Previously, we saw how “I Never Loved A Man” became a smash hit for Aretha Franklin. But what about those other LPs on Atlantic? Between 1967 and 1972 Aretha Franklin released eight studio albums, two live albums and a Greatest Hits.
Which ones should you start with? And what are the best versions to get?
The good news is that are all the albums are excellent. In the U.K. the plum-coloured Atlantic label is a sign of a quality early pressing. The vinyl is thick and if you can find one that hasn’t been scratched / ruined by a heavy stylus / someone’s cat it will sound terrific. Rule of thumb? Try the mono albums rather than stereo if you can – they can sound punchier. Here’s what to look for…
Trivia question for you: Which person links Aretha Franklin and Deep Purple?
These were tough times for Aretha in her personal life, even if, with “Respect”, she may have hit the top of the charts. She and her husband / manager, Ted White, were fighting and drinking. As her sister-in-law put it “Everyone knew that Ted White was a brutal man…”
There were a couple of mishaps in the run-up to the making of Aretha Arrives.
Ted booked Aretha’s first large, prestigious gig opening a nightclub in Chicago. Out she came, looking resplendent.
She sat at the piano.
The piano stool collapsed, taking Aretha with it.
Aretha showed her class and carried on, regally playing standing up, until a new chair was brought for her.
Soon after, Aretha fell off stage in Columbus, Georgia, breaking her arm. This time, there was a suspicion that her drinking might have played a part. Aretha’s marriage was going through tough times. She was smoking “like a chimney” and the drink was in full flow.
Despite these issues, a month after breaking her arm, in June 1967, Aretha was back in the studio recording her second album on Atlantic. Atlantic Records boss Jerry Wexler named it “Aretha Arrives” after thinking “when Aretha arrives, all superfluous problems disappear”.
“Aretha Arrives” was notable for the additional presence of Joe South to bolster the Muscle Shoals players. He might have written Deep Purple’s “Hush” but had yet to establish his reputation with “Games People Play”, so was very nervous in the studio.
South tells a lovely story of that first session where he was asked to play on “Going Down Slow”. Aretha nodded at him to play his guitar. He did so, and Aretha gave him a smile of approval. “That smile has carried me through life” he said.
“Baby I Love You” was the big hit, selling a million copies, and there are great covers of ? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” and The Stones’ “Satisfaction”.
Aretha was ambitious for her career, and was finding life hard with her domineering husband.
Did she want time off? asked her record label boss Jerry Wexler.
“Oh no, I’ve written some new songs…” replied Aretha.
Lady Soul would feature the Aretha-penned “Since You’ve Been Gone” and “Good To Me As I Am To You”. On the latter, a blues ballad, Eric Clapton was asked to play. With Aretha in the studio, Clapton messed up his solo, so overawed was he. However, Clapton came back the next day, when Aretha was elsewhere, to make amends.
In December 1967 Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash, and his funeral took place whilst Aretha was in the studio. Wexler attended and the next day told a weeping Aretha all about it. “Lady Soul ” therefore captures her grief at the loss of Redding. There was angst in her voice for other, more domestic reasons too. That same week, it was reported that Aretha had suffered an “eye injury sustained in a fall”. Wexler reported she looked like she had taken a beating.
One of the big hits was “Chain of Fools”. Although written by Don Cosby for Otis Redding, Jerry Wexler instead gave it to Aretha and you might be forgiven for reflecting she was singing about her own relationship with Ted White on this song.
Aretha may have written “Think” – a song of personal freedom – about her marriage, but for everyone else it carried other meanings, following the April ’68 assassination of Dr King.
On the back of her cover of “Respect”, Aretha had created a new rallying cry. “Think” became her seventh top ten US hit single in just eighteen months.
“I Say A Little Prayer” repeated the trick.
