After several years and six albums struggling to find her identity with Columbia Records, who were feeding her material that was ill-fitted to her talents, Aretha Franklin joined forces with producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic records. The rest, as they say, is history, as Aretha immediately delivered the goods in spectacular fashion with this towering soul statement, a serious contender for “best soul album of all-time” as well as her best single album. Aretha grew up a child gospel star, as her dad C.L. Franklin was a well-known Baptist minister who was himself a highly successful and influential singer who introduced Aretha to singers who would influence her such as Clara Ward, Sam Cooke, James Cleveland, and Mahalia Jackson. Given her upbringing, Wexler hit upon the following simple yet effective formula: "I took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself." He also was smart enough to send her down to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and their great all-white studio band (including session legends such as drummer Roger Hawkins, organist Spooner Oldham, and bassist Tommy Cogbill), where they immediately cut this album's immortal title track, written by Ronnie Shannon. Trouble soon arose however, between Aretha's then-husband/manager Ted White and one of the backing musicians (a problem that might've been averted had a racially mixed band been supplied by studio owner Rick Hall as Wexler had requested), causing Aretha to leave Alabama. Without getting into any more details, which are murky all these years later anyway (disappointingly, Aretha is less than forthcoming in her autobiography), suffice it to say that Aretha and many of the same Southern musicians soon reconvened in New York City, where they completed the album. In addition to supplying Aretha with a great house band, whose chemistry with Aretha helped give the album its uncommonly rich yet gritty sound, by giving free rein to her gospel leanings Wexler unleashed the full talents of an extraordinary singer. Her performances throughout are consistently phenomenal, and it also helps that the 11 songs, all of which were either selected by or at least co-written (four) by Aretha, are consistently very good and at times flat-out fantastic as well. The album begins with "Respect," which would become a huge #1 crossover hit and her signature song, propelled in no small part due to its catchy "sock it to me" backing vocals created by Aretha with her sisters Erma and Carolyn, both notable songwriters in their own right who had a terrific vocal chemistry with Aretha (as evidenced on several other songs as well). Otis Redding may have written this song, but by the time Aretha was done drastically reconfiguring it, even Otis had to admit that Aretha now owned the definitive version of the song, and her version would come to symbolize both the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements for many people. The title track, which just oozes a soulful sincerity, is arguably even more perfect in its own drastically different way, being an overwhelmingly sincere ballad about loving a bad man. This song may very well feature her best vocal performance ever, and I love the way the organ and piano work together as well. The album's third indisputable soul classic is Dan Penn and Wayne "Chips" Moman's gorgeous "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man," on which her subdued yet sultry lead vocals exude class and all the other elements (organ, backing vocals, lyrics) are pitch perfect as well. However, what makes this such a great soul album is the quality of its deeper album cuts, including Aretha compositions like the charming bossa nova flavored "Don't Let Me Lose This Dream," the slowly smoldering "Baby, Baby, Baby," with its catchy backing vocals and Aretha's high-pitched notes that would make Mariah Carey blush, the bluesy "Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)," perhaps the most gospel-ish track on which Aretha's passionate, sexually charged testifying makes a merely so-so composition rise to greatness, and the more up-tempo "Save Me," whose chugging bass groove is reminiscent of Them's "Gloria" but which is damn good all on its own, in large part due to its memorable horn punctuations. Her covers of Ray Charles' "Drown In My Own Tears" and Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" are less notable, in part because I prefer the originals (and also Otis Redding's cover of the latter), but at least she puts her own stamp on them, and the other Cooke cover ("Good Times") provides a lighter, more upbeat change of pace. It may be a minor number by comparison to most of the other songs, but it still produces major pleasure, and her cover of King Curtis' "Sweet Serenade" is also terrific, delivering comparatively restrained supper club pop with more sexy vocals and hooky horns. On the whole, this album really was a brand new beginning for Aretha Franklin, as it revealed a versatile songwriter and performer who was finally in full control of her talents (according to Wexler she directed the rhythm arrangements as well). Her sexy, unbridled, fully uninhibited vocal passion, impeccable phrasing (she could let loose for sure but she also knew how to cut back and serve the song), and underrated piano skills, when coupled with a fantastic studio band, excellent production (much credit there is due to legendary engineer Tom Dowd), and strong songs, brought soul music to a rarified level that it has seldom reached since. As such, this album is a "must have" cornerstone of any serious soul collection, and it should probably be your first (non-compilation) Aretha Franklin purchase, for it was on this superb collection that she truly became the undisputed Queen Of Soul.
