Aretha’s Rainbow: Notes on Aretha Franklin’s music beyond ‘soul’

The loss of a musical and cultural titan as mighty as Aretha Franklin (March 25, 1942-August 18, 2018) naturally inspires critics, writers, bloggers, journalists and fans the opportunity to reflect on her legacy. I have listened to a wide range of Ms. Franklin’s music deeply over time and this month I discuss her remarkably underrated musical range and adaptability.

 

The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

The cover of Aretha Franklin's 1961 debut album on Columbia.

We have commonly known Aretha Franklin as “the Queen of Soul,” a recognition of her talents as the most influential singer in Rhythm & Blues (R&B). But her ascent to this role was not inevitable. She has always had the talent and drive to move in any musical direction of her choice. Franklin grew up the daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin a prominent minister and civil rights activist. As a “PK” (Preacher’s Kid) Aretha’s exposure to gospel music was the outgrowth of being raised in a church environment, especially during a time when the church played an even more prominent role as a social and spiritual force in the lives of African-Americans. Her father regularly interacted with luminaries in the gospel world such as singer Clara Ward, who nurtured Aretha, so her emergence as a young gospel recording artist at the age of 14 is understandable.

In the 1950’s gospel music was far more segregated from secular music than it is today. Most popular black singers of Aretha’s youth, including jazz vocalists such as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, and R&B singers who preceded Franklin, such as Ray Charles and Etta James, began their musical training in a church environment. Many singers, such as Roy Hamilton, Sam Cooke, and Washington achieved commercial success on the gospel circuit, before deciding to make the leap to secular music and “cross over.” Crossing over was such a major issue that many of gospel’s most accomplished voices, including Mahalia Jackson, Marion Williams and Shirley Caesar, always made it a point to note that they had opportunities to sing secular music but refused.

 

Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin's first top 40 pop hit was "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" a pop song Al Jolson popularized in 1918.

Franklin’s ambitions, however, went beyond the circuit. Signed by John Hammond to sing at Columbia Records, her stint from 1961-66 is represents her complicated musical identity. While gospel vocal techniques, including the selective use of bent notes, melisma and call-and-response type arrangements, deeply inform Franklin’s singing, her taste in material extends well beyond the secularized gospel material known as R&B songs to include blues and pre-rock pop music from Broadway and film. Though she conveys a vocal intensity and emotional vulnerability best understood as “soul” her Columbia recordings tell a fuller story of her musical interests.

Her 1961 Columbia debut album Aretha (in Person with the Ray Bryant Combo) featured original songs such as “Won’t Be Long” with a strong flavor recognizable to R&B fans, but she also interpreted “Over the Rainbow” (from The Wizard of Oz) and “Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Porgy & Bess). These interpretations are distinctly Aretha-fied but cannot simply be understood as “soul” or “R&B. Like many musicians of her generation she absorbed a wide range of influences and these are as essential to understanding her career as hits like “Respect” and “Think.”

 

Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Yeah!!! released in 1965 is Franklin's finest jazz set at Columbia.

Columbia paired Franklin with many different arrangers and producers in search of commercial hits and this proved difficult. Franklin’s taste in material included a penchant for creatively reimagining tried and true standards (“Love for Sale”) and more contemporary (“If I Had a Hammer”) songs sung in jazz settings such as the superb jazz set Yeah!!! which could have made her the outstanding jazz vocalist of her generation. But she also enjoyed singing dated “showbiz” songs including “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” made famous by Al Jolson in 1918 (!), and a flashy version of the pop warhorse “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.” These kinds of songs, combined with period era touches such as strings and background choirs, found her at odds with changes occurring in popular music in the mid-1960s. This includes the transition of rock ‘n’ roll from dance-oriented music to more serious and sophisticated “rock,” the growth of R&B into “soul,” and newer variants in jazz such as “soul jazz” and the avant-garde.

 

Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Aretha's 1967 Atlantic Records debut focused more on Franklin's gospel roots and writing, playing and arranging skills than any of her previous albums.

