Reportedly, it was at a show in 1965 when a master of ceremonies gave Aretha Franklin a tiara and dubbed her “the queen of soul.” Ironically, Franklin hadn’t yet enjoyed the success to support that title. From 1960 to 1966, she had languished on Columbia Records, a label that saw her more in the mold of a Billie Holiday jazz stylist than who she truly was. When she moved over to Atlantic in 1967, she became Queen indeed with a string of chart toppers like “Respect,” “Natural Woman,” and “Chain of Fools,” confirming her place as R&B royalty. But by 1979, popular tastes and styles had changed. Franklin’s reign seemed to be in music’s rearview mirror. After years of critical and commercial failures, Aretha and Atlantic parted ways.
Even more ironically, former Columbia president Clive Davis—who had helmed the company after Franklin’s departure—was the man to have a new vision for the soul icon. He signed her to his Arista Records in 1980, where she remained for 23 years. There, her tenure produced a string of popular albums and singles that weren’t Soul of the Old School, but rather urban dance music very much of the era. As Davis treated Aretha like gold at Arista, her recordings benefited from some of the finest producers, songwriters, and collaborators in the business. When this Queen held court, she was surrounded by a Who’s Who of her peers and contemporaries.
With few exceptions, the Arista singles collected on the new “Best Of” anthology, Knew You Were Waiting, tend to be soft, slower paced ballads. This is the case with the opening track, 1980’s “United Together,” which was written and produced by Chuck Jackson. It features Aretha’s favorite backup singers, The original Sweet Inspirations (Cissy Houston, Myrna Smith, Sylvia Shenwell and Estelle Brown). “Love All The Hurt Away,” written by Sam Dees and produced by the late, legendary Arif Mardin, is the collection’s first duet, as Aretha shares jazz vocal phrasings with George Benson. Aretha kept up with current trends when Luther Vandross produced the very disco-flavored “Jump To It,” a dance formula repeated soon after in “Get It Right.”
1985 was a banner year for Aretha with hits like “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and the now evergreen “Freeway of Love.” The latter was distinguished by tenor sax from Clarence Clemons, Randy Jackson on bass, and members of Santana’s percussion section. Equally impressive was the most rocking of Aretha’s ‘80s hits, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” produced by Dave Stewart and showcasing a powerhouse duet with The Eurithmics’ Annie Lennox.
Speaking of rock, Keith Richards produced and played guitar (along with Stones compatriot Ronnie Wood) on “Jumping Jack Flash,” the theme for the 1986 Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name. After another solo single, “Jimmy Lee,” Franklin dueted with George Michael in the Grammy-winning “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” Elton John in “Through The Storm,” and her God-daughter Whitney Houston in “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be.” For this collection, Franklin’s “Ever Changing Times” duet with Michael McDonald, written and produced by Burt Bacharach & Carol Bayer Sager, is presented in a previously unreleased mix.
While the ’90s weren’t as rich, Aretha returned to the charts throughout the decade with “Willing To Forgive,” “A Deeper Love,” “Hurts Like Hell,” and the final track of this collection, “A Rose Is Still A Rose.” “Rose” is perhaps the most obvious sign that Aretha had realized the smooth, mellow settings that had served her so well before needed to be updated. This track was written, produced and arranged by Lauryn Hill of the Fugees. By Aretha’s standards, “Rose” sounds downright experimental.
Franklin’s output would slow down after 1998 and, by 2003, she was ready to leave Arista behind and form her own label. So it seems appropriate, just over a decade later, that Clive Davis has pulled together the Arista singles and presented them in chronological order for old and new fans alike. It’s also appropriate that the release coincides with Black History Month and Aretha’s return to Radio City Music Hall in New York for concerts in February.
It’s fair to say there are Aretha aficionados who love her Atlantic classics who don’t care for the dance mixes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. On the other hand, there are undoubtedly younger listeners who far prefer the music they grew up with when Aretha was riding the freeway of love in a pink Cadillac. Either way, the Queen of Soul deserves respect for her entire body of work, and the Arista catalogue is an essential chapter of post-70s rhythm and blues. When they call this package a “Best of,” they mean it.