As a tribute on the eve of her 70th this Sunday, RBP hereby presents 20 timeless masterpieces by the Queen of Soul. Happy Birthday, 'retha!——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
"They used to call me a jazz singer," Aretha told Val Wilmer in 1968. "Now I think what I sing is closer to R&B and straight blues..."
For five years Frankin languished as Columbia Records struggled to sell the Rev. C. L.'s daughter as a new Nancy Wilson, an R&B Barbra Streisand. In late 1966, soul svengali Jerry Wexler signed the girl to Atlantic, taking her down to the Alabama hotbed of Muscle Shoals early the following year.
What followed was a stream of sassy, sanctified recordings that defined what SOUL was: the sound of a new black pride and a sensuality that made musical a physical, visceral experience. Towering above any rivals, Lady Ree was swiftly anointed the Queen of this gospelized R&B style — a sound as key to the Sixties as psychedelia.
1 'Dr. Feelgood', from Live at Fillmore West (1971)
If one of Aretha's greatest qualities is, perhaps surprisingly, her restraint — her respect for the song and refusal to "oversoul" — this cut (from her great Fillmore West live album) is Aretha Unbound. Utterly transformed from the somewhat wooden I Never Loved A Man original, with Bernard Purdie's exemplary drums snapping at the slowest of blues grooves, Franklin gets seriously happy with this paean to, frankly, great sex. Hissing out the first line — "sssssssssSSSSSssssssSSSSit around, me and my man, ain't that right girls?" — Aretha pulls the lyric this way and that, paying blithe disregard to such niceties as bars and beats. Lines are spat: "Because company s'alright with me e-ve-ry-once-in-a-great-while". Words are stretched beyond breaking point: "That man takes care of all my... paaaayaaaaayaaaayains and ills." King Curtis's crew hang right in there with her through to climax. Over an astonishingly stretched ending, Aretha calls. The Sweethearts of Soul and the 'frisco love crowd respond. Suddenly the Fillmore has become deep church.
2 'I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)', from I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967)
Aretha's Atlantic debut (and first smash hit) was this almost intolerably sexy Muscle Shoals masterpiece, with the lady whooping and swooping over her own piano chords while local boy Spooner Oldham tinkled a watery Wurlitzer beside her. This no-frills blues-soul classic instantly junked Ree's supper-club past and announced the new goddess in town.
3 'Respect', from I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967)
Sockittome Sockittome Sockittome Sockittome Sockittome Sockittome!! Otis Redding's song was taken by Franklin, Wexler and the Muscle Shoals gang and turned into the funkiest, most righteous, and most feminist thing Aretha ever did. When 'Respect' comes on, it is impossible to sit still.
4 'Do Right Woman — Do Right Man', from I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (1967)
The yang to 'Never Loved''s yin, 'Do Right' did as much to establish "country soul" as a southern sub-genre as 'Respect' did to blaze a trail for female soul power. Begun at Fame in Shoals and completed in NYC, 'Do Right' is a bruised, anguished plea penned by redneck soulboys Chips Moman and Dan Penn, sung with exquisite care by the Queen and her Sweet Inspirational maids-in-waiting.
5 'You Send Me', from Aretha Now (1968)
Aretha stabs at a few gospel chords on the piano whilst Roger Hawkins counts time on his sticks, the sound echoing around the room. Suddenly Ree gets serious, bangs out the ascending intro and there's a headlong rush into one of Sam Cooke's most gorgeous songs. An extraordinary blend of uptown swing and country soul shaped by Aretha's piano and vocal, this is just over two minutes of transcendental bliss. In Roger Hawkins' words: "Aretha's emotion made everything work: I played to her voice. On her sessions it was like the drums were playing themselves". I think all the musicians involved would say 'Amen' to that.
6 'Jump to It', from Jump to It (1982)
Luther Vandross, writer-producer of this mega-funky '80s gem, remembered the session thus: "She swept into the studio in a track suit with a fur coat over it, did her vocal, and swept out again. It was like, 'Who was that masked woman?!?'" Scat passages, erotic exclamations, dizzying octave jumps — this may be Franklin's last truly great recorded performance.
7 'Chain of Fools', from Lady Soul (1967)
The Don Covay classic is one of Aretha's most successful marriages of blues and soul. Here she spends whole verses leaning hard into the melody but keeping it all in check until those moments where she suddenly soars above the song. There's never been a soul singer with better timing or phrasing. Aretha's church years give her a reservoir of techniques for building and releasing tension. The sudden leaps in register have nothing to do with the grandstanding of, say, Mariah Carey: they're expressions of passion, of anger, of longing. Over quintessential swamp funk, there's no doubting who's leading the band. She's not just singing over a backing track, she's defining how the music moves. How many singers can you say that about?
