December 7, 2014


How I Got Over: The Soul of Aretha Franklin : a review of Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin by David Ritz (Emily J. Lordi, December 6th, 2014, LA Review of Books)

Here's what the outsiders have to say: Franklin consistently idealizes her life to the point of releasing -- the year one of her homes burns down and two of her siblings die -- an album called So Damn Happy. Petty and competitive, she gets mad when Atlantic signs another female soul singer, Roberta Flack; when Natalie Cole successfully records material that Franklin passes on recording herself; and when Beyoncé introduces Tina Turner as "the queen" when everyone should know there's only one. Some of her diva antics are hilarious, as when she shows up longtime rival Barbra Streisand by singing "Funny Girl" in front of her at the1969 Grammy's, and asks that the members of Oprah's studio audience wear gowns and tuxedos to honor her appearance on the show. Some career moves are ruthless, as when she insists on recording an album of songs, Sparkle, which Curtis Mayfield has promised to her sister Carolyn. She is both meaner and more socially committed than one might expect: Ritz highlights her tireless service to Martin Luther King's freedom movement, her public support for Angela Davis, her plan for an unrealized conference that would "deal with how the Black woman specifically and Black people in general are treated around the world," and her appearance at a high-profile same-sex marriage in 2011.

Above all and appropriately, Respect depicts Franklin as an ambitious musical genius whose career is her "essential relationship." As a child she seems exceptional even in a world of gospel wonder-children, to which she arrives as if from a "distant musical planet." "Here's how it worked," her brother Cecil explains, "Aretha heard a song once and played it back immediately, note for note. If it was an instrumental, she duplicated it perfectly. If it was a vocal, she duplicated it just as perfectly. She got all the inflections right [...] Her ear was infallible." She used that infallible ear to arrange many of her own greatest hits, from "Chain of Fools" to "Natural Woman," writing piano lines, background harmonies, and drum breaks. Yet it is not until Amazing Grace, her live-at-church 1972 brainchild, that she receives producer credit.

Few aspects of popular music history are so unyielding as the tendency to locate influence and innovation solely in the work of male artists. It is therefore surprising, although it shouldn't be, to learn that Ray Charles's recording of "Lucky Old Sun," and Otis Redding's version of "Try a Little Tenderness" were both inspired by Franklin's recordings of those songs; that she overdubs her main vocal lines with her own harmonies seven years before Marvin Gaye makes that technique famous on What's Going On; that Eric Clapton was once too intimidated to play guitar with her; that her 1967 recording of Otis Redding's "Respect" set the template for socially conscious and commercially viable soul music for years to come; that Gaye was profoundly validated when she sang his "Wholy Holy" on Amazing Grace -- the album with which, moreover, Franklin helped to "invent modern gospel."

Posted by at December 7, 2014 7:37 AM

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