Different Voices, Different Eras, and the Way to Soulville: The Very Best of Aretha Franklin

By Daniel Garrett

Aretha Franklin, The Very Best of Aretha Franklin
Arista/Sony BMG, 2008

“Respect” has been the rallying cry of many people in the last fifty years, in private and public, and it is no wonder that a song with that name or subject would be popular for so long. That Aretha Franklin gives it a forceful and memorable interpretation, one that remains perceptibly vibrant and vivid through decades, is a different matter. All thanks are due to her brave affirmation of spirit and talent (she was not the first singer of the song—that was Otis Redding—but she was its most definitive interpreter). The jangly rhythm, female chorus, and wildly assertive lead voice and jazz solo in “Respect” create an earthy, churning music rooted in someone getting a good talking to; it is not complex or grand, but it is hard, irreducible, lasting. The song is thought of as representative, but it is not representative of all of Franklin’s work.

If one considers the quality of Aretha Franklin’s voice—its approach, health, and tone—it is impossible not to conclude that during her career there has been more than one Aretha Franklin, yet this fact has been rarely acknowledged, and even more rarely discussed, but the collection The Very Best of Aretha Franklin contains work from several different periods of the woman’s creative life and there the truth cannot be denied. In her early 1960s work of American standards, jazz, and blues recorded for Columbia Records, her voice was gorgeous—feminine, full of ease and sensuality, though not always rooted in a definite emotion; and elegance seemed one goal—and that was a very different sound from her Atlantic years, in which attitude, emotion, and force were principal qualities, and much of her Atlantic work was akin to private arguments held in public, but rather than responding with disapproval, embarrassment, and shame, listeners welcomed the amusing and corroborating honesty. If there was beauty there in work that appeared rough or wild, it was not the easy or predictable kind: it could seem accidental; and the music in which her voice lived was usually bare-bones rhythm. It is possible that there was some correspondence between Franklin’s late 1960s and early 1970s Atlantic work and the kind of work some artists were doing in film and visual art, as well as literature and other forms, attempting something earthy and true that most people could recognize. In Franklin’s work for Arista, from the 1980s onward, her voice seemed rougher and thinner, grainier, possibly ravaged, probably due to age and smoking and demanding use, but Franklin compensated with interpretations that were intuitive, inventive; and she could distract the listener from focusing on what had been lost with the unique quality of her gesture to psychology, or her approach to rhythm and vocal line.

The Very Best of Aretha Franklin moves back and forth among artistic periods in the woman’s career; and includes work from the albums I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love You, Laughing on the Outside, Yeah!! Aretha Franklin in Person, Lady Soul, Jump to It, Aretha, Unforgettable—A Tribute to Dinah Washington, A Rose Is Still A Rose, and Who’s Zoomin’ Who. In “Skylark,” with its airy, light piano, and slow soft singing, without hurry or hysteria, leisurely, a sad and sweet atmosphere is created, one that is wistful and wishing. It is one of Franklin’s early songs, the kind of song that would fit in the repertoire of Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson—or Barbra Streisand. Franklin’s youthful voice is relaxed and supple in “Skylark,” close to the rich indulgence, the sheer luxury, of Sarah Vaughan (rather than the naked force of Bessie Smith and Etta James and the kind of work that brought—and as legacy still brings—Franklin acclaim). Franklin’s interpretation in this ballad “Skylark,” with hints of both the church and the nightclub, is likable but not fully original. It is followed on The Very Best of Aretha Franklin by a blues song, “Muddy Water.” Franklin has the voice and something of the attitude for it, as she calls a man out for his disloyalty, and says that instead of having a man she cannot trust she would rather drink muddy water and sleep in a hollow log (that is, be homeless). Voice, phrasing, and tone make Franklin a respectable blues singer; and her attitude is dramatic, forthright, and she has mastery of rhythm. The song has a lot of rhythm and free-floating fury, but I am not sure it has a center, a genuine core of assurance or emotion. Blues music is poetic and grounded, often containing plain talk about real trouble, but not everyone can sing it well. Franklin had to grow into the blues (as her performance of “The Thrill Is Gone,” from her Spirit in The Dark proves she did, giving the song regret and bitter regard; and then the structural form disappears, and one only hears the experience, the emotion).

Aretha Franklin came into her own on Atlantic Records with songs like “Chain of Fools,” a song about devotion to a flawed man, a song with a low, throbbing bass and chugging rhythm, her voice sounding both sure and intense. The song refers to the neglected advice of authorities (mother, father, doctor); and the singer declares, “One of these mornings, the chain is gonna break, but up until then, I’m going to take all I can take.” Such lyrics make me recall a young woman’s talking to me about how Franklin had a reputation for strength despite lyrics that pledged subservience. I only could think that Franklin’s strength was in self-knowledge and respect for her own wants.

