Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Aretha Franklin

"Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I'm using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I'm happy with that" - Aretha Franklin

Aretha Louise Franklin (1942-2018)
was, by the end of the 1960s, already being known as "The Queen Of Soul". She had adapted her church-honed gospelly vocals to meet the demands of Atlantic soul/pop and taken the charts by storm with several outstanding, punchy and brassy singles. She was far, far more than just a singles artist, however, and her many albums are packed full of top quality, immaculately played uplifting soul. You can dip to any of them, any time and get a spiritual high. Some artists seriously can lift your soul. Aretha Franklin was one of them.

The great lady's discography is so immense that I don't have the wherewithal to review every single one of them individually. I have reviewed just some from her huge canon of work. Needless to say, all of them are superb.

I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967)

Respect/Drown In My Own Tears/I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)/Soul Serenade/Don't Let Me Lose This Dream/Baby, Baby, Baby/Dr. Feelgood/Good Times/Do Right Woman, Do Right Man/Save Me/A Change Is Gonna Come   
Aretha Louise Franklin passed away today - 16th August 2018. I dug this album out in my way of trying to sum up her incredible talent and voice in one album. There is something so fundamentally pure about the soul on this album, her first on Atlantic Records.  
The songs

The sound on the album is a glorious, speaker-shaking mono. Just listen to that crystal clear sound come punching right out of the middle of your stereo system. It is as pure as the driven snow, sonically. Kicking off is the horn intro to Respect that we all know so well and the thumping "my man gone done me wrong" anthem, with its "take out TCP" or "take care TCB" lyric, which I have never either understood or known what it was. 

Drown In My Own Tears is a piano-driven ballad with a yearning, powerful churchy vocal. I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You suffers from a tiny bit of hiss at the beginning, but I'm not really going to worry too much about that, am I? 

Soul Serenade features some kick-posterior horns and a great bassy, deep sound and, of course, another killer vocal. Don't Let Me Lose This Dream has a groovy sort of Look Of Love/Burt Bacharach rhythm to it and hints of Say A Little Prayer here and there.

This is a truly great soul album. There were not too many at this time, in many ways, because so many of the groups were singles oriented. Otis Redding put out some good ones and the early Gladys Knight albums on Motown are well worth checking out. Many however, featured the hit singles and then some cabaret-style easy listening cover versions. None of that here. No Sir. Just listen to Baby, Baby, Baby - gospelly, strong-voiced soul of the highest order. 

Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business) is just soul heaven, brother. Lordy is it just. Swirling organ, solid drums, heavenly horns and Aretha's voice taking the listener to soul Heaven. "I'll tell you girls...but I just don't have time...I don't need no doctor, giving me all those pills..." sings Aretha, in praising her Dr. Feelgood.

You think loved-up Aretha is too busy with Dr. Feelgood to give you some more? Think again. The way she attacks Sam Cooke's Good Times is positively life-affirming. The band behind her too, they just cook at the highest level possible. Can you believe Rolling Stone wrote this about the album at the time -

".....the lack of versatility on the part of the sidemen. The drums weren't hard enough, the guitar was weak, and the production lacked polish...."

Are you kidding me? Come on! The band's sound is truly superb. The drums are incredibly punchy.

That When A Man Loves A Woman church organ bit hails the start of the monstrously good Do Right Woman - Do Right Man, while Save Me uses that Gloria riff to great effect and Aretha's vocal soars with those horns. Aretha's version of the Civil Rights anthem Change Is Gonna Come is my own personal favourite version of the iconic song. This was a great album from a legendary singer.

“People get ready
There’s a train coming
You don’t need no baggage
Just get on board….”.

August 16 2018 - Aretha Franklin got on board the train to glory today. RIP.

Aretha Arrives (1967)

Satisfaction/You Are My Sunshine/Never Let Me Go/96 Tears/Prove It/Night Life/That's Life/I Wonder/Ain't Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)/Going Down Slow/Baby I Love You    
This came after the highly successful I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You and was not quite as popular as that album, and was seen in some quarters as an underwhelming follow up to a big smash album. That is somewhat unfair as there is certainly some fine material on here. The sound isn't quite as top notch, though, just a little less clarity. You have to turn the volume up a bit.

