Episode 168 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “I Say a Little Prayer”, and the interaction of the sacred, political, and secular in Aretha Franklin’s life and work. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a forty-five-minute bonus episode available, on “Abraham, Martin, and John” by Dion.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
I say the Gospelaires sang backing vocals on Doris Troy’s “Just One Look”. That’s what the sources I used said, but other sources I’ve since been pointed to say that the vocals are all Troy, multi-tracked, and listening to the record that sounds more plausible. Also, I talk about ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” just after talking about white rock hits, but don’t actually say they were white themselves. To be clear, ? and the Mysterians were Latino.
No Mixcloud this week, as there are too many songs by Aretha Franklin. Even splitting it into multiple parts would have required six or seven mixes.
My main biographical source for Aretha Franklin is Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz, and this is where most of the quotes from musicians come from.
Information on C.L. Franklin came from Singing in a Strange Land: C. L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America by Nick Salvatore.
Country Soul by Charles L Hughes is a great overview of the soul music made in Muscle Shoals, Memphis, and Nashville in the sixties. Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm And Blues And The Southern Dream Of Freedom is possibly less essential, but still definitely worth reading.
Information about Martin Luther King came from Martin Luther King: A Religious Life by Paul Harvey.
I also referred to Burt Bacharach’s autobiography Anyone Who Had a Heart, Carole King’s autobiography A Natural Woman, and Soul Serenade: King Curtis and his Immortal Saxophone by Timothy R. Hoover.
And the Aretha Now album is available in this five-album box set for a ludicrously cheap price. But it’s actually worth getting this nineteen-CD set with her first sixteen Atlantic albums and a couple of bonus discs of demos and outtakes. There’s barely a duff track in the whole nineteen discs.
This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
A quick warning before I begin. This episode contains some moderate references to domestic abuse, death by cancer, racial violence, police violence, and political assassination. Anyone who might be upset by those subjects might want to check the transcript rather than listening to the episode.
Also, as with the previous episode on Aretha Franklin, this episode presents something of a problem. Like many people in this narrative, Franklin’s career was affected by personal troubles, which shaped many of her decisions. But where most of the subjects of the podcast have chosen to live their lives in public and share intimate details of every aspect of their personal lives, Franklin was an extremely private person, who chose to share only carefully sanitised versions of her life, and tried as far as possible to keep things to herself.
This of course presents a dilemma for anyone who wants to tell her story — because even though the information is out there in biographies, and even though she’s dead, it’s not right to disrespect someone’s wish for a private life. I have therefore tried, wherever possible, to stay away from talk of her personal life except where it *absolutely* affects the work, or where other people involved have publicly shared their own stories, and even there I’ve tried to keep it to a minimum. This will occasionally lead to me saying less about some topics than other people might, even though the information is easily findable, because I don’t think we have an absolute right to invade someone else’s privacy for entertainment.
When we left Aretha Franklin, she had just finally broken through into the mainstream after a decade of performing, with a version of Otis Redding’s song “Respect” on which she had been backed by her sisters, Erma and Carolyn. “Respect”, in Franklin’s interpretation, had been turned from a rather chauvinist song about a man demanding respect from his woman into an anthem of feminism, of Black power, and of a new political awakening.
For white people of a certain generation, the summer of 1967 was “the summer of love”. For many Black people, it was rather different. There’s a quote that goes around (I’ve seen it credited in reliable sources to both Ebony and Jet magazine, but not ever seen an issue cited, so I can’t say for sure where it came from) saying that the summer of 67 was the summer of “‘retha, Rap, and revolt”, referring to the trifecta of Aretha Franklin, the Black power leader Jamil Abdullah al-Amin (who was at the time known as H. Rap Brown, a name he later disclaimed) and the rioting that broke out in several major cities, particularly in Detroit:
[Excerpt: John Lee Hooker, “The Motor City is Burning”]
The mid sixties were, in many ways, the high point not of Black rights in the US — for the most part there has been a lot of progress in civil rights in the intervening decades, though not without inevitable setbacks and attacks from the far right, and as movements like the Black Lives Matter movement have shown there is still a long way to go — but of *hope* for Black rights.
The moral force of the arguments made by the civil rights movement were starting to cause real change to happen for Black people in the US for the first time since the Reconstruction nearly a century before.
But those changes weren’t happening fast enough, and as we heard in the episode on “I Was Made to Love Her”, there was not only a growing unrest among Black people, but a recognition that it was actually possible for things to change. A combination of hope and frustration can be a powerful catalyst, and whether Franklin wanted it or not, she was at the centre of things, both because of her newfound prominence as a star with a hit single that couldn’t be interpreted as anything other than a political statement and because of her intimate family connections to the struggle.
Even the most racist of white people these days pays lip service to the memory of Dr Martin Luther King, and when they do they quote just a handful of sentences from one speech King made in 1963, as if that sums up the full theological and political philosophy of that most complex of men. And as we discussed the last time we looked at Aretha Franklin, King gave versions of that speech, the “I Have a Dream” speech, twice. The most famous version was at the March on Washington, but the first time was a few weeks earlier, at what was at the time the largest civil rights demonstration in American history, in Detroit. Aretha’s family connection to that event is made clear by the very opening of King’s speech:
[Excerpt: Martin Luther King, “Original ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech”]
So as summer 1967 got into swing, and white rock music was going to San Francisco to wear flowers in its hair, Aretha Franklin was at the centre of a very different kind of youth revolution.
Franklin’s second Atlantic album, Aretha Arrives, brought in some new personnel to the team that had recorded Aretha’s first album for Atlantic. Along with the core Muscle Shoals players Jimmy Johnson, Spooner Oldham, Tommy Cogbill and Roger Hawkins, and a horn section led by King Curtis, Wexler and Dowd also brought in guitarist Joe South. South was a white session player from Georgia, who had had a few minor hits himself in the fifties — he’d got his start recording a cover version of “The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor”, the Big Bopper’s B-side to “Chantilly Lace”:
[Excerpt: Joe South, “The Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor”]
He’d also written a few songs that had been recorded by people like Gene Vincent, but he’d mostly become a session player. He’d become a favourite musician of Bob Johnston’s, and so he’d played guitar on Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme albums:
[Excerpt: Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a Rock”]
and bass on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, with Al Kooper particularly praising his playing on “Visions of Johanna”:
[Excerpt: Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna”]
South would be the principal guitarist on this and Franklin’s next album, before his own career took off in 1968 with “Games People Play”:
[Excerpt: Joe South, “Games People Play”] At this point, he had already written the other song he’s best known for, “Hush”, which later became a hit for Deep Purple:
[Excerpt: Deep Purple, “Hush”]
But he wasn’t very well known, and was surprised to get the call for the Aretha Franklin session, especially because, as he put it “I was white and I was about to play behind the blackest genius since Ray Charles”
But Jerry Wexler had told him that Franklin didn’t care about the race of the musicians she played with, and South settled in as soon as Franklin smiled at him when he played a good guitar lick on her version of the blues standard “Going Down Slow”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Going Down Slow”]
That was one of the few times Franklin smiled in those sessions though. Becoming an overnight success after years of trying and failing to make a name for herself had been a disorienting experience, and on top of that things weren’t going well in her personal life. Her marriage to her manager Ted White was falling apart, and she was performing erratically thanks to the stress. In particular, at a gig in Georgia she had fallen off the stage and broken her arm. She soon returned to performing, but it meant she had problems with her right arm during the recording of the album, and didn’t play as much piano as she would have previously — on some of the faster songs she played only with her left hand.
But the recording sessions had to go on, whether or not Aretha was physically capable of playing piano. As we discussed in the episode on Otis Redding, the owners of Atlantic Records were busily negotiating its sale to Warner Brothers in mid-1967. As Wexler said later “Everything in me said, Keep rolling, keep recording, keep the hits coming. She was red hot and I had no reason to believe that the streak wouldn’t continue. I knew that it would be foolish—and even irresponsible—not to strike when the iron was hot. I also had personal motivation. A Wall Street financier had agreed to see what we could get for Atlantic Records. While Ahmet and Neshui had not agreed on a selling price, they had gone along with my plan to let the financier test our worth on the open market. I was always eager to pump out hits, but at this moment I was on overdrive. In this instance, I had a good partner in Ted White, who felt the same. He wanted as much product out there as possible.”
In truth, you can tell from Aretha Arrives that it’s a record that was being thought of as “product” rather than one being made out of any kind of artistic impulse. It’s a fine album — in her ten-album run from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You through Amazing Grace there’s not a bad album and barely a bad track — but there’s a lack of focus. There are only two originals on the album, neither of them written by Franklin herself, and the rest is an incoherent set of songs that show the tension between Franklin and her producers at Atlantic. Several songs are the kind of standards that Franklin had recorded for her old label Columbia, things like “You Are My Sunshine”, or her version of “That’s Life”, which had been a hit for Frank Sinatra the previous year:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “That’s Life”]
But mixed in with that are songs that are clearly the choice of Wexler. As we’ve discussed previously in episodes on Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett, at this point Atlantic had the idea that it was possible for soul artists to cross over into the white market by doing cover versions of white rock hits — and indeed they’d had some success with that tactic. So while Franklin was suggesting Sinatra covers, Atlantic’s hand is visible in the choices of songs like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “96 Tears”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “96 Tears’]
Of the two originals on the album, one, the hit single “Baby I Love You” was written by Ronnie Shannon, the Detroit songwriter who had previously written “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Baby I Love You”]
As with the previous album, and several other songs on this one, that had backing vocals by Aretha’s sisters, Erma and Carolyn. But the other original on the album, “Ain’t Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)”, didn’t, even though it was written by Carolyn:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Ain’t Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)”]
To explain why, let’s take a little detour and look at the co-writer of the song this episode is about, though we’re not going to get to that for a little while yet.
We’ve not talked much about Burt Bacharach in this series so far, but he’s one of those figures who has come up a few times in the periphery and will come up again, so here is as good a time as any to discuss him, and bring everyone up to speed about his career up to 1967. Bacharach was one of the more privileged figures in the sixties pop music field. His father, Bert Bacharach (pronounced the same as his son, but spelled with an e rather than a u) had been a famous newspaper columnist, and his parents had bought him a Steinway grand piano to practice on — they pushed him to learn the piano even though as a kid he wasn’t interested in finger exercises and Debussy.
What he was interested in, though, was jazz, and as a teenager he would often go into Manhattan and use a fake ID to see people like Dizzy Gillespie, who he idolised, and in his autobiography he talks rapturously of seeing Gillespie playing his bent trumpet — he once saw Gillespie standing on a street corner with a pet monkey on his shoulder, and went home and tried to persuade his parents to buy him a monkey too.
