Sunday, September 09, 2018

Aretha Anew

Even before Aretha Franklin left us to become "one of the featured voices of the angels," as Smokey Robinson put it at her funeral, I was starting on a journey through her musical legacy, trying to put some shape to it in my mind. A quick self-examination laid bare how much received wisdom I was carrying around, even with all the listening I've done over the years. Casting aside all shibboleths, I realized how many questions I had about her career. Were the Columbia years truly musically barren? What happened at Atlantic after the hits? Was any of her time at Arista equal to her best work?

What follows is a brief overview of some of the thoughts I had while listening to every track available on Spotify on a quest to assemble a playlist that would give you "A Brand New Look At Aretha."

Columbia records stewarded the careers of Billie Holiday and Miles Davis, to name just two artists, working with latter for over 15 years in one of the great artist-label relationships. Greater still is their connection to Bob Dylan, who has worked with them for over 50 years and, aside from a brief time at Asylum, will likely finish his career with all of his albums under their wing. So what did they get wrong with Aretha Franklin?

Listening to the nine - nine - albums of material Aretha recorded for the label from 1961 through 1965, the word that keeps coming to mind is “another,” as in she could be “another Dinah Washington” or “another Ruth Brown” or “another Sarah Vaughn,” or even “another Nellie Lutcher” - but in all those years and sessions, Columbia never seemed to grasp that she could never be anyone else, she could only be Aretha Franklin - and we will surely never have another one of her. 

Like Holiday, Davis, and Dylan (and Elvis, Patsy Cline, The Beatles, Hendrix, Bowie, Michael Jackson and a few others), Aretha, when she finally came into her own, stood alone in her field, a shining example of the music that defined her - and which she in turn defined. Of that group, Aretha was among the most relentless about maintaining her privacy, only occasionally having her personal life spill into the media circus. Her reticence made it easy to focus exclusively on Aretha’s music as I went through my process, but it also sometimes lent an impersonal quality to her music, something I will touch on later.

But crawling through her the Columbia recordings, including some that weren't released until later, I did find some gems, but I also heard a singer still finding her own voice. I don't think the stylistic waywardness was entirely attributable to her producers. Also, a quick look at the credits puts the lie to the “Atlantic gave her back her piano” myth, as she did play the instrument on some sessions. 

But it can’t be denied that after joining Atlantic Records in 1966, Aretha instantly hit her stride. She took immediately to producer Jerry Wexler's approach, which had her singing at the piano on most tracks, often accompanied by two of her sisters, Erma and Carolyn. They also chose recent and new songs more tailored to the times and her sensibility, finally escaping Tin Pan Alley, and had her collaborating with younger musicians like the mighty King Curtis. However, hindsight in this case is a lot fuzzier than 20/20, as even at her peak for every classic, indelible album like I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, Lady Soul, Spirit In The Dark or Amazing Grace, there’s usually one or two others less well remembered.  

Consider the fact that during her 12-year tenure with Atlantic, Aretha released 19 albums, not including compilations - and her reputation was mainly built on just four of them. Atlantic might have served her well by insisting on slowing things down a little to keep the pipeline of great - not merely good - songs full. But massive, world-beating success tends to cloud people’s judgement as they seek more of the same. It also should be noted that her time at Atlantic overlapped with her most dedicated work on the civil rights movement, which may have also stretched her thin at times. That legacy is a crucial part of her life, but I will leave it to others more qualified than I to describe it.

Then came the Arista years, starting in 1980, when she became yet another legend scooped up by Clive Davis, along with Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Like them, Franklin struggled a bit commercially under Davis’s glossy approach, especially at the beginning. She released 10 albums over 23 years with the label, during which time she found some success in the MTV era. While she did fall prey to some of the sonic foibles of the time, working with outstanding talents like Marcus Miller and Luther Vandross kept some of that in check. 

I sometimes feel a sense of over-familiarity with the  great Atlantic albums, especially I Never Loved A Man and Lady Soul, so I decided to ignore one or two of them while making the playlist. The hit singles were so ubiquitous (and perhaps over-licensed to film and television) and I listened to the albums so many times that they are a part of my DNA. So, my brief going in was to hopefully include at least one song from every album while keeping the final result to no more than two and a half hours. This was tougher than I thought as I didn’t realize how many albums she had put out overall - close to 40!

