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Aretha Franklin, 1971: To Be Young, Gifted and Black
On an artistic peak of the Queen of Soul
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
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My essay this time around is on one of the greats: Aretha Franklin, focusing on one of her finest albums, Young, Gifted and Black, released in 1971. I also share some thoughts on her years on Columbia Records from 1960 to 1966 in which she sounded great as always but struggled mightily to find any commercial success. A contract with Atlantic and a trip to FAME Studios in Alabama in early 1967 changed everything for the soon-to-be-crowned Queen of Soul.
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“Hey nineteen, that’s ’Retha Franklin
She don’t remember the Queen of Soul.”
- from ‘Hey Nineteen,’ written by Walter Brecker and Donald Fagen
When Franklin herself was 19 in 1961, she had her first rendezvous with chart success, edging into the Billboard Top 40 with a soul-shuffle cover of the old and hoary ‘Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.’ While the song brings to mind the legacy of minstrelsy, Franklin’s recording of it electrifies with a promise—in it, I hear the template for her hit version of ‘Don’t Play That Song’ from 1970—that would take years to finally realize. Indeed, when Franklin was 19, it was not at all a given that she would one day be crowned the Queen of Soul.
Try as I might, I’m hard pressed to come up with a similar story of destiny deferred as that of Aretha Franklin. So deified is the music she made during her incredible run on Atlantic Records that the six years she spent on Columbia Records prior to that—releasing eight albums and 21 singles—are often glossed over or even forgotten. And while Franklin did have some success—by the mid sixties, she was pulling in a six-figure income from live appearances—neither the label nor Franklin herself was able to deliver on the promise that was evident from the time she began singing at the New Bethel Baptist Church, the domain of her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin.
Still, the sheer majesty of her voice: a deeply elastic and fully formed instrument of power, punches through on many of Franklin’s Columbia sides such as the five-minute ‘Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning’ from her 1964 album Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington.
On the closing ‘Soulville,’ she slips into the powerful soul that would soon be her bread and butter. She sings with ferocious aplomb but to no avail. Everything else about the recording fails her. The backing is just a little too polite, conspiring to keep her earthbound against her will.
By the time Franklin’s contract with Columbia was up in November 1966, she was in debt to the company due to lack of sales. Truth be told, for all of Columbia’s dominance in the record business in the sixties, soul was far from the label’s forte save for perhaps the Chambers Brothers or O.C. Smith. That someone like Robert Mersey, who worked with singers like Andy Williams and Barbra Streisand, was steering much of Franklin’s work at Columbia suggests why her time at the label is seen as a puzzling missed opportunity. Atlantic and producer Jerry Wexler, a label and record man that both had soul baked into their DNA, swooped in.
Even as Wexler’s gambit after signing Franklin to replicate his success of bringing Wilson Pickett to Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Alabama to cut a series of insistent, rock-solid soul hits got off to a rocky start, the one song he was able to get on tape was enough to change just about everything for Aretha Franklin.
‘I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You),’ anchored by a churchy riff by organist Spooner Oldham, was everything that her Columbia sides were not. Singer, band, material and production were finally all in deep accord. They would remain so for the remainder of the sixties and into the start of the next decade.
Franklin’s brand of soul was, at its best, a fierce amalgam of Ray Charles, the Memphis grit of Stax, the Alabama polish of FAME and the toughness of New York and Detroit. At the piano—a pulpit of 88 keys— was Franklin. Around her was a cadre of musicians and singers, a legion of disciples helping her to spread her good news to her flock, the legion of fans who began to flock to the stores to buy her latest releases and to the concert halls where she was playing.
There were the players who formed the backbone of FAME sound and its offshoot, Chips Moman’s American Sound Studio: ace studio cats like Oldham, bassist Tommy Cogbill, drummer Roger Hawkins and guitarists Moman and Jimmy Johnson. Singer-songwriters Joe South and Bobby Womack on guitar. Horn players like ex-Basie members trumpeter Joe Newman and reedman Frank Wess. Other jazzmen like trombonist Tony Studd, saxophonist Seldon Powell, and keyboardists Junior Mance and Joe Zawinul. The majestic tenor man King Curtis. Guitar gods like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. The Sweet Inspirations as well as Franklin’s sisters, Erma and Carolyn, on background vocals.