In particular, he talks about seeing the Count Basie band with Sonny Payne on drums as a teenager:
[Excerpt: Count Basie, “Kid From Red Bank”]
He saw them at Birdland, the club owned by Morris Levy where they would regularly play, and said of the performance “they were just so incredibly exciting that all of a sudden, I got into music in a way I never had before. What I heard in those clubs really turned my head around— it was like a big breath of fresh air when somebody throws open a window. That was when I knew for the first time how much I loved music and wanted to be connected to it in some way.”
Of course, there’s a rather major problem with this story, as there is so often with narratives that musicians tell about their early career. In this case, Birdland didn’t open until 1949, when Bacharach was twenty-one and stationed in Germany for his military service, while Sonny Payne didn’t join Basie’s band until 1954, when Bacharach had been a professional musician for many years. Also Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet bell only got bent on January 6, 1953.
But presumably while Bacharach was conflating several memories, he did have some experience in some New York jazz club that led him to want to become a musician. Certainly there were enough great jazz musicians playing the clubs in those days.
He went to McGill University to study music for two years, then went to study with Darius Milhaud, a hugely respected modernist composer. Milhaud was also one of the most important music teachers of the time — among others he’d taught Stockhausen and Xenakkis, and would go on to teach Philip Glass and Steve Reich. This suited Bacharach, who by this point was a big fan of Schoenberg and Webern, and was trying to write atonal, difficult music. But Milhaud had also taught Dave Brubeck, and when Bacharach rather shamefacedly presented him with a composition which had an actual tune, he told Bacharach “Never be ashamed of writing a tune you can whistle”.
He dropped out of university and, like most men of his generation, had to serve in the armed forces. When he got out of the army, he continued his musical studies, still trying to learn to be an avant-garde composer, this time with Bohuslav Martinů and later with Henry Cowell, the experimental composer we’ve heard about quite a bit in previous episodes:
[Excerpt: Henry Cowell, “Aeolian Harp and Sinister Resonance”]
He was still listening to a lot of avant garde music, and would continue doing so throughout the fifties, going to see people like John Cage. But he spent much of that time working in music that was very different from the avant-garde. He got a job as the band leader for the crooner Vic Damone:
[Excerpt: Vic Damone. “Ebb Tide”]
He also played for the vocal group the Ames Brothers. He decided while he was working with the Ames Brothers that he could write better material than they were getting from their publishers, and that it would be better to have a job where he didn’t have to travel, so he got himself a job as a staff songwriter in the Brill Building. He wrote a string of flops and nearly hits, starting with “Keep Me In Mind” for Patti Page:
[Excerpt: Patti Page, “Keep Me In Mind”]
From early in his career he worked with the lyricist Hal David, and the two of them together wrote two big hits, “Magic Moments” for Perry Como:
[Excerpt: Perry Como, “Magic Moments”]
and “The Story of My Life” for Marty Robbins:
[Excerpt: “The Story of My Life”]
But at that point Bacharach was still also writing with other writers, notably Hal David’s brother Mack, with whom he wrote the theme tune to the film The Blob, as performed by The Five Blobs:
[Excerpt: The Five Blobs, “The Blob”]
But Bacharach’s songwriting career wasn’t taking off, and he got himself a job as musical director for Marlene Dietrich — a job he kept even after it did start to take off.
Part of the problem was that he intuitively wrote music that didn’t quite fit into standard structures — there would be odd bars of unusual time signatures thrown in, unusual harmonies, and structural irregularities — but then he’d take feedback from publishers and producers who would tell him the song could only be recorded if he straightened it out. He said later “The truth is that I ruined a lot of songs by not believing in myself enough to tell these guys they were wrong.”
He started writing songs for Scepter Records, usually with Hal David, but also with Bob Hilliard and Mack David, and started having R&B hits. One song he wrote with Mack David, “I’ll Cherish You”, had the lyrics rewritten by Luther Dixon to make them more harsh-sounding for a Shirelles single — but the single was otherwise just Bacharach’s demo with the vocals replaced, and you can even hear his voice briefly at the beginning:
[Excerpt: The Shirelles, “Baby, It’s You”]
But he’d also started becoming interested in the production side of records more generally. He’d iced that some producers, when recording his songs, would change the sound for the worse — he thought Gene McDaniels’ version of “Tower of Strength”, for example, was too fast. But on the other hand, other producers got a better sound than he’d heard in his head. He and Hilliard had written a song called “Please Stay”, which they’d given to Leiber and Stoller to record with the Drifters, and he thought that their arrangement of the song was much better than the one he’d originally thought up:
[Excerpt: The Drifters, “Please Stay”]
He asked Leiber and Stoller if he could attend all their New York sessions and learn about record production from them. He started doing so, and eventually they started asking him to assist them on records. He and Hilliard wrote a song called “Mexican Divorce” for the Drifters, which Leiber and Stoller were going to produce, and as he put it “they were so busy running Redbird Records that they asked me to rehearse the background singers for them in my office.”
[Excerpt: The Drifters, “Mexican Divorce”]
The backing singers who had been brought in to augment the Drifters on that record were a group of vocalists who had started out as members of a gospel group called the Drinkard singers:
[Excerpt: The Drinkard Singers, “Singing in My Soul”]
The Drinkard Singers had originally been a family group, whose members included Cissy Drinkard, who joined the group aged five (and who on her marriage would become known as Cissy Houston — her daughter Whitney would later join the family business), her aunt Lee Warrick, and Warrick’s adopted daughter Judy Clay.
That group were discovered by the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and spent much of the fifties performing with gospel greats including Jackson herself, Clara Ward, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
But Houston was also the musical director of a group at her church, the Gospelaires, which featured Lee Warrick’s two daughters Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick (for those who don’t know, the Warwick sisters’ birth name was Warrick, spelled with two rs. A printing error led to it being misspelled the same way as the British city on a record label, and from that point on Dionne at least pronounced the w in her misspelled name). And slowly, the Gospelaires rather than the Drinkard Singers became the focus, with a lineup of Houston, the Warwick sisters, the Warwick sisters’ cousin Doris Troy, and Clay’s sister Sylvia Shemwell.
The real change in the group’s fortunes came when, as we talked about a while back in the episode on “The Loco-Motion”, the original lineup of the Cookies largely stopped working as session singers to become Ray Charles’ Raelettes. As we discussed in that episode, a new lineup of Cookies formed in 1961, but it took a while for them to get started, and in the meantime the producers who had been relying on them for backing vocals were looking elsewhere, and they looked to the Gospelaires.
“Mexican Divorce” was the first record to feature the group as backing vocalists — though reports vary as to how many of them are on the record, with some saying it’s only Troy and the Warwicks, others saying Houston was there, and yet others saying it was all five of them.
Some of these discrepancies were because these singers were so good that many of them left to become solo singers in fairly short order. Troy was the first to do so, with her hit “Just One Look”, on which the other Gospelaires sang backing vocals:
[Excerpt: Doris Troy, “Just One Look”]
But the next one to go solo was Dionne Warwick, and that was because she’d started working with Bacharach and Hal David as their principal demo singer. She started singing lead on their demos, and hoping that she’d get to release them on her own. One early one was “Make it Easy On Yourself”, which was recorded by Jerry Butler, formerly of the Impressions. That record was produced by Bacharach, one of the first records he produced without outside supervision:
[Excerpt: Jerry Butler, “Make it Easy On Yourself”]
Warwick was very jealous that a song she’d sung the demo of had become a massive hit for someone else, and blamed Bacharach and David. The way she tells the story — Bacharach always claimed this never happened, but as we’ve already seen he was himself not always the most reliable of narrators of his own life — she got so angry she complained to them, and said “Don’t make me over, man!”
And so Bacharach and David wrote her this:
[Excerpt: Dionne Warwick, “Don’t Make Me Over”]
Incidentally, in the UK, the hit version of that was a cover by the Swinging Blue Jeans:
[Excerpt: The Swinging Blue Jeans, “Don’t Make Me Over”]
who also had a huge hit with “You’re No Good”:
[Excerpt: The Swinging Blue Jeans, “You’re No Good”]
And *that* was originally recorded by *Dee Dee* Warwick:
[Excerpt: Dee Dee Warwick, “You’re No Good”]
Dee Dee also had a successful solo career, but Dionne’s was the real success, making the names of herself, and of Bacharach and David. The team had more than twenty top forty hits together, before Bacharach and David had a falling out in 1971 and stopped working together, and Warwick sued both of them for breach of contract as a result. But prior to that they had hit after hit, with classic records like “Anyone Who Had a Heart”:
[Excerpt: Dionne Warwick, “Anyone Who Had a Heart”]
And “Walk On By”:
[Excerpt: Dionne Warwick, “Walk On By”]
With Doris, Dionne, and Dee Dee all going solo, the group’s membership was naturally in flux — though the departed members would occasionally join their former bandmates for sessions, and the remaining members would sing backing vocals on their ex-members’ records. By 1965 the group consisted of Cissy Houston, Sylvia Shemwell, the Warwick sisters’ cousin Myrna Smith, and Estelle Brown.
The group became *the* go-to singers for soul and R&B records made in New York. They were regularly hired by Leiber and Stoller to sing on their records, and they were also the particular favourites of Bert Berns. They sang backing vocals on almost every record he produced. It’s them doing the gospel wails on “Cry Baby” by Garnet Mimms:
[Excerpt: Garnet Mimms, “Cry Baby”]
And they sang backing vocals on both versions of “If You Need Me” — Wilson Pickett’s original and Solomon Burke’s more successful cover version, produced by Berns:
[Excerpt: Solomon Burke, “If You Need Me”]
They’re on such Berns records as “Show Me Your Monkey”, by Kenny Hamber:
[Excerpt: Kenny Hamber, “Show Me Your Monkey”]
And it was a Berns production that ended up getting them to be Aretha Franklin’s backing group. The group were becoming such an important part of the records that Atlantic and BANG Records, in particular, were putting out, that Jerry Wexler said “it was only a matter of common decency to put them under contract as a featured group”. He signed them to Atlantic and renamed them from the Gospelaires to The Sweet Inspirations.
Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham wrote a song for the group which became their only hit under their own name:
[Excerpt: The Sweet Inspirations, “Sweet Inspiration”]
But to start with, they released a cover of Pops Staples’ civil rights song “Why (Am I treated So Bad)”:
[Excerpt: The Sweet Inspirations, “Why (Am I Treated So Bad?)”]
