Aretha Franklin — the Queen of Soul, as Steely Dan reminded the “sweet young thing” in “Hey Nineteen” — has died. Jon Pareles reviews the record in his excellent New York Times obituary. I cannot take her measure but we can pause to remember and pay our respects.
The metaphor of royal lineage was not entirely amiss in Aretha’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 excellent history Sweet Soul Music, Redding had a foreboding. He 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 Monterey International Pop Festival later that year, Redding reiterated: “The girl took that song away from me.” If you were listening to the radio in the spring of 1967, you remember: The girl took the song away from him.
Listening to Aretha, I began to understand that soul music is secularized gospel music. I should have figured it out earlier, I admit, but I wasn’t familiar with gospel music. In “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” written by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, you can’t miss the lesson. What a tutorial this is, from her epochal 1967 debut on Atlantic. Here we arrive at a peak of Western civilization.
Aretha’s glorious body of work on Atlantic ensued and continued into the mid-1970’s. The albums are full of buried treasures such as “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” and “A Song for You” from Let Me in Your Life (1974), an album that is itself a buried treasure. (For another take on these recordings, see Wilson & Alroy’s record reviews.)
It’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the optimism represented by the dawn of Aretha’s career on Atlantic in the heyday of soul music. I certainly feel nostalgic now listening to “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” (video above), the song she wrote for her great debut on Atlantic. The dream seems to have been waylaid, if not exactly lost, and more than the music has suffered as a result.
In the video below Aretha performs “Call Me,” another of her own compositions, live at the Fillmore West in 1971. This is sweet soul music.
Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote “I Say a Little Prayer” for Promises, Promises, the Broadway musical derived from the Billy Wilder film classic The Apartment. Aretha brought an authentic gospel touch to a beautiful pop song (video below).
Stevie Wonder recorded “Until You Come Back To Me” for Motown in 1967, but it took them 10 years to let it out of the vault. I don’t know why. Aretha turned it into a huge hit in 1974. Produced by Arif Mardin, arranged by Deodato, the recording includes Aretha on piano, Joe Farrell on flute and Cissy Houston on the background vocals.
Aretha returned to the church to record Amazing Grace live. Anyone in search of consolation today may want to take a listen. In the video below she testifies “How I Got Over.” RIP.
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