Aretha Franklin

 Aretha Franklin

 Aretha Franklin – circa 1967

 “I ain’t no psychiatrist / I ain’t no doctor with degrees / But it don’t take too much I.Q. to see what you’re doing to me” – ‘Think’ (Aretha Franklin, Ted White)

It is the opportunity he has been awaiting.  Jerry Wexler, Vice-President of Atlantic Records, hears that Aretha Franklin has been released from her contract with Columbia Records.  For six years, Columbia has tried to find the right approach for the singer, but ‘no one seemed to know how to produce her, or what kind of material she is best equipped to handle.’  By the end of 1966, Aretha Franklin even owes money to Columbia.  Jerry Wexler thinks he has the answers to the problems.  He signs Aretha Franklin to Atlantic Records and works with the mercurial vocalist as they mutually settle on a new direction for her career.  ‘Within a year she is the most successful singer in the nation.’

Aretha Franklin is born on 25 March 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee in the United States of America.  She is the daughter of the Reverend Clarence L. Franklin and the former Barbara Siggers.  Aretha is one of five children.  She and her brothers and sisters naturally grow up in a religious atmosphere.  Aretha’s sisters, Erma and Carolyn, are also fated for careers in the recording industry, though they will not be as successful as Aretha.  The family moves north when Aretha is 2, first to Buffalo, New York, then to Detroit, Michigan.  When Aretha is 6, her mother abandons the family.  By 1952, word reaches them that their mother has died.

In Detroit, Reverend Franklin is the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church.  He is also a recording artist.  Over seventy albums of his sermons are issued on Chess Records.  He tours the country.  He is ‘one of the best-known preachers in the country, making thousands of dollars per homily on his barnstorming runs.’  The family house is ‘a large one on a tree-lined street.’  The five Franklin children sing in the choir at their father’s church, but because the Reverend is frequently on tour, spreading the gospel, the kids find themselves in the care of hired help.

Aretha’s Franklin’s mother, Barbara Siggers, ‘was reputedly a great gospel singer.’  Aretha’s aunt is Clara Ward, a ‘renowned gospel singer.’  Aretha describes Ward as “my inspiration.”  Sam Cooke is a ‘family friend.’  Cooke begins as a vocalist with The Soul-Stirrers, who perform religious material, before becoming a pop singer.  However, he is of the view that Aretha Franklin’s style of singing ‘would never be palatable outside of a witness-bearing holiness shout in church.’

Aged 12, Aretha Franklin solos for the first time in her father’s church and gets ‘a joyous reaction.’  At 14, she joins Reverend Franklin on an interstate evangelical tour, gaining a reputation ‘as a remarkable soloist.’  While still 14, Aretha Franklin goes on to cut two gospel singles with JVB Records.  Her first album is ‘Songs Of Faith’ (1956).  Her father introduces her to his people at Chess Records and Aretha reissues the two singles she released on JVB on the Chess subsidiary label, Checker.

At 18, Aretha Franklin is encouraged to broaden her musical horizons beyond gospel to try singing blues as well.  Emboldened by Sam Cooke’s mid-1950s transition to pop music, Aretha begins singing at The Flame Show Bar in Detroit and then moves to New York where she auditions for theatrical agent Jo King.  Some demos are cut with Major Holly, a bass player for jazz pianist Teddy Wilson.  These demos are heard by John Hammond who describes the 18 year old as “an untutored genius, the best voice I’ve heard since Billie Holiday [a legendary blues and jazz singer].”  Hammond would know, since he produced Billie Holiday’s recordings.  In short order, he secures a recording contract with Columbia Records for Aretha Franklin in 1960.

Although rarely mentioned in histories of Aretha Franklin, ‘she gave birth to three children during her teen years, products of an unhappy union.’