That hadn’t charted, and meanwhile, they’d all kept doing session work. Cissy had joined Erma and Carolyn Franklin on the backing vocals for Aretha’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You”]
Shortly after that, the whole group recorded backing vocals for Erma’s single “Piece of My Heart”, co-written and produced by Berns:
[Excerpt: Erma Franklin, “Piece of My Heart”]
That became a top ten record on the R&B charts, but that caused problems. Aretha Franklin had a few character flaws, and one of these was an extreme level of jealousy for any other female singer who had any level of success and came up in the business after her. She could be incredibly graceful towards anyone who had been successful before her — she once gave one of her Grammies away to Esther Phillips, who had been up for the same award and had lost to her — but she was terribly insecure, and saw any contemporary as a threat. She’d spent her time at Columbia Records fuming (with some justification) that Barbra Streisand was being given a much bigger marketing budget than her, and she saw Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, and Dionne Warwick as rivals rather than friends.
And that went doubly for her sisters, who she was convinced should be supporting her because of family loyalty. She had been infuriated at John Hammond when Columbia had signed Erma, thinking he’d gone behind her back to create competition for her. And now Erma was recording with Bert Berns. Bert Berns who had for years been a colleague of Jerry Wexler and the Ertegun brothers at Atlantic.
Aretha was convinced that Wexler had put Berns up to signing Erma as some kind of power play. There was only one problem with this — it simply wasn’t true. As Wexler later explained “Bert and I had suffered a bad falling-out, even though I had enormous respect for him. After all, he was the guy who brought over guitarist Jimmy Page from England to play on our sessions. Bert, Ahmet, Nesuhi, and I had started a label together—Bang!—where Bert produced Van Morrison’s first album. But Bert also had a penchant for trouble. He courted the wise guys. He wanted total control over every last aspect of our business dealings. Finally it was too much, and the Erteguns and I let him go. He sued us for breach of contract and suddenly we were enemies. I felt that he signed Erma, an excellent singer, not merely for her talent but as a way to get back at me. If I could make a hit with Aretha, he’d show me up by making an even bigger hit on Erma. Because there was always an undercurrent of rivalry between the sisters, this only added to the tension.”
There were two things that resulted from this paranoia on Aretha’s part. The first was that she and Wexler, who had been on first-name terms up to that point, temporarily went back to being “Mr. Wexler” and “Miss Franklin” to each other. And the second was that Aretha no longer wanted Carolyn and Erma to be her main backing vocalists, though they would continue to appear on her future records on occasion. From this point on, the Sweet Inspirations would be the main backing vocalists for Aretha in the studio throughout her golden era [xxcut line (and when the Sweet Inspirations themselves weren’t on the record, often it would be former members of the group taking their place)]:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Ain’t Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)”]
The last day of sessions for Aretha Arrives was July the twenty-third, 1967. And as we heard in the episode on “I Was Made to Love Her”, that was the day that the Detroit riots started.
To recap briefly, that was four days of rioting started because of a history of racist policing, made worse by those same racist police overreacting to the initial protests. By the end of those four days, the National Guard, 82nd Airborne Division, and the 101st Airborne from Clarksville were all called in to deal with the violence, which left forty-three dead (of whom thirty-three were Black and only one was a police officer), 1,189 people were injured, and over 7,200 arrested, almost all of them Black.
Those days in July would be a turning point for almost every musician based in Detroit. In particular, the police had murdered three members of the soul group the Dramatics, in a massacre of which the author John Hersey, who had been asked by President Johnson to be part of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders but had decided that would compromise his impartiality and did an independent journalistic investigation, said “The episode contained all the mythic themes of racial strife in the United States: the arm of the law taking the law into its own hands; interracial sex; the subtle poison of racist thinking by “decent” men who deny they are racists; the societal limbo into which, ever since slavery, so many young black men have been driven by our country; ambiguous justice in the courts; and the devastation in both black and white human lives that follows in the wake of violence as surely as ruinous and indiscriminate flood after torrents”
But these were also the events that radicalised the MC5 — the group had been playing a gig as Tim Buckley’s support act when the rioting started, and guitarist Wayne Kramer decided afterwards to get stoned and watch the fires burning down the city through a telescope — which police mistook for a rifle, leading to the National Guard knocking down Kramer’s door. The MC5 would later cover “The Motor City is Burning”, John Lee Hooker’s song about the events:
[Excerpt: The MC5, “The Motor City is Burning”]
It would also be a turning point for Motown, too, in ways we’ll talk about in a few future episodes. And it was a political turning point too — Michigan Governor George Romney, a liberal Republican (at a time when such people existed) had been the favourite for the Republican Presidential candidacy when he’d entered the race in December 1966, but as racial tensions ramped up in Detroit during the early months of 1967 he’d started trailing Richard Nixon, a man who was consciously stoking racists’ fears. President Johnson, the incumbent Democrat, who was at that point still considering standing for re-election, made sure to make it clear to everyone during the riots that the decision to call in the National Guard had been made at the State level, by Romney, rather than at the Federal level. That wasn’t the only thing that removed the possibility of a Romney presidency, but it was a big part of the collapse of his campaign, and the, as it turned out, irrevocable turn towards right-authoritarianism that the party took with Nixon’s Southern Strategy.
Of course, Aretha Franklin had little way of knowing what was to come and how the riots would change the city and the country over the following decades. What she was primarily concerned about was the safety of her father, and to a lesser extent that of her sister-in-law Earline who was staying with him. Aretha, Carolyn, and Erma all tried to keep in constant touch with their father while they were out of town, and Aretha even talked about hiring private detectives to travel to Detroit, find her father, and get him out of the city to safety. But as her brother Cecil pointed out, he was probably the single most loved man among Black people in Detroit, and was unlikely to be harmed by the rioters, while he was too famous for the police to kill with impunity.
Reverend Franklin had been having a stressful time anyway — he had recently been fined for tax evasion, an action he was convinced the IRS had taken because of his friendship with Dr King and his role in the civil rights movement — and according to Cecil “Aretha begged Daddy to move out of the city entirely. She wanted him to find another congregation in California, where he was especially popular—or at least move out to the suburbs. But he wouldn’t budge. He said that, more than ever, he was needed to point out the root causes of the riots—the economic inequality, the pervasive racism in civic institutions, the woefully inadequate schools in inner-city Detroit, and the wholesale destruction of our neighborhoods by urban renewal. Some ministers fled the city, but not our father. The horror of what happened only recommitted him. He would not abandon his political agenda.”
To make things worse, Aretha was worried about her father in other ways — as her marriage to Ted White was starting to disintegrate, she was looking to her father for guidance, and actually wanted him to take over her management. Eventually, Ruth Bowen, her booking agent, persuaded her brother Cecil that this was a job he could do, and that she would teach him everything he needed to know about the music business. She started training him up while Aretha was still married to White, in the expectation that that marriage couldn’t last.
Jerry Wexler, who only a few months earlier had been seeing Ted White as an ally in getting “product” from Franklin, had now changed his tune — partly because the sale of Atlantic had gone through in the meantime. He later said “Sometimes she’d call me at night, and, in that barely audible little-girl voice of hers, she’d tell me that she wasn’t sure she could go on. She always spoke in generalities. She never mentioned her husband, never gave me specifics of who was doing what to whom. And of course I knew better than to ask. She just said that she was tired of dealing with so much. My heart went out to her. She was a woman who suffered silently. She held so much in. I’d tell her to take as much time off as she needed. We had a lot of songs in the can that we could release without new material. ‘Oh, no, Jerry,’ she’d say. ‘I can’t stop recording. I’ve written some new songs, Carolyn’s written some new songs. We gotta get in there and cut ’em.’ ‘Are you sure?’ I’d ask. ‘Positive,’ she’d say. I’d set up the dates and typically she wouldn’t show up for the first or second sessions. Carolyn or Erma would call me to say, ‘Ree’s under the weather.’ That was tough because we’d have asked people like Joe South and Bobby Womack to play on the sessions. Then I’d reschedule in the hopes she’d show.”
That third album she recorded in 1967, Lady Soul, was possibly her greatest achievement.
The opening track, and second single, “Chain of Fools”, released in November, was written by Don Covay — or at least it’s credited as having been written by Covay. There’s a gospel record that came out around the same time on a very small label based in Houston — “Pains of Life” by Rev. E. Fair And The Sensational Gladys Davis Trio:
[Excerpt: Rev. E. Fair And The Sensational Gladys Davis Trio, “Pains of Life”]
I’ve seen various claims online that that record came out shortly *before* “Chain of Fools”, but I can’t find any definitive evidence one way or the other — it was on such a small label that release dates aren’t available anywhere. Given that the B-side, which I haven’t been able to track down online, is called “Wait Until the Midnight Hour”, my guess is that rather than this being a case of Don Covay stealing the melody from an obscure gospel record he’d have had little chance to hear, it’s the gospel record rewriting a then-current hit to be about religion, but I thought it worth mentioning.
The song was actually written by Covay after Jerry Wexler asked him to come up with some songs for Otis Redding, but Wexler, after hearing it, decided it was better suited to Franklin, who gave an astonishing performance:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Chain of Fools”]
Arif Mardin, the arranger of the album, said of that track “I was listed as the arranger of ‘Chain of Fools,’ but I can’t take credit. Aretha walked into the studio with the chart fully formed inside her head. The arrangement is based around the harmony vocals provided by Carolyn and Erma. To add heft, the Sweet Inspirations joined in. The vision of the song is entirely Aretha’s.”
According to Wexler, that’s not *quite* true — according to him, Joe South came up with the guitar part that makes up the intro, and he also said that when he played what he thought was the finished track to Ellie Greenwich, she came up with another vocal line for the backing vocals, which she overdubbed.
But the core of the record’s sound is definitely pure Aretha — and Carolyn Franklin said that there was a reason for that. As she said later “Aretha didn’t write ‘Chain,’ but she might as well have. It was her story. When we were in the studio putting on the backgrounds with Ree doing lead, I knew she was singing about Ted. Listen to the lyrics talking about how for five long years she thought he was her man. Then she found out she was nothing but a link in the chain. Then she sings that her father told her to come on home. Well, he did. She sings about how her doctor said to take it easy. Well, he did too. She was drinking so much we thought she was on the verge of a breakdown. The line that slew me, though, was the one that said how one of these mornings the chain is gonna break but until then she’ll take all she can take. That summed it up. Ree knew damn well that this man had been doggin’ her since Jump Street. But somehow she held on and pushed it to the breaking point.”
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Chain of Fools”]
That made number one on the R&B charts, and number two on the hot one hundred, kept from the top by “Judy In Disguise (With Glasses)” by John Fred and his Playboy Band — a record that very few people would say has stood the test of time as well.
The other most memorable track on the album was the one chosen as the first single, released in September. As Carole King told the story, she and Gerry Goffin were feeling like their career was in a slump. While they had had a huge run of hits in the early sixties through 1965, they had only had two new hits in 1966 — “Goin’ Back” for Dusty Springfield and “Don’t Bring Me Down” for the Animals, and neither of those were anything like as massive as their previous hits. And up to that point in 1967, they’d only had one — “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees. They had managed to place several songs on Monkees albums and the TV show as well, so they weren’t going to starve, but the rise of self-contained bands that were starting to dominate the charts, and Phil Spector’s temporary retirement, meant there simply wasn’t the opportunity for them to place material that there had been.
