Between March 1967 and July 1968, Aretha Franklin began her long stay at Atlantic Records with four classic soul albums: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You, Aretha Arrives, Lady Soul, and Aretha Now. This burst of glory is hardly unparalleled. Beatles-Dylan-Stones erupted just as prolifically, as would Al Green and P-Funk in the ’70s. Only with Aretha, however, has the eruption been declared an aesthetic standard–especially by the kind of white listeners who love chitlins all the more because they’ve never been compelled to make them a staple. Even today she’s sometimes accused of abandoning her gritty muse when she strays from the path charted by Jerry Wexler’s taste in rhythmic stomp and catchy songs.
Yet although it was unquestionably those Atlantic LPs that turned Aretha into the queen of all she surveyed, there was nothing ineluctable about her meld with the white Muscle Shoals session players who defined her Deep South phase. If this middle-class Detroiter had a natural music, a conceit her omnivorous career eats for breakfast, it was the gospel she grew up singing in her famous father’s church and first recorded for Chess at 14. Hosannas to Wexler for bringing her to Muscle Shoals–and then bringing Muscle Shoals to New York, where “Respect,” “Think,” “A Natural Woman,” and the rest were actually cut. But by the early ’70s he was overseeing the intimately lowdown Spirit in the Dark and the airily ambitious Young, Gifted and Black, two rather different records that stand alongside any Aretha beyond the titanic Never Loved a Man itself. And soon he wisely concluded that his greatest artist needed “fresh production input”–which Atlantic proved unable to provide.
So in 1980, Aretha chose a new corporate mentor: Arista’s Clive Davis. While cultivating the artist-friendly aura that has enabled him to woo and faithfully support such prestige properties as Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith, and the Grateful Dead, Davis has also been the crassest of hit men, regularly torpedoing music that hasn’t achieved perfect knowledge of the lowest common denominator, and Aretha’s eight ’80s albums for Arista aren’t above the hokey, the shallow, the lame. But even so, they’re far more felt and focused than her non-Wexler Atlantics. In addition to two meticulous singer’s records produced by Luther Vandross, there’s Love All the Hurt Away, just about the only time old Atlantic concertmeister Arif Mardin ever got Aretha right, and Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, just about the only time young fusioneer Narada Michael Walden ever got anything right. As a result, Greatest Hits 1980—1994–which due to Arista’s artist-hostile deletion policy is now the only place one can purchase most of this music–smokes the fourth disc of Rhino’s Queen of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings. After Young, Gifted and Black, even her bravest ’70s pop–Mardin’s elaborate orchestrations, the overblown 1973 mismatch with Quincy Jones–was a polite compromise with evolving fashions no one involved understood. On Arista, her style is “urban contemporary,” no apologies. She’s going for the gold, and it suits her.
In the ’90s, however, Aretha disappeared as a recording artist. The records had been headed downhill since the great one-dimensional whoop of 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who?; 1991’s What You See Is What You Sweat could have sent her into seclusion on the ineptness of its title alone. Aretha’s absence since then–which effectively turned her into an icon, a figure of history–is reason to mistrust the eager hype surrounding her new A Rose Is Still a Rose. So please believe me when I urge you not to be so damn popwise. Big chillskis may find the new record airless or cyborgian or whatever stupid stuff middle-aged people say about drum synthesizers, but for the open-eared it should stand as permanent proof of the vitality and adaptability of Aretha Franklin’s amazing grace.
Aretha’s no greater than James Brown or Ray Charles, but she’s crucially different. Alone among such peers, not to mention mere contemporaries like Deep South shouter Wilson Pickett or r&b-schooled lounge pros Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight, the Queen of Soul is totally at home with up-to-the-minute black pop. That’s true whether the producer is Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin, Lauryn Hill, Puffy Combs, Daryl Simmons, Michael J. Powell, the unsinkable Narada Michael Walden, or Aretha herself, each credited with at least one of the 11 new songs, or Walden, Vandross, Mardin, and all the others who got a crack at her in the ’80s. So in the end, the achievement of A Rose Is Still a Rose is as much cultural as personal. Of course she comes in and takes over this new jack r&b, which builds off hip hop the way her funk lite did off disco. She always does when she’s on. But she also sits back and takes strength from it.
Remarkably, A Rose Is Still a Rose does its excellent work sans Babyface, an obvious match whose notable Aretha tracks on 1980—1994 and Waiting To Exhale wouldn’t be 50th percentile here. The procession of standouts includes Simmons’s “In the Morning,” disintegrating over and over into a mournful “I don’t wanna be the other woman”; Aretha’s virtuosic “The Woman,” inarticulate in its wronged pain until she moans and scats the coda into a show of the pride she brushed by in the second verse; the uncountable rhythm tracks of Combs’s apparently simple (and apparently unsampled) “Never Leave You Again”; Austin’s long-suffering yet somehow jaunty “I’ll Dip,” on which Aretha sings barely a scrap of the written melody, improvising the verse and embellishing a chorus hook stated by a multitracked Debra Killings; and Hill’s equally impressive title cut, whose unaffected big-sisterhood underpins Aretha’s most credible feminist outreach ever. None of these songs aspires to the declarative tunes and pungent phrases of the soul era. Like so much recent r&b, they’re atmospheric, with minimal lyrics and hooks that catch only after repeated exposure, and the range of studio help would seem extreme even in hip hop, where the too-many-cooks strategy first developed for divas like Tina Turner and Aretha herself has become de rigueur. Yet rather than wandering or pogo-sticking, the record plays seamlessly–she cherry-picks producers the way Wexler did songwriters when he was running the show.
The success of this approach does definitely owe the cohesive sensibility of the new r&b, which can be cautiously samey and suffers its own accusations of soul betrayed but has its upside in dedicated craft and sweet emotion–from Babyface and Boyz II Men to the pop hip hop of Puffy and the Fugees, a woman-fed insistence that music isn’t just phony street hustles and black CNN. But at its heart, of course, is Aretha Franklin’s voice–not just the instrument, which is losing its high end the way 55-year-old voices usually do, but what she does with it. It doesn’t need saying that this voice is at the core of Aretha’s virtually universal appeal–does even Rex Reed, who once called her “probably the worst ballad singer I’ve ever heard,” deny her now? Its power is so ineffable, however, that no one has ever satisfactorily described it in words. One reason the sentimental myths that identify her solely with soul grit, gospel exaltation, and the big beat hold such sway is that they at least make surface sense.
I’m not about to penetrate this mystery here. But I am going to note the obvious–that however misguided other artists’ upward gentility may be, Aretha does it right. Not even her girl-woman explorations for John Hammond at Columbia were as hapless as we used to think (forgive the routine rhythms and try the standards and more on Jazz to Blues), and since the late ’60s nothing has been beyond her reach. Of course she fumbles sometimes–too often. But existentially, she’s in command. In fact, as she proved conclusively with her Grammy opera stint, there’s nothing she does right that she doesn’t also do her way. When she’s on, what defines her magic is that she’s in the music but not of it. All her great performances, even “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” and “Freeway of Love,” are infused with suffering, and from “Ain’t No Way” to “In the Morning,” all her suffering is infused with joy. While Jerry Wexler provided the means, I think it was her father’s colleague Martin Luther King who showed her the way. Great Godamighty, she’s free at last. And no sentient human can resist that freedom.