With John Hammond as producer, Aretha Franklin records her first pop songs on 1 August 1960 in New York City.  These songs include her first single, ‘Today I Sing The Blues’.  From 1961 to 1966 Aretha Franklin issues the albums ‘Aretha’ (1961), ‘The Electrifying Aretha Franklin’ (1961), ‘The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin’ (1962) (US no. 69), ‘Laughing On The Outside’ (1963), ‘Unforgettable – A Tribute To Dinah Washington’ (1964), ‘Runnin’ Out Of Fools’ (1964) (US no. 84), ‘Yeah’ (1965) (US no. 132) and ‘Soul Sister’ (1966) (US no. 132).  The singles from these albums include ‘Won’t Be Long’ (US no. 76) and ‘Operation Heartbreak’ backed with ‘Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody’ (US no. 37, AUS no. 30) in 1961; ‘Runnin’ Out Of Fools’ (US no. 57) in 1964; ‘One Step Ahead’ (US no. 119) in 1965; and ‘Cry Like A Baby’ (US no. 113) in 1966.

Aretha Franklin marries Ted White in 1961, who becomes her manager as well as husband.  He is described as ‘testy’ and prone to ‘cursing’.

By contrast, Aretha Franklin is said to be ‘shy’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘insecure’.  Despite taking voice and dance lessons, she remains lacking in confidence.  There are accounts of her having ‘lost her bearings’ and being so emotional she ‘missed sessions and ran away from New York.’  Yet there are also flashes of steely determination such as her insistence on recording a version of Judy Garland’s signature tune, ‘Over The Rainbow’, on ‘Aretha’ (1961).

At Columbia, Aretha Franklin is ‘no longer allowed to accompany herself on piano’ and is lumbered with large string sections.  Her recorded output consists of standards, ‘show tunes and bleached jazz-pop.’  There is an overwhelming lack of direction.  When John Hammond signed Aretha Franklin, he noted the natural ability she possessed; the problem at Columbia is the singer is placed in such artificial surrounds.

When Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records takes on Aretha Franklin’s recording contract, the game plan he and the singer adopt is for her to record soul music.

At the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll, the music was a mix of (white) country and western and (black) rhythm and blues.  As previously noted, Aretha Franklin experimented with blues music.  Rhythm and blues is a pacier variant of the same thing.  Well, sort of.  In many ways, rhythm and blues is simply a catch-all tag for any recording by an artist from an African-American background.

Soul music adds a dollop of gospel to rhythm and blues.  Arguably, in the late 1950s the likes of Sam Cooke (Aretha’s family friend), James Brown and Ray Charles were all making a kind of ‘proto-soul’.  Usually, Solomon Burke, who begins recording in 1961, is considered the first true exponent of soul music.  By 1966, when Atlantic Records takes on Aretha Franklin, soul music discs have proliferated and encompass artists like Don Covay, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Joe Tex, Booker T. And The MGs, Eddie Floyd, Sam And Dave, Rufus Thomas, and his daughter, Carla Thomas.  With Aretha Franklin’s background singing gospel in church, Jerry Wexler sees soul as a style that is a natural fit for her.  It can also be seen in Aretha’s last few discs at Columbia that she was beginning to make nods in that direction – though an album title like ‘Soul Sister’ (1966) is probably more akin to a subtle way of saying ‘black girl’ than an indication of the musical genre.

Soul music, as opposed to rhythm and blues, is usually the product of rural blacks in southern states of the U.S.A. instead of northern, urban blacks.  It is earthier and less genteel, instinctive rather than educated.  Also, despite being closely identified with blacks, there are more white musicians involved in soul.  The singers, the public faces of soul, are seemingly exclusively black, but the supporting cast is more racially integrated.

Atlantic Records enjoys a profitable relationship (both financially and creatively) with Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, Aretha Franklin’s birthplace.  Atlantic Records artists like Sam And Dave are loaned out to Stax Records.  However, the relationship between the two labels has some tension in it (it will break down entirely in 1968).  So, in 1967, when Aretha Franklin is to record her first album for Atlantic, Jerry Wexler, as producer of the album as well as record company boss, chooses Rick Hall’s Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, as the venue.  It has the same southern feel as Stax.  Unfortunately, things get ugly during the recording.  Ted White, Aretha’s husband and manager, exchanges some racial insults with a white trumpet player.  “Man, why did you bring her down here with these rednecks?” is the question Ted White poses to Jerry Wexler.  With only one track completed, Ted and Aretha fly back to New York.  A compromise is subsequently reached, with most of the musicians being brought to New York to record with Aretha.

