NEW YORK -- The first time Aretha Franklin came to Harlem to play the Apollo Theater, she was impressed before she got into the building.
"I remember looking down 125th Street and thinking I had never seen that many people in one place in my whole life," recalls Franklin, who returns to the Apollo tonight and tomorrow for the first time in 20 years, headlining a pair of Black Music Month galas.
"On the sidewalk, just going about their business, they must have been six or seven deep. Back in Detroit, I'd never seen anything like that."
The inner workings of the Apollo turned out to be impressive, too. When the bills included maybe 10 artists playing four or five shows a day for a week, something was always going on.
"Backstage, you'd be running up and down those stairs," she says. "You'd be three or four flights up and they'd call, 'Half,' meaning a half-hour until curtain, and everyone would rush around trying to get ready.
"One time I was talking on the pay phone, and I remember Count Basie beating on the door trying to get me out so he could get his numbers in. But I was talking to my boyfriend and had no intention of giving it up."
Some of what went on even involved music.
"The Apollo is where I learned to do a proper curtsy and bow," Franklin says. "I came off the stage after one show, and Redd Foxx took me aside and said, 'Little girl, I'm going to show you how.' That's the way I've done it ever since."
Curtsying is, of course, only one of Aretha Franklin's skills. She has had dozens of hit records, including classics such as "I Never Loved a Man," "Chain of Fools" and "Respect," that are still forces of nature four decades later.
She trampled all boundaries between rhythm and blues, pop and soul music, and built an equally powerful legacy of recorded gospel.
Whatever she has done - even a brief foray into opera - it has worked. She was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She has received the Kennedy Center Honors, and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year. She also has won 17 Grammys.
None of which, she says, grew out of any long-term plan. "I never thought about singing for 40 or 50 years," she says. "But I can't imagine stopping. I think most of my vocal qualities are intact, and I take care of my voice, so I can see myself singing at 80, 85."
If music has worked out for Franklin, she hasn't always had the easiest time off stage. Her mother and three of her four siblings died young, which may be one reason she has for many years tried to spend a good part of her time at her own home.
"I always liked to be there for my children," she says. "I like to stay at home and just kick around. I like to cook."
She's an early riser, she says, "except when I'm doing concerts."
She still loves performing.
"There's nothing like a concert," she says. "I like recording, but when people are there feeling it with you, that's the best."
Some fans may not know that music wasn't the only art the 64-year-old Franklin pursued as a young girl.
"When we were in New York, I went to the Academy of Ballet on the East Side," she says. "I loved to dance."
She ended up not pursuing it, "because training for concerts is pretty much all-consuming.
"It was too bad, because I could have been a good dancer."
But she likes the memories.
"There was one move I just couldn't get," she says. "It started with 'glissando-glissando' [double slide], and for some reason I couldn't do it."
So she sought help from Arthur Mitchell, director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
"He came over to our East Side brownstone, and in about four minutes it clicked right in."
The Mitchell connection is pertinent because the Dance Theatre of Harlem will be opening her two Apollo shows this week, and Franklin can't say enough good things about him.
"He brought that whole program to fruition," she says. "What he has done with that company and for all its dancers over the years is extraordinary.
"I'm just thankful he keeps doing it."
And so does Franklin.
Ask her whether there are more songs she wants to record and she bursts out laughing.
"Are you kidding? There are millions of songs I haven't recorded yet that I'd love to."
She may not get to all of them. But she does look forward to her Apollo return, and while she won't have four shows a day or Count Basie trying to get her off the phone, there could still be some challenges.
Like having to follow the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
"If they're too good," she says, jokingly, "I may just come out and do glissando-glissando."