In this final instalment of my series on the wonderful tracks that I selected with co-producer Patrick Milligan for the one-of-a-kind ARETHA 4CD box set for Rhino released this year, what better example of Aretha Franklin’s masterful artistry than a work tape of her 1973 No. 1 R&B and Top 20 pop hit, “Angel,” co-written by her sister Carolyn…

April 1972 and Aretha is in Los Angeles, enjoying a new expression of her creativity.  Everything is set for her first recording sessions with Quincy Jones at The Record Plant studios which she is co-producing. The original aim is for Quincy (who has been a mainstay as an arranger and producer as well as working for a number of years in film scoring such movies as “The Pawnbroker,”  “In The Heat Of The Night” and “They Call Me Mister Tibbs” among many others) to create a jazz-flavoured LP with Aretha.

Quite what happened at those sessions in terms of what were the very first tracks to be recorded is unclear.  As part of the wonderful opportunity I had to traverse the Atlantic tape vaults in Burbank in 2005, I discovered a number of boxes from the Quincy Jones’ sessions which comprised a total of (10) titles which were not included on the final fruits of the sessions which would become two of which had no vocals added (“C.C.C.” and “Listen To The Melody”).  A date of March 30, 1972 indicates (4) of those tracks were recorded then so quite what the actual sequence if recordings for the Aretha/Quincy sessions is, for now, uncertain.

While the jazz direction may have been the original intent, Aretha is in funky mode for several of the tunes she records like Franklin originals, “Hey Now Hey,” “So Swell When You’re Well,” “Sister From Texas” and at least two of the tracks that remain unreleased, “Sweetest Style & The Funkiest Smile” and “The Boy From Bombay.”  By May 1972, it would seem there have been (16) tunes recorded and no doubt, when the tracks go back to Atlantic executive and Aretha’s prime producer with Arif Mardin & Tom Dowd at the label, Jerry Wexler, he realizes that this will not be a jazz album after all!

What definitely distinguishes the Aretha/Quincy sessions from previous Franklin LPs is the number of original compositions, many penned or co-penned by Aretha herself. There are a couple of exceptions: the eerily atmospheric “Master Of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes),” written by Aretha and Bernice Hart, which is chosen as the debut single from the “Hey Now Hey” album; and the one track which will undoubtedly be the LP’s primary classic…

No stranger to writing material for her older sister, Carolyn Franklin has contributed songs like “Baby, Baby, Baby” and “Ain’t No Way” to Aretha’s earlier Atlantic LPs.  By 1969, she’s also busy with her own recording career at RCA Records and is working with a famed producer/arranger and songwriter in his own right, Sonny Sanders.  From Chicago, Sonny’s name has appeared on countless hits by many of the Windy City’s most popular hitmakers, often working with artists on the Brunswick Records’ roster such as Jackie Wilson, Gene Chandler, Barbara Acklin, The Chi–Lites – and notably in 1969 and 1970, Carolyn’s eldest sister, Erma Franklin.

While he has contributed to recordings by both Erma and Carolyn, Sonny’s name has yet to appear on an Aretha Franklin recording.  That changes during the course of the Aretha/Quincy sessions.  Co-written by Sonny and sister Carolyn, the beautiful ballad “Angel” is a powerful and memorable ballad…

Aretha’s famed opening spoken intro sets up the song: ‘I got a call the other day. It was my sister Carolyn saying ‘Aretha, stop by when you can. I got something I want to say.’  And when I got there, she said, ‘you know, rather than go through a long drawn out thing, I think the melody on the box will help me explain…’ In comments after its release, Aretha confirms, “Yes, it really did happen that way,” although for some of the uninitiated, the reference to ‘the box’ – in fact a term for a record player – may have seemed strange! 

“Angel” goes through a number of iterations in the recording studio.  There are at least three initial takes: Aretha is playing piano and when there’s uncertainty from the musicians when to come in, she prompts them, ‘Nobody knows when to come in…when I get ready to turn…’ 

The initial wording for the opening monologue is refined and by the time September rolls around, strings, horns (including a sax solo by Joe Farrell), Aretha’s own background vocals and other instrumentation has been added to a chosen final take. With the closing lines intact, ‘He’ll be there, now don’t you worry, keep lookin’ and just keep cookin’’ (absent from the original studio takes), a promotional (2:56) of the track – without the spoken into – is made available to DJs while a (3:43) edit is issued as a commercial single in July 1973, providing Aretha with her 13th No. 1 US R&B single and a 21st US Top 20 hit.

For the ARETHA box set, we chose to meld together one of the original takes of “Angel” with Aretha’s words to the musicians to capture her consummate creativity in action on one of the truly classic recordings from her golden years at Atlantic Records, and certainly one of my own personal favourites from Aretha’s super-soulful legacy of enduring music.  Enjoy!