'Blues Brothers' at 40: Dan Aykroyd on how working with late soul greats James Brown and Aretha Franklin 'venerates African American culture'

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
James Brown, right, performs with Aretha Franklin in Detroit, Mich., in January 1987. Brown was known as the Godfather of Soul, while Franklin was known as the Queen of Soul. (Photo: Richard Lee/Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

They were the Godfather and Queen of Soul, but James Brown and Aretha Franklin didn’t duet until decades into their respective careers, with songs like “Please, Please, Please” and “Gimme Your Love.”

Years earlier, though, both made memorable cameos in the classic 1980 action comedy The Blues Brothers (which celebrated its 40th anniversary on June 20), starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as musicians and small-time crooks who plot to save the orphanage in which they were raised. Brown took us to church as the sermon-crooning Rev. Cleophus James who shows Jake (Belushi) the light — at least to “get the band back together” — while Franklin played a sharp-tongued, lesson-belting soulful café owner Mrs. Murphy.

“What we have there is 40 years of heritage preservation, it venerates African American culture and music and the artists,” Aykroyd tells Yahoo Entertainment in an interview Wednesday promoting his upcoming Travel Channel series Hotel Paranormal.

“You know, we were in our twenties when we made that movie, and it was made out of love for these artists.” The Blues Brothers also featured cameos from Ray Charles, Chaka Khan, Cab Calloway and John Lee Hooker. 

The Canadian-born actor remembers his nerves working overtime in the café scene where Franklin escalates a domestic dispute with her husband and Blues Brothers guitar player Matt Murphy into a full-blown jukebox musical number, lip-synching her 1968 cautionary anthem “Think.” Initially it’s just Franklin and the restaurant’s waitresses dancing to the track, but eventually Jake and Elwood (Aykroyd) join in perfect step.

“I didn’t know whether I was gonna be able to stand, because when that track started and I saw her doing it, and the fluidity of the moves and the music, my stomach turned to jelly and I couldn’t feel my legs,” he says. “I thought I was gonna get off [the stool] and blast to my knees and they’d have to stop the take. But I did get up there and get moving.

Related video: John Landis on how ‘The Blue Brothers’ made Chicagoans dance

“The whole thing was a wonderful [experience]. Top five summers of my life, one of them, anyway.”

Aykroyd maintained a lifelong relationship with Brown, who later appeared in the actor’s 1983 comedy Doctor Detroit (playing — what else? — the band leader) and reprised his role as Cleophus James, singing “Please, Please, Please” in the after credits of the 1998 sequel Blues Brothers 2000, which replaced the late Belushi with John Goodman. (Franklin also returned for 2000, with Mrs. Murphy now running a Mercedes-Benz dealership and performing her most famous hit, “Respect.”)

“His professionalism, and just the way he would get that band going, man, the discipline he would lay on the band made it all so crisp and amazing if you listen to those tracks,” Aykroyd said of Brown, with whom he also opened multiple House of Blues music clubs.

Aykroyd also co-starred as promoter Ben Bart in the acclaimed 2014 Brown biopic Get On Up, starring Chadwick Boseman as the incomparable funk and soul legend.

"We were good friends, we lit up every time we saw each other," an emotional Aykroyd told Yahoo Entertainment about Brown (who died of congestive heart failure in 2006) on Get On Up’s Jackson, Miss. set. "I miss him dearly."

The Blues Brothers is available to stream on Amazon; Hotel Paranormal premieres July 11 on the Travel Channel.

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