Aretha Franklin died today, aged 76. She’d been ill for some time. She had quite possibly the most soulful voice of all time. A total inspiration. Of course I wrote about her in my music book, “I Was There – A Musical Journey“. This is what I said. It followed a piece on Otis Redding, another of the greats.
The deep heart of soul music. That was a place to find Aretha Franklin too. The Queen of Soul; the title, too, of a fantastic four CD box set I bought in 1992, which has just about everything you could ever want to hear Aretha sing. Singing in that sweet, swooping, soaring, stirring soulful celebration of a voice. Listen to her cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Waters” and ask, how did she do that? How did she twist and turn her voice to get that soulful sound into every nook and cranny of the song? Her voice was the troubled water: rushing, crashing, crying all over the rocks and stones of the song. Pure, glistening mountain water.
I don’t have a strong memory of when I first heard Aretha. As with most songs from the sixties, it would have been a steady feed from the radio. As well as “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, I have a real soft spot for “Son of a Preacher Man”, which just grooves; and the spine-tingling “I Say a Little Prayer for You”, a truly spiritual love song. In the early eighties I bought a greatest hits album, which was fine; but it was that later purchase that really brought home to me the breadth and depth of Aretha’s repertoire: from the gospelly soul of “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”; to the bluesy groove of “Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”; and the defiant call and response of “Respect”, the Otis song that Aretha made her own. She spelt it out in big letters in case anyone wasn’t getting the message.
A rallying cry, ain’t no doubt about it. OK, it’s for the girls against the boys, kind of; but us boys can feel that spirit too. It’s just a great call to action. And it has to be one of the reasons why Annie Lennox teamed up with Aretha, when she had that Eurythmics song called “Sisters are Doing it For Themselves”.
The “Queen of Soul” box set is full of Aretha’s interpretations of great songs by others, including The Beatles. “Let it Be” becomes a gospel classic, like it was always written for the rocking church choir. “Eleanor Rigby” is attacked, duffed over, by an uptempo soul beat and comes out a totally different song. Not sure if it really works, but it certainly grooves.
My trusty Guinness British Hit Singles & Albums tells me that Aretha didn’t have a lot of big hits in the UK. It was different in the US of course. Here, her biggest successes came well past her heyday: in the eighties, when she teamed up with Eurythmics for “Sisters are Doing it For Themselves” (No 9, her best up to then apart from “I Say a Little Prayer, which was No 4 in 1968) and then… her only No 1, with George Michael, no less. 1987, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)”. Not one I got too excited about, but there you go. Good to see Aretha get her dues… about 20 years late!
There’s a theme here. Great sixties/seventies soul artists – Stevie, Marvin, Smokey, Aretha – big, influential, so important to the development of pop music. Still a bit of a minority taste until the eighties – when, hey presto, they teamed up with modern bands, or adapted their sounds to the beat of the decade, and had their biggest hits. So, Smokey’s “Being with You” probably outsold “Tracks of My Tears”; Stevie made more out of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” than anything else he ever did; Aretha had her biggest moments duetting with eighties pop stars. It seems wrong, unfair. What’s remembered most though? For my generation, it won’t definitely be the classics. We were in our early twenties in the eighties. The time, along with the teenage years, when music maybe resonates most and embeds itself in your DNA, building future memories. So unless you seek out the past, and discover the greatest music, you might say Stevie Wonder means “I Just Called to Say I Love You”. It was No 1 for six weeks in 1984 after all. Nothing else he did came close.
Food for thought. I discovered the true roots of soul at the same time as I was enjoying the revivals, some of which led me to the sources. It’s all great when you’re in love with music.