Collectively, they represented a wide swath of the American musical experience. Quality players one and all, they lifted Franklin into the stratosphere with a spree of hits: barnburners like ‘Think,’ which she wrote, ‘Respect,’ which she made so thoroughly her own with touches like “taking care of TCB” that its writer, Otis Redding, had to concede his claim to it being his song (though his performance of it as part of his game-changing appearance at the Monterey International Pop Festival on the day that Franklin’s version ended its two-week run as the number-one song on the Billboard chart was ferocious) and slow burners like ‘Ain’t No Way,’ written by sister Carolyn and including an iconic opening statement by Curtis. By the end of 1967, she was coronated the Queen of Soul.
In addition to ‘Respect,’ Franklin’s gift of reinterpretation brought out the fervent romanticism of Bacharach and David’s ‘I Say a Little Prayer,’ the southern grit to Robbie Robertson’s ‘The Weight,’ complete with an indelible slide-guitar part by Allman, a fire and brimstone to Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and an improbable transformation of Bob Lind’s ‘Elusive Butterfly’ into a swinging fantasia with Basie-like reeds and Zawinul’s futuristic electric piano.
And all these are just the tip of the iceberg. In March 1971, Franklin wowed the counterculture crowds of the Fillmore West in San Francisco, cementing the cross-racial appeal of her music. By that time, it was in the middle of a stylistic shift, leaving behind an often-wide and extravagant soundscape for a more contained feel. Her 1970 album Spirit in the Dark captured Franklin at the moment of transition with some tracks recorded with the Alabama crew and others with smaller groups.
The album on which the shift was complete, Young, Gifted and Black, remains a peak of Franklin’s artistry as well as a testament to the musicians who joined her in making it.
The LP starts with just Franklin on piano and Donny Hathaway on organ, as if begging the listener enter before she begins to sing, plaintively and understatedly, ‘Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby),’ a 1969 hit for Lulu. The mood slightly swells at the start of the second verse as the rest of the band: Hugh McCracken on guitar, Eric Gale on bass and Al Jackson, Jr. on drums (one of three all-star rhythm sections appearing on the album), fall in as do the Sweet Inspirations. Its mood: delicate, quiet and reflective all come to mind to describe it, is one that reappears throughout Young, Gifted and Black.
The hush of ‘All the King’s Horses,’ the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme recast as a heartbreak ballad, only breaks in an almost crescendo. As the music rises—here, the rhythm section is Hathaway, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums, and sisters Edna and Carolyn as well as Margaret Branch (billed as the Sweethearts of Soul) on backing vocals—there’s a feeling that Franklin’s world is about to crumble into dust. As it suddenly dissipates, we zoom into ‘All the King’s Horses’’ stark reality of a portrait of a woman all alone.
The old urgency was not entirely abandoned, to be sure, as on an ecstatic cover of Bacharach and David’s ‘April Fools,’ but it’s perhaps lighter and brighter than before. No doubt that’s partly because of the presence of flutist Hubert Laws, here with Dupree, Rainey, Purdie and the Sweethearts of Soul. Franklin turns a seemingly impossible feat by making the song infectiously poignant, stretching out the song’s key question: “are we just April fools / who can’t see the danger around us?” and then as the band motors back into a happy, upbeat groove, answering with “if we’re just April fools / I don’t care / true love has found us now.” The first time Franklin sings the chorus, she draws out “I don’t care” until her voice rasps out in joy and then as the Sweethearts of Soul shout out, “April fools / true love has found us now,” she lets out a whoop of pure, blessed jubilation.
‘April Fools’ also reaches transcendence because of Purdie, who deftly handles all its rhythmic shifts: a driving beat on the verses, accents on the chorus and an intricate polyrhythm on the release.
Purdie, Franklin’s musical director for the first part of the seventies, is a drummer’s drummer (a cliché, but apt I think in this case). His tutorial videos are remarkable, portraits of the rhythm in the man and the man in the rhythm. He has never been shy about his belief in his talent (on the remarkable episode of Classic Albums dedicated to Steely Dan’s Aja, Donald Fagen relates that in the sixties Purdie, upon arriving at a session for which he was contracted, would set up two signs behind his kit. They said, “You done it! You done hired the hitmaker Bernard “Pretty” Purdie.”). In all honesty, if you played what Purdie played on Franklin’s ‘Rock Steady,’ would you think otherwise? I sure wouldn’t.
‘Rock Steady,’ written by Franklin, is a song, in both music and words, about groove, and was one of Young, Gifted and Black’s two big hits. Purdie’s famous drum break—’Rock Steady’’s main ticket to immortality—just prior to the two-and-a-half-minute mark is full of his famous ghost notes and ends with three of his trademark sizzles on the hi hat (an effect by created by slightly opening and then closing the cymbal). But what surrounds that moment is just as exciting: the opening organ stabs by Hathaway, the locomotive bass line by Rainey with several smart-aleck slides into the upper register, the streetwise repeats of “what it is” by the Sweethearts of Soul, the Memphis Horns—trumpeter Wayne Jackson and tenor saxophonist Andrew Love—punching up the return to the primary groove, percussion (it’s somewhere in the mix) by none other than Dr. John and Franklin, leading the way, at her most effervescent. Listen to it and be incredulous that, for whatever reason, it was initially relegated to the B side of ‘Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby).’