Released months after Dionne Warwick’s easy listening-tinged original, Aretha’s slinkier version was originally a B-side to non-album cut “The House That Jack Built” but overtook the flip side in the charts. It was also Aretha’s biggest U.K. hit until the eighties.
“I wanna see a big change in you baby” she sings, accompanied by her sisters’ handclaps, “If you don’t this girl is gonna make you pay”.
The album featured a similar mix of musicians as the previous LP. Spooner Oldham and Roger Hawkins remained from the Muscle Shoals crew on keys and drums respectively. Meanwhile Bobby Womack was now a regular on guitar and King Curtis joined again to play saxophone.
In April 1968, Aretha had just sold out Madison Square Garden.
Jerry Wexler, meanwhile, was collecting a music industry award on behalf of Aretha in Miami, blissfully unaware gangsters affiliated to the Black Power movement planned to harm him.
King Curtis got wind of the threat, and whisked Wexler out of the venue, saying “You’ve been marked”. Later that evening, with Wexler safely out of the building, an effigy of Wexler was hung outside the venue.
It turns out saving the life of record bosses is a great way to win their attention. Wexler was keen to get Aretha to sing with a big band, and he convinced her to allow Curtis to lead the band.
Not only was it recorded in ’68, it featured jazz-tinged big band tunes. Ludicrous. Imagine if Queen had released an album of rock songs and called it “Jazz”!
To be fair, Soul ’69 was released in January 1969 and Aretha’s voice is as soulful as ever, with Wexler feeling he had enough singles in the locker to be able to do something a little different, and it adds variety to Aretha’s canon. He did want to call it “Aretha’s Jazz”, mind you.
This Girl’s In Love With You
As well as writing her own material and covering songs, Aretha Franklin has had a few songs written for her. One example is “Let it Be”. Another is “Son of a Preacher Man”. In the latter case she didn’t record the song until Dusty Springfield had made it a hit. In the case of the former song, Aretha simply waited too long…
Aretha was in Miami and, somewhat kicking herself at her decision to pass on “Son of a Preacher Man” before Dusty Springfield leapt at the chance to record it, she decided to let rip on the song.
She also recorded her first Beatles covers, “Eleanor Rigby”, “Fool on the Hill” and “Let it Be”. John and Paul had written the latter for her, but were never ones to sit on what they knew would be a hit.
Although Aretha’s version was released in January 1970, it was buried away on the album, whilst The Beatles released the song as their big new single in March of that year. If only Aretha had not a) procrastinated and b) made a bigger deal of having first dibs of a brand new Lennon and McCartney song we may have avoided seeing McCartney try to sing the song with a broken microphone at quite so many public events…
Damn you Aretha!
“Fool on the Hill” was originally supposed to be the last song on the album, but for some reason was replaced by “Sit Down and Cry”. It eventually surfaced on the collection “Rare and Unreleased” in 2007.
How do we know it was going to be the last song?
Because my UK copy of the album has the track listed on the reverse side of the album cover as track 5 on side 2. The album itself (and the label) plays “Sit Down and Cry”. Very curious! We can speculate that this error must have somehow slipped through the net at the factory after a last minute track-listing change.
Also of note is Duane Allman’s presence on the album.
Don’t Play That Song / Spirit In The Dark
Once again, Aretha’s personal life had become complicated, not least by her soon to be ex-husband Ted White. In January 1970, she was seven months pregnant by new beau Ken Cunningham when a jealous Ted White resolved an argument with Sam Cooke’s brother Charles by shooting him at her home.
You could never accuse Ted White of having an even temper…
Actually, you should probably avoid accusing Ted White of anything. He’s got a gun.
A couple of songs were left over from the previous Miami sessions, including “Try Matty’s”, a song Franklin wrote about her favourite barbecue rib shack.
I think we can safely assume Aretha never had to pay for any of her meals from Matty’s ever since.
“How much will that be Matty?”
“On the house, Aretha! Do come again! And if you are in a songwriting mood, my mate has a painting and decorating business he could use some publicity for….?”