They were also getting sick of travelling to the West Coast all the time, because as their children were growing slightly older they didn’t want to disrupt their lives in New York, and were thinking of approaching some of the New York based labels and seeing if they needed songs. They were particularly considering Atlantic, because soul was more open to outside songwriters than other genres.
As it happened, though, they didn’t have to approach Atlantic, because Atlantic approached them. They were walking down Broadway when a limousine pulled up, and Jerry Wexler stuck his head out of the window. He’d come up with a good title that he wanted to use for a song for Aretha, would they be interested in writing a song called “Natural Woman”?
They said of course they would, and Wexler drove off. They wrote the song that night, and King recorded a demo the next morning:
[Excerpt: Carole King, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (demo)”]
They gave Wexler a co-writing credit because he had suggested the title.
King later wrote in her autobiography “Hearing Aretha’s performance of “Natural Woman” for the first time, I experienced a rare speechless moment. To this day I can’t convey how I felt in mere words. Anyone who had written a song in 1967 hoping it would be performed by a singer who could take it to the highest level of excellence, emotional connection, and public exposure would surely have wanted that singer to be Aretha Franklin.”
She went on to say “But a recording that moves people is never just about the artist and the songwriters. It’s about people like Jerry and Ahmet, who matched the songwriters with a great title and a gifted artist; Arif Mardin, whose magnificent orchestral arrangement deserves the place it will forever occupy in popular music history; Tom Dowd, whose engineering skills captured the magic of this memorable musical moment for posterity; and the musicians in the rhythm section, the orchestral players, and the vocal contributions of the background singers—among them the unforgettable “Ah-oo!” after the first line of the verse. And the promotion and marketing people helped this song reach more people than it might have without them.”
And that’s correct — unlike “Chain of Fools”, this time Franklin did let Arif Mardin do most of the arrangement work — though she came up with the piano part that Spooner Oldham plays on the record. Mardin said that because of the song’s hymn-like feel they wanted to go for a more traditional written arrangement. He said “She loved the song to the point where she said she wanted to concentrate on the vocal and vocal alone. I had written a string chart and horn chart to augment the chorus and hired Ralph Burns to conduct. After just a couple of takes, we had it. That’s when Ralph turned to me with wonder in his eyes. Ralph was one of the most celebrated arrangers of the modern era. He had done ‘Early Autumn’ for Woody Herman and Stan Getz, and ‘Georgia on My Mind’ for Ray Charles. He’d worked with everyone. ‘This woman comes from another planet’ was all Ralph said. ‘She’s just here visiting.’”
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”]
By this point there was a well-functioning team making Franklin’s records — while the production credits would vary over the years, they were all essentially co-productions by the team of Franklin, Wexler, Mardin and Dowd, all collaborating and working together with a more-or-less unified purpose, and the backing was always by the same handful of session musicians and some combination of the Sweet Inspirations and Aretha’s sisters.
That didn’t mean that occasional guests couldn’t get involved — as we discussed in the Cream episode, Eric Clapton played guitar on “Good to Me as I am to You”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Good to Me as I am to You”]
Though that was one of the rare occasions on one of these records where something was overdubbed. Clapton apparently messed up the guitar part when playing behind Franklin, because he was too intimidated by playing with her, and came back the next day to redo his part without her in the studio.
At this point, Aretha was at the height of her fame. Just before the final batch of album sessions began she appeared in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and she was making regular TV appearances, like one on the Mike Douglas Show where she duetted with Frankie Valli on “That’s Life”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin and Frankie Valli, “That’s Life”]
But also, as Wexler said “Her career was kicking into high gear. Contending and resolving both the professional and personal challenges were too much. She didn’t think she could do both, and I didn’t blame her. Few people could. So she let the personal slide and concentrated on the professional. “
Her concert promoter Ruth Bowen said of this time “Her father and Dr. King were putting pressure on her to sing everywhere, and she felt obligated. The record company was also screaming for more product. And I had a mountain of offers on my desk that kept getting higher with every passing hour. They wanted her in Europe. They wanted her in Latin America. They wanted her in every major venue in the U.S. TV was calling. She was being asked to do guest appearances on every show from Carol Burnett to Andy Williams to the Hollywood Palace. She wanted to do them all and she wanted to do none of them. She wanted to do them all because she’s an entertainer who burns with ambition. She wanted to do none of them because she was emotionally drained. She needed to go away and renew her strength. I told her that at least a dozen times. She said she would, but she didn’t listen to me.”
The pressures from her father and Dr King are a recurring motif in interviews with people about this period. Franklin was always a very political person, and would throughout her life volunteer time and money to liberal political causes and to the Democratic Party, but this was the height of her activism — the Civil Rights movement was trying to capitalise on the gains it had made in the previous couple of years, and celebrity fundraisers and performances at rallies were an important way to do that.
And at this point there were few bigger celebrities in America than Aretha Franklin. At a concert in her home town of Detroit on February the sixteenth, 1968, the Mayor declared the day Aretha Franklin Day. At the same show, Billboard, Record World *and* Cash Box magazines all presented her with plaques for being Female Vocalist of the Year. And Dr. King travelled up to be at the show and congratulate her publicly for all her work with his organisation, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Backstage at that show, Dr. King talked to Aretha’s father, Reverend Franklin, about what he believed would be the next big battle — a strike in Memphis:
[Excerpt, Martin Luther King, “Mountaintop Speech” — “And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy—what is the other bread?—Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart’s bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven’t been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying, they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.”]
The strike in question was the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike which had started a few days before.
The struggle for Black labour rights was an integral part of the civil rights movement, and while it’s not told that way in the sanitised version of the story that’s made it into popular culture, the movement led by King was as much about economic justice as social justice — King was a democratic socialist, and believed that economic oppression was both an effect of and cause of other forms of racial oppression, and that the rights of Black workers needed to be fought for. In 1967 he had set up a new organisation, the Poor People’s Campaign, which was set to march on Washington to demand a program that included full employment, a guaranteed income — King was strongly influenced in his later years by the ideas of Henry George, the proponent of a universal basic income based on land value tax — the annual building of half a million affordable homes, and an end to the war in Vietnam. This was King’s main focus in early 1968, and he saw the sanitation workers’ strike as a major part of this campaign.
Memphis was one of the most oppressive cities in the country, and its largely Black workforce of sanitation workers had been trying for most of the 1960s to unionise, and strike-breakers had been called in to stop them, and many of them had been fired by their white supervisors with no notice. They were working in unsafe conditions, for utterly inadequate wages, and the city government were ardent segregationists. After two workers had died on the first of February from using unsafe equipment, the union demanded changes — safer working conditions, better wages, and recognition of the union.
The city council refused, and almost all the sanitation workers stayed home and stopped work. After a few days, the council relented and agreed to their terms, but the Mayor, Henry Loeb, an ardent white supremacist who had stood on a platform of opposing desegregation, and who had previously been the Public Works Commissioner who had put these unsafe conditions in place, refused to listen. As far as he was concerned, he was the only one who could recognise the union, and he wouldn’t. The workers continued their strike, marching holding signs that simply read “I am a Man”:
[Excerpt: Stevie Wonder, “Blowing in the Wind”]
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP had been involved in organising support for the strikes from an early stage, and King visited Memphis many times. Much of the time he spent visiting there was spent negotiating with a group of more militant activists, who called themselves The Invaders and weren’t completely convinced by King’s nonviolent approach — they believed that violence and rioting got more attention than non-violent protests. King explained to them that while he had been persuaded by Gandhi’s writings of the moral case for nonviolent protest, he was also persuaded that it was pragmatically necessary — asking the young men “how many guns do we have and how many guns do they have?”, and pointing out as he often did that when it comes to violence a minority can’t win against an armed majority.
Rev Franklin went down to Memphis on the twenty-eighth of March to speak at a rally Dr. King was holding, but as it turned out the rally was cancelled — the pre-rally march had got out of hand, with some people smashing windows, and Memphis police had, like the police in Detroit the previous year, violently overreacted, clubbing and gassing protestors and shooting and killing one unarmed teenage boy, Larry Payne.
The day after Payne’s funeral, Dr King was back in Memphis, though this time Rev Franklin was not with him. On April the third, he gave a speech which became known as the “Mountaintop Speech”, in which he talked about the threats that had been made to his life:
[Excerpt: Martin Luther King, “Mountaintop Speech”: “And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”]
The next day, Martin Luther King was shot dead. James Earl Ray, a white supremacist, pled guilty to the murder, and the evidence against him seems overwhelming from what I’ve read, but the King family have always claimed that the murder was part of a larger conspiracy and that Ray was not the gunman.
Aretha was obviously distraught, and she attended the funeral, as did almost every other prominent Black public figure. James Baldwin wrote of the funeral: “In the pew directly before me sat Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis, Eartha Kitt—covered in black, looking like a lost, ten-year-old girl—and Sidney Poitier, in the same pew, or nearby. Marlon saw me, and nodded. The atmosphere was black, with a tension indescribable—as though something, perhaps the heavens, perhaps the earth, might crack. Everyone sat very still. The actual service sort of washed over me, in waves. It wasn’t that it seemed unreal; it was the most real church service I’ve ever sat through in my life, or ever hope to sit through; but I have a childhood hangover thing about not weeping in public, and I was concentrating on holding myself together. I did not want to weep for Martin, tears seemed futile. But I may also have been afraid, and I could not have been the only one, that if I began to weep I would not be able to stop. There was more than enough to weep for, if one was to weep—so many of us, cut down, so soon. Medgar, Malcolm, Martin: and their widows, and their children. Reverend Ralph David Abernathy asked a certain sister to sing a song which Martin had loved—“Once more,” said Ralph David, “for Martin and for me,” and he sat down.”
Many articles and books on Aretha Franklin say that she sang at King’s funeral. In fact she didn’t, but there’s a simple reason for the confusion. King’s favourite song was the Thomas Dorsey gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, and indeed almost his last words were to ask a trumpet player, Ben Branch, if he would play the song at the rally he was going to be speaking at on the day of his death. At his request, Mahalia Jackson, his old friend, sang the song at his private funeral, which was not filmed, unlike the public part of the funeral that Baldwin described.
Four months later, though, there was another public memorial for King, and Franklin did sing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at that service, in front of King’s weeping widow and children, and that performance *was* filmed, and gets conflated in people’s memories with Jackson’s unfilmed earlier performance:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord (at Martin Luther King Memorial)”]
Four years later, she would sing that at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral.