The songs

Aretha had suffered a bad car accident and damaged her arm during the recording and this hampered the fact that she was on piano for quite a bit of this one. Indeed, she played some parts using just the one hand. Highlights are the brassy, Atlantic soul-style cover of The Rolling Stones' Satisfaction, the gospelly You Are My Sunshine and a funky, organ-driven cover of ? And The Mysterians freakbeat-ish 96 Tears (this was also covered by The Stranglers in the 1990s).

You can't beat the late night bluesy soul of Night Life either. The gospel attack on That's Life makes it infinitely preferable to Frank Sinatra's version, for me, anyway. Check out the bassy, classic soul of I Wonder and its bluesy guitar too. Really impressive.

Ain't Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around) is kick-ass, punchy, brassy soul of the kind you had come to expect to expect from Aretha. This is certainly not a second-best song. No sir. The same applies to the blues of Going Down Slow and the copper-bottomed soul of Baby I Love You. 

Prove It and Never Let Me Go are hardly sub-standard either, let's be honest. Yes, perhaps other albums do overshadow this possibly hastily-released one but that should not blind one to its good points. quite why the sound is definitely slightly more muffled than the albums either side of it is unclear, however.

The next album, Lady Soul, would prove to be more instant and consequently gained more critical acclaim.

Lady Soul (1968)

Chain Of Fools/Money Won't Change You/People Get Ready/Niki Hoeky/(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman/Since You've Been Gone (Sweet, Sweet Baby)/Good To Me As I Am To You/Come Back Baby/Groovin'/Ain't No Way  
This album matches the soul brilliance of I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You, and the material was just as strong, an inspired blend of covers and originals that proved Aretha Franklin was here to stay. 

The songs

The opener, Chain Of Fools, became the biggest hit, with a superb soul vocal from Aretha and some sublime Joe South guitar.  

The album's leading light, though, was (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, a song written for her by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. It is simply one of the greatest soul records of all time. No question.

Curtis Mayfield’s glorious gospel soul of People Get Ready is a real favourite of mine, while the strangely-titled Niki Hoeky is a swampy, bluesy groove. Franklin covers James Brown’s Money Won’t Change You impressively, with a frantic beat and rumbling bass line, and The Impressions on commanding backing vocals. 

Since You've Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby) has a punchy, Stax-style horn-driven beat. Good To Me As I Am To You is a blues-drenched ballad with once more a killer of a vocal.

Come Back Baby is a lively, irresistible soul stomper that you can't keep still to. The vocal interplay between Franklin and The Impressions is breathtakingly good. Her take on The Young RascalsGroovin' is as soulful as you would expect it to be. Ain't No Way is a classic, churchy, horn-driven slow soul classic to end on.

Although I love Aretha's The Atlantic Singles Collection I have to say the stereo sound on this album is outstandingly good. As all sixties albums are, it is very short, but none the less brilliant for it. Quality soul.

Aretha Now (1968)

Think/I Say A Little Prayer/See Saw/The Night Time Is The Right Time/You Send Me/You're A Sweet, Sweet Man/I Take What I Want/Hello Sunshine/A Change/I Can't See Myself Leaving You    
The songs

The typically sixties-titled Aretha Now kicked off with three big ones in the irrepressible Think, the iconic I Say A Little Prayer and the infectious See Saw

The quality continues on The Night Time Is The Right Time. The sound is excellent on this album too - well-defined and crisp, particularly on the cymbal work. 

Listen to that glorious bass on Sam Cooke's You Send Me and the shuffling, funky rhythm on You're A Sweet, Sweet Man, which appropriates a bit of Sweets For My Sweet.

I Take What I Want is a lively and catchy number with Aretha and the backing singers giving it the big one. Once again, that rumbling bass is a thing of beauty. Jerry Jemmott is the bassman. 