There’s a great story about Aretha’s fondness of barbecue food. Whilst staying at a very posh hotel, Aretha heard about a great restaurant that cooked great pigs trotters. Returning with a large paper bag filled with the unctuous delicacy she strolled into the hotel, only for the paper bag to collapse under the strain and fill the hotel lobby floor with aromatic, sticky barbecue pigs trotters. Aretha’s response is something we could all learn from. Did she scrape it all off the floor, looking around for something to wipe up the mess?
She simply continued walking regally as if nothing had happened and vanished into the waiting lift nearby.
Spirit In The Dark benefits from a couple of Aretha-penned songs she had written during her pregnancy, the strongest of which was the title track, which climaxes with a gospel-tinged call and response. After having not written any songs on Soul ’69, it probably helped Aretha’s writing that she had stopped drinking.
There’s a great Jimmy Reed cover, “Honest I Do”, a song The Rolling Stones also covered on their first album. Curiously, in the UK the album was named “Don’t Play That Song” after the Ben E King cover that was released as a single and which opens the album. Also of note is a cracking song, “When The Battle Is Over” later covered by blues duo Delaney & Bonnie.
Arguably Aretha’s last great RnB album – and the one before her gospel album “Amazing Grace”, YG&B is another peak. Recording began just a month after more personal problems for Aretha had culminated in her having to leave the stage at Las Vegas after one song suffering from nervous exhaustion.
However, Aretha was nothing if not resilient, and there’s a great YouTube clip of her looking and sounding superb on The Tom Jones Show around the time of the recording of this album, where you can tell Jones can hardly believe his luck and frequently looks astonished at Aretha’s extraordinary voice.
Aside from great covers of Elton John’s “Border Song (Holy Moses)” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, the first thing you may notice about “Young, Gifted and Black” is the drumming.
The drumming on “Rock Steady” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” has a distinctive groove, the reason for which was the introduction of Bernard Purdie, a fantastic player who had been in James Brown’s band and had previously played with King Curtis. Billy Preston – the only person to be co-credited with The Beatles on his appearance on “Get Back” – also appears on the title track.
Aretha In Paris and Aretha Live at Fillmore West
Bernard Purdie was also the drummer on the Aretha Franklin Live at Fillmore West album, which is the better of the two live LPs. Aretha In Paris was recorded at the Olympia just as Lady Soul was rising up the charts and “Think” was becoming a smash hit. However although the show was hugely popular with the audience, and makes a decent live album, Aretha was unhappy with her band.
Billy Preston, playing in the band that day, was blown away.
“Never, ever have I experienced anything like playing for Aretha at the Fillmore. It wasn’t that the hippies just liked her. They went out of their minds. They lost it completely. The hippies flipped the f— out.”
Best of all, Ray Charles had appeared at the venue, unannounced, to check out the show. Jerry Wexler got wind of this and asked Ray before the show if he would sing. Ray declined. Aretha wouldn’t take no for an answer, and you can hear her on the album “finding” Ray Charles and dragging him onstage.
Ray Charles said, “What could I do? This is Aretha Franklin, baby. She sits me at her electric piano and has me doing her ‘Spirit in the Dark.’ Never played the thing before. Didn’t know the words. But Aretha’s spirit was moving me and I got through it.”
Aretha’ cousin Brenda Corbett, who sang backing vocals said of the Fillmore show “Of the hundreds of concerts I did with Aretha, this was probably the most exciting.” It certainly comes across on record.
Sadly, just a few months after the show, in August 1971, Aretha’s band leader King Curtis was murdered in New York.
Aretha’ next album, Amazing Grace, would be a gospel album, recorded in church. The albums recorded after this time never quite reached the peaks of this golden period. But a stretch of eight studio albums of such quality is truly impressive.
And did we manage to track these albums down? And which was cheaper? Buying online or in record shops?
Find out in the final part of the series, next time…