8 'Somewhere', from Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) (1973)
One of the all-time great readings of the West Side Story staple, this is Ree at her most keeningly, convincingly emotional. The line "There is a time for us/I KNOW... that's there's a time for us" — just after the rimshot's kicked in — is one of the most heartstopping in her repertoire. Sondheim never sounded so soulful.
9 'I Say A Little Prayer', from Aretha Now (1968)
Thrown together in a lunch break as the backing singers fooled around with Bacharach and David's hit single (by Dionne Warwick), this is one extraordinary recording. The arrangement is so svelte it's unbelievable that the whole track took an hour to cut. Riding on Roger Hawkins' tick-tock rhythm (every accent he plays is just so, and listen to how much space he leaves), Aretha renders the definitive version of the song. Precise, powerful, thrilling.
10 'Mary, Don't You Weep', from Amazing Grace (1972)
In January 1972, Aretha went back to the Church. Helped by the fact that her pa was the grandest of fromages within the gospel community, her welcome was truly open-armed. Not for her the loathing poured on the heads of such as Sam Cooke for crossing the sectarian chasm that divided secular from spiritual. Backed by the Southern California Community Choir, in the capable hands of master pianist the Rev. James Cleveland, and with the crackest of crack rhythm sections — "Pretty" Purdie (drums), Chuck Rainey (bass) and, in particularly awesome form, Cornell Dupree on guitar — Amazing Grace is a delight. So how do you choose a track to highlight? How about track 1, side 1? 'Mary Don't You Weep' sets the tone for the entire record. The steady, pacing groove is immaculate. The Choir is sensational. Cleveland's piano carries a thousand years of authority. And Aretha's faith and happiness simply glows through it all.
11 'Sweet Bitter Love', from Who's Zoomin' Who (1985)
The voice is deeper, huskier, more mentholated than in its Atlantic heyday. But the phrasing and the emotional power are undimmed on this mid-'80s Gladys Knight cover. Beats 'Who's Zoomin' Who', anyway.
12 '(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman', from Lady Soul (1967)
The mere mention of the title phrase to Gerry Goffin and Carole King resulted in the creation of a masterpiece the very next day. What a song. Listen to the resignation and depression that's palpable in her singing of the verses, and how it pervades the physical sound of the rhythm section. And then the clouds lift as the horns and the strings and her sisters cluster around as she soars into the title in one of the greatest choruses of all time.
13 'Ain't No Way', from Lady Soul (1968)
A lustrous ballad penned by Aretha's sis Carolyn, with a pining, soaring vocal over descending piano chords and oozing horns. Not to mention the swooping obligato from Ms. Cissy Houston.
14 'Baby I Love You', from Aretha Arrives (1967)
Using the hoariest sentiment known to popular song, this is worth its place in the pantheon just for the way that, after the line "ain't no doubt about it", Lady Soul sings "I Love You". Listen closely and feel your knees buckle.
15 'It Ain't Fair', from This Girl's In Love With You (1970)
An irresistibly greasy slice of self-pity: Franklin fulminating over Barry Beckett's murky electric piano while, respectively, King Curtis and Duane Allman insert stabs of tenor sax and acrid slide guitar.
16 'Spirit in the Dark', from Spirit in the Dark (1970)
Down to Miami, and back to (virtual) church, 'Spirit' showcases Aretha at her swampy southern best — not hard when you're backed by the Dixie Flyers, the funky honkies Jerry Wexler installed at Criteria in Miami. Also a highlight of the great Fillmore West live album, with Ree pulling Ray Charles from the crowd to improvise alongside her.
17 'Night Life' (live), from Aretha in Paris (1968)
"Listen to the blues and what they're saying..." Live from the Olympia theatre, the young queen wrings every last drop of weary emotion from Willie Nelson's jaded small-hours classic. Magnifique!
18 'Call Me', from This Girl's In Love With You (1970)
One of Lady Soul's precious few writing credits, this bittersweet ballad is also a heartfelt declaration of the pain she felt over her abusive hubbie/manager Ted White. And the sudden key change towards the song's end startles to this day. "I love you... call me..."
19 'Young, Gifted and Black', from Young, Gifted and Black (1972)
"You've got your soul intact, and that's a fact..." Cut in 1970 with Cornell Dupree (gtr), Chuck Rainey (bass) and Billy Preston (organ), this take on Nina Simone's classic isn't as supernal as Donny Hathaway's. But it's pretty damn great, with a long, slow-building intro and full-on gospel interplay 'twist Aretha and her sweet, sweet Inspirations. Inspirational indeed.
20 'Don't Play That Song', from Spirit In The Dark (1970)
OK, so let's hear it for 'retha the piano player. Overshadowed by the towering monument that is her voice, she is nonetheless up there in the pantheon of great R&B keyboard players, alongside Ray Charles and Richard Tee. Her intro to this delightful pop-soul shuffle is worth the price of admission alone, underscoring the fact that Ree always delivered when her hands were pounding the ivories, and that something was lost when she abandoned the keyboard sometime in the mid-'70s.
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