The gospel soul vibe is continued on the uplifting Hello Sunshine. A Change has a delicious bass and drum toe-tapping backing. Aretha goes all Otis Redding at one point on the vocals - the  "if you don't this girl is gonna make you pay.." bit. 

I Can't See Myself Leaving You was a hit single and deservedly so for its great vocal and sumptuous bass. It is a quality track to end the album on.

You can pick any one of the songs from this album to be honest, they are all good. Horn-driven soul of the highest quality.

This is one of my favourite albums of these 1967-1969 releases, with for the fine quality of its sound and the irresistible nature of the songs. It is simply a great listen.

Next up for Aretha was an album of eclectic cover versions in Soul '69.

Soul '69 (1969)

Ramblin'/Today I Sing The Blues/River's Invitation/Pitiful/Crazy He Calls Me/Bring It On Home To Me/The Tracks Of My Tears/If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody/Gentle On My Mind/So Long/I'll Never Be Free/Elusive Butterfly    
Despite its slightly misleading, uninventive title, this was an album that saw Aretha concentrate on her bluesier, jazzy side, employing some respected jazz musicians such as Kenny Burrell on the backing. The album was one of her most overlooked late sixties offerings, containing no big hits and being a bit leftfield. It is an understated, enjoyable album, however, and one that showed Aretha's versatility and also her impeccable taste.

The songs

Ramblin' is a blues meets big-band cooker of a track with jazzy elements and a big, stand-up bass sound as well as some soaring brass. Aretha's vocal is a great, attacking blues/soul one. 

Today I Sing The Blues is a proper slice of red-hot slow burning blues. River's Invitation has an appealing groove to it, with some nice drums, bass and horns. Aretha's vocal is gospelly and uplifting. Listen to that great bass, piano and drum bit around 1.30. Pitiful is a blues of the kind Southside Johnny no doubt loved.

The late night, smoky vibe of Crazy He Calls Me is one of the most "jazz" cuts on the album, with Kenny Burrell's guitar instantly noticeable. Actually, possibly even more jazzy is the jaunty interpretation of Sam Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me

Smokey Robinson's The Tracks Of My Tears is a difficult one to cover but Aretha's laid-back, vaguely Bossa Nova (in places) cover is quite intoxicating, particularly the gentle guitar and the bongos. I really like this, and I don't usually like covers of this originally wonderful song.

If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody is one that, despite its jazzy brass breaks, harks back to Aretha's more usual soul side. Gentle On My Mind is a cover of a song from country artist John Hartford. Aretha gives it a rhythmic, soulful, lively ambience with an attractive drum/bass solo part. 

So Long is a fine serving of jazzy blues, as is the laid-back groove of I'll Never Be Free

Elusive Butterfly is a quirky piece of jazzy gospel to end this slightly different Aretha Franklin offering. As a soul man, it is always the soul albums I return to as default ones, but this one is certainly worth a listen.

Soul returned on the next one, although it is also still pretty heavy on the cover versions.

This Girl's In Love With You (1970)

Son Of A Preacher Man/Share Your Love With Me/Dark End Of The Street/Let It Be/Eleanor Rigby/This Girl's In Love With You/It Ain't Fair/The Weight/Call Me/Sit Down And Cry

The songs

Son Of A Preacher Man is a muscular, gospelly cover of the song made famous by Dusty Springfield. As usual with Aretha's covers, she gives them a different ambience to their originals, making them almost into different songs. This one contains a slowed-down "bridge" in the middle. 

Share Your Love With Me is a corker of a brass 'n' bass soul ballad. Dark End Of The Street is heading into Aretha classic territory as she lifts us higher on an absolute soul classic, no question. Material like this is up there with some of the finest soul music you will ever hear. Let Aretha take you to Heaven. It is simply peerless.

Aretha's cover of Paul McCartney's Let It Be was actually the first time the song had been released, as The Beatles one had not come out yet. It is a gospelly interpretation, unsurprisingly, of course Aretha turns it in to her own song. The next Beatles cover, Eleanor Rigby, was one of those quirky, radically-altered covers of hers, she sings in the first person - "I'm Eleanor Rigby, I pick up the rice...." and the song has a soul/rock uptempo backing. 