Aretha Arrives (Atlantic '67, Rhino '08) Rating: B+
Hot on the heels on her Atlantic debut came this sophomore set for the label, which today is almost totally overshadowed by the two masterpieces that bookend it. Then again, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You and Lady Soul tend to overshadow all of her subsequent albums; go into any cd store and odds are good that among her original albums you'll only see those two along with a slew of compilation choices. Truth be told, this album is a significant step down from either one of those two classic albums, but it's not without its own charms and is certainly recommended for big fans of this peerless singer (she was recently voted the greatest singer of all time in a Rolling Stone critic poll, though that poll is somewhat invalidated by the absence of Levi Stubbs). While on tour in support of the previous album, Aretha fell off stage and shattered her elbow, which obviously affected her playing ability, which perhaps explains why there's less organ and piano on this album. Instead, many of these songs are drenched in strings, while horns and backing vocals are also again prominent, though there seems to be fewer guitars. As a result of the change in instrumentation (less Hammond organ, piano, and guitar for more strings is not likely to be something that I'd approve of), some of these ballads seem to lack her customary power and pizzazz, and the song selection is at times questionable as well. Her covers of "Satisfaction" and ? and the Mysterians classic garage anthem "96 Tears" aren't bad but seem sort of pointless aside from being up-tempo tunes on a ballad-heavy album, and Aretha's powerhouse vocals can't totally overcome the overly schmaltzy arrangements of "Prove It" and "I Wonder." "Never Let Me Go," another torchy string-heavy ballad, is also well sung but also a bit boring, and her version of "You Are My Sunshine" only really gets going about halfway through. She fares better on Frank Sinatra's show tune-y "That's Life," where she delivers a typically great vocal and the backing vocals are tasty too, and I also appreciate the two bluesier numbers, namely Willie Nelson's "Night Life," with its sultry late night vibe, and Howlin' Wolf's "Going Down Slow," on which some prominent guitar is most welcome. Also impressive is "Ain't Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)," a rare livelier number written by sister Carolyn, who had also co-written two songs with Aretha on the previous album. Saving the best for last, the catchy, sexy pledge of devotion "Baby I Love You" was another superlative million seller written by Ronnie Shannon that was the album's lone hit single. As such, Aretha Arrives tends to be overlooked despite it being from her "classic era," but not without reason as again Arif Mardin's strings are too prominent, plus on the whole I'd say that Aretha totally loses herself in these songs less than on the preceding album. For lack of a better word, Aretha Arrives is simply less soulful than her very best albums, though it's still definitely worth having and is a grower album despite not quite containing top-shelf material.
