Celebrating the birthday of Detroit’s Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, I am making my first of a series of sporadically posted Amazon Archive postings devoted to special occasions such as this. What can I say about Aretha on a personal level? It was her powerfully grooving “Freeway of Love” from 1985,produced with Narada Michael Walden than first introduced me to her music. Only heard “Respect” and “Chain Of Fools” several years later, actually. Personally I feel that was just as powerful an introduction to her music. Right now,today I have to say Aretha symbolizes the human assumption of being able to communicate verbally with honest and soulful eloquence of heart and mind. We live in a society that often seems to value keeping its mouth closed,even on important matters unless its stated with cynical,sarcastic humor.
Aretha has always demanded “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and generally got it since. So her lyrics come out of the classic blues orientation of being open about the desire for freedom and a more positive life. And most important,maintains that ethic properly by indicating that there is either hope or resolution. Since her music always comes from the gospel joy end of the soul spectrum, very little of her music has the capacity of getting the listener into a better frame of mind. While its true that something of a rivalry had existed between Aretha and the late Etta James as far as being the Queen of Soul? I generally take both artists as they are. Here I am presenting two key Aretha Franklin album reviews I wrote yesterday for her two albums from 1970. Thank you!
Aretha Franklin epitomized the new-found spirit of not only black women of her era, but also the women’s liberation movement that was to come in the late 60’s. Her music on the Atlantic label, produced with Jerry Wexler is not only some of the most iconic soul of its era but also instrumentally paved the way for many female solo artists in that genre. During this time of great pioneering on her part,all she really had to concentrate on outside her music was her whirlwind family life-which included a rocky marriage to Ted White-one mired in controversy that allegedly included physical abuse. This gave the impression that Aretha’s lyrics were somewhat autobiographical. Between her early 1969 release Soul 69 and this album,there was a near exact one year time span-an extremely long time period between albums at a time when artist were generally expected to deliver at least an album per year,preferably two. That meant that her next album would not only be a long awaited one, but also her first of a new decade. As something of a New Years treat to soul music lovers? This album was pretty much right on time.
The album starts out with a very appropriate version of “Son Of A Preacher Man”. Aretha adds a very slinky and sexual vocal to the song-both vocally and with the approach the musicians take,than Dusty Springfield’s more sensuous insinuation. Most of the songs here such as “Share Your Love With Me”,”Dark End Of The Street”,”Call Me” and the closer “Sit Down And Cry” are very much in the spare soul ballad vein she made famous-all quite good but even with Aretha’s deserved iconic status? They are all very much of a piece instrumentally. Two Beatle interpretations are where the albums really gets interesting. “Let It Be” always had its roots in gospel but Aretha just let it all out on what more or less amounts to a full on gospel/soul number here-guitar replaced by organ on the bridge. “Eleanor Rigby” bares virtually no resemblance to the original,an uptempo funky/soul process number with the equally iconic Sweet Inspirations at top form and this is my personal favorite number on this album. The title track is of course a shuffling gospel oriented mid tempo version of the Herb Alpert/Burt Bacharach hit sung from a woman’s point of view. Another number I really like her is her take on the Band’s “The Weight”,already a fantastic soul song not entirely acknowledged for being so. Aretha gives no doubt to the songs musical origin’s on her version.
As the woman’s movement was at last getting its start with the emergence of NOW and such,the continued presence of Aretha was even more important. Especially as she provided an important symbol for the enormous African American feminist movement beginning to emerge even on its own terms. At the same time,Aretha would need to musically adapt too as the history that her music was helping to change was itself changing yet again. The underground social movements of the 1960’s started to moved into the mainstream and become more confrontational in the early 70’s. The social and creative freedom demanded by Silent generation leaders and their baby boomer followers were being adopted even by suburban nuclear families during this era. And you can bet the music of Aretha Franklin was on quite a lot of their turntables as well. However Aretha was probably more aware that,as a singer this revolutionary spirit beginning to emerge in the mainstream of America,even in its business end was going to effect music very strongly. So in a way this album is a part of an important transition from her 60’s era musical approach to that of the new decade. But for that it wasn’t even the end. It was just the beginning.
With the long awaited release of her This Girl’s in Love With You at the very start of the year, Aretha Franklin made it perfectly clear that she was going to keep sticking with her soul music explosion as the 1970’s officially arrived. As with much of her 60’s era music,this album more or less showcased her as an interpretive vocalist-spinning musical straw into solid gold soul at every chance she could. But between that album and this,many changes were clear to be seen on the musical home front. Itself brewing along with Aretha’s type of soul was the funk music of James Brown-music that demanded not only a more dance friendly approach but also far more interaction from the instrumentalists involved. As a singer who always made herself part of the entire creative process,the was good news for Aretha. Yet funk would have to wait because for this album,Aretha had something entirely different in mind.
“Don’t Play That Song” opens this album with very much of the feeling that it would maintain through “The Thrill Is Gone”,”Pullin'”,”Honest I Do”,”When The Battle Is Over” and “Oh No,Not My Baby”-through which Aretha handles everything from romantic regret to romantic denial: these songs range from lowdown ballad to uptempo bluesy romps,filled from top to bottom with the artists indomitable spirit. The title song is both lyrically and musically particularly amazing. Opening up with the same bluesy and reflective atmosphere,the song instrumentally evolves into a full on joyous gospel climax-complete with stomping choral vocals singing a complete Hallelujah chorus. This is reflective,along with the bluesiness of the rest of the album indicative of Aretha really getting back to her musical roots. She also provides two more self written songs of her own on “One Way Ticket”,another thickly bluesy soul reflection and “Try Matty’s”,a foot stomping uptempo number where she has a little physical fun with the lyrics. The album concludes with “Why I Sing The Blues”-very much indicative of this album and how it relates to its era.
Overall this showcases Aretha as a full on album artist. And very much contrary to the changing face of music during this era, she takes this opportunity to rediscover the blues in her music. In fact,this is probably the bluesiest album she every recorded during her Atlantic prime period. Each song clearly has a special meaning. Not only did she write nearly half of its 12 songs, but she also played piano on most of them too. And considering the bluesy jazz nature of her piano playing style? That fits right in with the musical approach of this album. So as her full on introduction to the new and more vocal social atmosphere of the early 70’s,Aretha responds here by taking every bit as much creative control of her musical output as she did over her lyrical persona in the previous decade. That leaves this album as the place where Aretha’s Atlantic era sound,which built up consistently from 1967 onward,finally and officially came into itself. This would by no means be the final triumph for Aretha during this decade. But it did put something of a capper on the first phase of her Atlantic years and began an officially transition into the next.
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