So I left Other Music with every intention of meeting up with Mrs. Jaybee - who was waiting for me a few blocks down at Barnes and Noble - but walked right in the middle of a street fair, where the record racks exert a gravitational pull on you, by which I mean me.
I managed to escape but not before wasting about at least fifteen minutes. (I thought it was five, but have since learned that 5 minutes of record store time is 15 in real time. I know, it wasn’t technically a record store, but somehow the same time/space rules applied.)
So then off to Barnes and Noble where - after a dozen visits without buying a single book (library lurker and cheapskate that I am) - I realized that they have a record section! And I had gift cards!
Which is where I got five Aretha Franklin albums. I know, it sounds like a real gluttony thing to do, but in this case I think it was the right way to go.
It was a five pack that somehow got marked down from $30 to $10(!). And while Aretha’s Gold covers a lot of this territory, it’s on vinyl way down in the basement. Here was a chance to give my knees a rest, and to give this major artist her due.
I’ve always been very intimidated by soul music. When I was a kid I saw a documentary about Aretha Franklin, and was taken aback by how all of these African Americans loved this woman who (I thought) only had that one hit, and who didn’t seem to need the Beatles at all.
And there was such pride and gusto in the music. Back then, I was uncomfortable with African Americans being anything but meek and quiet. But there Aretha was, commanding the stage.
I’d eventually learn more about Aretha and other soul artists, but usually by reading interviews with Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, whose Anthology opened my eyes to all of these music makers I was not hearing, but who my heroes nevertheless played with and worshiped.
The best I would be able to manage over the years was to sample around the edges by getting Best-ofs and such by Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and, of course, James Brown..
Now I had a chance to dig a little deeper.
So let’s start with her Atlantic debut.
I’ve Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You
Sometimes you hear something you’ve heard a million times before, but get to hear it like it’s for the first time again. Imagine walking around telling people what a great movie The Godfather is. The response is, “Well, yeah.” You end up belaboring the obvious. So forgive me for telly you how great a record - “Respect” is. An impossible record, really. Especially if you’ve heard the Otis Redding original. With this one song, Aretha announces herself as the greatest popular singer of the era.
Of course, Aretha had been making records for years before this, but they were mainly blues and gospel. Now, she was leaping into the mainstream. Or was she dragging it back over to her?
“Respect” is followed by an excellent version of “Drown in My Own Tears”. Then the title song - which is one of the most potent soul songs ever.
“Dr. Feelgood” is about her primary care provider. And how.
I’m learning to hear that the B in R&B really is for Blues, which you can hear loud and clear in these songs. It just gets called Soul.
Except for “Save Me”, which is flat out rock and roll.
And her version of “A Change is Gonna Come” is almost as good as Otis Redding's. (I don’t know if he would have been able to deal with her topping him twice on the same album.)
Like a lot of albums from the era, not every track is a classic, but that’s also part of its appeal, hearing it so many years later. You get some classics surrounded by songs you never heard before but that are nonetheless delightful thanks to that great voice.
More Aretha Later