Aretha’s Greatest Bits
It’s the little things she did that deserve the most Respect…
By the time I finally got to see Aretha Franklin perform live in 1990, she’d officially entered the victory lap stage of her career. Her days of sublime gut-punching soul were well in the rearview and she was a decade into her partnership with Clive Davis and Arista Records, who’d smoothed her musical edges and turned her into something stylistically akin to Whitney Houston’s knowing older sister.
Davis is justifiably regarded as a musical miracle worker-savant. Which is to say his arguably cynical schtick of giving sonic makeovers to struggling legacy artists has worked like a freakin’ charm from a commercial standpoint ( see: Rod Stewart, Santana, and Barry Manilow). In Aretha’s case, this meant following the musical lead of Houston, Davis’s protégé (and admittedly number one priority). By the mid-’80s, under his tutelage, Aretha was back with a capital B, topping the pop charts with a veritable stream of Whitney-esque confections. While casual pop fans and kids loved the sound of “new” Aretha and her duets with super hot babes like George Michael and Annie Lennox, old school soul purists and critics did not. To them, she’d betrayed her gift. She’d “sold out”.
I was a pop-obsessed teenager during Aretha’s ‘80s rebirth and so unsurprisingly, I was pretty into some of those latter day hits, “Freeway of Love”, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” and “Jimmy Lee” being my main squeezes. They were literally built for teen consumption, cute candy-coated songs that were fun to sing along to while you were driving down the highway with the windows down. And in that context, they sounded perfect — the ideal soundtrack tunes for tooling around on hazy, laid back summer days. But even I had to admit, when you stood them up next to songs Aretha recorded in the ’60s and ’70s, like say, “Angel” or “Daydreaming” or “Until You Come Back To Me”, they didn’t shine quite as brightly.
Okay, no point in being coy, compared to the old stuff, they sucked. They withered and melted into nothingness. The quality gap was cavernous. And this imbalance was all too clear on that July night back in 1990 when Aretha headlined at Radio City Music Hall.
When she first stepped out on the stage that eve, my heart and head evilly conspired to take me down, which is to say, I started crying. Not floods or buckets but enough where air-drying the tears wasn’t gonna do it and I had to break out an actual tissue. It was one of those weird spontaneous things I didn’t see coming, I mean I’d never felt compelled to cry at a show before not even during my then still fresh ‘screaming for Duran Duran’ days. But there she was in real life, THE QUEEN OF SOUL, someone I’d only ever heard in the confines of my bedroom or on the radio. Just wow.
Unfortunately, the show was a bunch of bells and whistles bombast, the stage crowded with seemingly a million musicians and a real emphasis on the new and now, specifically her then just released and seriously lackluster album Through The Storm. Yet in the midst of this glossy mayhem, something wonderful happened. About halfway through the show, Aretha sat down at the piano and hammered out a mind-blowing solo version of “Dr. Feelgood” (from the 1967 I Never Loved A Man album). It was ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this’ good. It redeemed everything that came before (and after) and to this day is one of my favorite Aretha moments ever. Listen here, it’s nuts.
There is soooo much more going on in that live performance than just Aretha singing “Dr.Feelgood” at Radio City in 1990. Hearing her sing that “ to sit and chit and sit and chit-chat and smile” bit in the song, the fun, and fire in it, made sitting through the rest of the forcedly garish show 100% worth it forever. That moment, all 5 seconds of it, made my night.
And that’s it right there. It’s easy to admire a great Aretha song as a whole but what always gets me are the little things like that she does within them. Those bits of virtuosic ad-libbing in a coda, those subtle changes she makes on a recurring line, how she navigates the transition from verse to chorus. These micro-moments are what exult her from being just a great singer into actual certifiable genius and otherworldly being territory. She just instinctively knew what to do.
There are a trillion examples in her discography of course, but there are three specific moments that stand out and squeeze my heart more than all the others. They are all ridiculous in the best way possible.
Anyway, wanna hear some of Aretha’s coolest, craziest and greatest bits? Take a listen to these!
1.The head-shaking, octave-breaking, body quaking bridge in “Ain’t No Way” that begins at approximately 2 minutes and 52 seconds into the song.
Oh then please, PLEASE, please
Don’t you know THAT, I, NEED, YOU?
When Aretha moves away from the mike for that second “please” and then seamlessly sings into the stratosphere on the next line, well, it feels positively religious. And so all praise to AIN’T NO WAY 2:52.
2. The brilliant emboldened boldfacing within Aretha’s 1969 strutting and celebratory cover of “Gentle On My Mind”: When it came time to pick tracks for Aretha’s sixth album for Atlantic, she forcefully insisted that “Gentle On My Mind,” a Glen Campbell hit from 1967, be one of them. Producer Jerry Wexler was horrified. He didn’t think the song suited her, later complaining that “her taste could be very mainstream”. Of course, Aretha ultimately got her way, and once it was done, Wexler was forced to concede that it was so good, it absolutely had to be released as a single.
This performance showcases one of Aretha’s most fabulous party tricks which I’m nerd-ily calling boldfacing because I literally don’t know how else to describe it. Basically, she leans hard and turns the volume up a notch on certain words in each verse, but her word choices are across the board bizarre; “INK STAINS”, “CLINGING”, “BINDS”, “THOUGHT”, “CURSING”. It is awesomely eccentric and amazing and makes me smile every time I hear this thing. And bonus points for the gift of hearing Aretha sing the line about how cool it is that she can just leave her sleeping bag behind your couch. That will never ever get old.
3. Aretha’s escalating emotion, hand-clapping (she’s the loudest), and her mind-blowingly glorious “duetting” with the Southern California Community Choir on “How I Got Over” from the 1972 Amazing Grace album and film of the same name.
That’s a mouthful I know but there are just soooo many bits to acknowledge and exult in this cover of the legendary Clara Ward’s gospel standard. With the divine assistance of the late great James Cleveland, Aretha transforms Ward’s lean, rumbling praise of thanks into a floor-shaking, roof-raising anthem. You don’t so much listen to “How I Got Over” as feel it.
I should note that while it’s amazing to experience the song in audio form, the ideal way to appreciate the glory of this performance is to view the footage within the incredible aforementioned Amazing Grace documentary.
If I had to rank the song’s best bits I think number one would have to be when she and the choir start batting those “thank you’s” back and forth about halfway through. But then again I freakin’ love watching her clap along in the documentary. Not even gonna get into the choir’s “Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes’s” because they speak for themselves, oh yes.
It’s the little things. They are the true proof of Aretha’s genius. It’s not just about hitting the big notes, it’s about the overall creativity and invention in her vocal performances, it’s the endless bending, molding, and shaping as a song unfolds, the idiosyncratic “boldfacing” of single words, the body movement at just the right moment, the unexpected note bending. And she’s always right. I‘ve heard these songs countless times and I’m still blown away every time. I still laugh and shake my head in awe. Still get misty. It’s just pure genius.
Thank You Queen.
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