-and-pop shops — the good cheeseburgers. I always try to discover a new place here, wherever the best aromas are coming from."
The new year will bring her 70th birthday and a handful of key projects, including a likely reunion with music executive Clive Davis and work on her own label, Aretha's Records, where she hopes to groom a new generation of classical singers.
Franklin and her representatives still won't elaborate on her hospitalization. She has denied reports of pancreatic cancer and rumors of weight-reduction surgery, calling her 85-pound loss "gradual."
Whatever it was, she came back roaring: The spring brought a round of touring, her first album of new material in eight years ("A Woman Falling Out of Love") and a benchmark boxed set ("Take a Look") that compiled all of her early Columbia Records work for the first time.
The music world welcomed her with a mix of enthusiasm and relief. Franklin re-emerged in February, trim and lucid in a taped opening segment for the Grammy Awards, where stars such as Christina Aguilera and Jennifer Hudson kicked off the night with a Queen of Soul medley. Three months later, she brought down the house with "Amazing Grace" on Oprah Winfrey's final show, and in November was honored with a weeklong tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Today, Franklin says emphatically, she's feeling "excellent, excellent, excellent." She visits a gym several times a week to hit the treadmill and track, "to the point that I've had to cut back because of the soreness in my legs."
"Or there's Walmart, Meijer, these big superstores — if you walk around two or three times and keep a fat-burning pace, it's like seven times around a track," she says. "That's really what's been keeping me fit for these concerts and the traveling."
Ahh, yes, those concerts. Ask most anyone who attended a Franklin show in 2011, and you're apt to hear the same thing: At 69, she looked and sounded better than she had in years, her mood relaxed and her voice potent as she tackled half a century of hits. It was a far cry from the edgy shows that had been leaving her exhausted.
"When you're in great shape, you can expend as much energy as you'd like," she said. "I had been coming off the stage just dripping wet. And it occurred to me: 'I don't see anybody else coming off the stage like this. You need to get in shape.' And that assumption was correct. Once I got in shape, everything was cool."