By David Nathan
December 1973, Phone interview with Aretha in New York, David in London...
If anyone ever stops to seriously consider which artists have had the major influence over the fortunes of soul music over the last decade or so, there is no doubt that the name ‘Aretha Franklin’ will figure prominently. Without reservation, Aretha is easily one of the most important black female figures of the century (yes, century!) and before the accusations of over-fanaticism pour in, I'll further confuse the statement by saying that Aretha remains one of our most underrated talents today!
What on earth does he mean, you're saying: well, although Aretha's influence over contemporary music can be justifiably tabbed far-reaching, she is still not recognized alongside other ladies who seem to be more familiar to the mass pop market. Soul people know that Aretha has some fifteen or more gold record to her credit but maybe because she doesn't quite fit the 'image' of the black female vocalist – she isn't the glossy glamour girl like Diana Ross (with no disrespect to that lady) and her whole approach to her music is not one of sweet, sexy-sounding whisperings, more a case of undiluted emotion driven home with force and power – she still doesn't mean that much to the average pop fan.
It may be that in Britain, has never totally accepted Aretha's tough, gospel-based sound: her hits have been somewhat sparse compared with her success at home [in the US] and when she has scored it's nearly always been with someone else's song – 'I Say A Little Prayer', 'Respect', 'Don't Play That Song' and 'Spanish Harlem' were all recorded by others before Aretha put her own unique style to them.
Although the lady may not command the kind recognition she deserves on a mass scale in this country, she still has a strong, hard core following: that, in spite of the folk who've been telling you that Aretha's reign as ‘Queen of Soul’ is over, because her recording career has been pretty quiet over the last year or so.
Her title of ‘Lady Soul’ was not earned simply by consecutive gold records: it's based on the woman's amazing ability to inject every single piece of music with her own soulful style. It's even been said that unless Aretha gets to you, you gotta have a hole in your soul – but we won't get involved in that discussion right now!
An opportunity of speaking with Miss Franklin does not come up very often, so I was naturally very happy when the lady consented to an interview with me – possibly one of the very few Aretha's given to anyone this year. On behalf of everyone here in Britain, the first question was naturally when we could expect to see Aretha in Europe again: "Right now, Mrs. Bowen of Queen Booking is working on an itinerary for Europe for some time next year – quite when, I don't know yet. But we'll definitely be coming over in ‘74," said Aretha.
Right now, she is giving the other soul ladies around some strong competition with her latest single, 'Until You Come Back To Me', which was co-written by none other than Stevie Wonder. The combination of Aretha and Stevie is, of course, dynamite and she explained how it came about: "Stevie and I are old friends, you know. He often drops material by at the studios for me – and this particular song was written with another old friend, Maurice Broadnax. I chose this one myself and we cut in New York." Aretha confirmed that she'll definitely be doing some more of Stevie's material in future."
Following on from the single, an album is due out in January from Atlantic (with whom, Aretha said, she was "almost re-signed") and she was happy to talk about it. "Now, let's see. We've got some really funky tunes in there and some nice ballads. In fact, some good things all the way round! I am very happy with the finished product, actually. We started work on the album (which will be called Let Me In Your Life) back in July and did some things in August, September – through till about three weeks ago, when we finished it off.
"There's the old Wilson Pickett song, 'I'm In Love', the Etta James hit, 'At Last', 'Eight Days On The Road' and at least one of my own songs, 'Oh Baby', which I wrote with a friend, Bernice Hart. I haven't written too much lately – just enough to let out what I wanted!"
Aretha's next album certainly sounds like it's going to be a smash but her last set, Hey Now Hey did meet with some criticism, mainly because no-one could really see the musical direction the album was taking. Aretha took time to explain some of the thinking behind it. "I really did enjoy working with Quincy Jones – it was great. The thing was, I wanted to do the things the way I personally dug them and I hoped the public would dig it a little more than they did. The album was quite successful, but people seem to prefer us to do just funky things or blues tunes and I wanted to try something a little different on material that I liked myself."
Whilst talking about the album, Aretha revealed that the captivating 'intro' to her last big American hit (which very nearly made it over here in Britain), 'Angel' was based on fact. "Yes, it really did happen that way. Carolyn's written some new songs for me but I haven't heard them as yet, as I only just got the tapes."
Aside from recording, which has taken up quite a deal of the lady's time, she's been busy decorating her newly-acquired New York home. After some time off, Aretha's just starting back into live appearances.
"The thing is, I like to plan my working time, so it's spaced out and not non-stop. I'm now concentrating on club dates as opposed to one-nighters. We're at the Latin Casino here (in New Jersey) for a week and in January, we're going on down to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, I think. Also in the next year, we'll be doing a tour of Japan as well as the European trip."
On the subject of movies (from which no self-respecting soul star can seemingly escape), Aretha says she is definitely very interested but waiting for the right script – "my companion, Ken Cunningham is looking into that for me right now. At the present time, we're just looking for the right thing to come along."
For the future, Aretha says she wants to keep on doing what she's doing, although she wants to "do more of my own songs, But we'll keep on basically with doing what we feel – funky things, whatever." To all you people who say Aretha Franklin ain't right up top - just watch out! Aretha has still got a whole lot more soul to give and strong valuable contributions to make to the music scene.
Like they say, you can't keep a good man down – and you better believe, you can't keep a good woman down either! And Aretha is a remarkably talented woman.