In compiling the career-spanning ARETHA 4CD box set, co-producer Patrick Milligan and I approached Aretha’s golden years at Atlantic intent on showcasing her approach to her recordings and her innate creativity. One track that exemplifies Aretha’s artistry is the extraordinary 1972 outtake of “Somewhere” (from the film “West Side Story”) and what better time to take a closer look at this Aretha gem with the December 2021 release of the remake of the movie itself…

Los Angeles is proving to be a fertile location for Aretha’s creativity in 1972, celebrating her fifth year as an Atlantic recording artist. In January, she’s recorded (and co-produced) the historic “Amazing Grace” album which will prove to be a career milestone and in retrospect, the best-selling LP both of her own career and in the world of gospel music.

Just a few months later, specifically in April, Aretha is at the famed Record Plant studios with maestro Quincy Jones.  After working with the Atlantic triumvirate of producer Jerry Wexler, arranger Arif Mardin and engineer Tom Dowd (credited as the joint production team on Aretha’s recordings, beginning in 1968), Aretha is exploring new artistic possibilities and further involvement in the recording process herself.

The thinking behind the choice of Quincy Jones as her primary co-producer for what will be Aretha’s twelfth Atlantic LP (excluding two compilations) has never been fully documented. It’s clear that Q’s credentials speak for themselves in terms of his skills as a conductor, arranger, film score composer and musician.  In the year or so prior to signing on to work with Aretha, Quincy has been establishing himself as a chartmaker in his own right with the A&M albums, “Gula Matari” and “Smackwater Jack” while his catalogue of recordings, in particular in scoring music for dozens of movies has gained him renown and respect.  

Retrospectively, Jerry Wexler says the intention for the Franklin-Jones collaboration is to create a jazz album. What we know as fact is that the first recording cut in April 1972 point in that direction, starting with James Moody’s “Moody’s Mood For Love” featuring a big band arrangement and vocal tour-de-force performance from Aretha.

And then…the mood shifts. It’s time for reflection, quiet contemplation, as Aretha approaches the by-then classic “Somewhere” from the 1957 musical “West Side Story,” revived as a groundbreaking award-winning film in 1961. Written by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, “Somewhere” provides the emotional finale in the film, a fitting climax to the timeless story of a couple defying intolerance and opposition to create a future together filled with hope and promise. 

Aretha’s gift for transforming a range of material from different musical genre and adding her own distinctive interpretation has served her well from her very first secular recording at Columbia Records in 1960 through all of her albums for that label and on to her Atlantic repertoire where she has ‘Aretha-ized’ songs previously recorded by a diversity of artists from Sam Cooke to The Beatles, Dionne Warwick to B.B. King and The Rolling Stones to Ray Charles. 

Notably, she has seldom focused on well-known movie themes. “Somewhere,” the second song cut in her sessions with Quincy, is an exception. There are a number of takes as Aretha explores the song, using her brilliance as a musician through her mastery at the keyboards, including some takes with just piano, some with different vocal approaches; during the song’s bridge, we get Aretha at her jazzy best, doodling on the keys.  It is remarkable…

What is clear that, while Aretha’s plaintive and ever-soulful performances may be seen as true to Sondheim’s lyrical intent for the song in the musical and film, it can also be considered that Aretha hears “Somewhere” in the context of the time in which she is recording it.  This is 1972, with civil rights, equality and justice very much in the forefront of American – indeed global – life.

Listening to the beautiful alternate take of “Somewhere” which we selected for the ARETHA 2021 box set, I can’t help but wonder if Aretha also brought to this enduring love song a plea for unity, peace and the fulfilment of a dream…maybe…the dream that her dear friend, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. espoused so eloquently in 1963…and which remains, all these many decades later, a universal dream to be fulfilled.

(Check out the video of Aretha’s remarkable 1995 performance of “Somewhere” from the Kennedy Centre)