I read last week that Aretha decided to retire to spend more time with her family, so I’m posting this review from my Great Broads series to acknowledge her tremendous contribution to music and wish her a long and happy retirement.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, my dad’s the emotional one. My mother and I are the cold bitches.
Though he is nothing like Iago, my father always wears his heart on his sleeve, responding to the world with boyish enthusiasm. In one sense, Leo Durocher was wrong when he implied that nice guys finish last, because my dad’s a nice guy and has done pretty well for himself. After all, he has me for a daughter! It doesn’t get any better than that!
But Leo was dead right in another sense. Other than his great good fortune in meeting my mother and forgetting to slip on a rubber so I could become the light of his life, my father never wins at anything and ranks as one of the unluckiest players who ever walked the earth. Whether it’s a lack of skill or a deficit in the luck department, my father has L-O-S-E-R stamped on his forehead for all the world to see. You can name any game in the world and I will tell you that he is the worst player ever. I can’t recall him ever winning at Monopoly, Yahtzee, pinochle or checkers. I can’t even remember him beating me at fucking Candyland when I was five years old! He’s the worst poker player imaginable, squirming, laughing, trash-talking, cursing and doing all kinds of dumb shit to let you know exactly what he’s holding. He and my mother went to Vegas once and he somehow slipped out of her grasp and headed directly for the sports book, where out of fourteen NFL games that weekend he managed to win exactly one bet. When they talk about the “luck of the Irish,” I go into hysterics thinking of my Irish-American father, the man who loses every time. I’m hoping to get the chance to sing “Born to Lose” at his funeral, a proposal he has endorsed with, yes, boyish enthusiasm.
Well, he did win something . . . once and only once. He talks about it every time the subject of his misfortune comes up, trying to convince us that really he’s not the sap who causes every card sharp or hustler in the vicinity to drool in anticipation of his arrival, but just a guy who’s had a particularly long bad streak that has lasted for a few decades. “Yeah, I might have lost here and there along the way,” he’ll admit after a good round of teasing, “But I won that Aretha Franklin record!”
I know the story by heart. In his teens, my dad used to listen to the Emperor Gene Nelson show on KYA radio in San Francisco every Saturday morning, because that’s when Gene would do the top thirty countdown. Every Saturday the show featured one of those contests where if you’re the correctly-numbered caller, you win the next record The Emperor spins. When Gene announced the contest on this particular Saturday, my dad, as he had done every Saturday for years, ran out of his bedroom and into the kitchen to use the family phone, dialing the number from memory. Every other time he’d tried it he’d heard the sting of the busy signal in his ears, but this time, to his utter and complete shock, the phone actually rang. In a few heart-trembling seconds, the Emperor’s voice came though the earpiece and pronounced, “Caller Number 11, you’ve won our prize!”
From that day forward, eleven was my dad’s lucky number. Every time he ran into a roulette wheel, he’d put his money on #11 . . . and lose every time.
My dad was so excited he ran around Cole Valley for a few hours telling everyone he met about his miraculous achievement and didn’t know what record he had actually won until it arrived in the mail a few days later. The song was “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” with “Baby Baby Baby” on the flip side of the Atlantic 45. He gingerly pulls it out of its sleeve every time he tells that story, then proceeds to do the most ridiculous impersonation of Aretha Franklin one could imagine. He loves that 45 so much he wants me to play it at his wake after I do “Born to Lose.”
Anything for you, dad!
I love the song, too (I’ll get to it in a minute), and Lady Soul is one of my favorite records from that great era of soul music. I have to admit that I don’t care much for Aretha when she goes high soprano on me; her voice at a certain pitch is simply too shrill for my delicate ears. On Lady Soul she sings primarily in lower registers and even when she goes high she goes there with greater discipline while never losing the emotional power that makes her voice so captivating. This is Aretha in full command, applying her formidable talents to soul, gospel, ballad and blues with discipline and intensity.
