Alrighty... a friend specifically told me how much he was looking forward to my Aretha write-up, so I promised to go into a little more detail. So brace yourselves. But if you ain't got the time or the patience, here's the tl;dr version: Aretha Franklin has one of the greatest voices ever committed to wax, and in the late '60s, she recorded some of the greatest music the world has ever known. I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You
and Lady Soul
should be in every discerning music lover's collection. Her star starts to fade in the early '70s and by the middle of the decade, she's in solidly meh territory. After that, she flounders into the disco age, I lose interest, and my collection ends.
OK, now here's the long version:
One of the singularly towering talents of the late '60s (and quite simply, one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century), Aretha Franklin did more to inject gospel fervor into popular R&B music than anyone but Ray Charles (who is one of Aretha's clearest and most direct influences.) After wallowing in mostly wrongheaded sessions at Columbia for the early part of the decade (none of which I currently own because there's really not much reason to bother with this stuff), Aretha came out roaring once she switched to Atlantic and hooked up with sympathetic producer Ahmet Ertegun, engineer extraordinaire Tom Dowd, and the fantastic Muscle Shoals house band, hot from their streak of greatness backing Wilson Pickett. 1967's I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You
and 1968's Lady Soul
are two of the most amazingly awesome R&B albums ever recorded, both being pretty much non-stop, wall-to-wall greatness. I have them both burned together onto a single CD and holy shit, it really just doesn't get any better, folks. Aretha deploys her immense, expressive voice and exceptional piano playing (an aspect of her tremendous talent oft-overlooked when folks discuss her legacy) on a stunning collection of some of the finest R&B songs ever written. Her taste in covers here is fantastic, beginning with Otis Redding's "Respect"
(which, ever since, has been referred to as "Aretha Franklin's 'Respect'") and including "Drown In My Own Tears"
(surely swiped from Ray Charles), Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come"
, Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready"
, a fantasic romp through James Brown's "Money Won't Change You"
, and the oft-recorded Jim Ford-penned "Niki Hoeky"
. (The sole exception to my ears being The Rascals' "Groovin'", which is, IMHO, a thoroughly overrated song in any context.) And the hits? Oh, the hits! "I Never Loved A Man"
, "Chain Of Fools"
, "Dr. Feelgood"
, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"
, "Since You've Been Gone (Sweet, Sweet Baby)"
, and sister Carolyn Franklin's "Ain't No Way"
are some of the finest R&B singles waxed in the '60s and frankly, some of the greatest recordings from any era or genre, period. Truly amazing stuff that no respectable music collection should be without.
In between those twin masterpieces (while suffering from a not-quite-healed elbow injury, so there's less great piano playing here) Aretha cranked out Aretha Arrives
, which can't help but pale in comparison. "Baby, I Love You"
is the only hit here -- and it's one of her best ever (and features some of the best Franklin sisters backups) -- but there's a preponderance of filler, with some less interesting cover choices this go-round (and zero Aretha originals.) "Satisfaction" leads things off, but is less-than-inspired (as I note again later, her live version from Aretha In Paris
is much more exciting), and that's followed by "You Are My Sunshine", which should have been retired after Ray Charles did it on his classic Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music
LP. She clocks in for work on an unnecessary version of the oft-recorded (by Nat King Cole, The Impressions, Nancy Wilson, Johnny Mathis, Wynton Marsalis, Luther Vandross, Liza Minelli, her sister Erma, and countless others) "Never Let Me Go", and wanders aimlessly through "That's Life", a song which suits her not at all. But she really shines on her bizarro take on ? And The Mysterians #1 smash "96 Tears"
and the Willie Nelson-by-way-of-B.B.King "Night Life"
. Basically, this whole album is just kinda filler (and the syrupy strings on many of these tracks often overwhelm the band and Aretha's vocals), but let me be clear: in 1967, Aretha filler was better than the vast bulk of anyone else's top-shelf stuff. Even when the material's not up to snuff, Aretha's vocals are still a force of nature. Not the album to start with, by any means, but not any kind of embarrassment. Much better is 1968's Aretha Now
, the immediate follow-up to Lady Soul
, and nearly the equal of the two masterpieces which I opened this exploration with. Exploding out of the gate with the classic "Think"
, the album quickly makes a sharp left turn into pop/gospel with a fantastic version of Bacharach/David's "I Say A Little Prayer"
without sounding the least bit forced. "See Saw"
is great funk swagger (albeit not as great as the non-LP "The House That Jack Built"
, which was the A-side of "I Say A Little Prayer" -- but both sides deservedly went Top 10.) Dipping into the Ray Charles repertoire yet again, Aretha turns in a solid version of "Night Time Is The Right Time" followed by an interesting, if inessential, take on Sam Cooke's "You Send Me". The Sam and Dave raveup "I Take What I Want"
is also given a spirited treatment (with particularly great backup contributions from The Sweet Inspirations) and even the stuff that might be considered filler here ("Hello Sunshine", "You're A Sweet Sweet Man", "A Change") is top-notch.
