Saturday, August 10, 2013

Aretha Franklin: 20 Greatest Hits (1967-74)

(Warner Bros.)


There are soul singers, great ones even, and then there is Aretha Franklin. Her canon, like that of lots of similar immortals from Johnny Cash to Ray Charles, is full of flaws, but only because even the finest singer cannot fully reign over mediocre material, and this seems irrelevant in the face of an actual monument of flawlessness like 20 Greatest Hits. There are brilliant offerings in Franklin's recorded career not covered here, obviously, but not one second embodied on the disc is uninspired or even compromised, and indeed what is here is essentially beyond criticism. It constitutes the portfolio -- immaculate and untouchable -- of one of the twentieth century's truly great artists, in fact more than likely the best singer rock & roll has ever known. (I would say popular music, period, but for Billie Holiday.) You can make a tolerable case for Sam Cooke, who was nearly Franklin's equal emotionally, or for John Lennon, whose enormous capacity for passion eclipsed his technical shortcomings, but therein lies the utility of this particular compilation: it's essentially a monolithic refutation of any argument that anyone, ever, has been truly superior to Franklin.

She was 24 years old when she began her association with Atlantic Records and issued a series of frenetic, sensual, shock-to-the-system singles (and albums), and there is likely no other example of such an artistically and commercially lucrative artist-label combination; when you are digging through a bin of 45's and you see the beautiful Atlantic logo matched with her name, it is to breathe in sharply and realize you're holding something impeccably special, with so many legendary associations even if it's one of the sixty-odd Franklin hits that didn't merit inclusion here. What Franklin did before this, during an unhappy half-decade with Columbia in the early '60s, seems inconsequential by comparison; her work there has merit as a document of a brilliant performer finding her voice, but outside of a few well-curated covers and the occasional "Runnin' Out of Fools," the output prior to 1967 has little bearing on what was to follow, and certainly cannot define what places Aretha Franklin above everyone else. The sudden bursting out upon the move to Atlantic, an assertion of individuality after a quarter-century of hardship (a mother at age 12, and most of the '60s spent wed to an abusive husband, and the endless cycle of work and disappointment that formed the early part of her career), is among the greatest narratives in rock & roll.

It all changes immediately with the fevered, shattering "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," one of the most alarming singles of the '60s, and the kind of cultural moment that throws everything around it into "before" and "after" status. Franklin did not write the song but does all of the work that matters in creating a classic. She harnesses an arrangement that continually pulls the rug out from any conventional sense of how a rhythm & blues number would work up to that point, and thereby forever changes soul music; the repercussions of this song are still felt on the radio now. Her control of her powerful voice, carefully cultivated during the Columbia period (which was to her as Hamburg was to the Beatles), deliberately does not fire itself up immediately, like major influences such as Betty Harris, Ruth Brown or Otis Redding may have done with similar material. Instead she begins in the mode of a small, nearly muttered but ingratiatingly tuneful confidence -- and then as the song explodes and then finds new ways to explode behind her, with the red-hot relentlessness in Franklin's magical piano playing, her intricate phrasing and depth of feeling grow louder, more emotive, until the chorus: neither cathartic nor a conventional dramatic peak, it's a moment of pure, whispered, pregnant power, unabashedly erotic. The lesson is that she towers somehow with quiet control, and proves everything about her uniqueness and brilliance in this tight, florid drama that runs just 2:43.