There are five Atlantic albums from the late 70’s that are NOT on Spotify, which helped with the playlist's length but hindered completeness. None of them were commercial successes, but any fan of Aretha or funk and soul from the era will find good stuff within their grooves. Until Atlantic heeds my call on Twitter to add them to the platform, I direct you to YouTube or even DailyMotion to find songs from With Everything I Feel In Me (1974), You (1975), Sweet Passion (1977), Almighty Fire (1978) and La Diva (1979). There must be a story there, as the label also neglected to include those records in the set disingenuously called The Atlantic Albums Collection. It’s frankly a shame and even disRESPECTtful that music-biz shenanigans are suppressing a quarter of her output for the label. Her last album of new material, A Woman Falling Out Love (2011), which she self-released, is also not available for streaming - yet. 

Now to the playlist. While many of these songs may be unfamiliar to you - as they were to me - they have held up to repeated listenings and enriched my understanding of Aretha's extraordinary career. Here’s a rundown of all the songs I ended up with, along with some interesting tidbits I learned along the way. 


While The Blood Runs Warm (from Aretha Gospel aka Songs Of Faith, 1956)

Like most soul singers, Aretha got her start in church. This live album, recorded at New Bethel Baptist Church in her hometown of Detroit, probably under her father’s gaze, gives us a fascinating peek at those origins. The 14-year-old Aretha displays extraordinary command, both in her singing and her piano playing, and if the shadow of Mahalia Jackson looms large, that was true for every gospel singer who came after her. Jackson was also one of several women who took care of Aretha after her mother died in 1952 so some of the influence was very direct!


Won’t Be Long and Who Needs You (from Aretha in Person with the Ray Bryant Combo, 1961)

After all I read about the Columbia years, this debut album opened with a nice surprise in the sprightly and swinging Won’t Be Long, written by John Leslie McFarland, a so-so songwriter and arranger assigned to Aretha by John Hammond, the legendary record man who signed Franklin to the label. It’s not a great song, but Aretha goes for it - listen to her voice crack when she sings “on the 5:03.” Who Needs You?, a rare Billie Holiday co-write, is even better. Aretha sings this kiss-off song like she means it, with a smile in her voice and adding little Lutcher-like hiccups, a young singer trying on another’s guise. However, it was also a style that was at least 10 years gone. She’s at the piano on this track and you can hear the difference. 

Rough Lover (from The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, 1961)

Much of this second album is a disappointing retreat from the hints of success on the first one, with the producers rooting around in the Great American songbook for ill-fitting numbers like Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive. Hardly electrifying, and even worse was the echo they put on her voice, giving it distance when clarity and closeness were required. This song, another McFarland original, tries a bit too hard, but the fun Aretha is having pretending to be a salty old blues singer is infectious. Also, the “Now listen here, girls” intro sounds a lot like the Aretha we would come to know and love a few years later. 

Without The One You Love (from The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin, 1962)

The sweeping strings that announce Aretha’s first recorded composition indicate just how far off the mark Columbia was drifting in their search for a sound for Aretha. It’s a highly derivative ballad, not without melodic sophistication, but she struggles a bit to give it shape. There's actually a Berry Gordy, Jr. song called I'm Wandering on the album, a minor effort made worse by an intrusive trombone. But at least it showed an awareness of Motown, which had already put songs at the top of the charts by 1962.

Skylark (from Laughing On The Outside, 1963) 

Aretha’s ballad style is showing considerable improvement on this Hoagy Carmichael-Johnny Mercer chestnut, with more dynamic range and structure. Listen for the way she hits the word “skylark” after the bridge - wow. There’s another original on the album, but also a lot of songs that had been recorded by others, including Ella Fitzgerald, who seems to be the inspiration for the cover photo. 

Note: after this point, the Columbia years get a little tangled, as they were recording more than they were releasing in their elusive search for a sound and success. Some material was put out on albums after 1966 in an attempt to piggyback on the big sales Aretha was racking up at Atlantic. In 2011, a comprehensive box set tried to put some coherence to the sessions and I have used that to try to put the songs in the order in which they were recorded. 