Bacharach/David's easy-listening classic This Girl's In Love With You is given a suitably soulful makeover without losing all of its gentle, string-backed appeal. It has a lovely, deep bass on it too.

It Ain't Fair is a sleepy, laid-back soulful blues, enhanced by some smoky, jazzy saxophone from King Curtis and some impressive blues guitar from guess who - yes none other than top-notch bluesman Duane Allman (sadly not too long before his passing). 

With regard to The Band's The Weight, not many cover it very well (Diana Ross & The Supremes had made a mess of it). Aretha, unsurprisingly, makes a good fist of it but I will always feel that the stonking original can't be beaten.

Call Me is not the Al Green song, but it is a similarly soulful number as is the gospel strains of Sit Down And Cry. Aretha's voice is once again towering, lifting the song and the souls of all its listeners higher, seemingly effortlessly.

Also released in 1970 was Spirit In The Dark.

Spirit In The Dark (1970)

Don't Play That Song /The Thrill Is Gone (From Yesterday's Kiss)/Pullin'/You And Me/Honest I Do/Spirit In The Dark/When The Battle Is Over/One Way Ticket/Try Matty's/That's All I Want From You/Oh No Not My Baby/That's Why I Sing The Blues   
This was quite a robust, bluesy offering with less cover versions. There is a fair amount of muscular drum sounds and rollicking blues piano to be heard. It is more "rock" and "blues", whereas the previous one had been a bit more "gospel" and "soul". They difference is in the drum and piano sound.

The songs

Don't Play That Song is a lively, Motown-ish number to start with, with an almost early/mid-sixties vibe about it. Aretha really rocks out on it. The second track of an Aretha album has often been a deep, blues potboiler and we certainly get that here with the bluesy depth of The Thrill Is Gone (From Yesterday's Kiss). It features some killer blues piano from Aretha and great bass from Tommy McClure

Pullin' is an addictive groove of a number with lots of call-and-reponse gospelly backing vocals in the Think style.

You And Me is a solid, typically early seventies string-backed soul ballad. You can't get away from Aretha's extraordinary voice, however. It dominates every track. 

Honest I Do is a strong blues chugger and Spirit In The Dark is very soulful but in possession of a firm rock beat. It breaks out into a rousing gospel finish, however. 

When The Battle Is Over is a gritty, grinding piece of bluesy soul. Duane Allman appears on guitar, as he had done on the previous album. 

One Way Ticket, while being a nice, jazzy soul number with some fine guitar, has, for some reason, backing vocals that come over too loud, giving the track a bit of a disjointed feel.

Try Matty's is a lively, brassy song in praise of a venue called Matty's where all the action seems to take place in the morning. 

That's All I Want From You is a sumptuous, organ and brass-powered soul number. Check out those horn parts. Goffin & King's Oh No Not My Baby has been covered by many, including Rod Stewart, who had a top twenty hit with it in 1973. Aretha's jazzy soul version is pretty definitive, however. 

The upbeat strains of That's Why I Sing The Blues is magnificent - proper horn-driven soulful blues. It is my favourite track on the album.

A two year hiatus followed as the seventies progressed and soul music changed in a fair few ways.

Young, Gifted & Black (1972)

Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)/Day Dreaming/Rock Steady/Young, Gifted & Black/All The King’s Horses/A Brand New Me/April Fools/I’ve Been Loving You Too Long/First Snow In Kokomo/The Long And Winding Road/Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)/Border Song (Holy Moses)   
This album, from 1972, saw a considerable change in Aretha’s music. Gone are the horns, organ and piano of the sixties. It is all syncopated rhythms, subtle, melodic bass and strings these days. Sweet late night soul and funk were de rigeur. It was either relevant social comment or dim the lights seduction in this era, with a bit of dance rhythm thrown in. This album sort of led the way. Artists like Diana Ross would do several like this, without Aretha’s voice, of course.

