Aretha’s gone ‘funky’! 1971 has started with a January 27th session at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, which has become a second studio location for Aretha’s recordings since October 1969. Whether it’s the change of scenery from Atlantic’s ever-busy1841 Broadway venue, the sea breeze, the warm climate, whatever it is, Aretha seems at home at Criteria and oftentimes, there’s a different energy that infuses her performances…
February 16th seems to be a notable date in the annals of Franklin sessions: on the same day in 1967, she cut “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is A Serious Business)” as part of a four-day recording marathon (starting February 14th) that yielded “Respect” and most of her breakthrough Atlantic LP debut. The stars are aligned…
It is an auspicious session, with the future Aretha classic “Day Dreaming” as well as another of her own compositions, “All The King’s Horses” and a cover of pop/country singer/songwriter Bobby Goldsboro’s 1968 composition, “With Pen In Hand,” a hit for a number of artists including Aretha’s then-Atlantic labelmate, Billy Vera in 1968. The song seemed to have a somewhat autobiographical flavour for Aretha, in particular the latter with its reference to finalizing divorce, which she herself experienced with husband/manager Ted White in 1969; and was only released in 1974 on Aretha’s “Let Me In Your Life” LP.
Whatever personal mood Aretha is experiencing in the early months of 1971 reflects how she’s feeling. After the somewhat downbeat flavour of “With Pen In Hand,” the first track cut on February 16, there’s a new vibe! Joy is in the air as she lays down a rousing and upbeat reimagining of “Spanish Harlem,” Ben E. King’s first solo hit after his departure from the hitmaking Atlantic group, The Drifters.
With its insistent hook and cries of “what it is’ from the “Rock Steady,” another Aretha original, is the third track cut on the session and it is truly – to borrow the title from an Ike & Tina Turner hit – ‘funkier than a mosquito’s tweeter’! The non-stop groove is infectious and with Aretha at the piano driving the rhythm section, it is a to-the-bone jam.
With Donny Hathaway on organ, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass, Bernard Purdie laying down a mean drumbeat and a seriously soulful choir consisting of Franklin sisters Erma and Carolyn and Margaret Branch, Brenda Bryant and Pat Smith (The Sweethearts Of Soul, Aretha’s primary touring background vocalists at the time) underscoring the groove-a-liciousness with the exhortation, ‘what it is,’ it’s on!
Later overdubbed at Atlantic studios in Manhattan with a horn arrangement by Tom Dowd are The Memphis Horns, Wayne Jackson and Andrew Love. Whether they were at the original Miami session or part of the Manhattan overdub date is uncertain but for sure Mac Rebennack (aka famed New Orleans music man, Dr. John) and bassist Robert Popwell lay down some intense percussion…
The original track of “Rock Steady” is 4:30 minutes of funky stuff and Aretha slows it down at around the 3:50 mark with the background vocals following suit. It is this original mix (without the horns) – named “What It Is (Rock Steady)” - that was included as part of a tape box marked “Jerry Wexler, Rough Mixes” that I discovered as part of Rhino vault research in 2005; it first saw the light of day on the 2007 “Rare & Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign of The Queen Of Soul” Rhino CD compilation
The single edit of “Rock Steady,” overdubs completed, clocks in at around 3:10, is included in Aretha’s 1972 gold LP, “Young Gifted & Black” and is a stompin’ follow up to “Spanish Harlem” when released in November 1971, debuting on the US R&B charts exactly ten months to the day after it was recorded.
Her twelfth gold 45, No. 2 on the R&B charts and No. 9 on the pop charts, “Rock Steady” is indeed a timeless classic, included on the “Aretha” 2021 box set in all its original splendour!
And a PS: when Rhino created the ‘Official Lyric Video” for the single in 2021, it took more than a little minute to figure out exactly what the background vocalists were singing at one point (around 1:06 into the song). Thanks to some sleuthin’ by one of my fellow Aretha experts, Mr. Sid Johnson, we figured it out.. ‘But you gotta take this ride, put the devil on his side’! Hallelujah!