I May Never Get To Heaven (from Take It Like You Give It, 1967, but recorded earlier (1963?); now on Tiny Sparrow: The Bobby Scott Sessions

Even with all their flailing about, Columbia never tried a gospel album with Aretha, though they had had considerable success with Mahalia Jackson. She sounds very comfortable with the churchy overtones of this song and her singing is extraordinary - check out how she uses her breath to support the ladder of notes in the chorus, especially at the end of the song. Bobby Scott’s production is uncluttered and crisp. 

Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning (from Unforgettable: A Tribute To Dinah Washington, 1964) 

Dinah Washington had died just two months earlier and Aretha sounds very inspired to pay tribute on this track, which is one of her finest blues recordings - period. It’s a master class in inflection that will have you hanging on every iteration of the word “morning.” Also helpful is a very engaged small group featuring the great Paul Griffin, who played with everyone from Bob Dylan to Steely Dan, on organ, alongside the classy George Duvivier on bass and the explosive drummer Gary Chester. The string-heavy ballads, like the title track, come across as fairly rote, but this is still one of Aretha’s more consistent Columbia albums. 

One Room Paradise (from Runnin' Out Of Fools, 1964)

Another McFarland number, which means that it succeeds despite being a bit of a parody. Even though he had somewhat of track record, mainly dating to the 50's, it's mystery to me why he had so much cred with John Hammond. They had Bob Dylan right there and never thought to try Aretha with one of his songs! But a tight arrangement including some delightful interaction between Aretha and the background vocalists make it the best recording on the album. That surprised me because seeing Walk On By, Every Little Bit Hurts and My Guy On the track list raised my hopes - yet they all fall curiously flat. 

I’ll Keep On Smiling (from Take A Look, 1967, but recorded earlier (1964?); now on Take A Look: The Clyde Otis Sessions)

“I’m gonna smile and take it baby,” Aretha nearly spits out at the top of this song (another original composition) in a way that makes you think she had other things on her mind besides a wayward man. Was it her first civil rights anthem?

One Step Ahead (Single, 1965, now on A Bit Of Soul)

This winsome, starlit ballad met with some success at the time - Aretha even performed it on TV! While it still feels nearly a decade out of date, its charms are undeniable. Hip hop producer Ayatollah agreed when he discovered it in 1998, kicking off his career with a beat made from the song, which was made into a hit by Mos Def. 

Take It Like You Give It (from Take It Like You Give It, 1967, but recorded earlier (1965?); now on A Bit Of Soul)

This Aretha original, brief though it is, starts to hint at a contemporary soul sound, with some nice call and response vocals and a tougher delivery from the burgeoning Queen. 

Cry Like A Baby (from Soul Sister, 1966, but recorded earlier (1965?); now on A Bit Of Soul)

This early Ashford & Simpson song, co-written with Jo Armstead, finds Aretha romping all over the tight arrangement, especially at the end. Not perfect, but definite signs of life. In David Ritz's Respect: The Life Of Aretha Franklin, Clyde Otis, who produced most of her later Columbia tracks, revealed some of the challenges they had working together. “Strange woman. Brilliant woman. A woman blessed with inordinate talent,” he told Ritz, "and yet, for all our time together, a woman I never really understood or even got to know. I saw her as a woman holding in secret pain — and I wasn’t let in on those secrets.”

Trouble In Mind (from Yeah!!!, 1965)

This was the last album Columbia released while she was still signed to the label. Having her record live in the studio with a small band (including the great Kenny Burrell on guitar) was a good idea, but adding phony applause and marketing it as a live album was a terrible one. Fortunately, all that was stripped away during the reissue program allowing us to judge the album more clearly. In the end, it's another missed opportunity due to the mostly lousy song selection. This classic blues fares quite well, however, and you can hear Aretha taking charge when she counts the band in from the piano. Her phrasing is starting to acquire the clipped, declarative style that would take the world by storm.


Don't Let Me Lose This Dream (from I've Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, 1967)

There aren't really any deep cuts on this five-star classic album, but this bossa nova-inspired song, co-written by Aretha and her first husband, Ted White, is a personal favorite of mine. It has all the qualities of the four singles released from the record, including carefully modulated dynamics and a very compelling, natural feeling to the arc of the song as she subtly ramps up the tension. Her piano dances all around the track and the harmonizing with Carolyn, Erma and Cissy Houston is sheer bliss.

Ain't Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around) (from Aretha Arrives, 1967)

Ronnie Shannon's Baby, I Love You is the only real classic from this album, which was released a mere five months after the titanic I've Never Loved A Man. But this tune, written by Carolyn, has a delightful insouciance and a great background vocal arrangement. It deserves to be better known.