The songs

Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby) is a lush, polished piece of sweet soul in tune with the sound of 1972. The quality of the sound and the production has now got slicker and warmer. The song just has a feeling of soul perfection about it. The strings and the bass mix near the end in a big, dramatic end. 

Day Dreaming continues the laid-back soul vibe with a late-night, almost easy-listening number. Aretha can cope, of course, her voice still brings light to every song and it does here.

Funk was also the sound of 1972 as well and Rock Steady was probably Aretha’s first funker, overflowing with rubberband bass lines and fatback drums. It cooks from beginning to end. 

Young, Gifted & Black finds Aretha totally reworking Bob & Marcia’s inspirational reggae classic, turning it into a slow burning piece of gospel funk. Once you’ve got used to it, it is very effective. 

All The King’s Horses is a delicious serving of slow soul. As I said, this is all very 1972. Soul music had changed.


A Brand New Me is a very Diana Ross-esque, jaunty soulful number. It gets loosely jazzy near the end, with some jolly piano and brass. Again, very Ross-like. 

April Fools brings back the funk, this time with a light wah-wah backing. Otis Redding’s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long is more in the traditional soul style we had come to expect. 

The First Snow In Kokomo is a piano, bass and voice slow ballad. This is now very mature stuff. The last three are covers - The BeatlesLong And Winding Road is given a funky organ and bass makeover, The DelfonicsDidn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time) is a soulful, funky reinvention with a seriously great vocal, while Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Border Song (Holy Moses) is as gospelly as it was always intended to be. Elton always loved Aretha so he would have loved her singing it.

You can tell that this album was a more substantial, varied product, because I have written more about it.

Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) (1973)
The Other Side Of The Sky/Somewhere/So Swell When You’re Well/Angel/Sister From Texas/Mr. Spain/That’s The Way I Feel About Cha/Moody’s Mood/Just Right Tonight/Master Of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes)

This album, from 1973, is a cookin’ mix of Stax-y brassy soul, classic gospelly fare, lively jazz and some occasional smoky, late-night jazz vibes. As usual, Aretha delivers the songs, whatever style they may be, impeccably. I have long been a fan of Aretha’s sixties work, but this is a really impressive seventies offering. I really rate it. It has a nice, warm sound quality to it too,

An odd thing about the album is its cover, which has Aretha looking white in a ghostly sort of way, like an old photo negative. Very odd.

The songs

The Other Side Of The Sky is a thumping gospelly vocal tour de force, featuring several changes of pace. Somewhere is a typical slow-paced Aretha ballad that morphs into a beautifully rhythmic jazzy phase, with some lovely bass and saxophone before reverting back to Aretha, the piano and the strings.

So Swell When You’re Well is a big, punchy, brassy corker of a track that bristles with gritty intent from note one, while the album’s best-known track is Angel, composed by Aretha’s sister Carolyn and notable for its memorable spoken intro. Aretha’s vocal is utterly sublime, soulful in the extreme, the strings, saxophone and the bass are all simply sumptuous. If there is such a thing as perfection in soul music, this is it. Let Aretha and her musicians lift your spirit higher.

The next track, Sister From Texas, is marvellously funky, backed with some fine wah-wah guitar and horns that kick even the most reluctant ass. Thus far we have been treated to a real variety of styles within the basic framework of soul. Another change arrives in the smooth, brooding, seductive groove of Mr. Spain

That’s The Way I Feel About Cha has Aretha giving it her all over a solid, muscular soul backing.

Now we get some upbeat jazz as Aretha shows her versatility on the fifties jazz classic Moody’s Mood - she could cope with anything, couldn’t she? 

Just Right Tonight is a piano-driven slow jazz number of the sort you could imagine Van Morrison and Georgie Fame doing. Aretha doesn’t appear for nearly three minutes. No matter, the track lasts nearly eight minutes and has an almost ad hoc live feel to it.

Master Of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes) is a beguiling, slightly mysterious song to end on. This was deep soul quality of the highest order. Good album - but one that has, for some reason, slipped under the radar a bit. Aretha Franklin, despite her stellar reputation, struggled to sell albums, particularly in the seventies and eighties.

