Aretha Franklin will be remembered for her powerful voice, and virtuosity as a pianist, producer, arranger, and songwriter. She’ll also be remembered for her unyielding activism and effortless shade, but if you grew up in the late ’80s, you probably remember her for something else: A Different World’s theme song.
The Cosby Show spinoff series followed Lisa Bonet’s Denise as she entered the fictional HBCU, Hillman College. Dawnn Lewis, who starred in the show as Denise’s roommate Jaleesha Vinson-Taylor, co-wrote and composed the theme song for the series. She was also set to record the opening for the show’s first season, but, when showrunners found out they hired the same person to sing the theme song and to play Jaleesha, they decided to go in a different direction.
“At that point it was decided that would not be appropriate to have me sing the song’cause it wasn’t my show. It was Lisa Bonet’s show and they thought it would have put too much attention on me as the singer, composer, and co-star of the show. So they started looking for other options,” Lewis said over the phone. By season two — the same season that Franklin’s ex-husband, Glynn Turman, joined the cast as Colonel Brad Taylor — Franklin would end up singing the theme song, but she wasn’t the first person to sing the theme.
After Lewis, the team tried to bring on the legendary singer Al Green to take on the classic tune. But that version would never see the light of day. After it was finished, the producers decided they wanted a “a female voice” instead, says Lewis. That’s when the singer Phoebe Snow stepped in to sing the first season’s theme. Much like The Cosby Show, the producers wanted to switch up the theme song every season.
“Their thought for the second season was, let’s get a different singer. So they got Aretha Franklin thinking that for the next season they would have somebody else do it. Well, once Aretha recorded it, it was like ‘You know what, we’re not having anybody else do this song’,” said Lewis. “It was part of what was supposed to be the natural progression of the show and the music identified with the show, but everyone had to admit that once she sang it, it didn’t need to be sung again.”
Lewis didn’t remember exactly how the Queen of Soul came to record the song though. Luckily, Debbie Allen, who was the executive producer, director, and essentially the showrunner of A Different World, did. Allen joined the series ahead of its second season to bring her real-life HBCU experience as an alumnus of Howard University (where Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” was her crew’s anthem) to the show.
“I knew her. So I actually called her,” Allen said. “I wanted her, everybody did. So we put a call in to her and she said she would come. But she would not fly on a plane. So we had to charter her a bus with her people and have it catered with her favorite foods and she came all the way to California [from Detroit] and went into the recording studio and re-did that song for us and it became the iconic image of A Different World.”
Unsurprisingly, she nailed it.
“I just know that she came in and hit it,” said Allen. “It wasn’t like she had to do ten takes, that’s what I know. She just hit it. That’s what I remember and then we all kind of hung out and had food together, you know — she loved our show which is why she did it.”