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Aretha Franklin

America’s Queen of Soul and possibly the greatest female singer of contemporary pop music, the institution that is ARETHA FRANKLIN has spanned several decades and a few generations, while others have merely passed through. Embracing gospel, R&B and of course, southern soul, her legacy will be her heartfelt, diaphragm-wrenching classics like `I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’, `Respect’, `Baby I Love You’, `A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)’, `Chain Of Fools’, `(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone’, `Think’ and `I Say A Little Prayer’ – and that was just the 60s!
Born March 25, 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee, she was one of six children (Erma and Carolyn were also became solo singers) raised in Detroit by her well-to-do preacher father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, a highly revered figure, who himself had released a catalogue of recordings of his famous sermons. In the early 50s, Aretha was given singing lessons by family friends and gospel singers, MAHALIA JACKSON and CLARA WARD, who influenced and inspired her early career. The teenage Aretha’s initial recordings, `Never Grow Old’ (released aged only 14) and `Precious Lord’, were primarily gospel releases from ’56 and ‘59, her celebratory, a cappella black religious singing style had been developed from the old time spirituals, which went on to form a cornerstone of popular music.
Inspired by the secular success of SAM COOKE, Aretha subsequently moved to New York where she employed manager, Joe King. There, she was spotted by music biz legend and talent scout, John Hammond and, in 1960 she signed up to Columbia Records; releasing her debut single, `Today I Sing The Blues’, that autumn. After a minor hit early the following year, `Won’t Be Long’, the gospel diva chalked up her first US Top 40 entry with the standard R&B song, `Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody’. She continued to dent the Hot 100 several times, although FRANKLIN’s wild creative spirit was essentially stifled by record company attempts to market her as a bluesy mainstream torch singer. Albums of the time were hardly stuff of legend, although they were a-plenty, including ARETHA (1961) {*4}, THE ELECTRIFYING ARETHA FRANKLIN (1962) {*5}, THE TENDER, THE MOVING, THE SWINGING (1962) {*5} – her initial Top 75 entry, LAUGHING (ON THE OUTSIDE) (1963) {*4}, UNFORGETTABLE: A TRIBUTE TO DINAH WASHINGTON (1964) {*7}, RUNNIN’ OUT OF FOOLS (1964) {*4}, ARETHA FRANKLIN YEAH!!! IN PERSON WITH HER QUARTET (1965) {*5} and SOUL SISTER (1966) {*5}.
Things really took off when she signed to Atlantic Records in 1966. Veteran producer Jerry Wexler relocated FRANKLIN to the legendary Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama, the combination of his experience and the “down home” style of the resident musicians, allowed her formidable talents to flower in a manner that previous producer, Mitch Miller, hadn’t touched on. With a team of Wexler, engineer Tom Dowd and arranger Arif Mardin behind her, a rejuvenated ARETHA FRANKLIN was unstoppable and, in the ensuing two years, notched up a staggering run of hit singles, every one a timeless classic. The aforementioned `I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)’ heralded her creative rebirth; FRANKLIN marking her territory with a seductive, primal femininity. The flip side was a sensitive cover of the DAN PENN/Spooner Oldham classic, `Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’, a potential hit in its own right. The same could be said of the follow-up, a blistering interpretation of OTIS REDDING’s `Respect’, released with Aretha’s slow-burning `Dr. Feelgood’ in her homeland, and backed with the equally impressive `Save Me’ in Britain. The single was a US chart-topper, the parent album I NEVER LOVED A MAN THE WAY I LOVE YOU (1967) {*9}, arguably her magnum opus and certainly a landmark soul release.