Lady Soul (Atlantic '68, Rhino '95) Rating: A+
This classic soul recording sounds more like the direct sequel to I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You than the solid but comparatively underwhelming Aretha Arrives, on which she had tellingly contributed none of her own compositions. Perhaps it was simply a case that her elbow had healed up, but the grit is back, as are the keyboards and guitars, and though the strings are still there they're tastefully employed and are no longer the dominant instruments. Once again, the superlative Muscle Shoals session musicians, who in my opinion were underutilized the last album out, are perfect accomplices, and special mention should also be made for Aretha's own underrated arranging skills. Also notable are the Sweet Inspirations, who join Aretha and Carolyn on backing vocals and often add that oh-so-special touch that lifts these songs into the stratosphere; for example, the catchy "ba-oop"'s on the immortal "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and the background "ooo-oooh"'s that seem suspended in time on the simmering slow burner "Ain't No Way." Of course, above all else it is Aretha's awesome voice and piano playing that makes this album such a classic, as she fully Aretha-izes well-known songs that were stunning to begin with such as The Impressions' "People Get Ready" and The Rascals' "Groovin'." Highlights include her definitive reading of Don Covay's chugging, swampy classic "Chain of Fools," Aretha's own memorably catchy up-tempo (if lyrically downcast) "Since You've Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby)" and also her slow, bluesy "Good To Me As I Am To You," which features a strong cameo from Eric Clapton on guitar and another great vocal performance from Aretha. Better still is her rendition of the Carolyn-penned "Ain't No Way," a gorgeously affecting ballad (one of Aretha's very best), and best of all is her picture perfect rendition of Gerry Goffin/Carole King/Jerry Wexler's universal "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which was as uplifting a love anthem as was ever penned. On the lesser yet still enjoyable side, "Money Won't Change You" (a James Brown cover), "Niki Hoeky," and "Come Back Baby" are short, fast, and punchy, and the album on the whole features a mere 10 songs that come and go in under 29 minutes. Still, though perhaps the album leaves you wanting more, there's something to be said for its all-killer, no-filler strategy, which is a far better idea than padding it out with the silly skits that appear so often today. Anyway, this album is arguably every bit as great as I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You even if it's not quite as groundbreaking, and any fan of Southern soul or great music in general should pick it up pronto. Aretha screams "thank the Lord" in her spectacular gospel reading of "People Get Ready," and these 10 tunes prove that she was indeed one of the Lord's chosen few. She certainly makes a believer out of me, and after Lady Soul there could be no doubt about her claim to that title.
Aretha Now (Atlantic '68, Rhino '93) Rating: A-
Like the other great late '60s Southern soul star, Otis Redding, Aretha made great albums, not just singles, but her albums were generally highlighted by her great singles. Aretha Now contained no less than four significant hits, and man oh man when she gets a song just right she totally knocks it out of the park. That's certainly the case with the first two songs here, starting with "Think," another Franklin original co-written with Ted White (who had helped write several earlier songs as well), and her only writing credit on this album. Ironically recorded the day of Martin Luther King's assassination, "Think" is probably Aretha's best up-tempo tune aside from "Respect," and it shares with that song a similar theme of empowerment, with her cries of "freedom!" being the song's most notable characteristic. Also flawless albeit in a far different way is her cover of Burt Bacharach/Hal David's "Say A Little Prayer," which completely destroys Dionne Warwick's previous hit version, in no small part due to the contributions of the Sweet Inspirations with their famous "forever" backing chants. Simply put, this was a beautifully recorded, gorgeously affecting gospel pop number that was a perfect fit for that war torn time. "See Saw," written by Stax mainstays Don Covay and Steve Cropper, has the sharp hard Southern soul stamp of that label (later on she also semi-successfully covers Sam and Dave's "I Take What I Want"), and though it's another strong (if not quite classic) effort, after eight consecutive smashes this was actually Aretha's first A-sided single not to crack the U.S. top 10, though it didn't miss by much, peaking at #14. Next up is another r&b-based number, as Aretha tackles "Night Time Is The Right Time," not unimpressively but certainly Ray Charles still owns the definitive version, and the same is true of Sam Cooke and "You Send Me," though again this version is still quite enjoyable as it again showcases her special chemistry with the Sweet Inspirations (who it should be noted were led by Cissy Houston, Whitney's mother). That's a minor problem Aretha had, picking songs that were already synonymous with other singers, and even though she always put her own stamp on everything she sang, the songs themselves were perhaps a bit too familiar to feel completely fresh. Another problem, at least on this album, is that the songs aren't always memorable, at least on side two, though they always sound great and of course her voice is simply untoppable. Still, though I wouldn't call anything here "filler," the only real standouts to me on side two are "Hello Sunshine," a sunny, uplifting pop song with anthemic horns, and "I Can't See Myself Leaving You," a classy, brassy piano ballad that became the album's fourth Top 40 hit. Again, at her best Aretha Franklin is simply as good as popular music gets, and this one boasts a lovely, easy going melody and the sweet counterpoint of the Sweet Inspirations along with another first-rate Aretha vocal. This song is the better of two more contributions from Shannon, and it's interesting hearing a song written by a man for a woman, as the women in his songs always seem completely smitten and are totally devoted to the man that they love - most of whom are undeserving, as is the case with the two-timer here. Anyway, on the whole Aretha Now isn't quite the major classic that I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You and Lady Soul are, as the overall material is slightly less stellar, but the performances are again consistently terrific and I consider this album to be at least a minor classic of its type.