Stuck in a commercial rut, she had not found consistent success in the pop, jazz and cabaret vein of Columbia and overtly sought a label that could help her secure hits on the radio and the record charts. At Columbia Records, she had 12 top 100 singles, with only one, the rather unfortunate “Rock-A-Bye,” hitting the pop top 40. Considering the social and racial segregation of the 1960’s she was more popular on the “black” singles charts where she had 8 top 40 songs though few were major hits. Atlantic Records, under the guidance of producer Jerry Wexler, helped Franklin realize her ambitions by providing more leeway to select songs, paly piano and arrange her material. From 1967’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” onward she grew into a creative and commercial acme that went until about 1974. Had her career been assessed by the first singles she released from 1967-68, which includes (in order): “I Never Loved a Man,” “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby)Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Think,” she would have had the greatest streak of winners of any singer of her time. What’s so amazing is that she continued to produce more classics, on an almost routine casual basis, including her versions of “I Say a Little Prayer,” (1968) and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1971) and original compositions such as like “Call Me” (1970) and “Daydreaming” (1972).

 Though the late 1960’s-early 1970’s is Franklin’s prime “classic” period this does not mean everything she recorded was classic. Franklin became an artist before albums were assembled as meticulously as they eventually became in the late 1960’s era of rock “concept” albums. Essentially her albums were compilations of potential singles and whatever was recorded recently. This shifted with 1969’s more conceptual big band jazz set Soul ’69 and on the gospel extravaganza 1972’s Amazing Grace. I mention this because even as her albums became more uneven in the early 1970’s there was still at least a handful of classic individual performances which is more than could be said for most artists. No matter how uneven an album, such as 1974’s Let Me in your Life, might be there was a classic performance like “Until you Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” that reminded you why she stirred so much excitement in 1967. Except for 1976’s Sparkle soundtrack the mid-to-late 1970’s was a commercial nadir as Franklin searched for suitable material to apply her naturally potent voice, a search complicated by the expanding strands of black pop which included quiet storm, funk, disco and Philly Soul.

 

1985's  Who's Zoomin' Who?  was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

1985's Who's Zoomin' Who? was a mid-career triumph hghlighted by "Freeway of Love."

Searching once again for “hits” Franklin took a cue from Dionne Warwick’s success at Arista Records and signed with the label. Many critics have noted how this era pales with her classic period. I respond to this in two ways. First, any artist’s peak would pale in comparison with Franklin’s late 1960s-early 1970’s hot streak. At Atlantic she as able to synthesize nearly all her disparate influences and interests into a cohesive style that was rooted in gospel but drew from a panoply of American music strands. Second, like most major artists Franklin faced a generation gap and major industrial and technological changes in the music industry. Franklin was 25 when “Respect” became a hit and nearly 40 when she had her first Arista “hit,” the ballad “United Together.” Franklin was not going to revert to the jazz and pop she began with as much of this material had been interpreted continually by a wide variety of singers since the 1910’s and she was interested in authoring new hits. Further, she was entering into an industry more defined by electric production technologies (e.g. synthesizers), personalized audio delivery systems (e.g. Walkman’s) and promotional outlets such as MTV, as well as a narrowing of radio programming menus.

In this more codified and demographically focused market Franklin made a noble effort to employ her still rich voice and sharp pop instincts to remain a vital pop figure. For someone of my vintage (ahem, mid-1970’s) I knew songs like “Respect” and “A Natural Woman,” as they were too iconic (and played on oldie stations) to not know, much like “Unchained Melody” or “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” I also experienced Franklin’s performances of 1982’s “Jump to It,” 1983’s “Get it Right” and the monstrous 1985 radio and MTV hit “Freeway of Love.” As a young listener, I was both aware of Franklin as a revered singer with a rich past and as a contemporary artist whose hits such as “Freeway,” “Sisters Are Doing It Themselves” and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” were as good as pop got in the mid-1980’s. This was new music and it was commercially viable and genuinely exciting. Sustaining the commercial success of these hits eventually became harder as Franklin’s fusion of gospel technique and sleek modern production styles competed with hip-hop, New Jack swing, modern rock, and other emerging styles. The quality of material she recorded for Arista from the late 1970’s through the early 2000’s finds her locating ways to adapt her sound to the times. Sometimes this resulted in a sublime fusion, such as 1994’s “Honey” and 1998’s “A Rose is Still a Rose,” and sometimes it resulted in her “oversouling” on slight material or straining too hard to sound “hip.”

