Recently on a podcast called Underwater Sunshine that I co-host with the lead singer and main songwriter for Counting Crows, Adam Duritz, we played a live version of Aretha Franklin singing her early 1970s composition, “Call Me” from a stunning box set, Don’t Fight The Feeling: Aretha Franklin & King Curtis Live at the Filmore West. Adam had suggested the song as part of a Road Songs theme because as a traveling performer he’s always related to its now antiquated idea of life away from friends, family and lovers, which meant communication was near impossible. In an era where everyone can be contacted at any point, this may be a difficult concept to understand. But after listening to the poignancy of Aretha’s phrasing and signature vocal elasticity, it was hard not to understand it. It is one of those things, listening to Aretha, you understand. She communicates the key element of a song in the most efficient way — as does Sinatra and Elvis and Billie Holiday, but Aretha is better than them, or not so much better as more emotive. Her instincts for inhabiting the quintessence of a song is incomparable. She is the storyteller, a translator of feeling. Yeah, after the song finished playing I whispered, “Holy shit, that is another species.” Adam laughed. We both just signed. We understood.
And, as Adam pointed out, there isn’t a whole lot of lyrics in that song. Doesn’t matter. She is bringing the real, mining the song’s texture, and, by the way, doing it live, without a net — courageous and impervious of danger. It is quite a thrill to be out there with her, even for a few minutes, to listen to the band try and keep up, to create the musical equivalence of a nice landing spot where she will eventually drift down from the stratosphere.
No one could own a song like Aretha Franklin. Understanding this is only part of the revelation of listening to her.
In 1967 Aretha recorded a song co-written by the great Carole King, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Structurally and lyrically, it is a masterpiece in soulful pride and expressive solemnity that eventually ended up on King’s groundbreaking 1971 release, Tapestry. Becoming the best-selling record by a woman artist ever until Whitney Houston’s 1985 debut topped it, it is one of the most personal statements of the singer-songwriter period. I love King’s version of it; she’s delivers such a wounded and beseeching performance. But it absolutely pales to Aretha’s reading, because, as a strong black woman, who had taken the slings and arrows the song connotes as a both an African American and a woman, she absorbs its essence and then funnels it into that searing timbre and mastery of octaves that slays you every time. It is as if there is no point to figure its implication beyond Aretha’s meaning, which, of course, you understood immediately and continue to understand 51 years after its release.
Now…“Respect”, which everyone who remembers Aretha in print this week will no doubt refer. It is quite simply the finest soul single ever recorded in a world that is chock full of them. In the same year that Aretha slayed “A Natural Woman” she took the distinct writing and phrasing style of one of the finest rhythm and blues singers in American song, Otis Redding, and turned his cultural defiance into her feminist anthem. What transformed the 25-year-old Aretha Franklin from a misused and wholly misunderstood torch singer by Columbia Records into the Queen of Soul is her legendary Atlantic Records sessions, which produced the transcendent I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, the nucleus of which is found in this performance.
“Respect” is a tour de force in the art and majesty that was Aretha, as is the entire album and what eventually transpired in her years at Atlantic, which was cranking out music like this for a generation daily. She ran the studio like a master, sitting at its center, on piano, molding songs into down and dirty arias that rock and slither and take triumphant leaps into pathos and rapture. It is the pristine sound of America jammed through your speakers and into your bloodstream. Redding’s song does not spell out the title — as recognizable a break in a popular song as can possibly be imagined — never mind her arrangement of the backing vocals, an irresistible combination of show tune meets Chitlin’ Circuit. All that “Just a little bit…” and the “re-re-re-re-re-re-re-respect” and the syncopated brilliance of “Sock it to me…Sock it to me” is pure Aretha. “Respect” is a defining moment in popular song, when a good thing, even a great thing, becomes a standard, and the performer, an icon.
Then there is Aretha: Lady Soul.
Aretha Franklin’s 1968 masterwork, which cemented the whole thing forevermore, takes the bold promise of “Respect” and the album that surrounds it, and makes it stand. This is a distinctly American artist ushering the whole of the American experience back home, taking her craft beyond race and gender and style and genre to a place where anyone who attempts the artform of singing must embrace or get used to or become kin to or…understand. “A Natural Woman” ends up on Aretha: Lady Soul, but if you need to ever be lifted to some other plain, the opening track, “Chain of Fools’ is your guide. It is the musical equivalent of GPS. Follow it. Trust it. Go there with her.
Listening to those Atlantic recordings is to hear a stellar, unique and indestructible artist in control. Aretha as Homer or Moses or Isis. When she’s done with her song, it is forever burned into your being. Hell, you take it with you. The say you can’t do such a thing, Aretha begs to differ.
Her natural instrument, that voice, the soul of it, not just the type of music, soul, but the indefinable aspect of our humanity, would never fail her. She could, indeed, as I have often joked about with the supernatural Ella Fitzgerald, her jazz sister, sing the phone book and it would kick your ass. But it is in the tracks that make up those two albums in particular and a few that follow that paint the portrait of Aretha Franklin. This includes the unbridled and riveting spontaneity of Aretha in Paris — the way she impeccably leads the band, with a full horn section, is an insight into how she made those songs in the studio. It contains what I think is the best version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” outside of the Rolling Stones, as it lends some measure of r-e-s-p-e-c-t to Otis Redding’s dynamic late 1960s version that the Stones would eventually cop.
Just a week or so ago I was messing around with a version of “People Get Ready” on guitar, an elegiacal Curtis Mayfield song made first famous by his Impressions in 1965 and covered by nearly anyone who has carried a tune. While listening to alternative versions on YouTube, I stumbled on Aretha’s version. I stopped messing with it.
She owns that song. Like she owns everything she took a pass at.
One of the most distinct voices in the American experience is silenced.
Come to think of it, no it’s not. She left it, so take it with you.