Soul '69 (Atlantic '69, Rhino '03) Rating: B+
Like any true artist, Aretha wanted to be challenged, so she and Wexler completely changed the formula for her fifth Atlantic album (keeping in mind that Aretha Arrives was also a bit of a change up), which probably should've been named Jazz '69 or better yet, Jazz-Blues '69. Only occasionally backed by her usual Muscle Shoal stalwarts, Aretha is more often backed by a jazz big band (including many notable names such as King Curtis, David "Fathead" Newman, Joe Zawinul, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, and many others), and on the whole I'd argue that this album was a more successful attempt at what she had tried to do at Columbia (p.s. the easiest way to check out the best of her work for that label is the 2-cd Queen In Waiting compilation). What's special about Soul '69 is that it's utterly unique within her Atlantic catalogue, being unlike any of her other Atlantic albums and showing another side of her versatile, eclectic artistry. This all-covers album not only includes jazz but also various combinations of pop and blues, and of course any album by Aretha is still a soul album, even when technically it isn't. Unfortunately, Soul '69 lacked any significant hit singles and was comparatively overlooked as a result at the time, and today it seems all but forgotten. But that shouldn't stop you from checking out this album, which to me is less about individual songs (though there are many fine songs and performances) and more about establishing a relaxed and cohesive overall mood. In other words, this is a true album and should be listened to as such, but for all its virtues I'd be lying if I said that the style presented here is as appealing to me as her true "Queen Of Soul" sides. Still, this album is something altogether different and is quite enjoyable, even though some of the songs merely serve up pleasant sounding background music. When Aretha starts the album by singing "I've got the blues" on "Ramblin'" and then follows it up with "without a word of warning, these blues walked in this morning" on "Today I Sing The Blues," I believe her, and the latter tune in particular (a reworking of the first thing she did on Columbia, nine years earlier) is a tour de force of powerfully controlled singing. "Pitiful" is another convincing blues ballad, also with plenty of jazzy touches, and elsewhere she covers songs written or popularized by Percy Mayfield ("River's Invitation"), Billie Holliday ("Crazy He Calls Me"), and even Glen Campbell ("Gentle On My Mind"), the latter a definite highlight by virtue of its brisk groove, poppy ambiance, and heavenly backing harmonies. Also notable are her covers of soul giants Sam Cooke (yet again, this swinging version of "Bring It On Home To Me" is decidedly different from any other version I'm aware of) and Smokey Robinson (a more restrained, almost folksy rendition of "Tracks Of My Tears"), while "If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody" is a personal favorite, being a rare ballad that also swings. Even the lesser songs here are elevated by Aretha's impassioned vocals, Arif Mardin's predictably tasteful arrangements, and fine playing all around, and though I wouldn't call Soul '69 a major artistic statement, it is a uniquely different and ear pleasing minor one.