‘Day Dreaming’ was the album’s other smash single. It’s also about groove but one that is lazy and languid, Quiet Storm before late-night soul made for two was defined as such. The key ingredients here are Dupree’s light, jazz comping on guitar, Hathaway’s decay-heavy electric piano, Laws’ light-as-a-feather flute and Purdie’s cross-stick centered beat that occasionally is broken by lightning quick rolls on the toms (he has never been shy of letting himself rip on the skins). Franklin is understated in delivery but astonishing in approach, hanging back on the beat at will, seemingly recomposing her own melody line on the fly. She had always thought of herself as someone who could sing jazz and here, she sings it better than just about anyone.
There are nine covers on Young, Gifted and Black. Most are radical reconsiderations of the source material and most do so at a genius level. ‘Brand New Me,’ originally recorded and co-written by Jerry Butler, is done as a gospel shuffle and while the song is secular, Franklin sings it as if it’s about being born again. ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,’ a Redding number, is almost unrecognizable as is ‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),’ a big hit of the Delfonics that later became the emotional idée fixe of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. In this case, the reinvention is almost too much as Purdie’s outrageous reliance on the bass drum for the song’s main refrain is distracting to the point of bewilderment. That caveat aside, the opening does quote Ron Carter’s bass line from Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Red Clay,’ reminding that brilliant alchemy is primary what’s at play on this album. The desperation that Franklin infuses onto ‘The Long and Winding Road’ powerfully broadens the dimensions of the Beatles’ final single. Here, with Franklin, is the last of Young, Gifted and Black’s rhythm sections: Dupree, organist Billy Preston, Rainey and drummer Ray Lucas with the Sweet Inspirations.
They also back Franklin on Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine’s ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black,’ a tribute to the groundbreaking Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry. In Simone’s original recording of it for a single as well a subsequent live version at New York’s Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall), it is an anthem, an uplifting call to raise up Black children in the belief that “when you’re young, gifted and Black / your soul’s intact” and a reverie in which “my joy of today / is that we can all be proud to say / to be young, gifted and black / is where it’s at.”
Franklin locates the beautiful, wrenching hope of Simone and Irvine’s song at the pulpit. She sings the opening refrain, with Preston and the Sweet Inspirations, rubato and then slips into a soulful groove before repeating the refrain as a holy affirmation. By making the song’s dynamic shifts more pronounced, Franklin further elevates the song—an astonishing feat considering the power of Simone’s version. But that was what Aretha Franklin did all the time in 1971. She was an artist in full command and augmenting the triumph of Young, Gifted and Black were three singles.
‘You’re All I Need to Get By,’ the Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson number that was one of the most poignant of the duets sung by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell isn’t changed much from that hit version but has fun adlibs by Franklin, including a call back to ‘Respect.’ ‘Spanish Harlem,’ a masterpiece credited to Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector although both Mike Stoller as well as Spector’s girlfriend at the time, Beverly Ross, helped also to create it, has her lean into the romantic melody, charging through the syllables toward the gorgeous release. Purdie’s fills are hair-raising (here, more is exactly what is needed) and Hathaway’s organ obbligatos are unforgettable. And then there’s her version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ that realizes the gospel inspiration that spurred Paul Simon to write it. Franklin includes just the first and last verses and adds a new refrain: “don’t trouble the water / why don’t you, why don’t you, let it be / still water run deep, yes it do / I know that, oh yes / if you only believe.” The use of “still water run deep” may be alluding to the Four Tops’ hit of the time, ‘Still Water (Love)’ and the modulations of the end of the the lines “see how they shine” and “when you need a friend” may, in fact, have come from Elvis Presley’s version. It seems fanciful on the surface, but Cissy Houston of the Sweet Inspirations was performing it with Presley at the same time as she recorded it with Franklin, so it’s possible. But what shines brightest beyond Franklin’s transfiguration of the song is King Curtis’ entry about half-way through, an amen for the ages.
Taken as a whole, the singles and Young, Gifted and Black represent a high point in Franklin’s artistry even as they signal the beginning of the sunset of her most fertile period, a rite of passage for all artists. They remain part of why if you want to know music, forgetting the Queen of Soul is not an option. Long may she reign.