Today is the birthday of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul. The metaphor of royal lineage has some application in Franklin’s case. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, was the renowned Detroit preacher whose New Bethel Baptist Church provided the original venue for Aretha and her sisters, Erma and Carolyn.
She became a child star as a gospel singer, signing a recording contract with Columbia Records at age 18 via the legendary producer John Hammond. At Columbia Aretha floundered as the label tried to turn her into a nightclub singer. Columbia never quite found the means to showcase her awesome talent.
Aretha arrived in the spring of 1967, courtesy of Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records. Wexler signed Aretha to Atlantic in the fall of 1966. He sat Aretha at a piano and placed her in the midst of sympathetic musicians at the famed Muscle Shoals Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)” was the result, and everyone involved knew that Aretha had found herself musically.
The Atlantic session resumed in New York and included the recording of Otis Redding’s “Respect,” the song that broke Aretha nationally overnight. According to Peter Guralnick’s superb history Sweet Soul Music, Redding had a foreboding. He presciently told Wexler upon hearing Aretha’s version of “Respect” in the studio for the first time: “I just lost my song. That girl took it away from me.” Onstage at the Monterrey International Pop Festival later that year, Redding reiterated: “The girl took that song away from me.” If you heard the song in the spring of 1967, you remember: She took the song away from him.
Aretha’s glorious body of work on Atlantic continued into the mid-1970’s. The albums are full of buried treasures such as “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” “Dr. Feelgood,” and “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” from “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You” (1967), “Going Down Slow” from “Aretha Arrives” (1967), “Ain’t No Way” and “Since You’ve Been Gone” from “Lady Soul” (1968), “I Say a Little Prayer” from “Aretha Now” (1968), “River’s Invitation” from “Soul ’69” (1969), “Spirit in the Dark” from the album of the same name (1970), “Call Me” from “This Girl’s In Love With You” (1970), “Oh Me Oh My” and “Day Dreaming” from “Young, Gifted and Black” (1971), “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” from “Live at Fillmore West” (1971), “How I Got Over” from “Amazing Grace” (1972), “Angel” from “Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)” (1973), and “With Pen in Hand,” “Until You Come Back to Me” (she blanks on the lyrics in the video above with Stevie Wonder) and “A Song for You” from “Let Me in Your Life” (1974), an album that is itself a buried treasure.
We saw Aretha perform live at the University of Minnesota some 10 years ago. She gave a shout out to Bonnie Raitt in the audience that night by singing Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and brought the house down.
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the optimism represented by the dawn of Aretha’s career in the heyday of soul music; I certainly feel nostalgic listening now to “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream.” The dream seems to have been waylaid, if not exactly lost, and more than the music has suffered as a result. Aretha, however, remains a fine artist with a distinguished body of work and a voice crying to be heard. (First posted in 2006.)