This Girl's In Love With You (Atlantic '70, Rhino '03) Rating: B+
Aretha greeted the new decade with this often-overlooked album, which is best-known for its covers of well-known songs (again something I wish Aretha did less often) but is perhaps best listened to for its lesser known songs. By now Aretha's popularity was waning somewhat, though her albums and many of its singles could still hit the top 20, as was the case here. The album begins with "Son Of A Preacher Man," which was originally written for but turned down by Aretha; when Dusty Springfield had a hit version with it, Aretha smartly decided to give it another shot. Unfortunately, Aretha's more gospel infused version is good but Dusty's is better, and a big problem with this album is that it's hard not to compare at least half of its songs to superior other versions. For example, her version of "Dark End Of The Street" is great and is a pleasure to listen to, especially when she really lets loose towards the end, but it still runs a distant second to James Carr's definitive reading. Likewise, although it's interesting how she takes The Beatles' "Let It Be" to the church and adds a sax rather than a guitar solo, again this version is at best a distant second. The jaunty rather than depressing vibe of her hit version (#17) of "Eleanor Rigby" is so different from The Beatles' that it could almost be considered a different song, but again it simply can't compare to the original classic, though its gospel backing vocals are actually quite catchy. "The Weight" also hit the top 20 and was elevated by punchy horns plus a Duane Allman cameo on guitar, much like how Eric Clapton had left his mark on "Good To Me As I Am To You." Aretha herself really belts this one out too (despite her admission that "to this day I don't have the foggiest notion of what the hook was about") in another fine performance, but yet again The Band's timeless original will always be the first and last word on this song. I want to reiterate that I do enjoy hearing all of these versions, and as always Aretha makes every song uniquely her own to a degree, but it also seems a bit lazy on her part to remake so many songs that were already so well known to the public at large. While we're at it, Bacharach/David's title track was also previously a #1 hit for Herb Alpert (though it was called "This Guy's in Love With You") and a top 10 hit for Dionne Warwick, and you blues aficionados might remember "Share Your Love With Me" via Bobby "Blue" Bland. I'm not so hot for the string-heavy former song here, but I'll grant that the latter tune (another top 20 hit) is given a very soulful treatment by Aretha, with a great lead vocal. On the lesser-known front are a pair of exceedingly worthwhile blues entries, "It Ain't Fair" (written by Ronnie Miller, best-known for writing Stevie Wonder's "For Once In My Life"), again with Allman on guitar, and "Sit Down and Cry," where she once again really wails while the Sweet Inspirations provide a calmer counterpoint. "Call Me," a tender, somewhat saccharine yet lovely ballad, was another top 20 hit (when paired with "Son Of A Preacher Man") and is the only Aretha-penned tune here, as This Girl's In Love With You sees Aretha almost strictly in the role of interpreter, which is perhaps one reason why this album is generally less critically acclaimed than her surrounding Atlantic albums. True, her previous album Soul '69 also saw her exclusively in the role of interpreter, but it was in a completely different style than what fans were accustomed to, whereas with this one it seemed that perhaps she was coasting a bit. I wouldn't disagree with that assessment, but despite its faults I still quite like listening to this album. P.S. By now Dowd and Mardin were being listed as co-producers along with Wexler.