Capturing the essence of a woman now in charge of her soul, ARETHA ARRIVES (1967) {*7}, showcased the Top 5 smash, `Baby I Love You’, while there were splendid covers of The ROLLING STONES’ `Satisfaction’, ? & THE MYSTERIANS’ `96 Tears’, `You Are My Sunshine’ and `That’s Life’. Further Top 10 hits followed in the shape of the Goffin/King-penned, `(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, a cover of DON COVAY’s `Chain Of Fools’ and `Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)’. All were included on LADY SOUL (1968) {*9}, another essential album which could’ve conceivably been titled “First Lady Of Soul”, as FRANKLIN consolidating her position as the most talented female soul vocalist in the world, as well as a highly accomplished piano player.
`Think’ was next up, a sexy soul juggernaut of a record and arguably the most uplifting call to feminist arms in the history of recorded music, while `I Say A Little Prayer’ (a beautifully sweet cover of the BACHARACH-DAVID number), was another million selling single, backed with the insidiously funky `The House That Jack Built’ on the American double-A release. Sadly, the latter track was not available on the accompanying ARETHA NOW (1968) {*8} set, although Top 20 breaker, `See Saw’, her version SAM COOKE’s `You Send Me’ and the standard `The Night Time Is The Right Time’, spread her R&B message with a touch of class.
The slightly disappointing concert set, ARETHA IN PARIS (1968) {*5}, provided further coverage for her greatest hits, while the session-friendly ARETHA FRANKLIN: SOUL ’69 {*8}, achieved royalties for songsmiths: PERCY MAYFIELD (`River’s Invitation’), SMOKEY ROBINSON (`The Tracks Of My Tears’), SAM COOKE (`Bring It On Home To Me’) and BOB LIND (`Elusive Butterfly’), to name just four.
As the decade drew to a close however, FRANKLIN began to lose her focus, splitting with her husband and sometime songwriting partner, Ted White. Nevertheless, 1970 brought forth two masterful LPs: the first, the HERB ALPERT-inspired title, THIS GIRL’S IN LOVE WITH YOU {*7} – featuring recent hits from The BAND’s `The Weight’ (slide guitar by DUANE ALLMAN), Al Bragg’s `Share Your Love With Me’, The BEATLES’ `Eleanor Rigby’ (plus non-hit `Let It Be’), the DUSTY SPRINGFIELD hit `Son Of A Preacher Man’ and her own `Call Me’. The other was SPIRIT IN THE DARK {*8}, a deep soul/gospel record which contained the brilliant `Don’t Play That Song’, plus covers from B.B. KING, DR. JOHN, JIMMY REED and Goffin-King; listen out too for the aforementioned Duane.
1971’s LIVE AT FILLMORE WEST {*8} was a smoking star-studded concert set featuring BILLY PRESTON (organ), Cornell Dupree (guitar), Jerry Jemmott (bass), Bernard Purdie (drums) and backing singers The Sweethearts Of Soul, although it was slightly tainted by the tragic death of her legendary sax player and soloist, KING CURTIS, who, on August 13, 1971, was stabbed to death on the street. Aretha and her father sang and gave a sermon at the funeral; she attended another funeral six months later of her friend/mentor MAHALIA JACKSON.
YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK (1972) {*8} – the title taken from a BOB & MARCIA number, spawned the gritty funk of FRANKLIN’s `Rock Steady’ (another Top 10 smash), proving that the Queen Of Soul could almost compete with the genre’s Godfather, JAMES BROWN. An earlier hit from the pen of ELTON JOHN: `Border Song (Holy Moses)’, plus her own attendant chart entries, `Day Dreaming’ and `All The King’s Horses’, sat at ease with OTIS REDDING’s `I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’, The BEATLES’ `The Long And Winding Road’ and The DELFONICS’ `Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)’; hit reinterpretations of SIMON & GARFUNKEL’s `Bridge Over Troubled Water’ and BEN E. KING’s `Spanish Harlem’ (both from summer ’71) were earmarked for “Greatest Hits” sets.
1972 also saw the release of AMAZING GRACE {*7}, Aretha’s spellbinding double gospel set recorded with James Cleveland & The Southern California Community Choir. Her 10 minute vocal exercise of John Newton’s title track and a raft of traditional covers (plus the appearance of her dad and a CLARA WARD track), made for a resounding piece of work that could resonate with nigh-on all creeds and religions.
