Category Archives: Aretha Franklin

Nina Simone – Young, Gifted, and Black

nina-superjumbo

Monday would have been Nina Simones 84th birthday; and, while Andre already did an excellent job of commemorating the occasion, I thought I’d pitch in with this review of some reissues I wrote way back in 2006 (!). Incidentally, one of the albums, Nina Simone Sings the Blues, was remastered late last year by the Vinyl Me, Please record of the month club; if you’re a member, you can still pick it up.

Over the course of her almost 50-year performing career, Nina Simone was many things to many different people. She was the husky-voiced blues goddess of “See Line Woman” and “Feeling Good”; the fearless Civil Rights crusader of “Old Jim Crow” and “Mississippi Goddam”; the sophisticated “High Priestess of Soul” who gave her definitive 1966 album its name. That is precisely why the essence of Simone is so difficult to capture on a single disc: to try and boil down a career as long, as varied, as singularly eclectic as hers into just a handful of iconic moments is an exercise in futility.

Thankfully, the compilers of a recent set of reissues understand that fact. Playing to just three of Simone’s many strengths, they wisely highlight each with a disc of its own: Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul, both originally released in 1967, cover their self-explanatory genres with the comfortable ease of a woman who had been blending them for years; while Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit compiles politically-minded highlights and rarities from the late ’60s. Granted, some might argue that these releases are inherently flawed, hailing as they do from the singer’s less renowned tenure at RCA rather than her two trailblazing years with Phillips. But if listening to this music with fresh ears proves anything, it’s that there’s a timelessness to all of Simone’s work, which no amount of critical grumpiness could ever erase.

© Legacy Recordings

© Legacy Recordings

As a matter of fact, these albums work a hell of a lot better than they have any right to. The track listing to Forever Young, Gifted & Blacks may read at first glance like a senseless grab bag of Civil Rights Nina: a single here, an alternate take there, a smattering of live cuts to fill the gaps. But the music within is never less than interesting, and often revelatory. Three excerpts from Simone’s performance at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, a mere three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, are the obvious highlights: a performance so charged that the stage banter by a shell-shocked, emotional Simone rivals the music for intensity. “Do you realize how many we have lost?” she asks before the rousing final chorus of “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” a tribute to Dr. King originally released in edited form on Simone’s live album ‘Nuff Said!, here expanded to its full thirteen minutes. “They’re shooting us down one by one.” Next, she invokes the Birmingham Four and launches into an incendiary rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” that threatens to leave its better-known counterpart (from 1964’s Nina Simone in Concert) in the dust. “The King of Love is dead! I ain’t ’bout to be non-violent, honey!” she exclaims before the last verse, demonstrating in just thirteen words the miles of difference four years can make in the national consciousness.

The Westbury tracks are indeed something of a double-edged sword for the compilation: they leave one salivating over the prospect of a full-length release for that concert, while making the rest of the CD we do have look rather hodge-podge by comparison. But Forever Young, Gifted & Black still manages to hold together as an enjoyable listening experience. The Lorraine Hansberry-quoting title track, a vibrant collision of gospel exultation and pomp reverence, remains one of Simone’s most immediate anthems, while the alternate versions of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and Simone’s medley of “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” from the musical Hair are both more intimate and more rollicking than their previously-released forebears. Finally, the collection is rounded out by a handful of album cuts: two live from New York City’s Philharmonic Hall in 1969 (already made available on 1970’s Black Gold), two from 1969’s To Love Somebody, and one from Silk & Soul. Although I can’t help but wonder why these tracks weren’t passed over in favor of more rare material, they’re all hits rather than misses; and with a specially-commissioned new poem by Nikki Giovanni adorning the inner sleeve, who really has the heart to quibble?

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

In many ways more compelling than the collection, however, are the reissues of Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul: not just Simone’s two greatest albums for RCA, but, in the case of Sings the Blues, her single most successful excursion into the “raw” side of her music–and as we all know, Nina was about as raw as a Juilliard graduate could get. Though it may not contain anything quite as gritty as 1965’s neo-work song “Be My Husband,” Sings the Blues’ smoky juke-joint confessionals stand comfortably with Simone’s best work. It’s also a more expansive album than its name implies, containing everything from frank expressions of female sexuality like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “Buck,” and “Do I Move You,” to a railing anti-racism anthem co-written by Langston Hughes (“Backlash Blues”), to a Gershwin cover (“My Man’s Gone Now”) and a version of “House of the Rising Sun” performed in the style of “Sinnerman.” The bonus tracks are few but worthy, and Sid McCoy’s weedy original liner notes, reproduced here, are also worth a laugh or two: “‘Sugar in My Bowl’ is one of those suggestive tunes successfully employing double entendre,” he explains.