Spirit In The Dark (Atlantic '70, Rhino '93) Rating: A
Aretha's most famous and greatest work came with her first few Atlantic albums, but I'd argue that she started a second peak stretch with this album, which sold disappointingly, peaking at #25 and spawning only a couple of minor singles. The album's reputation has grown over the years, however, in large part because this is a real album, one that you can easily listen to and enjoy from start to finish. Aretha had recently divorced from Ted White and started a relationship with Ken Cunningham, and there's no doubt that this change in her romantic fortunes put Aretha in a good mood, as with but one notable exception (an exceptional cover of B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone") this is a lively, uplifting, feel good type of album. As such, it's fittingly up-tempo for the most part, and her great bands (the Dixie Flyers in addition to the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section) cook up some great grooves throughout. There's also more guitar than usual, again sometimes supplied by the great Duane Allman (most notably on Dr. John's "When The Battle Is Over"), her fine piano playing has rarely if ever been so prominent, and there are quite a few catchy harmonized choruses where the Sweet Inspirations (Aretha's secret weapon due to their impeccable chemistry; she lets them shine and vice versa) seize the day, such as on "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" (previously popularized by Ben E. King), "One Way Ticket" (her own composition, one of five, her most for any single album), and "That's All I Want From You" (Dinah Washington), highlights all. Slicker entries such as "Pullin'" (another Aretha original with help from sister Carolyn), with its call and response vocals, and the strings-heavy "Oh No Not My Baby" (Goffin/King via Maxine Brown), show a more contemporary touch but are still extremely enjoyable, and the title track, one of several songs here that I'd call "gospel rock," builds tremendously as Aretha is in full on testifying mode. "You and Me," with its bright church-y keyboards, and "Honest I Do" (Jimmy Reed), with its easily loping funk groove, precede the title track and are happy love songs, and if I could criticize the album at all it's that it at times veers too close to being "corny" or is at least "overly sentimental." But this is nitpicking because even a lesser album track like "Try Matty's" (about one of her other major passions, food!) grooves like nobody's business, and another well chosen B.B. King cover, "Why I Sing The Blues," ends this filler free album on a satisfying note. Aretha always said that she never left the church, and on this album it's clear that she spoke the truth, as it has a full-on gospel feel and a real sense of spirituality. Best of all, due to its lack of "success," most if not all of these songs will likely be unfamiliar to most listeners who are hearing this album for the first time, and the bottom line is that listening to Spirit In The Dark always makes me feel darn good.
Live At Fillmore West (Atlantic '71, Rhino '04) Rating: A-
Following producer Jerry Wexler's ever-astute instincts, this classic live album, culled down to 10 songs from three nights at Bill Graham's legendary venue, was a successful attempt at recapturing the crossover (i.e. white) rock hippie audience. Much like how Soul '69 had shown another side of Aretha, Live At Fillmore West shows how Aretha could rock and work a room, with the end result being her first top 10 album since Aretha Now. It helps immensely that her backing band, King Curtis and the Kingpins (guitarist Cornell Dupree, bassist Jerry Jemmott, drummer Bernard Purdie, electric pianist Truman Thomas, congas player Pancho Morales, organist Billy Preston, The Memphis Horns, and of course the great sax-man King Curtis himself), was such a tight, hot combo, and that her backing singers the Sweethearts Of Soul (her cousin Brenda Bryant, Margaret Branch, and Pat Smith) were also such standouts. The album isn't perfect, as only two early Atlantic hits ("Respect," "Dr. Feelgood") are included in favor of more questionable fare, plus she speeds up "Respect" and "Eleanor Rigby" too much, almost like she had to catch the next train or something, proving that faster isn't necessarily better. Still, she makes even seemingly silly song choices work; Stephen Stills' "Love The One Your With" is groovy, upbeat, and (most of all) fun, and she adds a healthy dosage of soul to Bread's beautiful but oh-so-white "Make It With You." Just check out Purdie's drumming on this track to see what a difference a real master at his craft can make, and the gospel backing vocals and Preston's organ are also highlights, just as they are throughout the album pretty much. Preston's organ takes center stage on the slow, sensuous intro to Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," a clear album highlight on which Aretha takes this classic composition to the church and makes it her own, even if Art Garfunkel (with Paul Simon, naturally) will always own the definitive version of the song. Perhaps you could accuse her of vocal histrionics here, but if you've got it, flaunt it, right? I mean, telling Aretha not to belt it out akin to telling Michael Jordan not to shoot or Albert Pujols to bunt. "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" doesn't differ much from the studio version except it's rowdier, and it does reiterate what a great upbeat party tune it is, while a long, drawn out "Dr. Feelgood" is my favorite version of the song as she works the Fillmore crowd into a frenzy. A predictably entertaining rendition of "Spirit In The Dark" then commences before the album's most famous track, a slow, bluesy reprise of "Spirit In The Dark" on which Ray Charles joins Aretha onstage. Ray obviously doesn't know all the words, and there are some lulls during the song's 8+-minute duration, but by and large it's incredibly exciting (not to mention historic) hearing these two soul giants and geniuses go at it, and the song serves as the climax to a stellar performance, even though the album technically ends with "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," which provides a short but sweet finale on which the good vibes all around are palpable. On the whole, Live At Fillmore West was a total triumph for Aretha, as it showed her at her live best and helped capture a new audience, all while putting to shame her previous live album, 1968's Aretha in Paris.
Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic '72, Rhino '93) Rating: A-
Aretha herself declared this to be her "most personal and romantic album to date," and musically it's Aretha at her smoothest and most relaxed. Backed by terrific musicians as per usual, including Dupree, Purdie, bassist Chuck Rainey, Donny Hathaway (on about half the tracks), Billy Preston, Al Jackson Jr. (on two tracks), and others, the only minor flaws of Young, Gifted and Black are that perhaps it's too slick at times, plus once again there are too many covers of well-known songs. Still, on the whole I'd say that this album, which features four Aretha originals and eight covers, is only a hair less great than Spirit In The Dark, and like that album this one is mostly filled with good vibes, though there are sadder moments as well, such as "All The Kings Horses," a sad, pretty number that's presumably about her failed relationship with White, much like many of her late '60s songs were come to think of it. "Oh Me Oh My (I'm A Fool For You)," originally done by Lulu, is a relaxed, jazzy torch song that that exudes class and style, with a predictably terrific lead vocal, and top 10 hit "Day Dreaming" continues by conjuring a delectably dreamy mood, with help from the Sweet Inspirations and flutist Hubert Laws. "Rock Steady," which delivered danceable funk obviously influenced by James Brown, also hit the top 10, and the aforementioned "All The Kings Horses" and her gospel-ized cover of "The Long and Winding Road" (on which she puts her own unique stamp much like with her previous Beatles covers) also hit the top 40. The sparse title track, previously done by both Nina Simone and Hathaway, was another striking, almost pure gospel track, and her version of Elton John's "Border Song," which was seemingly tailor made for her and which is both more solemn and more uninhibited than Elton's original, also foreshadowed the direction of her next album. Elsewhere, Aretha revisits familiar sources with her relaxed, jazzy, and happy take on "A Brand New Me" (Dusty Springfield again), which exudes a supper club ambiance, and an admittedly overblown "April Fools" (again Bacharach/David via Warwick), which still features a fantastic vocal. Her own "First Snow In Kokomo," comprised mostly of her voice and piano but also containing some nice guitar, bass, and backing vocals, was a pretty and poetic set piece, but I'm less impressed by "I've Been Loving You Too Long" and "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)." It's not that Aretha's versions are bad, but given that Otis Redding and The Delfonics still own by far the definitive versions of these songs, they seem somewhat superfluous. Still, on the whole this is a stellar album on which a confident Aretha delivered a varied set of gospel soul and classy pop songs, and like all of her best albums from her classic Atlantic era it's an enjoyably self-contained package that plays extremely well from start to finish.