Aretha had only one album release in 1969 -- Soul '69
-- and unfortunately, it's her first real misstep since revealing her greatness to the world. Overblown, fussy arrangements with a de-emphasis on pop and soul in favor of MOR-ish jazz just don't cut the mustard with me. It's still Aretha singing in her prime, so it's not a total disaster, but the well-known covers here ("Bring It On Home To Me" and "Tracks Of My Tears" in particular) are decidedly subpar interpretations and some of the song selection is downright ludicrous (I'm looking at you, "Elusive Butterfly". I mean, really? "Elusive Butterfly"!?) Ultimately, the biggest sin here is that this LP is just plain boring, something Aretha had never been on her previous Atlantic releases. Luckily, I have this album burned onto a CD with a bunch of leftover tracks from various sources, so once the album proper was over, I was treated to a bunch of good stuff not found elsewhere in my collection: her fabulous 1971 single "Spanish Harlem"
, her wonderful gospelized "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
(one of the handful of truly great versions of that much-recorded chestnut), the totally kickin' and relatively unknown 1975 single "Hey Mr. D.J."
, and her overclocked version of "Think"
from the Blues Brothers
soundtrack. (I know the Blues Brothers get a lot of flak, and rightly so -- I'm hardly suggesting their records are particularly worthwhile -- but it's not like the Blues Brothers Band weren't a bunch of ringers and Aretha really shines here. The same goes for the rip-snortin' version of "Shake Your Tailfeather"
by Ray Charles, for that matter. But I digress...)
1970 saw the release of two Aretha LPs: This Girl's In Love With You
and Spirit In The Dark
. This Girl
is a decidedly more laid-back affair than most previous Aretha, and frankly, it suffers for that. Her "Son Of A Preacher Man" pales in comparison to Dusty Springfield's, her "Dark End Of The Street" lopes casually for the bulk of its duration, only erupting into greatness near its end, and her one-two punch of Beatles covers -- "Let It Be" (which actually beat the Beatles version into the marketplace by nearly two months) and "Eleanor Rigby" -- is mostly pointless (particularly the latter, which has been covered by multiple R&B artists without ever justifying itself as a song worth covering in such a context.) There's a lot of soul here, just not as much fire as on her greatest stuff. The standout: an alternately slinky and explosive version of The Band's "The Weight"
, highlighted by some snakey Duane Allman guitar. A step up from Soul '69
, but still not prime Aretha. Spirit In The Dark
is preferable, IMO. It kicks off with a stunningly great version of the Ben E. King hit "Don't Play That Song"
(it's one of my all-time favorites of hers) and a steamy version of what would become one of B.B. King's signature tunes, "The Thrill Is Gone"
(B.B.'s version was also a 1970 release), showcasing her mighty piano chops. Elsewhere, Aretha turns in a great vocal on sister Carolyn's "Pullin'"
, and does right by the Jessie Hill/Dr.John-penned "When The Battle Is Over"
(which again features some sizzling Duane Allman guitar.) Aretha herself wrote four of these tracks (which I think is her largest songwriting contribution to any of her albums) and while "You And Me" and "One Way Ticket" are mostly just (admittedly high grade) filler, "Try Matty's"
really cooks and "Spirit In The Dark"
is one of her finest compositions, nicely balancing her strengths and easily moving from ballad mode to full-on gospel fire.