The finished product is ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’ (1967) (US no. 2, UK no. 36) and it is Aretha Franklin’s finest work.  The first single is the title track, ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’ (US no. 9) b/w ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’.  On the former, a churchy organ holds sway over a steady drumbeat.  Aretha decries her subject, telling him “You’re no good / Heartbreaker / You’re a liar and a cheat.”  Horns punch through the arrangement as she admits in the title “I ain’t never loved a man / The way that I / Love you.”  This was the one song completed in Alabama ‘and all the fire and passion of her voice was, incredibly, unleashed straight away.’  ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ is equally gospel flavoured.  The swaying tune holds the heart-tugging righteous instructions “Take me to heart and I’ll always love you / And nobody can make me do wrong / Take me for granted, leaving love unsure / Makes will power weak and temptation strong.”  In contrast to these two smouldering embers, Aretha’s version of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ (US no. 1, UK no. 10, AUS no. 14) is a wildfire – and her best single.  In Redding’s version there is an implication that the respect the singer demands is not just from his romantic partner, but from the world in general, a society that discriminates against people of colour.  As an African-American woman, Aretha Franklin retains these sentiments, but the inevitable gender flip makes it, in her hands, also a song of women’s rights.  One line confuses some listeners: “Take care, T.C.B.”  These initials stand for Taking Care of Business and are followed by a ‘groovy’ backing vocal of “sock-it-to-me” repeated over and over.  None of these lyrical mattes need be of concern though when ‘Respect’ boasts such a potent groove and winning horn chart that it is perfectly satisfying just on an instrumental level.  Otis Redding, the author of ‘Respect’, even bowed down before Aretha Franklin’s electrifying version, made all the more amazing by being recorded live in the studio.  ‘Dr Feelgood’ is co-written by Aretha Franklin and Ted White and burns with sexuality: “Don’t send me no doctor / Fillin’ me up with all those pills / I got me a man named Dr Feelgood / He takes care of all my pains and ills.”  Aretha also co-writes the chugging ‘Save Me’, which displays a playful humour: “Call in the caped crusader / Green Hornet, Kato too / I’m in so much trouble / I don’t know what to do.”  ‘Aretha is immediately dubbed Lady Soul, a title she’s never since needed to relinquish or even contest.’

Arif Mardin, a co-producer and arranger during Aretha Franklin’s years at Atlantic recalls: “She’d play the piano, and then I would start writing down what she was playing with her left hand and give it out to the bass player.  [My job] was making what she felt bigger.  She was the absolute mistress of the vocal group, and she would tell them exactly what to do.  She would be like a sergeant major…”

Aretha Franklin writes, or co-writes, some songs, but she does not supply all her own material.  She relies on adding cover versions of others’ songs or fresh compositions offered to her.  Such a patchwork approach can lead to uneven results.  This is not the case at this point in 1967, but it becomes increasingly commonplace in later years.

‘Ted White roughs up [Aretha Franklin] in public in 1967’, outraging fans.

‘Aretha Arrives’ (1967) (US no. 5) cements her new approach, but it pales next to ‘Lady Soul’ (1968) (US no. 2, UK no. 25) released in January.  Among the album’s highlights is ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ (US no. 8, AUS no. 36), a song penned by Jerry Wexler in conjunction with professional songwriters – and married couple – Carole King and Gerry Goffin.  A gentle piano-led gospel atmosphere is swooped by a string section as Aretha wearily intones “Looking out on the morning rain / I used to feel so uninspired / And when I knew I had to face another day / Lord, it made me feel so tired.”  Don Covay’s ‘Chain Of Fools’ (US no. 2, UK no. 43, AUS no. 51) gets a fat bass and a stammering backing vocal as Aretha channels ‘explosive anguish’ into the sentiments “For five long years, I thought you were my man / But I found out I’m just a link in your chain.”

In June 1968, Aretha Franklin appears on the front cover of ‘Time’ magazine, a rare accolade for a popular singer, but the article within reports ‘rocky details of her marriage to Ted White.’