Amazing Grace (Atlantic '72, '90) Rating: A
I said earlier that Aretha never really left the church, and this classic gospel album (spanning 2-cds) proves it. I'm not the most religious person around by any means, and I'm Jewish on top of that (my wife and kids are Catholic, though) so I generally don't do gospel albums, but this is just great music, with a joyous, indomitable spirit that can't help but uplift. Recorded live at Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church with mentor Reverend James Cleveland's spectacular Southern California Community Choir, Aretha was smart enough to import a great band (including mainstays such as Rainey, Dupree, and Purdie) who really shine on up-tempo numbers like "Old Landmark," "How I Got Over," and "Climbing Higher Mountains." Never content to do anything by the book (and therein lies her greatness), Aretha's set list includes a nice mix of faster songs with slower ballads (such as the spectacular "Give Yourself To Jesus" and the Cleveland duet "Precious Memories"), and traditional gospel classics sit snugly beside secular songs (James Taylor's "You've Got A Friend," Marvin Gaye's "Wholy Holy," Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone") that she turns into gospel songs. As always on her best albums, Aretha lets others shine, most notably the choir who at times makes you feel like the gates of heaven are opening up, but Aretha herself has never sounded quite so uninhibited for such a long period of time. Last but not least, the rapt audience really gets into it, particularly on the 10-minute showstoppers ("Amazing Grace," "Never Grow Old") that close both discs, and clearly a great time was had by all these true believers who welcomed Aretha back into their fold with all the warmth of a beloved child returning after a long absence. Simply put, Amazing Grace provided a career peak that produced many goose bump-inducing moments of pure beauty plus a fair amount of energetic rave-ups that could easily kick start any party. Aretha also finally received (along with Wexler and Mardin) what she felt was a long overdue co-producer credit, and Amazing Grace went on to become the best-selling gospel album ever, even cracking the Billboard top 10, an astounding feat - but then again, this is an astounding album. Note: I have no current plans to review any non-hits albums after Amazing Grace because I feel that this album marked the end of her golden era and was arguably her last truly essential long player, as her gritty soul sound fell out of favor and Aretha's slicker subsequent work never quite matched the quality of her 1967-1972 prime. Don't get me wrong, she still had her share of fine songs (several of which are described in the next review), and she almost always sang great even when the songs or arrangements weren't up to snuff, but her reputation as an all-time great is primarily due to the albums reviewed on this page.
30 Greatest Hits (Atlantic '85) Rating: A+
Otherwise known as "The Queen Of Soul" or "Lady Soul," Aretha Franklin is a towering presence in the history of soul music. In fact, her stature dwarves every female singer who's come down the pike since. Concentrating on her late '60s and early '70s work with Atlantic, an era that Aretha dominated, this collection contains most of her greatest songs from her greatest period. These two discs capture her most inspired moments in superior sound quality, capturing an amazing voice that's a true freak of nature. Though her vocal delivery occasionally veers too far over the top (she is a diva, after all), this is nitpicking since she's easily one of the greatest singers ever, and it is this unbridled intensity and depth of passion that makes her so special. Besides, far from being a spotlight hog, she always let her backing bands and singers shine as well, and she worked with some of the best in the business. I've already talked about "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)," "Respect," "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man," "Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel)," "Chain Of Fools," "Think," and "Say A Little Prayer" - the most obviously classic songs on this comprehensive compilation - but this album, the best of several hits collections on the market, is also notable for housing several songs that haven't been discussed on this page, either because they came after Amazing Disgrace or were single-only releases. For example, there's "The House That Jack Built," a punchy horn-heavy A-side-only that hit #6 in 1968, her lush, catchy remake of Stevie Wonder's "Until You Come Back To Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" (a #3 hit in 1973), her light and airy rendition of Bobby Womack's "I'm In Love" (#19 in 1974), and her smooth, catchy, self-referencing remake of Ashford and Simpson's (via Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell) "You're All I Need To Get By" (#19 in 1971). Her creative, lively cover of Leiber and Stoller's "Spanish Harlem" (a #2 hit in 1970) and the studio version of her spectacular recasting of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Trouble Water" (a #6 hit in 1971), both only available on compilations, are also included, as is "Angel" (#20 in 1970), yet another gorgeous ballad co-written by sister Carolyn, this time with Sonny Saunders. Those who want to dig even deeper yet don't want to splurge for all the original albums are advised to check out the superb 4-cd box set Queen Of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings, and for those who want to sample her latter day work with Arista Records, Greatest Hits (1980-1994) is a good starting point.
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