The Atlantic Singles Collection (Mono)

Now, I am a stereo man first and foremost, I have to admit, but I can appreciate the authentic, powerful, beautiful sound of pure, unadulterated mono on several notable occasions - The Rolling Stones early albums, Bob Dylan's sixties output, some of the Beatles albums, The Kinks, Them, The Animals - and this, which is a truly sublime collection of mono brilliance.

The music needs no introduction, of course, but the sound does need commenting on - it is full, powerful and bassy and comes pounding right out of the centre of your speakers with a beautifully resounding thump. The bass is sublime. For evidence, check out the bass, drums and guitar on the underrated Dr. Feelgood, the sheer bassy soul power on Chain Of Fools or the grinding gospel soul of Think. Just listen to that bass on See Saw. Sumptuous.

On lighter tracks, such as I Say A Little Prayer the bass is subtle and melodic and the cymbals come clear and sharp from your speakers. I will say, though, that the overall volume is a little quieter than some releases, so you have to turn it up a bit. No problem. Just crank up The House That Jack Built. Glorious.

Respect: The Best Of Aretha Franklin 

An excellent double album of classic recordings spanning the career of the “Queen Of Soul”. Raised in the gospel tradition, Aretha’s voice, is, of course, without compare. Nonpareil. The Stax/Atlantic backing is excellent too and the sound quality on this release is wonderful. Those strident, punchy Memphis horns, the rumbling bass and Steve Cropper’s searing, funky guitar.

The sixties run of classics are all here - the iconic RespectI Say A Little PrayerChain Of Fools and the uplifting, inspirational gospel glory of Think. There are other great tracks from this period too - Share Your Love With MeGood TimesSee SawSpanish Harlem, the horn-driven Since You’ve Been Gone and Oh No, Not My Baby (a hit for Rod Stewart in the 70s).

Other artists’ classics are covered successfully too - the laid back gospel of Bridge Over Troubled WaterLet It BeSon Of A Preacher ManYou’re All I Need To Get By and Elton John/Bernie Taupin’s Border Song, which sounds as if it could have been written for Aretha.

There is also the copper-bottomed classic soul of Do Right Woman, Do Right Man(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural WomanUntil You Come Back To Me, the peerless soul of Angel and the righteous, beautiful gospel of People Get Ready. The more modern tracks like the rousing Freeway Of Love, the duet with George Michael on I Knew You Were Waiting and the duet with Annie LennoxSisters Are Doing It For Themselves are wonderful too.

If you need any convincing of Aretha’s greatness, just listen to how she attacks a relatively unknown track like The House That Jack Built and turns it into her own piece of soul majesty. Ditto the dirty funk of Rock Steady, with its killer bass line and Aretha’s stone cold funk vocal.

There really is no compare to this genre-defining album. Some of the finest soul ever recorded. Just listen to the point, two minutes in, when Aretha finally sings the first line of Bridge Over Troubled Water after some gospel improvisations. It sends shivers down the spine.

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  1. These are awesome album reviews. I like how you give so much detail. You actually tell something about the music. A lot of times on these blogs they just go on and on about how much they like the person and don't tell you a thing about the actual music. My favorite Aretha album is actually Hey Now Hey, which usually gets bad reviews for some reason. I think it's her most interesting album. I actually like her early seventies albums more than the 60s.

  2. Thanks! Much appreciated. I try to say something about each track, musically. It is all about the music, for me. I try not to get bogged down with facts and figures. I don't talk about CD inner sleeves or sonic waveforms or anything like that either. Each blog has their own approach. I am pleased you like mine.

    I'm more of a 60s Aretha guy, but I'm always open to checking more stuff out.

  3. And strangely enough I love the songs with the orchestra and all the strings the best. I kind of like the Jazzy and bluesy songs on the second half of the album but to be honest I usually stop listening after Mr. Spain. But up till that point its been fantastic

  4. The first half of the album is certainly high quality stuff.

    I rarely stop listening to an album half way through, I have a thing that if I listen to an album I have to listen to the whole lot, if possible. Just a quirk of mine.