Lady Soul opens with a seductive tremolo guitar riff courtesy of Joe South, announcing the mega-hit “Chain of Fools.” The Beatles went through a period when they were fascinated by songs built on a single chord, but I don’t think this is what they had in mind during their raga-infatuation period. Cm7 is all you get in “Chain of Fools,” and what keeps things interesting is the irresistible groove, some outstanding drum work from Roger Hawkins, the tight backup vocals from The Sweet Inspirations and, of course, Aretha herself. Aretha gets a lot of credit for the power in her vocals, but even more impressive to me is her sheer feel for a song. Few singers can match her synchronicity with the groove—never mechanical, never contrived and fully capable of getting your hips shaking all by itself. Aretha also had unique expressive range, as best demonstrated on the stop-time verse in “Chain of Fools” when she drops from belt-out mode into bitch-in-heat mode on the line, “Oh, but your lovin’ is much too strong.” You can visualize her caught in an erotic trance as she opens her lips to receive a kiss or melts to her lover’s touch. Ooh, yeah!
James Brown’s “Money Won’t Change You” fell victim to the three-minutes-max dogma of the record companies of the time, and the single was split into two parts when released. Is that fucking stupid, or what? You don’t stop a groove-based song in the middle! It’s like stopping a fuck right when things are getting interesting and expecting your partner to stay in the mood while you go empty the garbage! Double harrumph! Aretha’s version is pretty much Part 1 but she changes the lyrics and perspective to first-person, giving the song more immediacy. When she belts out the line, “I SHO’ know what it is to be treated just like dirt,” you really feel her hurt and anger. And you really feel the groove provided by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, as Roger Hawkins proves once again that he was one of the best session drummers of the era with another boisterous performance, and Jimmy Johnson’s rough rhythm guitar helps sharpen the edge.
Aretha Franklin’s foundation was gospel music, so it was a fairly logical decision for her to record Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” The Impressions’ big hit. She brought in some pretty big guns for this track, including Bobby Womack and King Curtis, but The Sweet Inspirations and Aretha’s sister Carolyn steal the show with their choral vocals, providing a much stronger connection to gospel than the original. The track opens with the girls singing the refrain, “I believe,” reinforcing the need for faith that is the song’s central message. Even a non-believer like me can cherish Aretha’s performance here; when she sings “There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner whom would hurt all mankind/Just to save his own” she means it with all her heart and soul; from that point forward, she sounds like she’s in a rapturous trance. In this context, her ascent into the highest register is less jarring because it sounds so genuine. I also love her subtle change in the lyrics, altering the “you” to “we” to make her invitation to get on the train to Jordan much more welcoming. If only real-life Christianity were so inclusive.
P. J. Proby’s venture into Cajun scat led to his biggest American hit, “Niki Hoeky.” Aretha’s version is far more sophisticated and smooth than the original and she handles the sexual subtext with more subtlety. It’s really just a warmup for “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman,” a Goffin-King song inspired by producer Jerry Wexler, who asked them to come up with a “natural woman” song for Aretha (they graciously gave him credit as co-writer). Although she’s certainly done more dramatic and attention-grabbing vocals, this is my favorite Aretha Franklin song of them all. She wraps herself in this song, immersing herself in the feelings of deep gratitude for the man who has given her a sense of purpose. Her phrasing talent and ability to stay in touch with the cascade of varying emotions demanded by the lyrics infuse each line with unbelievable power. When she sings, “Lord, it made me feel so tired,” her voice is roughened by exhaustion; when she sings, “I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” she inserts a brief caesura in the line to emphasize the vulnerability that accompanies the admission of a weakness. Her delivery on the bridge lines, full of natural pauses and bursts of power, mirrors the excitement of a human being who has finally found the irreplaceable gift of another person’s true love. The descending harmonies on “like a natural woman” are a brilliant touch, and the arrangement supports the vocal beautifully without interference. This is one of those songs that chokes me up every time I hear it, because I’ve never heard anyone express the appreciation of someone else’s love as well as Aretha does here.