1972's Young, Gifted And Black
is even more laid-back than This Girl
, but it's stronger overall. It kicks off with two absolutely gorgeous songs -- "Oh Me Oh My (I'm A Fool For You Baby)"
and "Day Dreaming"
-- before sliding into one of Aretha's most satisfying grooves on the fantastic "Rock Steady"
. The second side isn't as immediately pleasurable, although a stirring version of "I've Been Loving You Too Long"
is a highlight. Her gospel-ized version of "The Long And Winding Road" is a most noble effort, but it still remains one of McCartney's lamest-ever ballads, and there's also an interesting version of "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind)", but it never really catches fire. But the album-closing "Border Song (Holy Moses)"
is probably the definitive version of that Elton John classic, and it points towards the towering achievement of Aretha's real classic from 1972, the incredible gospel album Amazing Grace
. Recorded over two nights in a church, and backed by a full-on gospel choir, Aretha's voice is as fine as it would ever be on this (expanded on CD) double-disc set which contains amazing versions of gospel classics as well as more contemporary material. This monumental recording would be the last truly great Aretha record and unless you just can't get behind religious music at all, should sit next to Loved A Man
and Lady Soul
in any comprehensive music collection.
Unfortunately, it's mostly downhill from there. In 1973, Aretha hooked up with Quincy Jones to produce Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky)
, a real mess of a record. It's a light-jazz inflected, funk jam disaster that really has little to recommend it. Every time a song starts to develop into something interesting, the fussy arrangements devour it and bury Aretha under so much production goop it's amazing she could still be heard at all. And depsite fewer interesting ideas than usual, the songs are some of the longest she'd ever record; 4 of these 9 tracks clock in at over 6 minutes and two of those are over 7! Boo! Aretha gets in some great piano licks here and there (and Billy Preston noodles aimlessly elsewhere), but this album's a wrongheaded disaster and not recommended to any but the most devoted fans. The lowpoints: a particularly bad version of Sondheim's "Somewhere" (Why, Aretha, why!?) and the ridiculous Manhattan Transfer-esque "Moody's Mood". Sister Carolyn's "Angel"
is a well-loved single, but I think it's a perfect example of the overproduction which plagues this record (although I will grant that Aretha's vocal is superb, as it is elsewhere on this boondoggle. She's still the Queen, after all.) The CD reissue appends the minor hit "Master Of Eyes" but it's no better than the album proper. Avoid this one.
1974's Let Me In Your Life
is still no classic, but it's a definite improvement over Hey Now Hey
, if for no other reason than it contains the stunningly beautiful "Until You Come Back To Me"
. There are other pleasures here, though they're slight. As this is mostly still in the laid-back vein Aretha seems to have preferred since This Girl's In Love With You
, "Every Natural Thing"
sticks out as having a solid, if undistinguished, groove. Elsewhere, she wisely taps into her gospel roots eschewing the strained jazziness of her previous album. But a preponderance of ballads and lackluster production ultimately sink this thing.
Which brings us to Sparkle
, a 1976 soundtrack/collaboration with Curtis Mayfield. Well, collaboration is probably too strong a word, as there's little here to suggest Aretha was anything but a hired gun. That said, while the only individual song which really pops is the deserving hit "Something He Can Feel"
, the LP works OK when taken as a whole. Aretha as background music, anyway. Not exactly Mayfield's crowning achievement either, and alas, the end of my interest in Aretha's recordings. (I've never heard a lot of what came later, so I'm not saying it's bad, but I suspect it ain't good, with the possible exception of her 1980s gospel album, because... well... gospel Aretha probably can't help but be good.) But before I go, there's two live albums to consider.
The 1968 live album Aretha In Paris
is much better than its reputation, IMHO. A supercharged version of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" kicks things off in high style (and is better than the studio version found on Aretha Arrives
.) That's followed by a pair of good deep cuts from I Never Loved A Man
and "Night Life", but as the album gains steam, it turns into a powerhouse greatest hits album, with only a brief detour into yet another unnecessary (and even more unispired) version of "Groovin'". Yeah, it's all a little rushed at times, but the band really cooks -- despite Jerry Wexler's insistence that they were horrible -- and Aretha's clearly having a blast. Replacing that "horrible band" in time for the generally overrated
1971 LP, Live At The Fillmore West
, Aretha is here backed by King Curtis and the Kingpins, augmented by The Memphis Horns and Billy Preston on organ. But the all-star band, a few more years of hitmaking, and a pretty pointless Ray Charles appearance just don't add up to much in the way of excitement. "Respect" is fine and I'll always welcome Aretha singing "Don't Play That Song", but there's also "Love The One You're With" (the lyrics of which remain execrable no matter who the singer and what the context), another run-through of her dopey take on "Eleanor Rigby", a less-than-inspired version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water", and the whole mess closes with the schlocky "Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand)" for no particular reason. So don't listen to the review guides -- listen to me: Aretha was simply better in 1968 than 1971, so stick with the earlier album if'n you gotsta get some live Aretha.
Next up... why, Erma Franklin, natch.