Through all this, Franklin had been working on her next album, Aretha Now, the sessions for which started more or less as soon as the sessions for Lady Soul had finished. The album was, in fact, bookended by deaths that affected Aretha. Just as King died at the end of the sessions, the beginning came around the time of the death of Otis Redding — the sessions were cancelled for a day while Wexler travelled to Georgia for Redding’s funeral, which Franklin was too devastated to attend, and Wexler would later say that the extra emotion in her performances on the album came from her emotional pain at Redding’s death.
The lead single on the album, “Think”, was written by Franklin and — according to the credits anyway — her husband Ted White, and is very much in the same style as “Respect”, and became another of her most-loved hits:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Think”]
But probably the song on Aretha Now that now resonates the most is one that Jerry Wexler tried to persuade her not to record, and was only released as a B-side. Indeed, “I Say a Little Prayer” was a song that had already once been a hit after being a reject.
Hal David, unlike Burt Bacharach, was a fairly political person and inspired by the protest song movement, and had been starting to incorporate his concerns about the political situation and the Vietnam War into his lyrics — though as with many such writers, he did it in much less specific ways than a Phil Ochs or a Bob Dylan. This had started with “What the World Needs Now is Love”, a song Bacharach and David had written for Jackie DeShannon in 1965:
[Excerpt: Jackie DeShannon, “What the “World Needs Now is Love”]
But he’d become much more overtly political for “The Windows of the World”, a song they wrote for Dionne Warwick. Warwick has often said it’s her favourite of her singles, but it wasn’t a big hit — Bacharach blamed himself for that, saying “Dionne recorded it as a single and I really blew it. I wrote a bad arrangement and the tempo was too fast, and I really regret making it the way I did because it’s a good song.”
[Excerpt: Dionne Warwick, “The Windows of the World”]
For that album, Bacharach and David had written another track, “I Say a Little Prayer”, which was not as explicitly political, but was intended by David to have an implicit anti-war message, much like other songs of the period like “Last Train to Clarksville”. David had sons who were the right age to be drafted, and while it’s never stated, “I Say a Little Prayer” was written from the perspective of a woman whose partner is away fighting in the war, but is still in her thoughts:
[Excerpt: Dionne Warwick, “I Say a Little Prayer”]
The recording of Dionne Warwick’s version was marked by stress. Bacharach had a particular way of writing music to tell the musicians the kind of feel he wanted for the part — he’d write nonsense words above the stave, and tell the musicians to play the parts as if they were singing those words. The trumpet player hired for the session, Ernie Royal, got into a row with Bacharach about this unorthodox way of communicating musical feeling, and the track ended up taking ten takes (as opposed to the normal three for a Bacharach session), with Royal being replaced half-way through the session.
Bacharach was never happy with the track even after all the work it had taken, and he fought to keep it from being released at all, saying the track was taken at too fast a tempo. It eventually came out as an album track nearly eighteen months after it was recorded — an eternity in 1960s musical timescales — and DJs started playing it almost as soon as it came out. Scepter records rushed out a single, over Bacharach’s objections, but as he later said “One thing I love about the record business is how wrong I was. Disc jockeys all across the country started playing the track, and the song went to number four on the charts and then became the biggest hit Hal and I had ever written for Dionne.”
[Excerpt: Dionne Warwick, “I Say a Little Prayer”]
Oddly, the B-side for Warwick’s single, “Theme From the Valley of the Dolls” did even better, reaching number two.
Almost as soon as the song was released as a single, Franklin started playing around with the song backstage, and in April 1968, right around the time of Dr. King’s death, she recorded a version. Much as Burt Bacharach had been against releasing Dionne Warwick’s version, Jerry Wexler was against Aretha even recording the song, saying later “I advised Aretha not to record it. I opposed it for two reasons. First, to cover a song only twelve weeks after the original reached the top of the charts was not smart business. You revisit such a hit eight months to a year later. That’s standard practice. But more than that, Bacharach’s melody, though lovely, was peculiarly suited to a lithe instrument like Dionne Warwick’s—a light voice without the dark corners or emotional depths that define Aretha. Also, Hal David’s lyric was also somewhat girlish and lacked the gravitas that Aretha required.
“Aretha usually listened to me in the studio, but not this time. She had written a vocal arrangement for the Sweet Inspirations that was undoubtedly strong. Cissy Houston, Dionne’s cousin, told me that Aretha was on the right track—she was seeing this song in a new way and had come up with a new groove. Cissy was on Aretha’s side. Tommy Dowd and Arif were on Aretha’s side. So I had no choice but to cave.”
It’s quite possible that Wexler’s objections made Franklin more, rather than less, determined to record the song. She regarded Warwick as a hated rival, as she did almost every prominent female singer of her generation and younger ones, and would undoubtedly have taken the implication that there was something that Warwick was simply better at than her to heart.
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “I Say a Little Prayer”]
Wexler realised as soon as he heard it in the studio that Franklin’s version was great, and Bacharach agreed, telling Franklin’s biographer David Ritz “As much as I like the original recording by Dionne, there’s no doubt that Aretha’s is a better record. She imbued the song with heavy soul and took it to a far deeper place. Hers is the definitive version.” — which is surprising because Franklin’s version simplifies some of Bacharach’s more unusual chord voicings, something he often found extremely upsetting.
Wexler still though thought there was no way the song would be a hit, and it’s understandable that he thought that way. Not only had it only just been on the charts a few months earlier, but it was the kind of song that wouldn’t normally be a hit at all, and certainly not in the kind of rhythmic soul music for which Franklin was known. Almost everything she ever recorded is in simple time signatures — 4/4, waltz time, or 6/8 — but this is a Bacharach song so it’s staggeringly metrically irregular. Normally even with semi-complex things I’m usually good at figuring out how to break it down into bars, but here I actually had to purchase a copy of the sheet music in order to be sure I was right about what’s going on.
I’m going to count beats along with the record here so you can see what I mean. The verse has three bars of 4/4, one bar of 2/4, and three more bars of 4/4, all repeated:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “I Say a Little Prayer” with me counting bars over verse]
While the chorus has a bar of 4/4, a bar of 3/4 but with a chord change half way through so it sounds like it’s in two if you’re paying attention to the harmonic changes, two bars of 4/4, another waltz-time bar sounding like it’s in two, two bars of four, another bar of three sounding in two, a bar of four, then three more bars of four but the first of those is *written* as four but played as if it’s in six-eight time (but you can keep the four/four pulse going if you’re counting):
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “I Say a Little Prayer” with me counting bars over verse]
I don’t expect you to have necessarily followed that in great detail, but the point should be clear — this was not some straightforward dance song. Incidentally, that bar played as if it’s six/eight was something Aretha introduced to make the song even more irregular than how Bacharach wrote it.
And on top of *that* of course the lyrics mixed the secular and the sacred, something that was still taboo in popular music at that time — this is only a couple of years after Capitol records had been genuinely unsure about putting out the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, and Franklin’s gospel-inflected vocals made the religious connection even more obvious.
But Franklin was insistent that the record go out as a single, and eventually it was released as the B-side to the far less impressive “The House That Jack Built”. It became a double-sided hit, with the A-side making number two on the R&B chart and number seven on the Hot One Hundred, while “I Say a Little Prayer” made number three on the R&B chart and number ten overall. In the UK, “I Say a Little Prayer” made number four and became her biggest ever solo UK hit. It’s now one of her most-remembered songs, while the A-side is largely forgotten:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “I Say a Little Prayer”]
For much of the rest of 1968, Franklin split her time between recording her next album and live performance. The album was a big band jazz project mistitled Soul ’69 which was probably the least successful of her records from this period both artistically and commercially. It went to number one on the R&B albums chart, but Franklin was for most of her career, with one exception we’ll talk about later, a singles artist more than an albums one, and the singles from the record sank without trace.
She was also going through a lot of personal stress. An article in Time magazine appeared which, while overall complimentary and a puff piece by most standards, revealed more of her personal troubles than she was comfortable having made public, and became the main reason she became extremely guarded about giving interviews in the future.
Her live performances were also a source of stress at this point. Franklin had been thrilled with the opportunity to go on tour in Europe, and arranged to record a live album in Paris, a city she would come to love. When they travelled over, in May, White was still her husband and manager, and he put together the live band she would use for the tour. Nobody was happy with the band. Carolyn Franklin said of the tour “The only problem was the band. Wexler didn’t put it together. Ted did. The band lacked the fire that we’d been used to in the studio. And then the band became another point of contention between Aretha and Ted. She accused him of hiring the wrong musicians. He accused her of slacking on her singing. It got bad, even as the crowds kept getting bigger.”
Wexler said of the resulting live album “She and the band aren’t on the same page. They’re out of tune, they miss their cues, and they’re struggling to find the right groove. Naturally she was excited to be performing in Europe for the first time, and naturally it had to be thrilling for her to see the international scope of her success, but when the music’s not right Aretha’s not right. Like Ray Charles, she hears every note being played by every band member. And when a note is wrong—and, believe me, there were scores of bad notes—for Aretha, it’s like squeaky chalk on a blackboard. It hurts. When she came home, she was hurting. Here you had the premier singer of our time touring the Continent with a ragtag band suitable for backing up a third-rate blues singer in some bucket of blood in Loserville, Louisiana. It was outrageous.”
In truth, to most ears, the recordings, which were presumably sweetened in the studio afterwards as most live albums were, sound… fine. But they’re definitely not a patch on the studio versions, and Wexler refused to take a production credit, insisting instead on being credited as “supervisor”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Chain of Fools (live in Paris)”]
Luckily, her marriage finally ended — though even after they separated and she handed her management over to Cecil, Ted White insisted he had a management contract with her. With White’s waning influence, Jerry Wexler had the perfect solution, and it was also someone he owed a favour to. We’ve mentioned King Curtis many times before in different episodes, because he was *the* premier tenor sax session player on the East Coast of America at the time. He’d started out with Lionel Hampton’s band, but from the late fifties he played almost every important sax part on a hit record to come out of the East Coast, like Buddy Holly’s “Reminiscing”:
[Excerpt: Buddy Holly, “Reminiscing”]
The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak”:
[Excerpt: The Coasters, “Yaklety Yak”]
And all the other Coasters hits. He’d played on records by Ruth Brown, the Drifters, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, the Isley Brothers, and Wilson Pickett. He’d played with Sam Cooke’s band on the legendary Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963:
[Excerpt: Sam Cooke, “Twisting the Night Away (live)”]
He’d played on “Boys” by the Shirelles:
[Excerpt: The Shirelles, “Boys”]
And he’d also had encounters with future stars — he’d played sax on the single Lou Reed had recorded as The Jades:
[Excerpt: The Jades, “Leave Her For Me”]
More importantly, he was a bandleader in his own right. He’d had hits with “Soul Twist”, “Memphis Soul Stew”, and his signature song “Soul Serenade”:
[Excerpt: King Curtis, “Soul Serenade”]
And he’d had Jimi Hendrix in his band the Kingpins, for a while — Hendrix had played on several of his records, like “Instant Groove”:
[Excerpt: King Curtis, “Instant Groove”]
Curtis had also supported the Beatles on their 1965 US tour, including the legendary Shea Stadium gig.
