It’s an undisputed fact, probably set in stone somewhere along with the Ten Commandments, that Aretha Franklin IS THE QUEEN OF SOUL. We all know it: young and old; soul aficionados and those at the opposite end of the musical spectrum alike. It’s been said a thousand times over, and handed down from one generation to another - Aretha Franklin Queen of Soul, like peanut butter and jelly, strawberries and cream, or fish and chips … certain things are just made to go together.
And then when I found this CD in my mailbox, and saw this was a collection of the Arista years, I suddenly thought, what if Aretha had never recorded a note prior to 1980, when she signed on the dotted line at Clive Davis’ burgeoning record empire? What if she had never signed to Columbia in the early ‘60s, as the next jazz sensation to follow on the heels of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington? What if Aretha had never recorded “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain Of Fools,” “Think,” “Say A Little Prayer,” “Rocksteady,” and a plethora of truly classic songs while at Atlantic Records in the years that followed? What if she had never won a mantelpiece’s worth of Grammys and music awards for her million-selling albums and platinum number one 45s?... Would Aretha Franklin still be known and recognised universally by just her first name, and would she have been crowned the Queen of Soul?
In the latter years of her time at Atlantic, the pressures of not having a hit single and top selling album started to take their toll. During the mid-to-late ‘70s, when disco was at its most popular, and funk was similarly riding the chart highs, Aretha was struggling to come to terms with the new sounds dominating the charts, and even when she did dabble in disco, the material failed to resonate. So by the time her contract with the label expired in 1979, neither were in the mood to renegotiate.
Instead she was courted by Clive Davis and his Arista label that were enjoying phenomenal success on both sides of the Atlantic with acts as varied as Barry Manilow, the Bay City Rollers, and Gil Scott-Heron. The singles, “United Together” and the George Benson-duet “Love All The Hurt Away” returned Franklin to the R&B top ten.
But it was her pairing with upcoming singer/songwriter/producer Luther Vandross, which would finally “get it right.” 1982’s JUMP TO IT opus, and its follow-up, GET IT RIGHT, was just the comeback the singer had craved. JUMP TO IT stayed at the summit on the R&B Albums chart for seven weeks, and crossed in to the top 20 of Hot 100, while pure funk and boogie powered the single of the same name to the chart’s apex, and introduced her to a whole new generation of fans. “Get It Right” was another essential single enveloped by Marcus Miller’s funky guitar riffs and Vandross’ subtle vocal support was the perfect marriage of soul with disco.
By the mid-’80s, the sounds and traits of the decade had propelled one-time disco artist Narada Michael Walden to one of the hottest producers of the day. In time he would be responsible for over a dozen chart toppers for the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Starship, and George Michael. But it was Aretha’s “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” and “Freeway Of Love” that started it all off. Perhaps too pop and synthesized for her older audience, this was the sound of daytime radio in America, and while her loyal fans might have been turning up their noses, the kids lapped it up.
Suddenly the Queen Of Soul was the new Queen of Pop, and to underscore the fact, her label paired her with Wham’s front man George Michael, on the verge of his own solo career. “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me” made Michael a household name in America, as the single topped the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic, ultimately becoming one of the biggest sellers of 1987.
Whether she liked it or not Aretha was now in demand, and pop royalty including Elton John (“Through The Storm”), the Eurythmics (“Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves”), the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, and the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), further cemented her statue.
However, by now Aretha was no longer the ruler at Arista. Davis had unearthed a successor to her crown in her own goddaughter, the late Whitney Houston, and as the decade drew to a close, the scepter was passed on the twee, and altogether affected, “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be”.
In the ‘90s, new recordings were few and far between: Michael McDonald offered backup on the sultry “Ever Changing Times,” and Babyface and Daryl Simmons created the soulful, yet overly schmaltzy, “Willing To Forgive.” Although 1998’s A ROSE IS STILL A ROSE, featuring contemporary neo soul production from Lauryn Hill, Sean Combs, and Jermaine Dupri, did yield the eponymous crossover single, her first in almost a decade.
And so we return to our opening conundrum. Would Aretha Franklin have been crowned the Queen of Soul had her recording career begun in 1980? Personally I very much doubt it. But an amazing singer is still an amazing singer regardless of what they might be singing. Luther Vandross’ two albums with Aretha gave many of us hope that the next chapter would be filled with excitement and verve. I only wish their obvious studio chemistry had been given more opportunities to flourish.
In an era when soul music was evolving and new stars were being born, so too, was Aretha. She became a pop diva, shedding her soul crown for a new set of jewels, and in the process helped make artists like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and even Mary J Blige all the more accessible to the pop masses. Oh, and I defy you not to say: “you will remember my name” during the closing verses of “Who’s Zoomin’ Who”!
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.