Graded on a Curve: Aretha Franklin,
Lady Soul

Celebrating Aretha Franklin on the date of her birth.Ed.

The recent passing of Aretha Franklin was hardly unexpected, but it still sent many millions of people the world over into flash mourning. Here in America, the Queen of Soul inspired us through the Civil Rights Years with her soaring voice, set our hearts a-beatin’ with her timeless R&B anthems, and sent us to Heaven with her songs of devotion and praise. She was the very definition of “young, gifted and black,” and her immortal voice will roll down the ages like soul thunder.

With a discography that spanned from the late 1950s to 2017, Aretha produced more than enough great music to stock a top-notch jukebox, but most everybody has a favorite Franklin LP. Me, I turned for solace upon learning of her death to 1968’s Lady Soul.

As with most of her albums, Lady Soul demonstrates Franklin’s amazing range; unlike many of her albums, Lady Soul gives Aretha the opportunity to show off her amazing range on a uniformly amazing collection of songs. She cooks up a heady soul stew, gets real funky, reaches for the stars, and sings from the gut about her poor broken down heart, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had one foot planted solidly in her hometown of Detroit and the other one in the Great Beyond.

Franklin got her start at her daddy’s New Bethel Baptist Church in the Motor City, and while she ultimately took the secular route, her gospel beginnings always showed; just listen to her spirit-rousing cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” on which she sings about a heaven-bound train that’s coming and thanks the Lord more times than I can count. I’m not a devout man, but this one makes me want to cry, “Raise me up, Jesus! I wanna ride that glorious soul train!”

On “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman” Aretha testifies to a more earthly kind of love; seems Jesus wasn’t the only man capable of claiming her soul from the Lost & Found. And the love she’s found sends her spinning; a woman certainly doesn’t need a man to be “natural born,” but I’m not not about to argue the point with the Queen of Soul. And she puts just as much passion into the R&B heartbreak song “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone.” This ain’t your standard beggar’s lament; it’s the rousing sound of a woman admitting she was wrong while keeping a healthy grip on her self-R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

She employs the same tactic on “Come Back Baby.” Aretha ain’t pleadin’; she knows what she’s got and she knows damn well that sooner or later her man will come crawling back. “Come Back Baby” is a Baptist Church revival meeting gone ballistic–Franklin rises above the horns, gospel piano, and steady backbeat like the most natural woman who ever walked the earth.

Franklin gets real, real laid-back on Felix Cavaliere’s “Groovin’,” demonstrating a gift (one should she would demonstrate so very often throughout the years) for alchemizing the popular hits of the day into pure gold. On the big and heavily orchestrated “Ain’t No Way” she goes the Soul Diva route, and puts so much passion into every word (she stretches the word “me” out forever) you half expect her to explode. I may not be big on the ethereal (or should that be outer space?) backing vocals, but I could listen to her lay her heart on the line forever.

That said, my favorite numbers are the ones where she gets down like a natural born Detroit woman (actually she was born in Memphis, but who’s keeping track?). Don Covay may not have been a Motor City denizen, but Franklin takes his “Chain of Fools” and does the Hustle to it. With Jimmy Johnson and Joe South on guitars and The Sweet Inspirations singing backup, “Chain of Fools” is a chug-a-lugging masterpiece and the perfect vehicle for Franklin’s fiery vocals and smoldering soul. Just listen to what she does to the phrase, “My doctor said to take it easy.” She obviously didn’t take his advice.

And she goes whole hog on the deep dish soul classic that is James Brown’s “Money Won’t Change You,” testifying to the uselessness of filthy lucre like an impassioned riverbank tent show minister. Once again The Sweet Inspirations provide inspired back-up, while King Curtis and the rest of the horn section punctuate her sermon like a congregation shouting “Amen!” And Franklin takes Jim “Sly Stone called me the baddest white man on the planet” Ford’s very Louisiana “Niki Hoeky” and runs with it, transforming what might have been a novelty song in lesser hands into a minor soul classic.

Aretha Franklin bequeathed us more than six decades of soul, and remained startlingly relevant at an age when most artists are content to rest on their laurels. Her pop-friendly 1985 LP Who’s Zoomin’ Who? went platinum, and that was by no means the last time she scored big. The Queen of Soul also went on to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony, stamping one of the inspirational moments in American history with her glorious soul imprimatur.

At this very moment I’m listening to Aretha set slow fire to a stripped-down take of “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business).” It’s a low-down blues shouter, and Franklin takes it to places only Billie Holiday could imagine. Over the course of her long career Franklin threw the whole world a stoned soul picnic, and we all owe her a debt of gratitude.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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