 

1998's  A Rose is Still a Rose  was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

1998's A Rose is Still a Rose was one of the most popular and well-received albums Franklin released in the last 20 years of her career.

Franklin’s efforts to remain current has inspired controversy among many musicians and critics. For example, several of her past producers such as Wexler and arranger Clyde Otis, wanted her to skip the contemporary pop music scene and focus on being a jazz-oriented singer. Yet Franklin has never felt like a singer seeking to be confined to one style. She took risks “crossing over” from gospel to secular music and transitioning from the jazzy pop style of the 1960’s to the more overt “soul” approach of the late 1960’s.  Most musical artists are lucky to excel in one style and she found a credible voice in multiple styles and eras. As such, her missteps must be considered in the context of their creation and the transitory nature of pop music.

 

While many of her peers may have been associated with a defined time in the past and lauded for their endurance, she strived to achieve ongoing relevance. A talent like hers transcends charts, sales and awards. Her spectacular performances at the 1997 VH1 Divas Live concert, at the 1998 Grammys singing “Nessun Dorma” and stopping the show with “A Natural Woman” performance at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, attest to a highly cultivated musicality and showmanship. Though many singers think “soul” is only about raw emotion Franklin has deep roots that helped her balance the emotional and technical needs of her material. Her versatility, improvisational skill, musical technique and sheer heart are uniquely her own.

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Please enjoy these two playlists I compiled via Spotify:

1961-74:

https://open.spotify.com/user/vls008/playlist/6JtD03J7GmCk6I3RzUGHpy?si=HcT4MnSWSCm7GoYwBgbLFw

1980-2003:

https://open.spotify.com/user/vls008/playlist/6JtD03J7GmCk6I3RzUGHpy?si=HpPb9AFXTqOOhD0PcXqFwg

 

COPYRIGHT © 2018 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Ear adjustment: Exploring the untold history of Black Music

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter inaugurated June as Black Music History Month, which President Barack Obama renamed African-American Music Appreciation Month in 2009. Though the concept of “black” music could apply to any kind of music performed by black people technically, we usually tend to understand it in terms of genre. Artists associated with hip-hop, R&B, reggae, blues, jazz and gospel are usually the starting point for conversations about intersections of blackness and musicianship. The historical emergence of these genres from black subcultures, ranging from the derivation of gospel from the West African “ring shout” to the post-industrial urban context that wrought hip-hop, defines this iconic association.

Yet, just as blackness as an identity, culture and realm of experience, must be understood beyond conventional wisdom, the music created by black musicians must be understood complexly. Music is a compelling space for uncovering obscure, or forgotten, artists whose stories tell a fuller richer story of blackness than usual.

 

Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first black superstar in country music.

Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first black superstar in country music.

 For example, most listeners primarily associate country music with Southern white musicians and audiences. Though many people are aware that artists like Ray Charles and Charley Pride broke color barriers in country music, and Hootie & the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker has become a solo country star, there’s more to the story. The 1998 three-disc set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music introduced me to important figures rarely discussed in mainstream black music conversations. For many years, I thought jazz musicians were at the forefront of musical integration in the recording industry. In fact, Taylor’s Kentucky Boys, an integrated string band comprised of black fiddler Jim Booker, guitarist John Booker, banjo player Marion Underwood, guitarist Willie Young, and occasional vocalists, did the first racially integrated recording sessions in a studio in 1927.

 The geographic and cultural proximity of black, white and Native American musicians living in the South birthed a more diverse brand of Southern music than most people realize. There was a proliferation of string bands, like the Georgia Yellow Hammers, the Dallas String Band, James Cole String Band, and others, as well as solo performers.

 

The Carolina Chocolate Drops  are a contemporary band keeping the string band tradition alive through playing classic and contemproary songs.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops  are a contemporary band keeping the string band tradition alive through playing classic and contemproary songs.