I Take What I Want (from Aretha Now, 1968)

After the downturn of Arrives, Aretha and her team regrouped and cut Lady Soul (1968), which was another end-to-end winner that should be in everyone's collection. Aretha Now, which came out just a few months later, was nearly as good. Sam & Dave originally cut this Isaac Hayes-David Porter-Teenie Hodges number, but Aretha's version puts a more relaxed spin on it. Jerry Jemmott gives a masterclass in bass playing and Cissy Houston and the Sweet Inspirations add enough extra sass that it's hard to call them "background" singers.

(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (from Aretha In Paris, 1968)

This first live release is highly underrated and is an energetic blast from start to finish. When she cut this signature Stones song on Aretha Arrives it was stiff and sounded miscast. She kept at it though and really ripped into it live, finding new contours in Mick Jagger's monotonic vocal line. She obviously loved the song and kept it in her setlist at least through the early 70's.

Rambling (from Soul '69, 1969)

While not all of this "big band" album works, when it does Aretha is clearly having a great time, as on this Big Maybelle cover. She never really stops singing throughout - listen to the way she heralds in the sax solo (either King Curtis or David "Fathead" Newman) - and the last minute finds her riffing and scatting, inciting the band to "tell a story" and wailing until she's nearly breathless. You will be, too.

Eleanor Rigby (from This Girl's In Love With You, 1970)

The funk is getting a little harder on Aretha's first 70's album and no more so than on this storming take on Paul McCartney's introspective jewel. As we know from Respect, Aretha had no trouble changing lyrics to suit herself and the little twist of saying "I'm Eleanor Rigby" is surprisingly effective. Also surprising is that there's more of the church here than in her version of Let It Be, which McCartney had written with her in mind. Her ownership of Eleanor Rigby is impressive, but she couldn't do the same with Son Of A Preacher Man, forever the property of Dusty Springfield. The tight group of Muscle Shoals musicians hearkens back to her first work with Atlantic just three years earlier.

Why I Sing The Blues (from Spirit In The Dark, 1970)

Keeping up with her brutal schedule of two albums each year, Aretha also managed to have four originals on this record, including the brilliant title track. That song became another thing entirely on stage, as in this astonishing whisper-to-a scream workout from Antibes in 1971. Even when she hands the mic off to dance, you know who's leading the band. She stays at the electric piano in another amazing version from the Fillmore West - until she gives it up to Ray Charles! This B.B. King song closes the album and she sings it as if she lived it - and she probably did.

Love The One You're With (from Live At The Fillmore West, 1971)

"A little something that we're experimenting with tonight," says Aretha, introducing her version of the Steven Stills song, "And we hope you enjoy it as much as we're going to." Her ear had no doubt picked up on the touches of gospel and Muscle Shoals soul in the original and she amplifies all those things with her tightly drilled band. Even though this album is rated fairly highly, I feel like she doesn't get the props as a live performer that she deserves. An expanded version from 2015 adds two more complete concerts, including full opening sets by King Curtis. An especially poignant moment comes near the end of the March 7, 1971 show when Aretha says "Look for King and I to do our thing, for years to come," not knowing that five months later he would be brutally murdered, ripping away one of her staunchest musical companions.

A Brand New Me (from Young, Gifted and Black, 1972)

This album had a fairly long gestation, being recorded from August 1970 through February 1971. Six singles came off of it, including the phenomenal Rock Steady, which might be her funkiest composition. That song was a showcase for the great drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, and the whole record is filled with sharp studio musicians, which results in maybe a little too much polish overall. This song, written by Philly Soul avatars Kenny Gamble, Jerry Butler and Theresa Bell, was originally recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1969. Unlike with Son Of A Preacher Man, Aretha has no problem making it her own. She finds a higher register in her voice and captures the tune's exuberance perfectly.

How I Got Over (from Amazing Grace, 1972)

Over a decade into her professional career it was well past time for a gospel album from Aretha and the landmark live album that resulted was more than worth the wait. This version of the Clara Ward standard is a good representation of the ecstatic feel throughout. A documentary film, directed by Sydney Pollack, was shot during the recording of the album and finally completed in 2011. Aretha blocked every attempt at showing it during her lifetime; it remains to be seen if her estate will change that.  [Update: After Aretha's death, her estate allowed the movie to be released, to almost universal praise. Stream it here.]

