As one of Atlantic Records’ most prolific recording artists from 1967 to 1979, Aretha Franklin cut literally hundreds of tracks. Choosing selections for inclusion on the career-spanning 4CD box set ARETHA, released on Rhino in July 2021, was a daunting task: as co-producer of the project with Patrick Milligan, I opted for some alternate takes and mixes such as a version of Aretha’s 1971 hit, “Spanish Harlem” included on a tape box with the inscription, “Rough Mixes”…

As 1971 begins, Aretha is truly back in stride.  After a year of personal change, Lady Soul is re-energized, with a new son, a triumphant European tour behind her and with “Don’t Play That Song,” her powerhouse rendition of Ben E.King’s 1962 hit, providing Aretha with 9th gold single in three years, she is back in the sunshine state (Florida), specifically at Criteria Studios in Miami for sessions that will continue the momentum.

In all, Aretha records four songs in January, 1971, then it’s back to work in the studio on February 16th to cut five more tracks.  Following the success of “Don’t Play That Song,” Aretha revisits the Ben E. King catalogue. No doubt one of the male vocalists that Aretha would hear on the radio as she begins her own move into secular music at the age of eighteen in 1960, King has achieved his first run of hits as the lead vocalist on a number of hits by The Drifters from 1959 to 1960 before launching his solo career with “Spanish Harlem” (penned by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector and produced by Leiber with his production partner, Mike Stoller), a US Top 20 R&B and pop hit towards the end of 1960.

The second song recorded on February 16th – the fourth anniversary of her session in New York in 1967 when she cut “Dr. Feelgood” for her Atlantic debut LP – is Aretha’s unique take on “Spanish Harlem” which she transforms from Ben E. King’s romantic ode into a topical piece for the early ‘70s (with Black civil rights very much front and centre in America) by virtue of a notable lyrical change, with ‘There is a rose in Spanish Harlem’ becoming ‘There is a rose in Black and Spanish Harlem,’ set against an unforgettable propulsive groove, courtesy a rhythm section with Neal Rosengarden on vibes, Donny Hathaway on keyboards, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on electric bass and Bernard Purdie on drums. As is often the case, Aretha leads the players with her distinctive piano arrangement of the song and on hand to provide rousing background vocal support are The Sweethearts Of Soul (Margaret Branch, Brenda Bryant and Pat Smith) and sisters Carolyn and Erma Franklin, with a memorable, ‘la-la-la-la-la-la-la’ intro. 

The track is electric, full of joyous energy. A tape box I discover as a Rhino vault researcher in 2005, marked with Jerry Wexler’s name on it, contains a ‘rough mix’ of “Spanish Harlem” and it is this version, slightly longer than the final released single, that is included on the “ARETHA” box set.

At a later date prior to its release as a single six months after it’s recorded, Atlantic’s resident conductor Arif Mardin (co-producer with Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd on many of Aretha’s early ‘70s recordings) adds a magical string arrangement. “Spanish Harlem” begins its ascent on the US charts in August, 1971 and climbs to No. 2 on the Hot 100, tying with “Chain Of Fools” as Aretha’s biggest pop hit, reaching the top spot on the R&B charts and becoming her 10th gold single, while also becoming her fourth UK Top 20 charted 45. 

Likely to add lustre to an October 1971 “Greatest Hits” LP, “Spanish Harlem” is one of three recordings not to be included on a regular Aretha album. She reprises the song as part of her performance at the spring 1972 conference of NATRA (National Association of Television & Radio Announcers) in Philadelphia in a breakneck version but it doesn’t seem to be a constant in Aretha’s live repertoire.  Nonetheless, it remains a wonderful example of Aretha’s ability to reinterpret material originally recorded by others and make it her own.

Two further notes: famed New Orleans musician Dr. John is often erroneously credited as playing on “Spanish Harlem”; he did not. He overdubbed a piano part for “Rock Steady,” the track that followed it on the original February 16th 1971 session; and, no doubt for those who may wonder, ‘Spanish Harlem’ is the name given to an area of upper Manhattan, north of the Upper East Side and bounded by 96th Street to the south, Fifth Avenue to the west, and the East and Harlem Rivers to the east and north.  The term ‘Spanish Harlem’ describing this area of East Harlem began to achieve prominence in the wake of Puerto Rican and Latin American migration in the early part of the 20th century and later became known as ‘El Barrio.’