Back on the Top 30 pop trail, HEY NOW HEY: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SKY (1973) {*6} produced a couple of minor gems in `Angel’ (penned by her sister Carolyn), `Master Of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes)’ and a cover of Bernstein & Sondheim’s `Somewhere’. The equally tight and funky, LET ME IN YOUR LIFE (1974) {*6}, was enhanced by her excellent version `Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)’. Partly composed by STEVIE WONDER, it was Aretha’s last major Top 3 hit of the 70s and despite a reunion with Wexler, Mardin and Dowd (on cuts by BILL WITHERS, BOBBY WOMACK, ASHFORD & SIMPSON, LEON RUSSELL, et al), she couldn’t match the depth and power of her late 60s heyday. Ditto WITH EVERYTHING I FEEL IN ME (1974) {*5} and YOU (1975) {*4}, two albums that just didn’t set well with the changing climate of music.
The CURTIS MAYFIELD-scribed soundtrack to SPARKLE (1976) {*6} was trumpeted as FRANKLIN’s great return to form and the Top 20 after her recent slump. In reality it was a fairly tepid last gasp before almost a decade in the wilderness. On paper, the prospect of the King of Blaxploitation and the Queen of Soul was irresistible, especially after the earthy magic Curtis had worked on with a backsliding STAPLE SINGERS for the previous year’s “Let’s Do It Again”.
The former IMPRESSIONS man was on a roll for sure, but somehow his Midas touch failed him here. His arrangements were far too slick for a start, with all the polish but little of the bite of his earlier soundtracks – both he and FRANKLIN sound like they’re going through the motions. Part of the problem was that his airy compositions obliged her to sing at the upper end of her range, to the extent that it became somewhat wearing. Technically, she was flawless, but what this album lacked was root-down, diaphragm-busting grit of the kind which defined past glories such as `Baby I Love You’ and `Think’. The listless `Something He Can Feel’ scraped into the Top 30, but the neo-southern soul of `Loving You Baby’ or even the title track might well have been better bets for single releases.
They were among the few moments when FRANKLIN’s stratospheric vocal and Rich Tufo’s strings really stung – for the most part, the latter’s orchestrations were syrupy rather than rhythmic. And only with `I Get High’ do he and his famous partner hint at the conscious soul of yore and how great this album could have been, while minor hit `Jump’ (the one track from the pen of MARCUS MILLER and LUTHER VANDROSS) at least had a funky, neo-disco kick to it. MAYFIELD would subsequently reassert himself with the powerful “Short Eyes”, but he and FRANKLIN’s curious lack of chemistry was all too evident on her follow studio albums: SWEET PASSION (1977) {*4}, ALMIGHTY FIRE (1978) {*4} and LA DIVA (1979) {*3}.
Following a move to Arista Records at the turn of the decade, FRANKLIN teamed up with the aforementioned VANDROSS, releasing a string of slicker and pop-ier, if equally bland albums: ARETHA (1980) {*5} – with non-hit `What A Fool Believes’ (The DOOBIE BROTHERS), LOVE ALL THE HURT WAY (1981) {*4} – featuring her title track hit with GEORGE BENSON, JUMP TO IT (1982) {*5} and GET IT RIGHT (1983) {*5}; the latter two starred a handful of decent covers in The ISLEY BROTHERS’ `It’s Your Thing’, SMOKEY ROBINSON’s `Just My Daydream’ and The TEMPTATIONS’ `I Wish It Would Rain’.
The Top 20, WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO? (1985) {*7}, was a marked improvement, providing the quiet storm soul-stress with no less than four top singles: `Freeway Of Love’, the title track, `Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves’ (a duet alongside the EURYTHMICS) and `Another Night’. Down to the production/arranging/writing talents of Narada Michael Walden and some urban sax playing by Clarence Clemons, FRANKLIN was digging her scene once again.