And yet somehow, the nineteen songs that follow do not merely rest in the shadow of that earth-shaking masterpiece. There may not be nearly as much to say about "Rock Steady" or a ridiculously spirited and tense take on "You're All I Need to Get By" or the exuberant "See Saw" or the fiery and romantic "Call Me" or the powerful, celebratory classic "I Say a Little Prayer" or the raveup deconstruction of Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem" or a "Don't Play the Song" that wholly eclipses King's or the wonderful "I'm in Love" on which you can't help but know she means it. But that's strictly because their brilliance, their absolute goodness, is so innate that to articulate it seems a waste of time. If you hear these songs and are not moved by them or stunned by Franklin's marriage of technical prowess to rawest blues-singer passion and engagement, perhaps rock & roll just isn't for you, because as far as I'm aware it never really improved on this; its movements are all lateral. The theme of this particular compilation is how Franklin's management of her own output resulted in these triumphs. Someone may, as she said, have told her to sit down at the piano when she moved to Jerry Wexler's Atlantic, but the distinctive, felt playing that result is the sort of recorded miracle that can't be reduced or quantified in its value -- every note seems as much to burst with emotion as her own voice, and something like this is a broad, career-wide trait that made her the giant she now remains. She wrote or curated songs that she knew would benefit most from her sense of gloriously calculated abandon, not the other way around.

When cataloging her biggest hits, of course, one is faced with the similar problem. If you've spent any time around a decent radio station, you know every beat of the defiant "Chain of Fools" and its delirious handclapped breakdown. You know that "Think," with its captivatingly unexpected "freedom" bridge that transforms a relationship song to an anthem of black equality, is as perfect a single as a pop singer has ever delivered. How do you even describe her frantic and sweltering version of Otis Redding's already hypnotic "Respect"? Every moment of it is in our cultural blood by now, and we can no longer neutrally hear something like that delightful moment when she sarcastically dethrones the man at her feet with a seductive "ooh, your kiss is sweeter than honey" then hits overdrive and screams out with a simple "guess what, so is my money!". As in Redding's original recording, the words are irrelevant when compared to the basic feeling of self-preservation and independence they embody; as Greil Marcus would put it, the song is singing her, and she is so overpowered that her grip on it is only tenuous, which thereby increases its incendiary power. This was, of course, surely deliberate. And what to say of the completely heavenly transformation of "Natural Woman," a Goffin-King song written especially for her whose sincerity of feeling is absolute and taken to the stratosphere by Franklin? With impressively keyed-in gospel roots, the song feels as if it's always existed, Crucially, respect remains a theme; this song is about love and devotion to a man, obviously, but it is a self-actualizing, equitable love that brings out one's best.

The biggest hits, with their often ecstatic romanticism, didn't emphasize one of the key elements of Franklin's versatility: her knowledge of the right way around the nastiest kind of groove. It's startling that the slowed-down funk "Dr. Feelgood" dates from 1967, and not merely because its lyric is so explicitly sexual, even fetishistic. But the foul desperation of "Save Me" goes one better with a riff and beat that directly evoke fucking -- the lyric may be less graphic, but Franklin has the confidence in her audience to expect they know what she really means when she, evoking Big Mama Thornton, orgasmically demands "If you think anything about me, save me," and it's not that she needs the Caped Crusader to rescue her from harm. In these songs, Franklin carries a tradition of almost therapeutic self-asserting sexuality that launches back almost exclusively through black women in popular music, backward to Thornton, Etta James and Lucille Bogan, forward to Betty Davis, Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott. It's a show of power, and it means something.

And it's because she has the manic energy and honesty to be so unabashedly direct that a song of crushing loss and desperation like "The House That Jack Built" carries weight even though it's faster and sprightlier than almost anything else here -- and is one of the Franklin songs that is guaranteed to bring down the house that Jack built, but the empty core at its center is deliberately unmistakable. Franklin wants it known that she does not need her man, but that her emotions are as wide-ranging and valid as anything on a sad white-boy heartbreak record like the Searchers' "Needles and Pins" or the Beatles' "Yesterday," and finally that she is a woman, an African-American, and a human, a human whose inner life cannot be reduced by any armchair-analytical cultural critic or audience member to either of the other two traits.

