"I call Aretha our lady of mysterious sorrows. Her eyes were incredible, luminous eyes covering inexplicable pain. Her Depressions could be as deep as the dark sea. I don't pretend to know the sources of her anguish, but anguish surrounds Aretha as surely as the glory of her musical genius." (Jerry Wexler)
While at lunch last year, a grad student girlfriend of mine asked me a chilling question " If you substitute food for heroin," she said "just how different is Aretha Franklin from Billie Holliday." It forced me to take a microscope to my own idolization of her, and what the great female artists of black music meant to the world and the terrain of history.
For the past 40 years Aretha has been hoisted on a pedestal of fanatical idolatry and suffocating demands. No performer in the history of African American art has ever had the expectations as had Aretha by her audience. Her body of work isn't a matter of critical record, but of nationalist fervor.
Aretha's artistic stratosphere is a place where she can do no right and do no wrong at the same time; where she is supposed to provide uncontested life affirming inspiration every single time she steps on stage or else. The constant demand for perfection would stilt the growth of any performer; and it has for her work over the past 25 years which, to put it nicely, has been erratic. (Although her last two albums have been very good.)
But to completely abhor the world Aretha lives in would discount the fact she has done so much, reached that stratosphere of perfection so many times, gone so deep into the psyche, and touched the deepest part of so many people's souls her fans couldn't help but fanatically idolize her. If black culture's basic roots lie in the matriarchal aesthetic of the black church, Aretha Franklin had a hold of more branches than most everybody.
At her best, she isn't just a great artist, she's a historical figure. Lady soul. The Queen of soul. The last of the great female gospel communicators, (Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward, Marion Williams) who single-handedly gave a people back a piece of their culture. When she got her first gold record, Martin Luther King was her presenter (she later sang at his funeral). The overwhelming immediacy of her art has made her a pop culture deity; its personal nature has made her like family to her fans, who worry and fret about her like she is their flesh and blood.
But in a way that reverence rings slightly hollow, because in the end we (her fans, myself included) are not really members of her family but idolaters of her beautiful art. At her best, her music has been so vibrant, visceral, and easy to understand you forget the complicated inner workings and machinations one must have to make art this universally understandable in the first place. And speaking for myself, the deeper I look into her life and work, the more I realize in order to earn the title of "queen of soul," she had to pay a terrible price.
I have to take you back to 1966. Brother Ray had just kicked heroin and came back on the charts with a failsafe, risk free pop album. Otis Redding was revolutionizing pop music everywhere in the world but the U.S. top 40 charts. James Brown was just beginning to redefine musical minimalist polyrhythmic composition. James Carr was in his manic-depressive prime. Motown was at its apex, the hit factory at its mightiest before Berry Gordy's dictatorial pop constraints would force it to grind to a halt.
And Aretha Franklin was a struggling jazz vocalist, going through hell. A gospel prodigy with a huge underground reputation, she married Ted White, a smooth talking hustler from Detroit who served as her Svengali/manager/personal dictator. Throughout the early to mid '60s, White cajoled her into making overly mannered jazz records; the kind of "tasteful" yet patronizing crossover 45s that underestimated its audience.
He also made Ike Turner seemed like Mr. Rogers. From the pages of Soul, Sepia, and Time Magazine to the personal accounts of her closest friends (family, Jerry Wexler, various producers, and friends) you could hear stories of vicious public and private beatings and a disciplinary streak that would give the marquis de Sade pause (he would force her into a room for four days straight to write songs.) He had single-handedly wrecked Aretha's relationship with Columbia Records and left her career seemingly in tatters. Yes she was a talent, but who wanted the abusive bully (a racist, too) that came with her?
Atlantic Records did. Jerry Wexler had knowledge of Aretha as early as her pre-teen church 45s and when Aretha's CBS contract ran out, he offered Ted White an immense amount of money for her services. After he reluctantly accepted, Wexler picked out some songs for Aretha to record and sent him and Aretha down to the great Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama for recording.
White, fearing losing control of Aretha and unwilling to accept that she could make money by singing deep soul, terrorized the studio, and nearly ended the contract before it started. He picked fights with the White Muscle Shoals band members, tried to tell musicians what to play (even though White could barely read music) and showed himself a monster to everyone but Aretha. So instead of ending the deal, Wexler, Muscle Shoals, Aretha, and co. decided to make art out of the situation. And the rest, to use the most shopworn of cliched quotes, is history.