He was also, obviously, the sax player on most of Franklin’s records since she’d started working at Atlantic, and had been the one who had suggested the key change and sax solo on “Respect”.
Wexler knew he was a great musician and a great bandleader, but he also literally owed Curtis his life. In July 1968 there was a DJ convention in Miami, a promotional junket for record labels in the R&B market, which will come up a lot in future episodes. Various gangs — what the great record man Henry Stone referred to as the “Black New York Mafia” chose that moment to try to take over many of the soul record labels. Stone himself had connections with a rival set of gangsters, led by Joe Robinson, the husband of Sylvia from Mickey and Sylvia. Stone got Robinson to organise protection for various people he considered under threat, and because of that protection he later agreed to go into a business partnership with Robinson which would revolutionise music a decade or so later. The convention also played a pivotal role in a change of direction for Stax Records. So you can be sure this will come up again.
But the person who was most threatened at the convention was Jerry Wexler, who was at one point during the event actually hanged in effigy. It was King Curtis who warned Wexler in the middle of the convention banquet that his life was in danger, and he and the singer Titus Turner, who were both armed with pistols, acted as Wexler’s bodyguards to get him out of the event alive. Nobody would mess with Curtis, who as well as being armed was also six foot two, two hundred pounds, and one of the most respected figures in the business.
Wexler owed Curtis his life, and also knew that he led one of the best bands around — and the Kingpins were already used to touring with the Sweet Inspirations as vocalists (though the Sweet Inspirations would only rarely perform live with Franklin, because they soon had one of the few artists bigger than her using their services regularly in a live situation).
For the moment though, Franklin’s records would still use the Muscle Shoals rhythm section — and on several tracks a new friend of Curtis’, a session musician whose contract Wexler had bought from Rick Hall at Muscle Shoals after hearing his playing on Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude”, Duane Allman.
Allman can be heard on two tracks on Franklin’s next album, This Girl’s In Love With You — named after another Bacharach and David song, previously a hit for Herb Alpert. One of those tracks is one we heard in the most recent episode, her version of “The Weight”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “The Weight”]
That was one of several songs on the album where Franklin was trying Wexler’s strategy of recording songs by successful white acts in the hope of a crossover — she also recorded versions of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Let It Be”, the latter of which was the first version of the song to be released, Paul McCartney having sent her a demo a while before the Beatles got around to releasing their version.
Another song on the album originally recorded by a white person was another example of Aretha working out feelings of jealousy towards a potential rival. “Son of a Preacher Man” had originally been written for her, but she’d turned the song down — something that would happen with increasing frequency. In this case her reasoning was that the song might seem disrespectful to her father, who was himself a “preacher man”. So Jerry Wexler had brought the track to the British singer Dusty Springfield, for whom he was producing a new album, Dusty in Memphis:
[Excerpt: Dusty Springfield, “Son of a Preacher Man”]
According to Wexler “There was also a little tension in that January session because I was coming off a hit album I’d done with Dusty Springfield, Dusty in Memphis. It was being called a soul classic and compared to Aretha. Aretha didn’t like me producing other chick singers. I told her that she was Dusty’s idol and Dusty was making no claims to her throne. Aretha smiled that little passive smile she’s famous for—the smile that told me she wasn’t happy.”
So of course, Franklin recorded her own version of the song:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Son of a Preacher Man”]
Of course, what Franklin didn’t know was that Springfield was far more insecure even than Franklin, and hated the idea of being compared to someone she realised was a much better singer. For the rest of her life she would always talk about how much better Franklin’s performance was, and draw particular attention to the way Franklin phrased the words “reach me”, and copy that phrasing in her own live performances. Still though I think in this case, for once, Franklin’s version didn’t quite beat Springfield’s original.
The sessions for that album lasted quite a while, and in the middle King Curtis recorded another album of his own, which also featured Duane Allman on guitar on several songs, including Curtis’ own version of “The Weight”, and a version of “Games People Play” that won him a Grammy:
[Excerpt: King Curtis, “Games People Play”]
Around this time, King Curtis also discovered a new soul musician who would go on to become one of the most influential in the genre in the seventies, Donny Hathaway, and he produced several tracks on Hathaway’s first album, and guested on guitar, rather than his normal saxophone, on Hathaway’s version of Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul”:
[Excerpt: Donny Hathaway, “I Believe to My Soul”]
According to the biography of King Curtis that I used for this episode, Curtis got Aretha Franklin to sit in on piano on that album, but Franklin’s not credited on it. I suspect that biography is misremembering a different occasion when Franklin acted purely as piano player on a session produced by Curtis, an album by Sam Moore that went unreleased until 2002 due to Moore’s heroin addiction, and on which Franklin agreed to play piano partly so she could work with Hathaway, who was playing the other keyboard on the album:
[Excerpt: Sam Moore, “Get Out My Life Woman”]
The other musicians on that, other than Franklin and Hathaway, were the members of the Kingpins — Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass, and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums.
Aretha’s next album, Spirit in the Dark, was her first not to make the top twenty since she’d signed to Atlantic, though it had two more big hits — “Don’t Play That Song” and the title track. But it was a patchwork affair, recorded in sessions in different studios with three different sets of musicians — the Muscle Shoals players she normally worked with, her own touring band, and a set of musicians Wexler had found in Florida, where he now lived. Increasingly Wexler was producing sessions in Florida and not wanting to travel, while Mardin and Dowd were producing sessions in New York.
But Franklin was dealing with things that were more important than music. Her family was going through serious problems. As well as her divorce from White, she was seriously concerned about her father. Rev. Franklin had become more radical since the death of Martin Luther King, and had started giving support to more radical elements of the Black Power movement. He was still a staunch believer in non-violence, but he would allow his church to be used by those who weren’t, including the Republic of New Africa. This was a Black separatist movement whose vice president was Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malik el-Shabazz, the activist known for most of his life as Malcolm X. The organisation was founded to call for the secession of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, and for those states to become a Black ethnostate with no white people.
Rev. Franklin didn’t agree with this view, but he thought solidarity with other supporters of Black liberation now more important than disagreements over strategy, so he let them use his church as a meeting place. On the twenty-ninth of March, 1969, they held a meeting to which some members of their paramilitary faction came armed with rifles. A police car drove past towards the end of the meeting and saw some of the armed men outside. The police approached, and while reports differ as to what actually happened, shots were fired and one of the police officers was killed. This led to the police storming the church, spraying bullets into the windows, and arresting the hundred and fifty people inside (many of whom were then held illegally without access to counsel) and confiscating large numbers of guns found on the premises.
Rev. Franklin was defiant when interviewed about this, saying “I do not denounce these people. Their goals are the same as ours, only they approach them from different directions.” He said he’d happily let them use the church again, so long as they promised not to bring guns in future.
This caused Rev. Franklin to become even more of a target for law enforcement himself. On one flight shortly afterwards, his baggage got misplaced by the airline, and when it turned up it contained small amounts of cannabis, for which he was arrested, though the charges were later dropped — he always claimed it had been planted. And he also found himself once again under investigation by tax officials.
According to Cecil Franklin “My father was sought out and victimized by government officials, both national and local, who resented his political positions and were determined to humiliate him. He fought back, he answered every charge, he eventually paid his tax bill, and, as far as his congregation was concerned, he cleared his name. But I have to say that after what happened to him in that particular season of 1969, he was never quite the same.”
Another family strain in 1969 came when Aretha’s sister Carolyn, who had written several songs for her and who Aretha was hoping would continue to just be a songwriter and backing vocalist rather than pursue stardom herself, got a record contract, leading to a flare-up of tensions between the sisters:
[Excerpt: Carolyn Franklin, “Boxer”]
Carolyn begged Aretha to write liner notes for the album, in the hopes that her famous sister’s approval would lead to sales, but Aretha kept saying she would and then not doing it, jealous of her sister. Eventually Carolyn turned to their father, who also tried and failed to get Aretha to write notes. When she wouldn’t, he wrote them himself, concluding with a claimed endorsement from Aretha that didn’t sound convincing.
There was also some tension between the sisters because Carolyn, who was lesbian, had expressed support for the Stonewall riots and considered queer rights to be the logical next step in the progression that included Black civil rights and women’s rights. Aretha would later become a vocal queer ally, but in 1969 this was a step too far for her.
Aretha did soften on Carolyn when her second solo album, Chain Reaction, came out, and she praised it privately:
[Excerpt: Carolyn Franklin, “Chain Reaction”]
But she refused to talk to the press about her sister’s new record. This time it was because of more scandal in her private life, which by this time had made the press. Charles Cooke, Sam Cooke’s brother, had come round to visit her at her home when her ex-husband had turned up, acting aggressive. Cooke had tried to protect Aretha, who was seven months pregnant at the time, and White shot him. Thankfully, Cooke survived, but Franklin was horrified by the publicity.
All of this happened in a short period from spring 1969 through early 1970, during which time she was also recording the albums Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted, and Black, the latter of which is often considered her greatest studio album by people who don’t think it’s Lady Soul. Both albums, like everything Aretha recorded in these first few years at Atlantic, are great, but they’re not coherent artistic statements.
As Jerry Wexler said “When you look back and see what are now considered the great Aretha Franklin albums of the late sixties and early seventies, they really aren’t albums at all. They’re compilations of singles. There was never any organizational principle. We just threw ’em together… For example, you could interchange the tunes on Spirit in the Dark with those on Young, Gifted, and Black. Mix and match as you please.”
It was in her live shows that she was making artistic statements, shows that were structured with peaks and troughs, and that had a throughline. And so it makes sense that her two greatest albums of the early seventies are two very different live albums.
The first of these came about almost by accident. Ruth Bowen was organising a tour for Franklin and Curtis, and realised there was an uncomfortable gap in California that needed filling. She persuaded Bill Graham to book them into the Fillmore West for three nights, as both a way to plug the hole and possibly a way to bring Aretha to greater prominence with the hippie market. But Graham would only pay five thousand dollars in total for the three nights, and the normal fee for Franklin and Curtis would be five thousand dollars a night.
Franklin wouldn’t budge on her fee — she didn’t want to play the Fillmore at all, seeing it as not her audience — but Bowen thought this was important. She eventually got Ahmet Ertegun to agree to pay an extra five thousand dollars in tour support from the label, because Ertegun was well aware of the importance of the hippie market. But that still wasn’t enough.