Young, Gifted and Black (from Oh Me, Oh My: Aretha Live In Philly 1972, 2007)

This concert, recorded at an industry convention, was a great discovery. While it's a less expansive show than the Fillmore sets, it has some unique features like this instrumental version of the Nina Simone song that Aretha had covered on her most recent studio album. She really shines as a bandleader here, clearly delighted to be among instrumental equals. She comps for everyone's solos, keeping a lively background going, and when it's her turn she sparkles in a rhythmic dialog with the conga player that keeps everyone on their toes.

Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) (from Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky), 1973)

It's hard to know where to lay the blame for this, the first near-total disaster of Aretha's Atlantic tenure. Was it the fault of Quincy Jones, who was still some years off from finding his way as a producer outside of jazz? Aretha was co-producer, however, so some of the responsibility is hers. Was she missing the sure hand of King Curtis, who was a savant when it came to combining pop, soul and jazz? We'll never know, but there are so many wrong directions here that it's hard to know where to start. From the interminable version of the Leonard Bernstein-Steven Sondheim song Somewhere, to the wrong-footed take on Moody's Mood For Love, not to mention deservedly forgotten songs like Mister Spain, there's not a lot good to say about the album. The brightest spots come from Aretha's pen, as on So Swell When You're Well, a collaboration with New Orleans piano genius James Booker, and the title track. The main part of the song is hard funk, with stunning playing from the rhythm section and pianist Spooner Oldham - and Aretha singing the heck out of it. There's an almost psychedelic bridge that doesn't really work, but it doesn't last long, and you can't hold her ambition against her.

Let Me In Your Life (from Let Me In Your Life, 1974)

With Jerry Wexler back in the producer's chair, this was a huge improvement over the previous album. There were new collaborators on board as well, including Donny Hathaway and, on the Bill Withers song that opened the album, Brazilian legend Eumir Deodato. The album also makes fewer concessions to rock and pop, which could be seen as a reflection of the fragmentation of the audience, in part thanks to that other Atlantic act, Led Zeppelin. Disco was on the rise, funk was getting deeper, and some white listeners may not have been following as closely as they once had.

I Get High (from Sparkle, 1976)

After the disappointing sales of With Everything I Feel In Me (1974) and You (1975), her last two albums with Jerry Wexler, Aretha got wind of Curtis Mayfield's score for the movie Sparkle. In the film, a tale of the rise and fall of a singing group not unlike The Supremes, the singing is done by the actors, including Irene Cara of Fame fame. But Aretha used her legendary status to muscle in on the soundtrack album and sang over the original backing tracks, scoring both commercial and artistic success. This song is the most "Curtis" sounding on the album, which makes it my favorite.

Aretha closed out her time at Atlantic with three albums that are ripe for re-appraisal. Sweet Passion (1977) found her working with Motown great Lamont Dozier, Almighty Fire (1978) paired her up with Mayfield again (and was sometimes funkier than Sparkle!), and La Diva (1979) was her first true bid for the disco dance floor, with Van McCoy, The Hustle man himself, lending a hand. Her singing was always fine and all three albums have their moments and would have found places on this playlist. The music biz is no stranger to posthumous cash-grabs and this is one case where some deluxe reissues would be more than welcome.

Just as Aretha was transitioning to Arista, her first new label since 1967, tragedy struck when her father, C.L. Franklin was shot in a robbery attempt. Not only was he a nationally known preacher who had marched with MLK, he had guided Aretha's early career and appeared on Amazing Grace. He was in a coma for the next few years, but just as with King Curtis, Aretha mostly kept what must have been devastating sorrow out of her music.


Take Me With You (from Aretha, 1980)

Aretha's first album on her new label featured a few holdovers from the Atlantic era, most notably producer Arif Mardin, but there were a lot of new faces as well. Chuck Jackson (not the Any Day Now singer but one of the writers behind Leaving Me by The Independents) co-produced and wrote several of the songs, including this sprightly dance number. Aretha had obviously been paying attention to the great disco divas and absorbed their techniques, turning in an amazing, inspired performance. If it seemed a little late for disco in 1980, time's flattening effect allows us to enjoy Take Me With You as catchy and fun party-starter. The album sold fairly well, but was not quite the knockout punch she needed. Much of it has not held up, either veering into "adult contemporary" territory, or trying too hard, as with the regrettable "update" of Otis Redding's I Can't Turn You Loose. The cover photo, a relatable but glamorous shot by Hollywood legend George Hurrell was a huge upgrade on some of her later Atlantic albums, however!