The most remarkable Franklin recording of the Atlantic period in terms of its innovation, influence and sensuous directness is probably "Daydreaming," an incredibly forward-looking R&B hit that essentially forecasted all that would change in the genre over the next couple of decades. Whereas all of Franklin's work had a heavy influence on pop music and soul in particular, it's not hard to imagine this song being released today and still being a huge hit -- which honestly is more than we can probably say for anything by even the Beatles, or so gigantic an inventor and contemporary of Franklin's as Al Green. Not that their records or the rest of Franklin's don't sound great still, but "Daydreaming," seen at the time as a bit of soul psychedelia in the vein of the Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack" and the Supremes' "Reflections" (or, more preposterously, as lite-jazz), has the intricacy and mild production-level surrealism of the best modern slow-jams. It skips over even the intermediate boundaries of quiet storm and neo-soul and just comes across as a complicated, immediate strike to the jugular in all of its weaving vocals and shimmering, reverb-heavy ambiance. The equally complex "Until You Come Back to Me," cowritten by Stevie Wonder, is no less intimate but adds swagger and enough of a cloudy lilt to make time seem to stop. (That song was a #1 hit between "Living for the City" and "I've Got to Use My Imagination"; what was that you were saying about not wishing you grew up in the '70s?)

My two favorite Franklin recordings round out this collection. "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," with the artist on both piano and organ, is one of a handful of songs invariably guaranteed to give me chills from the first intoned moments of her glorious vocal. Initially released as the b-side of "I Never Loved a Man," it continues Franklin's message of mutual respect in relationships and directly answers James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World": "They say that it's a man's world / But you can't prove that by me / And as long as we're together, baby / Show some respect for me." She so assuredly glides here from thorough command to vulnerability, and hence refuses to be painted as having a "persona." The point is that the hardness and fury of "Respect" is the same person now quietly demanding the same, the same person pleading for a connection on "Angel." She's not just a plaything, she's flesh and blood just like a man. The obviousness of any lyrical message in "Do Right Woman" -- and I personally think the lyrics are magnificent -- is irrelevant because of the manner in which Franklin communicates and expands every word of them, and maybe a little by our knowledge that her asshole husband was trying to drag her out of the studio the entire time she was recording it.

Jerry Wexler can take some credit for making Aretha Franklin the force she was on Atlantic; given that her subsequent work on Arista and elsewhere can't make many claims for artistic impact aside from being very well-sung examples of just the risk-free material you'd expect a veteran artist in her fifties and sixties and beyond to lay down for commercial release, maybe he did allow her to blossom. But she did the blossoming, and anyway I think it's simpler than that -- Atlantic Records became a haven of expression in this period, and in a sense so was the marketplace. In not just pop music but in film and in art generally, the '70s were a time in America when barest self-examination was seen as a mark of strength rather than weakness. There is no other time when Aretha Franklin's greatest song, "Angel," would have been possible, and could have reached #1 on the R&B charts, top twenty pop. Franklin opens the song by announcing with a hint of sadness that it's a missive of heartbreak from her sister Carolyn, which was in fact true: Carolyn wrote the song (a frequent collaborator during this period, she died of breast cancer only fifteen years later).

And then she starts singing, and it's as though she is miraculously transmitting her sister's every emotion to us, to not just be heard but joined by us -- sensitive, resigned, reluctantly hopeful but more than a bit pessimistic, and expressive of a genuine need, she sings of nothing more than the absolutely universal, timeless, typically inexpressible need to find and sustain love. The slightly jazzy arrangement is engulfed by the vocals of the two Franklins, by two voices united as one in a sentiment everyone listening will recognize and will immediately feel. Franklin does not simply express a familiar emotion here -- her vocal is emotion itself, and the song never particularly builds on it or does much more than meander around it. It doesn't have to. In June 1973, Atlantic released this as single and unleashed this moment of absolute empathy and ache unto the world. Nothing much happened besides people loved it, careers kept churning and moved on. But there it continues to live, a moment in time locked and captured forever, an inextricable part of numerous millions of people's lives still. With every repeat of "in my life," somewhere in the world we can know that another person doesn't necessarily feel alone, however briefly. Aretha Franklin could do that for you. I don't think anyone else could.

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