But then Jerry Wexler had an idea. They could put up the full ten thousand dollars difference, and use the shows to record a live album by Aretha. And why not record a King Curtis live album while they were at it? Almost as soon as he had the idea he regretted it — in his words he “considered the musical tastes of the flower children infantile” and had no time for people who liked Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, thinking such people could never appreciate Franklin’s music, but by that point the agreement had already been made.
Curtis put together the best possible live band he could for the tour. He used his regular Kingpins guitarist Cornell Dupree and drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, but rather than Chuck Rainey, who was his second-call bass player, he got in Jerry Jemmott, his first-call player, who normally only did studio work but made an exception for this special tour. They brought in vocal group The Sweethearts of Soul, as the Sweet Inspirations were no longer available for Aretha’s live shows; the Memphis Horns who had played on so many great Stax records; and on keyboards was Billy Preston, who had recently become a minor star in his own right after performing with the Beatles, but who had originally trained with James Cleveland, the gospel musician who had also been Aretha’s mentor.
And at the shows, Ray Charles also turned up, just to listen to the music, but Aretha dragged him out on stage for a surprise duet on her “Spirit in the Dark”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, “Spirit in the Dark”]
King Curtis’ set was a mixture of soul classics, both his own like “Memphis Soul Stew” and others like “Knock on Wood”, and songs that were designed to appeal to the hippie crowd. The set was largely instrumental, but he had Preston sing vocals on “My Sweet Lord”, the George Harrison song that Preston had played on and just released as his own single:
[Excerpt: King Curtis and Billy Preston, “My Sweet Lord”]
They also did instrumental versions of “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, and a song that had just come out by a band of former session players that Atlantic Records had signed after Dusty Springfield had recommended them:
[Excerpt: King Curtis and the Kingpins, “Whole Lotta Love”]
Franklin’s set was similarly geared towards the white rock audience, with many of her biggest hits missing in favour of funked-up or gospel versions of “Eleanor Rigby”, “The Long and Winding Road”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, Bread’s “Make it With You”, and Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin and King Curtis, “Love the One You’re With”]
That song, incidentally, took its title from something Billy Preston had said to Stills.
Both Curtis and Franklin’s live albums are regularly ranked among the greatest live albums in soul music history, only matched perhaps by James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, Otis Redding’s Live in Europe and Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club. There’s a four-CD box set of the complete recordings which is *well* worth tracking down (and from which I took the recordings I just excerpted, rather than the original releases).
On the last night, the last song was one she hadn’t done in the previous shows, a version of Diana Ross’ first solo hit “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, presumably chosen once again in a spirit of rivalry. That song was also used for band intros, and she said this when talking about Curtis:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin and King Curtis, “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”]
Sadly, that was not to be. Rather than performing with Franklin for “many years to come”, only a week after the release of the second album from the shows, King Curtis’ one, Curtis was dead.
He’d spent the time between the shows and the albums’ release a few months later productively and as in-demand as ever, playing on everything from the theme to Soul Train to John Lennon’s forthcoming album, Imagine, on which he played on two tracks, produced by Phil Spector, with whom Curtis had worked before Spector became famous:
[Excerpt: John Lennon, “It’s So Hard”]
Aretha had toured Europe again, this time with the Kingpins backing her, and while they were there Curtis had cut another live album, this time backing Champion Jack Dupree, who was playing on the same bill on some shows and got the Kingpins to back him. He played a one-off gig with his close friends Delaney Bramlett and Duane Allman, and started recording his next solo album, Everybody’s Talkin’, engineered by his friend Gene Paul, Les Paul’s son, and he’d just bought a new mansion just off Central Park, he was earning so much money.
But the air conditioning was causing problems with the electrics in the house, causing the circuit breaker to go off. On August the thirteenth 1971, King Curtis went out onto the street — his house had two doors, and the easiest way to get to the circuit breaker to sort the problem out was to exit one door and enter the other. He was carrying a torch. A man named Juan Montanez was stood in the other doorway, arguing with a woman. Curtis asked him to move. Montanez pretended not to speak English and smirked. Curtis tried to intimidate him, using his size to try to get the man to move. Montanez continued smirking and pretending not to understand English. Curtis got so irate he ended up smashing the torch over Montanez’s head, at which point Montanez pulled out a knife and stabbed Curtis. The wound proved fatal — though before he collapsed Curtis managed to pull the knife from his assailant’s hand and stab him back. It didn’t kill Montanez, but it did mean that the police found him when he turned up wounded in the hospital.
Aretha was distraught. Bernard Purdie, who became her bandleader after that, said “It was a sad, sad time. And the strange part is that Aretha didn’t even want his name mentioned; it was like she couldn’t take the sadness. If someone happened to say anything about King, she went into her shell. I understood. She couldn’t handle it. When Aretha was around, it was better to act like it had never happened.”
Franklin immediately went round to Curtis’ house to look after his girlfriend, and stayed with her for several days, helping out and buying her dress for the funeral.
Curtis’ funeral was a mixture of the secular and the sacred, mourning and Black liberation. It was officiated by CL Franklin and eulogies were given by Cecil Franklin, himself now a Baptist minister at his father’s church, and Jesse Jackson. Almost every star of Black music who could make it was in attendance, including the Isley Brothers, Brook Benton, and Dizzy Gillespie. The Kingpins played an hour long version of “Soul Serenade” while people entered and took their seats, Stevie Wonder moved everyone to tears by singing a version of “Abraham, Martin, and John” which included a new extra verse starting “Has anybody here seen my old friend King Curtis?”, and Aretha closed the service by singing the gospel song “Never Grow Old”, which had been the first single she had ever released, when she was fourteen.
And it would be to gospel she would turn for what would be her own greatest artistic statement a few months later:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Amazing Grace”]
It was the perfect time for Aretha to go back to her gospel roots, because in the years since she had turned to secular music, secular music had turned towards gospel, largely thanks to her old mentor James Cleveland.
After Cleveland had stopped working for Rev Franklin, he had gone on to become one of the most important people in gospel music, both as a musician himself and as a talent scout for Savoy Records, who by this time were the biggest label in Black gospel. He had recorded a string of successful records, had mentored many musicians, and had become the single most important figure in the music since Thomas Dorsey, changing the style of the music completely by introducing massed choirs.
These days the standard image of a gospel performance in the popular imaginary is a group of twenty to forty people, in robes, singing together, but up until the mid-sixties that was almost unknown in gospel music. We always say there’s no first anything here, and I’m sure there are earlier examples, but it’s generally considered that the first truly important gospel choir was Cleveland’s “Angelic Choir”:
[Excerpt: James Cleveland and the Angelic Choir, “I Stood on the Banks of Jordan”]
Before Cleveland, Black gospel music in America was small vocal groups like the Swan Silvertones or the Soul Stirrers, or solo performers like Rosetta Tharpe or Mahalia Jackson. Cleveland, a rigorous taskmaster, taught his vocalists to enunciate clearly and stay on pitch perfectly, so they could sing in unison in huge groups without the music turning into a mushy mess. The results revolutionised gospel music, especially after he had formed an organisation called the Gospel Music Workshop of America to promote that choir sound and encourage other similar choirs to form.
And then in 1967, Edwin Hawkins formed a fifty-piece choir in the Cleveland style, and recorded an album in his local church to use as a fundraiser to get the choir to a national competition. That album got picked up by the San Francisco underground radio station KSAN, and was reissued by Buddah records, a label that was mostly best known for putting out records like “Yummy Yummy Yummy” by Ohio Express and “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company. The single from it became a worldwide smash, becoming one of the few gospel singles to make the pop top ten:
[Excerpt: The Edwin Hawkins Singers, “Oh Happy Day”]
That song opened the floodgates for a whole lot of secular musicians to start using gospel styles in their work — though mostly the older gospel styles of those earlier groups. The Beatles’ “Let It Be” had a gospel influence, as did Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. George Harrison always said his “My Sweet Lord” was influenced by “Oh Happy Day” (though of course it’s actually closer to “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons).
And there were many more attempts to meld rock music and gospel. There was Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”:
[Excerpt: Norman Greenbaum, “Spirit in the Sky”]
There was Billy Preston’s “That’s The Way God Planned It”, backed by a supergroup of George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and Ginger Baker, with Doris Troy and Madeleine Bell on backing vocals
[Excerpt: Billy Preston, “That’s The Way God Planned It”]
There were the rock musicals Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell, and there were all sorts of weird attempts to jump on the bandwagon, like the Motown compilation Rock Gospel: The Key to the Kingdom, which as well as tracks by the Jackson Five, The Supremes, and Marvin Gaye, also contained this:
[Excerpt: Stoney and Meatloaf, “I’d Love to be as Heavy as Jesus”]
Yes, that is Meat Loaf, several years before his career took off, singing a Motown song about how he’d love to be as heavy as Jesus.
This meant that by early 1972, the idea of a secular artist recording religious music was, rather than a novelty, completely in the zeitgeist, to the point that around the same time Franklin recorded her album, the song she chose as a title track, “Amazing Grace” was a worldwide hit single for the Pipes and Drums of the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard:
[Excerpt: the Pipes and Drums of the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard, “Amazing Grace”]
The song “Amazing Grace” has a disturbing history. The words were written by John Newton, a man who had been pressganged into working on ships, serving in involuntary servitude, but had then himself voluntarily gone on to work on ships transporting enslaved people from Africa for many years. After a life-threatening storm, he had a deep religious experience and immediately became an ardent Christian — but carried on for years more taking part in the most evil activity imaginable. He did give up swearing though.
When he was thirty he became too ill to sail, though he continued to invest his money in slave ships, but slowly his conscience nagged at him, and by the time he was sixty he became an ardent abolitionist, and was one of the people whose campaigning eventually led to the end of the slave trade.
“Amazing Grace” was written between those two points, and so there’s an ambiguity to its intended meaning. The song was picked up by many marginalised groups though, including enslaved people, and usually sung set to an American folk tune (Newton didn’t publish any music with it, and the words are in common metre which meant it could be sung to many folk tunes — it fits “House of the Rising Sun” perfectly, for example).
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Amazing Grace”]
There’s some confusion as to whose idea it was to do the album — Franklin always said it was hers, while Wexler also always claimed the credit, and both are listed as coproducers with Mardin, the first time Franklin got an official co-production credit on one of her records. The album was recorded during two actual church services — she insisted that it be recorded as part of a proper religious service — and featured Franklin’s normal rhythm section, plus James Cleveland’s choir, with Cleveland on piano for most of it.