Truth And Honesty (from Love All The Hurt Away, 1981)

Written by the trio of Burt Bacharach, Carol Bayer Sager and Peter Allen, this track is thankfully not a gloopy mess, but rather a classy and upbeat variation on one of Aretha's favorite themes: treat me right. Arif Mardin was back as producer and Marcus Miller, who would become an important collaborator, makes his first appearance on an Aretha album, playing bass on several tracks. There was also a so-so duet with George Benson and a couple more horrid remakes, namely You Can't Always Get What You Want and Hold On I'm Coming, which bizarrely earned a Grammy award, Aretha's first since 1974.

It's Your Thing (from Jump To It, 1982)

The title track was a huge hit, although in retrospect it's not much of a song. This track was another remake and really should not have worked, but the arrangement and Aretha's joy in singing it make it an infectious winner. Marcus Miller's bass is insane and the vocal arrangement, which included Erma for the first time in years, is hypnotic. Producer Luther Vandross no doubt had something to do with that. The horns, arranged brilliantly by Jerry Hey, equal anything on Off The Wall or Thriller, on which he worked that same year. There's also a nice collaboration with the Four Tops and a Smokey Robinson song to end what was Aretha's most consistent album in quite some time.

Pretender (from Get It Right, 1983)

Having got it right with Jump To It, Aretha stuck with Vandross and Miller for the next album. She seems to connect with this slinky song, another in the "treat me right" genre. The title track was a decent slice of shiny 80's funk, with Aretha toying with a new huskiness in her voice. The last song, called Giving In and credited to Clarence Franklin (also the name of her first child), has touch of gospel and makes me wonder if she was coming to terms with her father's situation. But it's also a pretty bland love song, so who knows? In any case, he would be dead within a year.

Integrity (from Who's Zoomin' Who?, 1985)

Sales for Get It Right were lower than Jump To It, so Arista head Clive Davis took matters in hand, ditching Vandross and Miller and bringing in Narada Michael Walden, another jazz fusion guy making the switch to pop and R&B. Davis's instincts were correct, at least commercially, and Aretha rose to the top of the MTV and Billboard charts with Freeway Of Love, Another Night and Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves, giving her a platinum album and making her a star for a new generation of listeners. She also had another go at Van McCoy's Sweet Bitter Love, finally conquering a song she had first recorded at Columbia in 1965 . But it's this self-penned (and self-produced) song that's the hidden gem for me. It's less cluttered than much of the album, and the Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo is a perfect touch. You also feel for Aretha, because someone is taking advantage of her, whether in love or business. She was still seeking respect all those years later.

He'll Come Along (from Aretha, 1986)

Of course Walden was back as they tried to hit the same heights as Who's Zoomin' Who. They almost made it, sales-wise, but much of the album was a bloated mess. Even with Aretha back at the piano, the cover of Jumpin' Jack Flash was wretched, and the other singles weren't much better. This song again written and produced by Aretha, is a return to a gospel-soul sound and is filled with hope for romantic possibilities. She sings to raise the roof, especially on the ad libs near the end.

We Need Power (from One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, 1987)

Speaking of power, now that Aretha had regained some clout, she turned back to the church for her second gospel album. This gave her a chance to sing more with her sisters and with Mavis Staples, who was more up to the challenge than other duet partners like Annie Lennox and George Michael. Structured like a service and recorded at her father's church in Detroit, the album is both a personal statement and a near-definitive document of a crucial part of African-American life. As this song proves, the fervor was as real as it was on Amazing Grace, even if fewer people were listening this time around. One impetus for making the album might have been her sister Carolyn's health. She was probably already being treated for the breast cancer that killed her the following year, another of Aretha's pillars of support gone too soon.

He's The Boy (from Through The Storm, 1989)

After the gospel shouts had faded, and Carolyn had died, it was back to business as usual. Walden produced again and there were more duets, with James Brown, Elton John, Whitney Houston, etc. A lot of that stuff sounds pretty bad at this late date, but Aretha rescued the album with another original tune, leading a small band (including Louis Johnson on bass) from the piano and delivering an understated vocal that's a coy and sexy delight.

