Today we celebrate the legacy of Aretha Franklin, one of the most remarkable musicians of our time, and one of the most powerful voices of all time.
We lift our glasses to the Queen of Soul, and share with you this excerpt from Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, wherein Aaron Cohen discusses Frankin’s unique marriage musical influences.
I suppose the [Black] Revolution influenced me a great deal, but I must say that mine was a very personal evolution — an evolution of the me in myself. But then I suppose that the whole meaning of the Revolution is very much tied up with that sort of thing, so it certainly must have helped what I was trying to do for myself.
—Aretha Franklin to Charles L. Sanders in “Aretha: A Close-up Look at Sister Superstar,” Ebony,
At the time Aretha Franklin spoke with Charles L. Sanders for Ebony in her Manhattan apartment, she had already recorded the hits that would keep her in designer gowns and extravagant hats for life. The interview would have been around the summer of 1971; there’s a reference to her upcoming album Young, Gifted and Black, which she had finished recording in February of that year. Franklin briefly mentioned her plans for Amazing Grace, saying that she was “real excited” about the gospel recording and that “it’s going to be done with James Cleveland and we’ll record it in a church with a real good choir.” Franklin also seems to be thinking about the era’s social movements. The article begins with Sanders noticing that the singer’s bookshelf includes The Negro Handbook, Frantz Fanon’s A Dying Colonialism and “that far out Eros and Civilization by Angela Davis’ old professor, Dr. Herbert Marcuse.” As usual, Franklin said little, but the article does point to how she had reinvented herself since 1966.
When Dobkin wrote about Franklin’s move to Atlantic from Columbia in I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, he attests that, despite portrayals to the contrary, Wexler did not just take her back to church when she signed to his company. He adds what made her early Atlantic records command the wide audience that alluded her earlier: “The novelty of Aretha’s first Atlantic releases, the element that pushed her into the popular-music stratosphere was not gospel fervor (though that certainly helped). It was sex.” Possibly, but that’s not quite the whole story, and one could also counter that a reason why Franklin’s church followers did not abandon her was that she didn’t ooze sexuality to the extent of, say, Marvin Gaye. And she usually didn’t mix up two different concepts of love as strangely as her male Detroit counterpart did when he trailed off “Let’s Get It On” with his own context for the word “Sanctified.” She chose a different role.
After all, it wasn’t just sensuality that put Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s “Respect” in Jet’s Soul Brothers Top 20 poll, and awarded her a citation from Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership convention in the summer of 1967. Whether Franklin asked for it or not, she became a cultural heroine in a way that set her apart from such aggressively sexual predecessors as Dinah Washington. By 1971, the empowerment that “Respect” and “Think” embodied turned even more overt in her blazing rendition of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black.” She also started to front a working band that sounded at home backing her in New York and Miami studios, the epicenter of San Francisco’s rock scene, and, ultimately, the church where she, and most of that group, began. It’s the sort of skilled and sympathetic unit that would be the vehicle for any musical advances. Her songs became longer, and stretched out over new, different and often free-flowing rhythms: she achieved the sense of liberation that her voice always demanded. That Franklin was also delving deeper, and more openly, into gospel fervor at that time wasn’t paradoxical.
Much of what’s been written about Franklin during this period points toward a newfound sense of confidence, albeit one mixed with an aura of mystery that lasts to this day. As the ’60s concluded, she ended her marriage and professional connection to Ted White. For whatever reason, Franklin avoided the recording studios for several months at a time between 1968–1970, much to Wexler’s chagrin. When she did show up, the results were hits that defined the times (“Think,” “I Say a Little Prayer” from Aretha Now in mid-1968) or are reminders that she still could have been a prominent jazz vocalist (the mis-titled Soul ’69). She also delved into the Sanctified rhythms and call-and-response vocals on her composition “Spirit in the Dark,” the title track of her summer 1970 album. The lyrics picked up from Wilson Pickett’s exhortations to dance and some nursery rhymes, but the title itself comes straight from Sanctified churches’ belief in feeling the holy spirit — and one could speculate if the “dark” suggests a negative (troubled times) or positive (pigmentation).4 With piano lines and crescendos sounding as strong as her voice, the beat is the most direct line to a storefront church that she had recorded for Atlantic up to that point. Despite such exuberance, her muted comments about it are oblique.
“Well, it’s true that I have to really feel a song before I’ll deal with it, and just about every song I do is based on an experience I’ve had or an experience that someone I know has gone through,” Franklin told Sanders in Ebony. “‘Spirit in the Dark’? Hmmmh … that’s one I’d rather not talk about. It’s very, very personal and I don’t want to get into it right now.” It also wasn’t the only gospel-shaped song that she recorded back then. Rainey played bass on her 1971 single, “Spanish Harlem,” and refers its “cross between an eighth-note feel and a shuffle.”
“That’s the gospel, Pentecostal feel where you’re really trying to nail what the groove is,” Rainey added. “If you want to write it down for somebody, you can’t. You just have to sort of listen to it and feel it. But in playing with her, she brought out another energy. It’s a kind of feel that’s not descriptive. I always try, but it’s very difficult.”
Read more about Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace here.