Although the first song, "I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Love You" was originally written for a Motown pop cover band, Aretha and the Muscle Shoals crew turned it into an ode of deep pathos that remains timeless to this day. Spooner Oldham's slow, dark and bluesy organ riffs, the muted horns of King Curtis' vaunted rhythm section and Aretha's church piano came together for a voodoo blend of heavy blues and Ray Charles-esque manic-country soul.
But I don't have to tell you the primary instrument that carried the song, do I? Whatever happened to cause her to let out all her years of studying under gospel's Dutch masters and the flood of emotions of her abusive relationship in a vocal explosion was nothing short of a blessing. Nothing in pop music has been the same since. In Aretha's liberation with her vocal lines came a whole new language and artistic paradigm to modern pop. Taking Mahalia Jackson's endless range and ability to render immense emotions that you didn't know you had, Clara Ward's breathtaking ability to squeeze feeling through pinpoint phrasing; and a staggering penchant for taking massive vocal risks, Aretha created an art so close to god, I would be foolish to describe it in one sentence.
On "Never Loved A Man," she rips through conventional vocal bars with an immense sadness nearly everyone was in awe of but few could understand. She went past modern interpretation and gave her audience something equivalent to blend of deep dark blues and a constant, never-ending full tent revival. All done with a visceral impact clarity and range that still sounds transcendental today.
After White freaked out and canceled the deal, only to be cajoled back in the studio with more money; they moved to New York to record "Drown In My Own Tears," an old Ray Charles number. In a way, its the queen paying tribute to him, blending jazz chords, bluesy horns and straight gospel singing into a puree that would sound like ear candy if Aretha didn't sing the song as if she were a moment a way from suicide ("Drown in my own tears.")
But was she a perpetual victim? Unlike Billie Holliday, who could sense and feel hell coming closer with every passing day; or Ella Fitzgerald, who created beautiful musical worlds that always seemed like a momentary escape from it; Aretha fought her hell head on, battling tooth and nail to keep her sanity. "Save Me," is the sound of Aretha's inner defense mechanisms telling her that she needed to get healthy right now, whether she liked it or not. More rock oriented than anything on the album, the music serves as perfect compliment to the message. It's less textured than anything on the album and too frenetic to dance to (the guitar riff owes a debt to Them's "Gloria"). But it, along with Aretha, makes the point: sometimes you have to act crazy to keep sane.
Is "Respect," the most known R&B song in the history of recorded music, played more than the national anthem? Yep. Played into the ground by oldies radio stations? Yes. Commercialized and watered down beyond belief? Yes again. Butchered by anyone who dares to cover it? That too. Yet after 35 years, "Respect," like virtually all great standards, doesn't lose impact as much as it has morphed into part of the blood stream..
'Because dammit, after 35 years the song still holds up, play after play after play. The music is exquisite, JB-esque horns, an electric bass that sounds funkier than six days old drawers, King Curtis' blistering tenor sax and Aretha playing piano as if her hands were on fire and the only way she could put them out was by rapid-fire piano chord changes. The vocal, 1/2 girl group sass, 1/2 gospel shout, is embedded in the American consciousness second by second. To this day it still sounds like you are hearing an out of body experience, as if Aretha had been possessed by a higher power to find her own footing. It remains an anthem not just because it touches a universal truth (R.E.S.P.E.C.T.); but the inexplicable emotion and delivery Aretha brings to it expands that truth's definition.
The rest of the album is filled with sublime instances where you can hear the foundation of her talent take shape. "Soul Serenade" and " If I Lose This Dream" are Aretha finally mastering the jazz-pop fusion that seemed just out of grasp in her CBS days, before she would waste beautiful vocals under mannered pre-planned phrasing and prepackaged formula. Here, she just lets loose but still keeps strong vocal form; sounding more like a looser Ivy Anderson (a singer in Duke Ellington's band in the '40s) instead of a stiff Doris Day knock off.
With her breathy vocal style and picture perfect tone on "Serenade," she gives a wonderfully nuanced style homage to Dinah Washington. (She also did a tribute album of her material in '64). Capturing the song's demure but breezy subtleties, around an elegant background of a jazz band augmented with lush R&B horns, "Dream" is the best non-Bacharach Bacharach ever done on record.
Aretha filters in luxurious gospel shouts into the song's schmaltz. The music, cocktail jazz arrangements blended in a pop-soul background, captures Burt's weird camp appeal without losing any of Aretha's signature style.
