You just have to know that some things are sacred.
Like my relationship with Aretha Franklin’s music and its consistent presence in my life since 1965. The image that goes with this personal tribute is a testament to such, since it was in fact my first-ever cover story for "Blues & Soul" magazine, derived from a 1970 conversation when Aretha was in London for her second UK visit... Aretha provided many 'firsts' for me in my career as a music journalist, author, liner notes writer and reissue producer over decades...
Now, I could have said my relationship with Aretha itself: I’m proud to say that from a young teen fan writing letters to her care of her father at his New Bethel Baptist Church (the envelopes read “Miss A. Franklin c/o Rev. C.L. Franklin, New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan, USA” since I didn’t have the street address!) and through probably more interviews (for Blues & Soul, Billboard ,USA Today, etc.) than any other living journalist to my attendance at her fabulous Christmas party in Detroit (with performances by The Emotions, Sugar Pie DeSanto and her son Eddie and his group Red), I’ve been privileged to know the artist “Rolling Stone” named the greatest singer of all time.
Instead, this is about the music, not about the often hilariously funny phone chats we had, her wonderful peach cobbler (prepared as a condition for a 1979 interview we did in Los Angeles) or me showing off my dance skillz at a party she gave a few years ago on her first visit to L.A. in two decades.
I remember vividly the first time I heard her name and that voice. As the founder and Secretary of The Nina Simone Appreciation Society in Britain in 1965, I was with some of my fellow R&B enthusiasts. We were a small but dedicated bunch and we’d arranged a little seaside outing. We were in Littlehampton, a beach town in England and some kind soul had brought a transistor-battery-operated record player. I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was being played until I heard this voice. The song was my favorite, “Walk On By,” the very song that – via Dionne Warwick’s original version – I had become inducted into the world of R&B and soul music. Somehow, this singer I’d never heard of was adding a whole new dimension to the Bacharach-David tune. I had no idea that what she was bringing to the song was her none-too-shabby years of singing in her father’s church and as a virtual child prodigy on the American gospel circuit. All I knew was this young woman with a different name (we had no ‘Arethas’ in Britain!) was turning “Walk On By” into a religious experience for this Brit teen. I had no clue it would be the beginning of a life-long deep appreciation for her artistry.
“Walk On By” was a track on Aretha’s sixth Columbia album, “Runnin’ Out Of The Fools,” the title track a jazzy bondafide hit for the then-23-year old who had begun recording for the label in 1960. Months later, now a fervent reader of “Billboard” magazine whenever I could afford to buy it, I saw Aretha’s name listed in reference to a brand new album, the live “Yeah!!! In Person” set. Fortunately, CBS in the UK had the good sense to release it so I got my copy and promptly spent whatever pocket money I could ear n from my Saturday job at a local record shop (Musicland) to get imported copies of each of Aretha’s previous LPs on Columbia. Turned out that there were also some 45s that weren’t on those albums and I still recall my delight at getting the single “Sweet Bitter Love” directly from Randy’s record shop in Gallatin, Tennesee! Oh that voice, swooping, soaring, with a kind of passion I didn’t know could be expressed through music.
I had my favorites. I loved everything on the "Yeah!!!" album - from the photo of Aretha wearing big sunglasses to her magical interpretations of tunes like "Misty," "Love For Sale," "Muddy Water" and "Impossible." Simply sublime.
From her previous albums, “Skylark” was spellbinding, “All Night Long” hauntingly real, “Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning” a journey into the depths of my own psyche, an expression of a deep desire to escape from whatever situation I perceived held me captive. I still recall that my good friend (and then about-to-be business partner) Dave Godin of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society didn’t necessarily share my enthusiasm. He liked an old single, “Operation Heartbreak” but songs like “Skylark” (no matter how soulful the interpretation) were a little ‘schmaltzy’ for the man who created the term ‘deep soul.’ I tried to convince Dave and I can still see myself standing in his living room, asking him to listen to said “Skylark” and getting such a hint that maybe he could be convinced.
Of course, Dave wasn’t alone. The inclusion of songs previously associated with Al Jolson and Judy Garland along with show tunes and the like didn’t endear R&B audiences to Aretha during her Columbia years. Instead she was being marketed more to the supper club crowd through her LPs with some hope that maybe one of the more R&B-flavored 45s she was cutting might gain her some traction among a burgeoning soul music audience being weaned on the likes of Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and others.
Be that as it may, I was hooked on Aretha. I knew every song on her 1966 album “Soul Sister” (yes, even “Swanee” and “Ol’ Man River”!): my favorites were “Cry Like A Baby” (a wonderful Ashford-Simpson-Armstead composition), “Until You Were Gone” (also recorded by Betty Everett), the nifty "Can't You Just See Me" and the still-glorious “(No, No) I’m Losing You” which remains in my Top 3 of all of Aretha’s recordings. What a brilliant string arrangement, great production – and that voice, bringing honest emotion to an unforgettable delivery of the song. Unforgettable – and years later, the song that bonded me to and initiated my friendship with Michael Lewis, my partner in Soul Music.com and The Soul Music Store. Aretha’s music is powerful.