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

Meanwhile, “It Be’s That Way Sometime” kicks off Silk & Soul in a funky, if somewhat mannered mode; the result, as Simone’s powerful vocals struggle for dominance with her lite-soul backing, is inspired, creating a tension that lasts throughout the whole record. Thus fiery, gospel-tinged “soul” like “Go to Hell” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” rubs shoulders with the “silk” of contemporary cocktail-pop standards “Cherish” and “The Look of Love,” and somehow she manages to pull it all off with equal skill. Throw in a few lesser-known bonus tracks (one of which, “Save Me,” carries a co-writing credit by one Aretha Franklin), and this trio of Nina Simone reissues has its third consecutive success.

There is, of course, more to the Nina Simone story than even these fine discs can tell; if her career remains impossible to encapsulate in just one CD, it’s hardly any easier to contain with three. Yet Sings the Blues, Silk & Soul, and Forever Young, Gifted and Black remain concise statements of three of Simone’s most appealing sides: the reincarnated blueswoman, the crafter and interpreter of soulful pop melodies, the poet of the African American experience. If there’s any chance that these CDs could bring a deeper understanding of Nina Simone to a new generation of listeners, then a better means to that end could hardly be imagined.

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Filed under 1960's, Aretha Franklin, Blues, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, people music, Soul, soul jazz

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin,having turned 74 today,has been alive during one of the most significant musical periods in terms of soul’s transition towards rhythm-towards funk.Her signature song at Atlantic was a version of Otis Redding’s “Respect”,which really showcased how the Southern soul style she embraced was edging towards that funky timing. Now Aretha has had some amazing uptempo songs,many of which were major hits,over her time as a recording artist. And they’ve all showcased how despite understandings to the contrary, that uptempo music can be just as timeless as balladry. Of course as with any artist,there were peaks and valleys for her. Some of those peaks were also pretty high ones.

Focusing to a degree on gospel soul/R&B ballads during the early 70’s,Aretha was becoming very well aware that the musical tide was shifting towards the more uptempo sound she’d pioneered in the late 60’s. So at some point in 1970-early 71 Aretha had a basic piano sketch of a groove that she presented to some of the new musicians she was working with. They were drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie,future Stuff guitarist Cornell Duperee and electric bass extraordinaire Chuckrh Rainey. This trio allowed for this song to be built directly from the rhythm up and become huge early 70’s hit for her. The name of the groove was “Rock Steady”.

Pops Popwell and Dr.John provide a hot Brazilian percussion accent to the bluesy organ of Donny Hathaway. From here Purdie’s drums really get going within this bed of percussion shaking along. Cornell get’s his James Brown rhythm guitar going on in a serious way in the center of this groove while Rainey’s bass is patted in with the sound of a deep, pulsating heart. On the choruses,Aretha’s vocals are echoed along with the backup harmonies from the Sweethearts Of Soul. Each refrain is buffeted by the very jazzy Afro pop charts from The Memphis horns. On the bridge,Purdie provides a percussive drum back that’s now one of the most famous in history before the song fades out.

There are times where the funkiness of a groove has to be discovered by listening closely. “Rock Steady” is not one of those grooves. It’s a song that demands moving and heavy booty shaking. With it’s strong Afro-Latin horn and percussion vibe,this is actually one of the songs that help inaugurate the “united funk” era of the early/mid 70’s.  Everyone playing in on this song act in the manner of JB as one rhythm machine. The song construction is so advanced,it thickens the whole sound. Aretha even lets us know to “call this song exactly what it is” before declaring it “a funky and lowdown feeling”. So as with Wilson Pickett’s “Funky Broadway”,this  groove really assumes it’s funkiness proudly.

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Filed under 1970's, Aretha Franklin, Atlantic Records, Bernard Pretty Purdie, Chuck Rainey, Cornell Dupree, Donny Hathaway, Dr.John, drum breaks, drums, Funk, Funk Bass, horns, Memphis Horns, organ, percussion, Pops Powell, rhythm guitar, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk for 6/1/2015: “Blood Donors Needed (Give All You Can)” by David Ruffin

Ever since my earliest days of listening to music more seriously? I developed a strong interest in 70’s Motown. This was a record label with a musical sound so distinctive? An entire sub-genre of pop/soul was named after the label itself-the first time I’ve ever heard of such a thing. One of the most fascinating bridges between the sunny melodies of Motown’s classic sound and the funk/psychedelic soul excursions to come was the burgeoning solo career of former Temptation David Ruffin.