"Let The Good Times Roll" was an example Aretha could make you shake your booty as well as move your sprit. It's pure ear candy: a catchy melody, irresistible piano keys, million dollar bass guitar, a Motown style hook and Aretha at her most light-hearted. Kind of like Mary J. Blige's "Family Affair," but not as mind-numbingly dense (I love Mary, I just hate that song). A song about a normal party with any other singer, Aretha's chops make it the spot where you want to be. "Do Right Man" focuses on her gorgeous form; proof she could make a nuanced idiosyncratic reading of a ballad as well as she could rock a full tent R&B revival.
"Ain't No Way" is another pop drama musical landmark, but there is a different tone to it than the rest of her depression odes. Her other "my man done me wrong" epics on the album, contained a depressed resignation; as if she couldn't see living past tomorrow. "Way" is more of a gentle yet irritated and almost sardonic plea for her muse to handle his business . Written by Aretha's sister Carolyn, it contains the same massive depth of emotion as "Never Loved A Man" and "Drown" but it's sung as if she knows she's going to survive and in order for the man to be in her life he better straighten up his act; or she just might kick him to the curb.
"Dr. Feelgood"is rightly celebrated for it’s approach to female sexuality. It's a gorgeous tune, Aretha paying the eternal compliment to the brotha who knows how to handle his business in more ways than one. Like a blaxploitation sex goddess, she builds and builds the tension, blending religious ecstasy and sexual energy leading to that breathless bridge that couldn't have been any more perfect if it was written by heaven's team of songwriters.
Don't send me no doctorrrrr
Fillin' me up with all those pills
I got me a man named Dr. Feelgood.
He takes care of all my pains and my ills
Name's Dr. Feelgood and taking care of business is this man's game
and after one visit to Dr. Feelgood
YOU can see why feel good is his name!
oh! ohh!! ohhh!! Good God almighty the man sure makes me feel GOOOOOOD!
Backed up with a claustrophobic arrangement on loan from God and perhaps the most ecstatic vocals Aretha's ever done, it is one of the most literate and adult dissertations on the joys of sex and an indispensable addition to your late night record collection
"A Change Is Gonna Come" is a fitting coda to this monumental epic of an album. A cover of Sam Cooke's chilling protest anthem, she turns it into a tribute and statement that her darkest days are behind her. Does she even try to top the song? Nope; For not even Aretha could top Cooke's most mountainous moment (and the greatest soul single in recorded time, in my opinion). What she does, however, is personalize the song and create a good composite sketch of its beauty.
Where Sam creates an insane sermon, carrying the anger of 52 million ex-slaves all too well; Aretha makes it into a personal moral of perseverance. There is an inner peace in her interpretation, her phrasing bursting with a quiet serenity with her vocal rests sounding like sighs. It's as if she has just got out of a dark place and she won't ever be there again. "A Change Is Gonna Come" is Aretha on the road to happiness; possessing the knowledge that through a positive outlook and strong sprit, good will ultimately come to you.
It came back to her in multitudes. After two more tormenting years, she dumped Ted White and continued with a slew of releases, ranging from great to brilliant to breathtaking. Some were influenced by jazz (Soul 69, The Other Side Of The Sky) some were gritty southern funk (Sprit In The Dark). Some were deep soul epics (Lady Soul), some were gorgeous pop (Aretha Arrives, Aretha Now, Young Gifted And Black, Let Me In Your Life, The Girls In Love With You) while yet others were live albums (Live at Fillmore West, Amazing Grace). All of them have one thing in common: you should buy them. Now.
Yet in spite of her countless triumphs there is still a cloud of sorrow that hangs over her, adding to the mystique and mystery of her venerable persona. Out of all the living soul geniuses, (her, Stevie, Sly, Prince) she seems to have the least time enjoying her status.
The most amazing and frustrating thing about Aretha is for all the dumb stuff that has been written about her, her worst critic is herself. Although coming close in the early '70s, she could never build the self-esteem to maintain an artistic persona. Her greatest performances had become her prison, as she felt obligated to the whims of the audience that had given her so much love.
And when her audience revolted against her afro centric pop princess persona, she became an R&B chameleon; doing every flavor of the month style but her own, resulting in an artistic malaise that until only recently she's recovered from.
Yet after all the mysticism, myth and reality that constructs the career of Aretha Franklin, I am always drawn back to a picture of her taken from that time period. It's haunting, dark and unpleasant to see, yet it tells a different story every time I look at it. It's a picture of her in a bouffant hairdo with a vat of makeup on her face that almost covers a swollen jaw, busted lip, a huge shiner under her left eye and a one-inch cut scar on her right. If on the face of a boxer, it would have prevented him from fighting for 60 days.
It was the publicity shot for inside the album.Powered by Sidelines