1966, at the end of the year, I have my first phone conversation with Aretha. It’s my Christmas treat as one of the partners at my own record store Soul City. This comes months after I get a reply to one of the letters I’d been sending to Aretha: I still remember my Dad telling me I had a package from America, one Saturday when I was playing (and trying to sing along with) “Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning,” my literally jumping for joy at getting the letter she’d written (regrettably long since lost in one of my many moves) accompanied by a signed photo.
During that phone call, Aretha referenced her new deal with Atlantic, a fact of which I’d become aware when I saw the photo of her with Jerry Wexler and her then-husband/manager Ted White signing to the label . She was understandably excited but neither of us could have known that but months later. Aretha Franklin would begin her ascent to the place she still holds in music and culture as The Queen Of Soul by virtue of that first Atlantic album.
That album. I had left Soul City (temporarily) and missed having new music. It was the spring of ’67. In hopes of getting Aretha’s first Atlantic 45 (“I Never Loved A Man”), I trotted down to the Musicland store in Fulham, South London, close to my home. When the clerk informed me that he had the whole “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)“ LP, I rushed back home, begged my Mother for the extra money required to buy the imported album and dashed back to get it.
I stood in my bedroom transfixed as I listened to Aretha. “Drown In My Own Tears.” My, my, my. “Baby Baby Baby.” Uh-uh-uh. “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream.” No, never. “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “This evening,” she sang, deep in realness, “I believe my change has come.” Indeed. “Respect” was almost an afterthought as I kept playing over and over the title track, looking at Aretha’s face with that wistful expression that seemed to convey as much emotion as the music I was hearing.
All of a sudden, Aretha was ‘in.’ Even British audiences were captivated by the joyful sound of “Respect” with its sock-it-to-me ever-present refrain. I was in love. Not just with Aretha but for real in life. I began dealing with my second ‘serious’ dating partner-turned-lover after ditching the first one to the strains of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and Aretha’s “I Never Loved A Man.” I admit I went out with Franklin, my first boyfriend partly because of his name but he was as Aretha’s first Atlantic single declared, “no good heartbreaker…a liar and a cheat!” William (one of Franklin’s co-workers) came along not long after Jerry Wexler – impressed with my writing about his latest hitmaker in an Atlantic UK fan magazine – personally sent me a copy of Aretha’s then-new single, “Baby I Love You.” But it was the flipside, that super-bluesy “Going Down Slow” (with Aretha’s mesmerizing vocalizing with King Curtis’ masterful sax interlude) that spoke to my relationship with another heartbreaker.
“Aretha Arrives” – to this day still my favorite Franklin album – became the soundtrack for the middle and end of that relationship. I felt “Night Life” as if I had lived it. “Prove It” indeed and in those moments when all was well, “Never Let Me Go” was right on time. But it was “I Wonder” that reflected all the doubts and concerns I had on those nights I spent alone, a lovelorn teen experiencing heartbreak and loneliness as Aretha soothed me.
It was to no avail. By the time Aretha laid it out on “Lady Soul,” her third Atlantic LP with her own “Good To Me As I Am To You,” William was history. That same year, there was however reason to celebrate. After meeting Aretha at the airport with my sister Sylvia, I took my very British mother to see her at The Hammersmith Odeon. “Oh, she reminds me of Mahalia Jackson!” my Mum declared, displaying her own appreciation for the gospel great, who it seemed was one of her own personal favorites. “Yes, indeed,” I replied thrilled that my mother had made that connection, that she saw and heard in Aretha the same passion that Mahalia brought to her work.
Of course, this appreciation of Aretha Franklin’s music could turn into a book and maybe one day, I’ll write one examining each of her albums one at a time and pointing to the brilliance of her interpretative skill as one of the foremost artists of our time. For now, let me say that from “Aretha Arrives” and “Lady Soul” on, so many of Aretha’s recordings have formed the very tapestry of my life. “I Can’t See Myself Leaving You” (from “Aretha Now”), the entire “Soul ‘69” LP (I loved every track), “Eleanor Rigby,” “It Ain’t Fair,” “Call Me,” “Try Matty’s,” “Oh No Not My Baby,” “Don’t Play That Song,” “Why I Sing The Blues” and “The Thrill Is Gone” (all from “Spirit In The Dark,” the latter my theme for the end of another relationship ). The “Amazing Grace” LP which provided me with comfort in the wake of a life-threatening illness and hospitalization. The quirky “Hey Now Hey” produced by Quincy Jones, outstanding not just for “Angel” and “Somewhere” but for the ultra-sexy’n’saucy “Just Right Tonight,” a funky-butt workout if ever I heard one. Aretha laying it out on “Oh Me, Oh My,” “Brand New Me,” “Daydreaming,” turning The Beatles’ “Long And Winding Road” into a gospel-fused opus.