You Can't Take Me For Granted (from What You See Is What You Sweat, 1991)

Even with sagging sales, Clive Davis doubled down on the Who's Zoomin' Who strategy, adding more duets and a passel of producers to Aretha's first album of the 90s. She looks less than thrilled on the cover and album-buyers responded in kind. I hate to keep harping on this, but she sounds most engaged on another of her own songs with her own stripped down production. Was she telling Davis not to take her for granted? Either way, he seemed to not be paying attention.

I'll Dip (from A Rose Is Still A Rose, 1998)

After nine records in 11 years, Aretha finally took a break. When she was ready to get back to work, Davis (to his credit) urged her to take stock of the current scene, including neo-soul and hip hop. Even if the album only went gold, it was a good move artistically, with Aretha sounding more than comfortable in new surroundings. While people still remember the Lauryn Hill-produced title track, as far as the rest of the album goes, this sinewy Dallas Austin song is ripest for rediscovery. It's almost a duet with super-funky bassist Colin Wolf - maybe she was reminiscing about all those sessions with Marcus Miller and Louis Johnson while she sang.

So Damn Happy (from So Damn Happy, 2003)

Five years later, after taking time off to care for her sister Erma, who had throat cancer and died in 2002, Aretha was still trying to keep up with the charts. She worked with Mary J. Blige and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, but also followed new Arista head Antonio Reid's lead in trying to get back to her roots a little bit. This song is a good example, but was it better than the other originals she had been sprinkling around her last few albums? Maybe not, but at least Reid was noticing and had her include two more of her own songs on the album.

Teach Me Tonight (from Sings The Great Diva Classics, 2014)

After Christmas album in 2008 (see below), Aretha self-released A Woman Falling Out Of Love, which she also executive produced in 2011. It's a bit of a mixed bag, but New Day, a groovy bid for the dance floor, is worth revisiting, and she obviously loved Sweet Sixteen, the B.B. King song she included, performing it until the end of her life. For her last studio album, however, she signed with RCA and rejoined Clive Davis for a misconceived collection of covers. Even though "The Aretha Version" of Adele's Rolling In The Deep was her 100th entry on the R&B charts, it was frankly beneath her to sing it. The take on Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U, produced by Andre 3000 of OutKast, was almost weird enough to work. But it was this song, ironically a return to Tin Pan Alley, that held the most charm. Written by Gene De Paul & Sammy Cahn and a hit for Dinah Washington in 1954, it gave Aretha a chance to show off her still-expert jazz chops and steer clear of bombast. But on the whole, this album was not the career capstone anyone was hoping for.

The Lord Will Come Again (from This Christmas, Aretha, 2008)

OK, I cheated. I wanted to end where we started all those songs ago, with a gospel song, so I swapped the order of the last two albums. Christmas albums are usually terrible and I had zero expectations for this one, originally released as an exclusive sold only at Borders Bookstores. "That's so depressing," my wife said when I told her about it, and I had to agree, picturing that now defunct chain of stores. But there's more than one good song on the album and this traditional spiritual is her best studio performance (for live performances, look no further than Obama's inauguration or the "coat drop") of the new millennium. Aretha's arrangement is pure, unvarnished contemporary gospel and her choice of background singers (Twatha Agee, Shelly Ponder and Fonzi Thornton) could not have been better. She rides the mesmerizing rhythm to glory, taking us home one more time.

When I finally came to the end of this journey, I felt clearer on those three questions I articulated above. The Columbia years were not entirely devoid of worth, but can be heard as an extended time of growing up in public. After the hits, her Atlantic years become complicated, possibly reflecting her personal struggles and a lack of support from the label. The two decades at Arista, and afterwards, really only touched on past glories but hold many special moments nonetheless.

After you've had some time to absorb all these songs, I hope you'll have found some new favorites along with a new perspective on the career of one of our most acclaimed and legendary musicians. Tell me one of your favorite deep cuts and let's keep Aretha Franklin's memory alive the way she would have wanted, through her songs

1 comment:

  1. I disagree I think that Patti LaBelle have more range. But it's just my opinion. Aretha Franklin a very close second to me. Aretha didn't always Rock when she sang a tune.