Itching toward superstardom again, the rush-released ARETHA (1986) {*5} attempted to repeat the formula, and in a way, it almost did just that, as three out of four singles managed to crack the Top 30 – one of them, `I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)’ – a duet with GEORGE MICHAEL – searching out her first domestic chart-topper for twenty years; her reading of The ROLLING STONES’ `Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ (for the Whoopi Goldberg flick of the same name) and `Jimmy Lee’ were the hits in question.
More interesting was Aretha’s return-to-gospel set, ONE LORD, ONE FAITH, ONE BAPTISM (1987) {*6}, her voice still a revelation on a record that included contributions from the likes of MAVIS STAPLES, Joe Ligon (of The Mighty Clouds Of Joy), the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Jasper Williams and a handful of her siblings.
THROUGH THE STORM (1989) {*5} continued her musical liaison with Walden, a partly duet type record that saddled her with distinguished stars such as ELTON JOHN (for the Top 20 hit title track), WHITNEY HOUSTON (for the not-so-giant, `It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be’), JAMES BROWN (`Gimme Your Love’) and both KENNY G and The FOUR TOPS (`If Ever A Love There Was’). The aptly-titled WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU SWEAT (1991) {*4} set her back in commercial terms, having no hits to bolster poorer than poor sales returns; SLY & THE FAMILY PEOPLE’s `Everyday People’ was its highlight.
While the R&B/hip-hop smarts of 1998’s A ROSE IS STILL A ROSE {*6} had endeared her to a younger audience and regained her a place in the Top 40, its stylish and slick production was aimed strictly at the dance scene. Led out by its LAURYN HILL-authored title track, and follow-on PUFF DADDY stint `Never Leave You Again’, Aretha’s own bookend piece, `The Woman’ (clocking in at over 7 minutes), showed she could still write something worthwhile at the age of 55.
FRANKLIN undertook a bona fide return to the roots with 2003’s SO DAMN HAPPY {*6}, another Top 40 success story; a mix of producers ranged from Jam & Lewis, Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence and Troy Taylor, respectively. If the hip-hop influence remained courtesy of two – admittedly rather wonderful – MARY J. BLIGE collaborations (`Holdin’ On’ and `No Matter What’), the southern soul of Aretha soared once more on the wholesome, retro-R&B like of `Wonderful’.
On the back of her first ever festive set, THIS CHRISTMAS (2008) {*5} – her son Eddie makes his cameo, there was the release of her inaugural self-financed album, A WOMAN FALLING OUT OF LOVE (2011) {*6}. Still sounding as deliciously soulful and sensuous as in her heyday, Aretha gets all bluesy on a cut of B.B. KING’s `Sweet Sixteen’, and nostalgic on `A Summer Place’, `The Way We Were’ and `My Country ‘Tis Of Thee’, Curtiss Boone spins her the jazzy smooch effect on `U Can’t See Me’ and `When 2 Become One’; once again son Eddie stands by his mum on the spiritual, `His Eyes Is On The Sparrow’.
Registering her sentimental soul vox for an OAP generation willing to reflect on nostalgic days of yore, umpteenth set ARETHA FRANKLIN SINGS THE GREAT DIVA CLASSICS (2014) {*5}, more or less convinces one the lady’s not for turning – from her roots. No sign of a much-needed re-vamp from Rick Rubin then, but the Lady of Soul excels on `At Last’, `I Will Survive’, and a medley of `I’m Every Woman’ gelled with `Respect’; though not so sure about her scat-pop reading of `Nothing Compares 2 U’.
Health issues were Aretha’s subsequent concerns. Nevertheless she soldiered on for cameo live appearances until obvious weight loss forced her to fully retire by late 2017. Several months on and reported to have advanced pancreatic cancer, the Queen of Soul passed away at her home on August 16, 2018.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS // rev-up MCS May2013-Aug2018

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