ARETHA FRANKLIN / “Seventies Aretha Mixtape”
Most music lovers have a favorite song or two (or five or however many) by Aretha Franklin. This Mixtape is not simply about my favorite Aretha Franklin songs. Aretha Franklin is the best known and best selling female soul singer of all time but this is not an Aretha’s greatest hits Mixtape. What this is, is a look at one particular time in her career, a time that has proven to be the zenith of her recordings: the seventies. I remember Aretha from her early Columbia recordings, especially “Runnin’ Out Of Fools,” “Lee Cross,” and “Skylark.” I was ecstatic when the first releases from Atlantic hit the airwaves. A knot of amateur musicians sat at at a bar in El Paso, Texas marveling at how she restructured Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”—we must have played that song eleven or twelve times in a row before we let someone else play anything else on the jukebox. And of course, I was thoroughly smitten with “Natural Woman.” But none of that magnificence was the height of her career. To put it succinctly there are three recordings, two of which have only recently been released in full, that document and showcase what I consider Aretha in her full glory. Although during this period she released only three live albums, two of my top three recordings are live albums. 1. Young, Gifted and Black 2. Amazing Grace 3. Live at the Filmore West Young, Gifted and Black is the pinnacle of Aretha’s studio albums. I know there are those who reserve that assessment for the first Atlantic album, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You or for other sixties-era Atlantic releases such as Lady Soul or Aretha Now, both of which went platinum as did I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. But from my perspective those were a fantastic sixties build-up to the seventies summit, which she surmounted in 1972 with the release of Young, Gifted And Black. All it takes to appreciate Young, Gifted And Black is ears and human emotion. This is Aretha at her best in terms not only of crafting soul-filled statements of her own but also in interpreting materials originally made famous by other artists. Moreover, this album focuses on two core concerns: social justice and personal fulfillment in terms of finding and enjoying a romantic relationship. None of other albums creates such a balance. Most of Aretha’s other recordings either focus on romantic hardships or they bring us feel, good songs that bear little relationship to the day-to-day realities with which Aretha, as well as so many millions of others of us, struggled. I know that in the entertainment industry, fashion is often not a personal statement but rather a marketing ploy. But during the seventies, Aretha wearing her hair natural was indeed a statement and not just a style. It was also a hope for the future that unfortunately never came to fruition. Following the artistic statements of the seventies on Atlantic, Aretha descended into a decade of straight out commercialism on Arista Records and produced only one platinum album, Whose Zoomin’ Who? By the nineties her career was largely a retro show with the notable exception of “A Rose Is Still A Rose,” which was produced with Lauryn Hill, and represented an effort to update Aretha Franklin. But let’s get back to the seventies. In addition to the eight selections from Young, Gifted And Black, I’ve also included three tracks each from This Girl’s In Love With You and Let Me In Your Life, as well as one track from the Sparkle soundtrack that was written by Curtis Mayfield. That’s the studio recordings from the seventies but even the greatness of all of that is dwarfed by the live albums. Amazing Grace is one of the greatest gospel albums of all time. Aretha’s singing rivals Mahalia Jackson in terms of the spiritual depth Aretha brings to the songs. Only recently has the deluxe edition been made commercially available that includes all of the music from both performance nights. Recorded in 1972, Amazing Grace is appropriately titled for the album is truly amazing. The album features Reverend James Cleveland choir director, piano and narration, along with The Southern California Community Choir. Aretha’s father, Reverend C. L. Franklin makes a cameo presentation. But the secret ingredient is Aretha’s working band of the period: Billy Preston – organ, Chuck Rainey – bass, Cornell Dupree – guitar, Kenneth Lupper – keys, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie – drums, Pancho Morales – percussion. These guys are superb musicians, most of whom are highly regarded not only as studio/session musicians but also as individual recording artists. Amazing Grace is the best selling album of Aretha’s decades-long recording career, moreover it easily outsold all of her secular recordings, this double-platinum recording is also the best selling gospel album thus far in recording history. Recorded in 1971, Aretha Live At Filmore West features virtually the same backing band as Amazing Grace. Whereas they brought their secular musicianship to gospel music on Amazing Grace, here there is a complete turnaround as they bring gospel intensity to a secular recording. For the Filmore session, tenor saxophonist King Curtis is leading the band that is augmented by the Memphis Horns. The line up is Billy Preston – organ, Cornell Dupree – guitar, Jerry Jemmott – bass, Pancho Morales – percussion, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie – drums with King Curtis saxophone and leader. For the Mixtape I’ve chosen only one song (although it’s in two parts), “Spirit In The Dark” from the Filmore album. This is the famous track that features Ray Charles, whom Aretha ushered to the stage. The collective workout lasts almost a half hour. When the album was initially released it was edited down to a much shorter version depriving us of the opportunity to fully understand what happened. Aretha first sings the hell out of the song and leaves the stage, then shortly returns with Ray Charles in tow, who in turn (up to no good) devilishly requests the slow part of the song. Aretha says she will play the piano for that part and cues up the band. Ray Charles immediately inhabits the song like he wrote it. And before you know it they are off on an extended investigation of trance music. At about the six-minute mark Aretha asks Ray to play the piano, which he does. At about the nine-minute mark Aretha introduces the band and it sounds like they are building up to a conclusion, but then Ray Charles refuses to let it go. At around the thirteen-minute mark Ray starts to preaching and encourages the hopped up audience to quiet-down and listen as he starts on what is de facto “Spirit In The Dark” part three. And then, at roughly the sixteen-minute mark Ray returns to that slow, sexy groove insinuating all sorts of carnal and earthly delights, and then abruptly he leaves after announcing he got to find him a woman, tonight. And then they cut it off with the audience screaming for more. That’s it. I rest my case. —Kalamu ya Salaam Seventies Aretha Mixtape Playlist This Girl’s In Love With You (1970) 01 “Share Your Love With Me” 02 “The Weight” 03 “Call Me” Young, Gifted And Black (1972) 04 “Rock Steady” 05 “Young, Gifted And Black” 06 “Day Dreaming” 07 “Oh Me Oh My (I'm A Fool For You Baby)” 08 “Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” 09 “All The King's Horses” 10 “Border Song (Holy Moses)” 11 “First Snow In Kokomo” Let Me In Your Life (1973) 12 “I'm In Love” 13 “A Song For You” 14 “The Masquerade Is Over” Sparkle (1976) 15 “Something He Can Feel” Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings (1972) 16 “Precious Lord, Take My Hand / You've Got A Friend” 17 “Amazing Grace” Don't Fight The Feeling: The Complete Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live At Fillmore West (1971) 18 “Spirit In The Dark” 19 “Spirit In The Dark (Reprise)”
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