Harmonica player Deford Bailey (1899-1982) was the first African-American musician associated with the Grand Ole Opry’s radio program, from 1926-41. He also appeared on the Opry’s 1939 television debut on NBC’s Prince Albert Show. Despite these monuments he was not accepted fully, and experienced being referred to as the Opry’s “mascot” as well as the denial of service at restaurants and hotels when her toured small towns. While racism is a familiar trope in discussions of black musicians of his generation, less familiar is the way blacks who grew up in the Southern U.S. listened to country music and often emulated radio artists. Bailey’s grandfather was a fiddler, and Bailey got his big break after white string band leader Dr. Humphrey Bates recommended him to the producer of the WSM “Barn Dance” radio show, which became the Opry. Though these cross-cultural alliances were not necessarily typical of the industry a gradual cross-pollination took shape especially in the post-WWII era. Many of the musicians included on the set discuss their appreciation for the music and lyrics of country music, viewing it as a parallel to the blues. There are also important voices represented on the set, like Dobie Gray (1940-2011; famous for 1973’s “Drift Away”) and Bobby Hebb (1938-2010; who wrote the 1966 hit “Sunny”), who have defied genre rules throughout their careers and challenged conventional wisdom about the sound of black music.

 

Odetta (1930-2008) was the arguably the most influential folk musician of her generation.

Odetta (1930-2008) was the arguably the most influential folk musician of her generation.

Folk music is another genre with a strong black presence. The more recent success of Rhiannon Giddens and her band the Carolina Chocolate Drops is a great link to the past. Before performers like Giddens, and Tracy Chapman, whose 1988 debut was an unexpected pop hit, there was the legendary Odetta (1930-2008). Classically trained as teenager Odetta performed in musical theater as a young adult before turning to folk music in the 1950s. After establishing herself on the nightclub circuit she became a prolific recording artist recording for the Tradition, Vanguard, Riverside and RCA Victor labels. Her recordings and performances, were complemented by her vigorous civil rights activism. Odetta was considered the premier folk singer of her generation and influenced performers like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, and Carly Simon.

 

Harry Belafonte's (1927-present) dynamic concert performances and popular albums mainstreamed folk music from multiple countries including Trinidad, Israel and Peru. He was also a successful stage, film and TV actor, and producer.

Harry Belafonte's (1927-present) dynamic concert performances and popular albums mainstreamed folk music from multiple countries including Trinidad, Israel and Peru. He was also a successful stage, film and TV actor, and producer.

Other black superstars of the 1950s who influenced folk performers include Harry Belafonte (1927-present) whose dynamic performances and popular recordings of folk music from Jamaica, Trinidad, Peru, Israel and other countries made him the first world music superstar. He was also integral to introducing U.S. audiences to the South African singer and activist, Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), known as “Mama Africa”. A gifted singer, composer, and actress, and a fierce anti-apartheid activist, Makeba began performing in the U.S. in 1959 and began a successful recording career on RCA in 1960. She committed her life to her music and her activism and performed until the very end of her life.

 

Just as the southern rural black experience is rarely discussed, beyond country blues and delta blues musicians, the presence of blacks in the chic, sophisticated world of New York cabarets, a thriving cultural space form the 1930s-1960s is also elided. Cabaret singing is an intimate style of singing performed by stately but highly distinctive, often idiosyncratic singers who frequently focus on the Great American Songbook and obscurities. Well-known black singers like Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., and Eartha Kitt have roots in cabaret. There are, however, are many others who never crossed over to mass audiences through TV or film.

 

Mae Barnes (1907-96) was one of the most well regarded performers in the New York cabaret world.

Mae Barnes (1907-96) was one of the most well regarded performers in the New York cabaret world.

One of cabaret’s most successful performers, Barbra Streisand began her career performing at the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village. But long before her there was Mae Barnes (1907-96) an African-American singer and dancer who was so popular the club was referred to as the Barnes Soir. Combining elements of Broadway, Vaudeville, and jazz in her live performances, and famous for her wit she was highly revered and rarely recorded.

 Mabel Mercer (1900-1984), born to an African-American father and English mother, grew up in Europe before immigrating to the United States in the 1940s. Famous for her perfect diction, rolled “R”s, and incomparable readings of lyrical nuances she was adored by composers like Bart Howard (“Fly me to the Moon”) and Cole Porter. Mercer was the queen of cabaret who influenced singers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and held court at legendary clubs like Tony’s, Ruban Bleu, the Byline Room, and others. The St. Regis Hotel named a room after her in 1975; ion 1984 Stereo Review magazine established the Mabel Mercer Award to honor outstanding musicians, and in 1985 the Mabel Mercer Award Foundation was established.