‘Aretha Now’ (1968) (US no. 3, UK no. 6), released in June, includes another song co-written by the singer and her husband.  ‘Think’ (US no. 7, UK no. 26, AUS no. 49) finds Aretha and her backing vocalists chorusing on the word “freedom.”  It’s a powerful performance.  ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ (US no. 10, UK no. 4, AUS no. 8), a hit for Dionne Warwick the previous year, is given a strong reading, the Reverend’s daughter perhaps enjoying the religious, as well as romantic, overtones of the song.

A third album for this year is a live recording of ‘Aretha In Paris’ (1968) (US no. 13), issued in October.  Since she is uneasy about travelling by air, Aretha Franklin rarely tours overseas.  Obviously, in this instance, she made it to France, so perhaps that makes the occasion worthy of commemoration.

‘Soul ‘69’ (1969) (US no. 15, UK no. 9) in January prefaces a turbulent year.  On 13 June 1969 Aretha Franklin headlines Soul Bowl ’69 at the Houston Astrodome in Texas.  Billed as ‘the biggest soul music festival ever’, the performers also include Ray Charles and Sam And Dave.  On 22 July 1969 Aretha Franklin ‘is arrested on charges of disorderly conduct after creating a disturbance in a Detroit parking lot.’  Also in 1969, Aretha Franklin and Ted White get a divorce, though her son by him – the only child of their union – is not born until 1970.

The album ‘This Girl’s In Love With You’ (1970) (US no. 17, AUS no. 8), released in January, hosts a number of cover versions.  Among them are The Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’, The Band’s ‘The Weight’ (US no. 19, AUS no. 38) [Aretha’s version of ‘The Weight’ has Duanne Allman of The Allman Brothers on guitar], and ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ (US no. 13), a song previously recorded by Dusty Springfield.  ‘Spirit In The Dark’ (1970) (US no. 25, AUS no. 25), seven months later has Aretha’s take on the B.B. King hit ‘The Thrill Is Gone’.  In reference to cover versions, Aretha claims, “It’s just the emotion, the way it affects people…The song doesn’t matter.”  ‘Aretha Live At Fillmore West’ (1970) (US no. 7) is another concert recording.

In 1971 Aretha Franklin seems confused.  On one hand, she ‘retreats from soul formulas back to her style as a mainstream pop-jazz singer.’  On the other hand, she takes an ‘interest in African and black nationalist affairs’ and begins wearing ‘natural and voluptuous African gowns.’  The two trends seem to be contradictory.

‘Young, Gifted And Black’ (1972) (US no. 11, AUS no. 53) is ‘her last soul-baring effort, a wrenching look back on her tormented marriage.’  Despite that, this album features the self-composed ‘Rock Steady’ (US no. 9), a funky dose of Caribbean rhythms and serrated guitar.

From here, Aretha Franklin’s career ‘deteriorates into a series of comebacks’, yet ‘each is followed by a corresponding debacle.’

‘Amazing Grace’ (1972) (US no. 7) is a live album of gospel numbers.  ‘Hey Now Hey Now (The Other Side Of The Sky)’ (1973) (US no. 30) is followed by ‘Let Me In Your Life’ (1974) (US no. 14, AUS no. 88), which features a coolly assured take on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)’ (US no. 3, UK no. 26).  The mid-‘70s output consists of ‘With Everything I Feel In Me’ (1974) (US no. 57), ‘You’ (1975) (US No. 83) and ‘Sparkle’ (1976) (US no. 18).  On 19 January 1977 Aretha Franklin performs at the inauguration concert as Jimmy Carter becomes President of the United States.  ‘Sweet Passion’ (1977) (US no. 49) precedes an attempt by smooth soul artist Curtis Mayfield to jump-start Aretha Franklin’s career with ‘Almighty Fire’ (1978) (US no. 63).  The same month as that album is released, Aretha Franklin marries actor Glynn Turman on 11 April 1978.  In 1979 Aretha’s father is shot by burglars and left in a coma.  The financial burden of his hospital bills worsens the situation between Aretha and her record company.  An album produced by disco doyen Van McCoy, ‘La Diva’ (1979) (US no. 146), is Aretha’s last on Atlantic Records.