Aretha collaborated with then-husband Ted White on the composition of “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” and baby, did she nail this one. With exceptionally strong rhythmic support from the Muscle Shoals guys, Aretha fucking flies on this song, and the confidence in her rhythm section allows her to vary her phrasing to suit her mood instead of strictly following the beat. The heat from the syncopations, the horn section fills and the percussive piano is palpable—this song is as an ecstatic expression of the essence of soul music as any. Dancing is not an option with this song—it’s a necessity. Go ahead, grab your honey and take a spin on the dance floor!
What follows a second collaboration, “Good to Me As I Am to You,” a sultry, sexy, bluesy number with Eric Clapton providing flawless counterpoint blues licks. Aretha’s feeling it here, too, and her phrasing on the refrain line, “And all I’m really saying is be as good to me as I am to you” is breathtaking, following the melodic and rhythmic path you’d expect from your lead guitarist, not your lead singer. In the live performance below from the Concertgebouw Amsterdam concert, Aretha fills in admirably for Clapton on piano. I love watching her performances because she is always reaching out to the crowd, trying to connect with them and move them.
Aretha speeds up the Walter Davis number, “Come Back Baby,” made famous by Ray Charles and covered with even greater power by Dave Van Ronk on Folksinger. The slower versions are cherished classics, and I’m frankly astonished that the song could work so well as an uptempo number. The one crucial line for me is “Let’s talk it over,” a line expressed with voice-cracking pathos by Dave Van Ronk. Aretha changes the meaning of the line entirely in her delivery; rather than coming across as a last-chance plea for a stay of relational execution, it’s an assertive, insistent delivery accompanied by a confident, stunning display of vibrato and glissandi that fucking floors me. This is what a great interpretiste does: makes you believe in her interpretation, no matter how far off the mark it may seem at first. You go, girl! Tell that man to get his ass back in that bed this minute!
The Rascals’ “Groovin'” comes next, a somewhat surprising selection, given producer Jerry Wexler’s aversion to it. The man who wanted only two words on his tombstone (“More bass”) simply didn’t like the fainter rhythms of the song when Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati presented it to him, refusing to release it until The Rascals did an end-around and took it to Murray the K, who called Wexler and told him he was a goddamned idiot. “Groovin'” went to #1 and stayed there for four weeks. Having worked with arrogant executives for years and knowing that they consider subordinate end-arounds treasonous (especially when the idea actually works), I have admire Jerry Wexler for backing down (and I’m sure the profits he made on “Groovin'” made backing down a little easier to take). I’m spending all this time on the Rascals’ version because frankly, I prefer the original. The background singers fall completely flat here, especially when they do an obvious Mamas and the Papas nod with the counterpoint line, “Sunday, Sunday.” Way, way too cute for my tastes, and I never liked The Mamas and the Papas anyway.
Aretha’s sister Carolyn wrote the album closer, “Ain’t No Way,” a song that has since been covered by many female singers from Whitney Houston to Christina Aguilera. I’m sure that many people feel this is the perfect album-ending opus, but to me it’s a show-off song where the singer gets to go into all kinds of vocal spasms, somewhat like “The Star Spangled Banner” or most of the crap you hear on American Idol. Aretha can show off with the best of them, but this kind of song is not my cup of tea. Even if it were structured as a pleasant little folk song or a soft baroque rock number I’d still cringe at the lines, “I know that a woman’s duty/Is to help and love a man/And that’s the way it was planned.” It’s kind of sad, too, because “Ain’t No Way” starts out so promisingly as a soft jazz number, but it soon turns into a drama queen’s feast and it’s time to head for the exits.
Sigh. Although I don’t care for the way it ends, Lady Soul is still a great record by a genuinely gifted vocalist and musician that deserves a place in every music aficionado’s library. Aretha Franklin has been celebrated, lauded and fawned over for many, many years now, and unlike many so-called legends, she actually deserves the label. When Aretha Franklin brings it, she brings it all, and her essential humanity has never disappeared behind the glittering façade of stardom.