 If Mercer was the Queen of cabaret Bobby Short (1926-2005) was the undisputed King. Born in Danville, Illinois he was a gifted pianist and distinctive vocalist who became a successful child performer in Chicago and then began performing throughout the U.S. and Europe. Known for his throaty voice, vast repertoire, and rapier wit he became a mainstay at the Café Carlyle from 1968-2004, and enjoyed a long recording career at Atlantic Records. He also recorded five albums for Telarc Records from the 1990s-2000s. Other notable black cabaret figures include Josephine Baker, Thelma Carpenter, Jimmie Daniels, and Leslie Uggams.

 Contemporary black performers with a background in cabaret include actor-singer Darius de Haas, Broadway actor Norm Lewis, Tony Award-winning actress Audra McDonald, and vocalist Paula West. Since cabaret is more of a performing genre than a recording field many cabaret-oriented singers are also actors. Related to cabaret then, is the history of black performers who have excelled in musical theatre on Broadway. This distinguished roster includes Belafonte, who won a 1954 Tony for his performance in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, Sammy Davis Jr. who was acclaimed in 1964’s The Golden Boy, Eartha Kitt, nominated for Tonys for her performances in 1978’s Timbuktu! and 2000’s The Wild Party, Billy Porter’s role in 2013’s Kinky Boots, Lewis and McDonald, who performed together as leads in 2014’s The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and  the more recent triumph of actor-singer Leslie Odom Jr. in his Tony winning role in Hamilton.

 

Jubilant Sykes is one of America's msot talented and acclaimed baritones.

Jubilant Sykes is one of America's msot talented and acclaimed baritones.

Classical music is another arena where the contributions of black musicians are often overlooked. In the vocal field female singers Marian Anderson (1897-1993), Leontyne Price (1927-present), Jessye Norman (1945-present), and Kathleen Battle (1948-present) are important figures with popular notoriety. Notable male voices include legendary actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson (1898-1976) and baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1903-98) who originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess in 1935 as well as the role of Stephen Kumalo in Kurt Weill’s 1949 production Lost in the Stars. Some more contemporary figures include baritone Jubilant Sykes, and more emergent male vocalists including Jamaican born baritone Rory Frankson, lyric tenor Lawrence Brownless, and tenor Issacach Savage.

 

Baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1908-98), pictured here with actress Anne Brown, originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess.

Baritone Robert Todd Duncan (1908-98), pictured here with actress Anne Brown, originated the role of Porgy in Porgy & Bess.

In the classical instrumental field there are many black musicians worth discovering such as Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, as well as notable organizations dedicated to diversifying the field. For example, the Sphinx Organization’s focus on training and developing underrepresented young musicians has culminated in the renowned Sphinx Virtuosi comprised of Black and Latino musicians. The website AfriClassical was also begun in 2000 to chronicle the history of people of African descent in classical music.

 

Sphinx Virtuosi (Photo by Kevin Kennedy) has changed the face of contemporary classical music.

Sphinx Virtuosi (Photo by Kevin Kennedy) has changed the face of contemporary classical music.

Anthony McGill is the Principal Clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic.

Anthony McGill is the Principal Clarinetist for the New York Philharmonic.

Any legitimate effort to explore black history comprehensively requires exploring unheard and overlooked figures. The relevance of Black History Month lies in the ongoing opportunity to expand our understanding of the stories, experiences and achievements of blacks in America. Music is an important dimension for the music itself, and the histories that inform its creation and reception. It is no coincidence that many of the musicians listed above, like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Belafonte, Odetta and Makeba are as well known for their activism as their music. Theirs is a story worth exploring for the way it speaks to a larger richer story of the historical contours of blackness in America.

Additional resources:

AfriClassical website: http://chevalierdesaintgeorges.homestead.com/

"Black Men Storm the Gates of Classical Opera": http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/black-men-storm-the-gates-of-classical-opera-323#axzz4XpI5EogN

Mabel Mercer Foundation: http://www.mabelmercer.org/

"Six African American Country Singers Who Changed Country Music": http://www.wideopencountry.com/6-african-american-country-singers/

Sphinx Organization: http://www.sphinxmusic.org/

COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.