For his part? Ruffin never got the chance to be the lead singer on Temptations’ game changers such as “Cloud Nine”,”Ball of Confusion” or “Psychedelic Shack”. But in the (at the time) long gap between his second solo album and his third? Ruffin had to be noticing the changes in music heavily-because he turned to Philadelphia soul producer Bobby Miller to helm his self titled 1972 comeback album. His new sound was typified wonderfully with the song “Blood Donors Needed (Give What You Can)”.

Opening with a dim wah wah and percussive intro,the rhythm guitar kicks into gear with a high pitched bluesy intonation. The bass also kicks with right in along with it-a higher bass line extremely reminiscent of the one on Aretha’s “Rock Steady” from the same year. The main drum beat of the song has a strident march while,on the ultra bluesy choruses,a melodic organ solo kicks into gear before Ruffin’s distinctive powerful,gravelly pipes are echo plexed. The song ends segues into the sound of an out of tune music box before returning to a melodic trumpet call to end out the song.

Instrumentally this is a wonderfully thick funk/blues/soul jam with a very unusual quality of sound about it. Everything on this song sounds extremely tinny and metallic . The wah wah in particular sounds recorded far away from the microphone. And the general production sounds purposefully sent through a hollow metal tube.With the mixture of modern stylistic signatures high on the funk? The stark,unpolished sound holds up just right with the harrowing lyrics about urban decay,violence and the need for medical assistance in the lower class communities. It’s a bit more overt and earnest than the Tempts more abstract takes on serious topics. But it’s a high water mark (if unsung) for David Ruffin’s 70’s era solo career.

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Filed under 1970's, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Miller, David Ruffin, Funk, Funk Bass, Motown, psychedelic soul, Rock Steady, The Temptations

Andre’s Amazon Archive for 8/16/2014: ‘Black And White America’ by Lenny Kravitz

Lenny Kravitz

With this release Lenny Kravitz finds himself consummating the musical direction he began with his 5 but for some reason backed away from. As with myself Lenny is the product of a biracial family. And he likely faced some of the cultural ambiguities that I often had to contend with. Especially on the creative end. He spent much of his career on the path to being the modern equivalent of a Jimi Hendrix or Vernon Reid-using rock guitar and the rock ‘n roll style as his main choice of expression. On this album all of that is beginning to change. Recorded in the Bahamas with the environment having it’s own type of effect on the music this is also his debut for the Roadrunner label. It’s a branch of Atlantic-former home of famous soul icons Aretha Franklin,Ray Charles…the list goes on. So it’s only fitting,with the idea of the classic Atlantic soul style still felt today that this would be the album where Lenny would officially find the funk in all it’s fruitful forms.

This album begins with a serious punch on the title song,an autobiographic number fully exploring the pumping sophistifunk/dance style of the mid/late 70’s,celebrating his biracial heritage and how the modern age is far more accommodating to that despite the socio political racial tensions bought home in today’s world. On “Come And Get It”,”Superlove” and the JB sendup “Life Ain’t Ever Better Than It Is Now” he extends the funk into his sound more than he has on any other album. And he isn’t finished exploring this melodic groove after that either. On the pulsing “Liquid Jesus” where Lenny brings his falsetto back out and,the acid jazz ARP synth laden “Looking Back On Love” and the “boogie” style of “Sunflower” he’s fully acknowledging the 1980’s method of funk. It doesn’t end there. “Boogie Drop” featuring Drake explores a very unique direction in funk-finding Lenny being a pioneer for once in mixing modern electro revival with strong West Indian rhythms and hip-hop touches.

One of the best part of this album is on “Rock Star City Life”,”In The Black”,”Everything”,”The Faith Of A Child” and “Push” it’s clear the influence of 80’s new wave,itself heavily derived from funk and disco is having a very positive effect on these rockier songs. The noisy guitars are pushed to the backround as rhythm becomes the center of attention. On the hit “Stand” he’s come to the ultimate hybrid of Sly Stone,Prince and OutKast’s Andre 3000 in terms of delivering rock n roll influenced funk with a highly melodic nature. So for the first time I’ve heard Lenny delivers an album of sixteen songs where not one tune disappoints. From the wonderfully relevant cover artwork to the wonderfully way he’s embraced the production medium of the jazz,funk and danceable hip-hop he’s now bought into his orbit this finds Lenny at long last becoming himself as a musical entity. More over the fact that he’s broadened his message to showcase how his conscious bohemian outlook can benefit the current generational cycle. If this is to be the path he’s going to chose to develop in terms of funk,rock and/or the other in the

*Click here for original Amazon.com review!