Moving to Arista Records, her first effort is ‘Aretha’ (1980) (US no. 47) [not to be confused with the 1961 album of the same name].  Aretha Franklin makes a well-regarded performance and appearance in the movie ‘The Blues Brothers’ (1980).  ‘Love All The Hurt Away’ (1981) (US no. 36) is the title of the next disc.  In 1982 Aretha Franklin splits from husband Glynn Turman, though the divorce is not finalised until 1984.  Luther Vandross, a rhythm and blues ‘love man’, oversees both ‘Jump To It’ (1982) (US no. 23) and ‘Get It Right’ (1983) (US no. 36).  Aretha’s father, the Reverend Clarence L. Franklin, dies on 27 July 1984.  ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who’ (1985) (US No. 13, UK no. 49, AUS no. 15) is probably the best of Aretha Franklin’s latter-day recordings.  A canny and mutually beneficial duet with British duo The Eurythmics on their song ‘Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves’ (US no. 18, UK No. 9, AUS no. 15) results in this feminist anthem being placed on albums by both acts.  For Aretha Franklin, that album is ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who’.  The attention this draws helps the fresh and funky ‘Freeway Of Love’ (US no. 3, UK no. 68, AUS no. 6) and the title track, ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who’ (US no. 7, UK no. 11, AUS no. 38), to success.

The third album to bear the title ‘Aretha’ (1986) (US no. 32, UK no. 51, AUS no. 33) attempts to repeat the formula by including a duet with British vocalist George Michael on ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ (US no. 1, UK no. 1, AUS no. 1).  Aretha also takes a stab at The Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ (US no. 21, UK No. 58, AUS no. 36) on this album.  ‘One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism’ (1987) (US no. 106) is a return to gospel music.  ‘Through The Storm’ (1989) (US no. 55, AUS no. 86) has pop legend Elton John sharing vocals with Aretha Franklin on the title track, ‘Through The Storm’ (US no. 16, UK no. 41, AUS no. 63).  ‘What You See Is What You Sweat’ (1991) (US no. 153) is Aretha’s last album for some years.

On ‘A Rose Is Still A Rose’ (1998) (US no. 30) rap mogul Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs is co-producer.  A similar attempt at updating Aretha Franklin’s sound occurs on ‘So Damn Happy’ (2003) (US no. 33), her last album on Arista, where she works with urban songstress Mary J. Blige.  ‘This Christmas’ (2008) (US no. 102) is issued by DMI Records.  Aretha Franklin sings at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, the first black president of the U.S.A.  ‘A Woman Falling Out Of Love’ (2011) (US no. 54) is released on the artist’s own Aretha record label.

Aretha Franklin’s best work was her soul records on Atlantic from 1967 to 1972.  Doubtlessly, her many fans found things to cherish about her early albums at Columbia and the many works Aretha Franklin released after 1972.  Yet during the 1967 to 1972 period, Aretha Franklin sounded more focused.  It is these recordings that make her the Queen of Soul.  ‘Long after the mediocre works are forgotten, the beauties of her intuitive, improvisatory work will remain.’  ‘Of all the many remarkable voices that emerged during the 1960s, none carried more emotional weight than Aretha Franklin’s.’

Sources:

  1. ‘Rock Stars’ by Timothy White (Columbus Books, 1984) p. 130, 134, 135
  2. ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 88
  3. ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Aretha Franklin’ by Russell Gersten (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 334, 335, 336, 337
  4. ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 87
  5. ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 55, 130, 159, 210, 266
  6. wikipedia.org as at 4 February 2013
  7. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’, ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 47
  8. ‘The History of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 89

Song lyrics copyright Fourteenth Hour Music / Pronto Music, BMI with the exceptions of ‘Think’ (Fourteenth Hour Music, BMI); ‘Do Right Woman – Do Right Man’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ (both Screen Gems – EMI Music BMI); and ‘Respect’ (Irving Music Inc. / Cotillion Music, Inc. BMI)

Last revised 26 August 2014

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