“Until You Come Back To Me” and all those exceptional performances on “Let Me In Your Life” – think “A Song For You,” “I’m In Love,” “The Masquerade Is Over,” “With Pen In Hand” and her own “If You Don’t Think.” More Atlantic masterful recordings like “Sparkle,” a masterpiece from beginning to end. “Sweet Passion,” innovative, different. Then, on to Arista, working with Clive Davis, creating another catalog of recordings that had deeply personal meaning for me – “United Together,” celebrating the second of the three true loves of my life (thus far!), “Love All The Hurt Away” (amen),” “It’s My Turn” (it was). “There’s A Star For Everyone” (there is). The whole “Jump To It” album produced so deftly by my then-New York neighbor Luther Vandross, me dancing my feet off at a Philadelphia club the first time I heard it in public. “Get It Right,” “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” “If You Need My Love Tonight,” “(I Knew ) You Were Waiting For Me,” more Aretha magic as she eased down that “Freeway Of Love.”
Look, it’s simple. Aretha Franklin has recorded music that has spoken to my heart, soothed my soul, made me smile, made me cry, made me sigh and provided the backdrop for love, joy, passion and happiness from ’65 on. Truth be told, I’ve never liked Christmas albums but her latest work had me singing “Angels We Have Heard On High” while prepping my own December 25 meal. Has Aretha made records I didn’t like? Yeah: never could get to her reinterpretations of some of my favorite Bacharach-David songs (“You’ll Never Get To Heaven,” “April Fools,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) but hey, it was her reading of “Walk On By” that started this lifelong love affair with her music, a love affair that has lasted longer than real life love has, truth be told.
I had the opportunity in 2004 to comb the Atlantic vaults in Los Angeles for every single box bearing Aretha's name. I found some amazing music, including an entire performance from 1972 recorded at an industry convention in Philly and a mysterious box containing the demos Aretha had sent to Jerry Wexler in 1966 after signing with Atlantic. Much of the material I found back then eventually made its way (with little reference to my vault journey - but that's another story!) to a Rhino CD released in 2007. Suffice it to say, the music served as a reminder that even Aretha's outtakes and demos demonstrate her innate gift as an inventive and creative musician of the first order.
It’s truly fitting that President Barack Obama chose Aretha, a direct personal link to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (by virtue of her father’s friendship with the late civil right leader and thus his presence in her own life), for his inauguration and it was an historic occasion and Aretha belonged to that moment. After seeing Aretha in concert so many times, I know there are many songs she did on stage (over the years) that she’s never recorded and one thing is constant. When Aretha was on, wasn't nobody better. Just had to let y’all know that from “Today I Sing The Blues” to “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and on, Aretha Franklin’s music has been a constant source of true jubilation in my life and now, two years after her passing in 2018, it still is.
For putting the “soul “ in soul music., being a natural woman, and her contribution to me (personally and musically) and to millions more....I’m forever grateful...
MY PERSONAL TOP 20 ARETHA FRANKLIN RECORDINGS (in no particular order other than by label)
(NO, NO) I’M LOSING YOU from Columbia album "Soul Sister"
SKYLARK from Columbia album "Laughing On The Outside"
RUNNIN’ OUT OF FOOLS from Columbia album "Runnin' Out Of Fools"
THE LAND OF DREAMS from Columbia album "Take It Like You Give It"
ALL NIGHT LONG from Columbia album "Aretha"
I NEVER LOVED A MAN (THE WAY I LOVE YOU) from Atlantic album "I Never Loved A Man"
DROWN IN MY OWN TEARS from Atlantic album "I Never Loved A Man"
I WONDER from Atlantic album "Aretha Arrives"
NEVER LET ME GO from Atlantic album "Aretha Arrives"
PROVE IT from Atlantic album "Aretha Arrives"
GOOD TO ME AS I AM TO YOU from Atlantic album "Lady Soul"
HOW I GOT OVER from Atlantic album "Amazing Grace"
PRECIOUS MEMORIES from Atlantic album "Amazing Grace"
ROCK STEADY from Atlantic album "Young Gifted & Black"
JUST RIGHT TONIGHT from Atlantic album "Hey Now Hey"
ANGEL from Atlantic album "Hey Now Hey"
UNTIL YOU COME BACK TO ME from Atlantic album "Let Me In Your Life"
SPARKLE from Atlantic album "Sparkle"
JUMP TO IT from Arista album "Jump To It"
(IT’S JUST) YOUR LOVE from Arista album, “Jump To It”
MY TOP 10 ARETHA FRANKLIN LPs (in no particular order):
ARETHA (Columbia, 1960)
UNFORGETTABLE: TRIBUTE TO DINAH WASHINGTON (Columbia, 1964)
SOUL SISTER (Columbia, 1965)
YEAH!!! IN PERSON (Columbia, 1965)
I NEVER LOVED A MAN (THE WAY I LOVE YOU) (Atlantic, 1967)
ARETHA ARRIVES (Atlantic, 1967)
SOUL '69 (Atlantic, 1969)
AMAZING GRACE (Atlantic, 1972)
SPARKLE (Atlantic, 1976)
JUMP TO IT (Arista, 1982)