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Filed under 1970's, 1990s, Acid Jazz, Amazon.com, Aretha Franklin, Funk, Funk Bass, Hip-Hop, James Brown, Lenny Kravitz, Music Reviewing

Andre’s Amazon Archive for June 14th,2014: ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’

lauryn_hill-the_miseducation_of_lauryn_hill

During the time this was released,as another review pointed out,this kind of music was being thrown in everyone’s face whether they wanted to hear it or not.I must admit in the late 90’s I was far more energized by the music of Prince,Stevie Wonder,P-Funk and they like and not the various hip-hop music’s they were inspiring at the time. I wanted the “real thing”. To my way of thinking the whole hip-hop/R&B genre in general seemed to be exploiting R&B’s past just to promote cut-and-paste music based on samples and such. It was hard to not that in the midst of all that original new hybrids like this were being created.Yes it was heavily hyped,yes it was deemed a classic before by the time it was a year old or so. But all the saturation aside I wanted to listen to this after it’d had some time to influence people. Well it turned out,as I said to be just over a decade. And after listening to this project as a whole at this point I get it.This is THE album that inspired the thoughtful,conscious solo female neo soul genre out of which has come Macy Gray,Angie Stone,India.Arie,Alicia Keys and more recently Solange Knowles.But it all started here.

The music on this album still has close links to hip-hop.Songs such as “Lost Ones”,”Forgive Them Father” and even the hugely popular “Doo Wop (That Thing)” have Lauryn rapping quite a bit along with singing.It’s to her credit she has such broad talent in both.Lauryn’s rapping style has always been assertive,direct and too the point and her deep,gritty and rangy voice-with it’s strong pathos and emotion is quite the spectacle to behold. The emotional and spiritual breadth of songs such as “To Zion” and “Forgive Them Father” is unbelievable. Through her spiritual quests Lauryn revolves her own issues with femaninity and the male players in her life in a surprisingly broad scope.”Superstar” actually finds Lauryn illustrating a pointed sense of humor to address what she saw as a serious issues;the hype many mediocre or plain “wack” rappers were receiving at that time,and in every way the message behind the tune resonates all the more today.

The first five songs actually containing interwoven interludes (tastefully done and integrated into the actual songs unlike usual) that illustrate how the album title is part of a certain concept;a group of women,one voiced by Mary J Blige in a classroom discussing different,mature points of view on love from songs,actual relationships,etc.In the midst of all this is “Ex-Factor”,possibly one of the greatest songs Lauryn ever did-very much in the Aretha/Etta James spirit with it’s scarred outlook on love and strong gospel overtones,from organ swirls to the horn blasts. The tone of that song is repeated on the title song which extends on the same theme of rediscovering self truths at reaching physical and emotional maturity. Along the way there is even time for warm nostalgic reflection on “Every Ghetto,Every City”,a wah-wah drenched 70’s style funk fest which is right up my alley and the lyrics are right on time too.

There are two tracks,which are listed here but not on the album jacket.One is a beautifully soulful rendition of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” that utterly transforms the song from teen romance into intense passion.A live version of the song “Tell Me” is also included.Taken together this quirky artist with her uniquely self reliant outlook and terrific lyrical ability only seems to have released one full length studio album so far.And if this is her first and only release it would sure be a good thing to stand on because,given a full decade to gestate it really has had an influence on an entire sub genre that has grown to mammoth proportions ever since.And all the while this done now indeed stand alone as a modern classic.

Originally Written On March 5th,2009

*Link To My Original Amazon Review:

http://www.amazon.com/review/R36P7MAW2I5UGW/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B00000ADG2

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Filed under Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Prince, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Solange', Stevie Wonder, Street Musicians

Andre’s Amazon Archive Special Presentation: Aretha Franklin

                   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!

The Girls In Love With YouAretha 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.

Spirit In The DarkWith 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.

*Please follow the Amazon.com links inserted into this blog in order to read these and more of my reviews,as well as comment on them on site. Thank you!

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Filed under 1970's, Aretha Franklin, Soul