In the song “Jump to It,” one of her later songs, Franklin’s voice is agile but rough, thin. It is interesting to wonder what people would have thought of Franklin if “Jump to It” had not been preceded by the well-known and much-loved work she already had done. Its opening chorus of “jump to it,” over a fast and light but strong rhythm of drums and guitar, launches a song in which the narrator confides to a friend about her anticipation in meeting a lover (the joy in friendship and love is matched by the pleasure in music; and these things are mutually supportive). The idea of a woman jumping at a man’s call may seem retrograde, but she is responding to genuine love, something comprehensible in psychological if not political terms. “I’m in a hurry, there’s love to get,” Franklin sings; and her narration and phrasing are alive, and Franklin’s scatting embellishments are a thrilling highlight in the song. This dance music might have been Franklin’s attempt to catch up to the popular music of Donna Summer (with Giorgio Moroder) and Diana Ross (with Ashford and Simpson, and Chic): both the regal Ross and Summer, who was placed down on the street, were figures of modernism, exemplifying an individuality, glamour, and liberty available in liberal bourgeois culture, rather than the faith and piety of folk religion and the pain and rage of the blues, emblems of an earlier time and place. It is important to remember that the passion expressed in religion and the blues was brought to those forms by people not free to fully express feeling or thought elsewhere—and Franklin has been heralded for that passion (the great culture critic Pauline Kael said that Franklin made hysteria sound like a state of grace). It is paradoxical that the exceedingly emotional, large-bodied Franklin, a creature of old forms, a recipient of nostalgic sentiment, someone who might have been seen as an old-fashioned tough mammy figure, has been received as a modern figure of freedom and truth: it may be that if you believe anything hard and long enough it becomes true. Yet, Franklin found a way to make dance music singing as inventive as jazz; and her inflections in “Jump to It” suggest conversation, sexiness, and toughness by turns, a sound both emotionally expressive and musical.

Franklin’s voice in “Jimmy Lee,” a song with the ringing percussion of 1960s girl group music and a charming melody, offers reminiscence about a grade school boy who “stole my heart, and he ran like a bandit—I don’t understand it.” It is somewhat peculiar to hear a middle-age woman—whose roughened (even scratchy) voice sounds middle-age—so fondly remember a boy. Is there both sorrow and hysteria at the song’s interpretive core? There is something queasy about that reminiscence, but it shows that the girl always lives inside the woman; and it helps much that Franklin infuses many, though not all, of the song’s lines with sweet affection.

“Show me the way to Soulville…that’s where I belong,” sings Franklin in the uptempo rhythm-and-blues song “Soulville,” a tune full of affection, pride, and knowledge of another way of living. The song’s rhythm is actually closer to rock than rhythm-and-blues, though its lyric perspective is culturally and predictably black. Its vision of life, of an appreciation for the conversation, food, music, and style, in an African-American town articulated a change in social consciousness. In a song about being, time, and loneliness, “This Bitter Earth,” an early piece, Franklin’s voice is controlled, and the downbeat expression is most effective, the outbursts of feeling less so. Yet, it is a rare instance when Franklin does not sound as if she knows what she is talking about.

A call for sexual communion within an unstable, neglectful relationship, “Love Me Right,” a mid-tempo tune about a recognizable situation, is not exceptional in theme and structure and effect; and, truly, there is something genuinely irritating about the song, an irritation that decades have not exorcised. Franklin’s voice in “Love Me Right” is softer than in “Jump to It,” and has Luther Vandross singing background, but that does not make the song persuasive or seductive. Franklin’s voice is less pretty and pristine than ever in the soft hip-hop funk of “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” in which the narrator offers an older woman’s advice to a younger woman after a hurtful affair, affirming esteem and sense, but it is a sign of genius that Franklin’s performance is quite potent. The song’s production is too busy, something common in hip-hop, part of its pandering to listeners with attention-deficit disorder, which is perceived not as a malady but as an evaluative standard. Franklin uses two voices—conversational and firm (low and dry) and intense (high and thin)—in the song “A Rose Is Still A Rose” and creates a very persuasive drama. In Franklin’s work with Annie Lennox and Eurythmics, “Sisters are Doin’ It for Themselves,” a song to “celebrate the conscious liberation of the female state,” in which Annie Lennox opens with Franklin joining in, a song about moving beyond support positions to leadership positions, the two women are like goddesses of ice and fire singing for their daughters. Lennox’s voice is in better condition than Franklin’s voice—but Franklin simply increases the toughness of her sound to prevail. (I recall that Mavis Staples and James Brown easily outshone Franklin when each performed with her, a woman known to keep a glass-encased crown in her home to indicate her artistic prominence.) It should be noted that part of Franklin’s power is in her bullying charge.

“Who’s Zoomin’ Who” is bubbly and gritty in its articulation of the attraction between a man and a woman in which a woman gains the upper hand, a reversal of expectation; and the chorus and rhythms repeat and repeat. One of the most compelling songs in the career-spanning collection is “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” Franklin’s duet with George Michael, formerly of the group Wham! and the impressive solo albums Faith and Songs from the Last Century. Franklin’s voice is ferocious. George Michael more than holds his own with Franklin; probably because of the beauty of his voice, his ability to express emotion, and his enjoyment in singing—and in singing with her. The intensity of their different vocal personalities actually allows for an improbable romance. It is easy to listen to their duet again and again—the melody and rhythm work, and the emotion in the song is that strong; the two singers activate and demonstrate the power of popular music. The assemblage of songs ends with “Freeway of Love,” a bit of new wave funk featuring the saxophone of Bruce Springsteen’s buddy Clarence Clemons, a song in which Franklin’s voice is sexy, funny, scary, and soulful (she actually growls).

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.