The material was largely the gospel of Franklin’s youth — songs like the title track, “Mary Don’t You Weep”, “How I Got Over”, written by Franklin’s de facto stepmother the great gospel singer Clara Ward, who sat in the front row, and “Precious Memories”, which she sang as a duet with Cleveland:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland, “Precious Memories”]
But she also included moments of the new gospel-influenced popular music, like Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy”, George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”, and, interpolated into “Take My Hand Precious Lord”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, by Carole King who had earlier written “Natural Woman” for her:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin and the James Cleveland Choir, “Take My Hand Precious Lord/You’ve Got a Friend”]
Two weeks after the performances that made up the Amazing Grace album, Mahalia Jackson died, and Aretha sang “Take My Hand Precious Lord” at her funeral.
The Amazing Grace performances were also filmed, and you can see Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in the crowd, which is otherwise made up of regular congregants and friends of the Franklins. Sadly, technical issues meant that the film went unreleased at the time, and when those were solved forty years later, Franklin sued to keep the film unreleased. It only got a release after her death, but it’s a stunning piece of work which everyone should watch.
The album, which the label thought they were taking a chance on as a possible commercial failure, made the top ten on the album charts, and eventually went double platinum, becoming both the best-selling album of Franklin’s career and the best selling live gospel album by anyone ever. It’s often considered the greatest gospel album of all time, and Franklin’s crowning artistic achievement.
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Climbing Higher Mountains”]
That was the peak of Franklin’s artistic and commercial success. Two months after the Amazing Grace recordings, she had her thirtieth birthday party, hosting activists like Betty Shabazz and musicians like Cannonball Adderley and Quincy Jones.
Jones was going to be the producer of her next album. Counting the live albums, the team of Wexler, Mardin, and Dowd had, together or separately, produced ten albums for her in five years, and she wanted to try something different. In particular, she was sick of those three getting all the credit for productions she felt — with some justification — she had contributed as much to as them.
But she was also at least half-aware of a truism in music which is that great singers rarely make great producers. A record producer has to be able to be dispassionate, to step back and listen to every element objectively, whereas a great singer has to put all their passion into the performance. So she looked around for other collaborators — with Atlantic’s blessing — and chose Jones.
On paper, the combination made a lot of sense. Quincy Jones, as it turned out, was yet to have the career for which he is now best known, and had not yet rocketed to the superstar level at which he remains. But he had already produced and arranged classic records for Ray Charles, Betty Carter, Peggy Lee, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Little Richard and Billy Preston, and a string of early-sixties hits for Lesley Gore.
He should have been a perfect collaborator for Franklin — someone who knew great voices and had a foot in the jazz and crooner world that Franklin loved and one in the modern R&B world. But as it turns out, nobody was happy with the album that resulted. The one song everyone agrees is worthwhile on it is “Angel”, written by Aretha’s sister Carolyn, which would be the only song Aretha would sing in every single full concert for the rest of her career:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Angel”]
The album is a bit of a mess, which can’t decide if it wants to be an album of jazz covers of songs from musicals or modern R&B, and succeeds at neither. It only made number thirty on the charts.
Wexler said “Carolyn saved Aretha’s ass on that record. If it weren’t for ‘Angel,’ the album would have been a total wash. Even with ‘Angel,’ the album was still seen as a flop. It slowed down Aretha’s momentum. Careers have trajectories, and, ever since joining Atlantic, Aretha’s was up, up, up… the issuance of that album represents the end of her golden age on Atlantic.”
Another blow came in January 1973 when Clara Ward, her father’s partner and the singer who influenced her more than anyone, died. After her death, Ward’s sister found a notebook containing her thoughts on the people in her life. Of Aretha, she wrote “My baby Aretha, she doesn’t know how good she is. Doubts self.”
She returned to working with Wexler, Dowd, and Mardin for an album called Let Me Into Your Life. That album has its admirers, and did better than the album with Jones, but it wasn’t the return to form she needed.
From this point on, she would have hits, and she would make great records, but the great records were rarely the same as the hits. Her next two albums, again with Wexler, had no top forty singles at all, though they did adequately on the R&B charts. She switched producers, working with Curtis Mayfield on an album of songs from a film he’d been involved in, Sparkle, which was more successful and the best thing she did in the latter half of the seventies. The rest of her albums from that period are largely best forgotten.
She rejected a whole series of songs that became hits for other people, including the people that Franklin thought of as bitter rivals. Most of Natalie Cole’s early hits were songs that had been submitted to Franklin and she’d rejected. Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards of Chic came to her with backing tracks for songs like “Upside Down” which they later gave to Diana Ross, who had hits with them. Ahmet Ertegun tried to get her produced by Barry Gibb, but she turned him down — he went off to write and produce Barbra Streisand’s Guilty album, which contained the massive hit “Woman in Love”.
Eventually, Franklin decided to change record labels. Clive Davis at Arista had revitalised the career of another old rival, getting Barry Manilow to produce an album for Dionne Warwick which had got her back in the top ten:
[Excerpt: Dionne Warwick, “I’ll Never Love This Way Again”]
Maybe he’d do the same for her? She signed with Arista.
But then, on June the tenth, 1979, her father was shot twice in his home. As far as anyone knows it was a burglary gone wrong, though he had also made many enemies over the years. He survived, but he was in a coma, and would be for five years, until he finally died. Another important man in her life — the *most* important man in her life — had died a violent death, even if his body was still alive for the moment.
Aretha moved back to the family home in Detroit to take care of him, and initially announced that her career was on hold, but soon started working again in order to pay for his medical bills. And she got the biggest profile she’d had for many years when she appeared in the film The Blues Brothers, singing her old hit “Think”:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin and the Blues Brothers band, “Think!”]
The Blues Brothers has received some criticism for its attitude towards Black music, with some going so far as to call it uncomfortably close to minstrelsy at times. But what’s undeniable is that it provided a massive career boost for the Black artists featured in the film, all of whom were in lulls in their career and credited the film for their renewed success — as well as Franklin there were John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, Cab Calloway, and James Brown, who in his appearance sang the gospel song “The Old Landmark”, which Franklin had performed on Amazing Grace, and Brown too was backed by James Cleveland and his choir:
[Excerpt: James Brown and the James Cleveland Choir, “The Old Landmark”]
Her career started to rise again. Clive Davis didn’t put her with Barry Manilow as she’d hoped, but he did get Luther Vandross to produce her, and she started having minor hits, and even major hits after she and Vandross stopped working together.
But these records were, largely, passionless. Whereas her old recordings had been made in Atlantic’s studios, now she wouldn’t leave Detroit for any length of time — she wanted to be close to her father, and by the time he died she’d also developed a fear of flying that meant she would only travel by car or bus. For the rest of her life she didn’t travel anywhere she couldn’t be driven to, and rarely left Detroit at all.
This meant that increasingly, rather than record in the same room as the musicians and collaborate with them, working out ideas for arrangements and bouncing off each other, producers would record backing tracks for her in LA or New York, and bring them to Detroit, where she would cut a single vocal take on top of the pre-recorded track, rarely letting any producer criticise her.
But she had massive commercial success in the latter part of the eighties thanks to Davis’ marketing skills, and a series of hit singles pairing her with other artists, like the Eurythmics:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin and the Eurythmics, “Sisters are Doing it For Themselves”]
And George Michael, whose duet with her became her second and final number one single:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin and George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me”]
As Jerry Wexler said “If you put Aretha’s Atlantic material next to her Arista stuff, there’s no comparison. Artistically, Atlantic wins, hands down. But if you count up the money we made with Aretha as opposed to Clive, Clive is the clear winner. What makes his victory even more remarkable is the fact that he had to market her when she was clearly past her prime. And yet he still found a way to present and package her in products that sold big-time. Incredible.”
But eventually the duet formula started to dry up — a duet with Elton John was only a minor hit, while collaborations with James Brown and Whitney Houston didn’t make the top forty. She didn’t record for much of the nineties, and then from 1998 through 2014 released a handful of albums at lengthy intervals, most of them the kind of record that gets called either “a return to form” or “a brave attempt to update her style to new fashions”, all of them ultimately footnotes to her stunning body of work from the sixties and seventies.
But that didn’t mean she wasn’t still the great Aretha Franklin, and even though she no longer toured much, she would make special appearances. In the mid-nineties she honoured Lionel Hampton at the Kennedy Centre, saying “I have a rule about supporting Republicans, and Lionel was a lifelong Republican. But when it came to Hamp, I broke my rule, because my dad loved him. We all did. Hamp had worshipped at New Bethel, and during a concert in Detroit, where Daddy had taken me and Erma, Hamp asked us onstage to do a little dance while he played behind us. Outside of church, that was probably my first time on a public stage. So I had to break party lines and honor the great Lionel Hampton and forgive the fact that he voted for the wrong party.”
She also performed at Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and other similar events. And she was still capable on occasion of performances that nobody else could have given. At the Grammy Awards in 1998, Aretha was only scheduled to perform “Respect”, but then in her dressing room after her performance, the show’s producer came to her, frantic. Pavarotti had been meant to perform “Nessun Dorma”, but he’d been taken ill. They had an orchestra and twenty-piece choir there, waiting, and they needed to perform it in twenty minutes. She knew the piece of course, but the arrangement wasn’t in her key. Could she possibly step in for Pavarotti?
Of course she could. She was Aretha Franklin:
[Excerpt: Aretha Franklin, “Nessun Dorma”]
And in the last couple of decades of her life, that’s essentially what she did — she’d show up at Rosa Parks’ funeral, or at the Kennedy Centre to honour Carole King, or at Barack Obama’s inauguration and give an amazing performance that reminded everyone that she was still the queen of soul. She’d do occasional short tours of the biggest venues in the US, travelling only by bus. And then she’d go back to her home life, and to being an important part of Detroit’s Black community.
She died in 2018 of cancer, the same disease that had earlier taken both her sisters. She’d been ill for many years, but had wanted the details kept out of the newspapers and had carried on performing, preserving her privacy to the end.
In the end, her career is probably best summed up by her old producer Jerry Wexler, who, like almost everyone in the story, predeceased her. He said (and I’m going to elide a couple of swear words here, because Wexler used language that would get me an adult rating) “You may not like all the stuff she did to stay popular. You may be bothered by cracks in her voice and the lapses of taste when it came to material. There was a lot of cheesy [shit]. But in the end, you got to give it to her. The woman is [fuckin’] fierce. In a half dozen different epochs of music, she managed to stay in the middle of the mix. She isn’t a Miles Davis, who kept breaking through barriers and never stopped innovating. And she isn’t a Duke Ellington or a Marvin Gaye, who never stopped writing brilliantly. She chiefly became an interpreter and an adapter of very diverse material. She studied the Billboard charts and, for over forty years, found a way to stay on those charts. That’s one hell of an accomplishment.”
It is indeed.
But actually, no, there’s a simpler way to sum her up, and that is just to say — she was Aretha.