It’s easy to forget that underneath the powerful voice that brought the ballads “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Think” to such tremendous heights was an artist every bit as committed to her gender as she was to her art. This isn’t to say that the songs themselves were necessarily polemical, but the process itself was. The sprawling new box set, Aretha, out today, showcases the arc of one great artist’s legacy.
This exceptional set commemorates sixty years of peerless work. It opens on a singer, opening up to the many women in the audience who clap her all the way up to pop stardom. Much like Luciano Pavarotti, Franklin was lauded as a bastion of her craft, and the “Queen of Soul” cannily acknowledged the comparison with her delivery of the opera star’s signature “Nessun Dorma” in the late 90s. Aretha neatly deconstructs any preconceptions of royalty, for a hungrier set of vocals, exhibiting an artist in their purest form.
Of particular interest are nineteen unreleased tracks that pad out the collection (the unreleased 1966 home demo Of “My Kind Of Town (Detroit Is)” has garnered the most attention), but the album is replete with salutes to the sisterhood that supported Franklin on every aspect of her journey. Even Franklin’s jaunty cover of The Rolling Stones “Satisfaction” comes with an arch wryness that could only come from the voice of a woman, dying for recognition in a song once tailored for men. In time-honored tradition, Franklin catered for the fans who took to her records with gusto, although her intentions -as evinced on her triumphant duet with Annie Lennox, “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” – never wavered from the original sentiment.
Smokey Robinson appears to croon with her on a smoldering rendition of “Ooh Baby Baby.” Franklin cackles during their duet, relishing the moment to enjoy the fruits of her well-earned work, before returning to more somber territories with a string-heavy rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The remaining seventy-six tracks carry with them an awareness of the setting they find themselves in. Aretha opens with a live rendition of the gospel standard “Never Grow Old,” documenting the ardor of the era with one startling swoop. She sings to a room full of cheers and claps, shattering any stylistic divergences from the messages in question. And then there’s the genuinely affecting “United Together,” a pop vignette that reintroduced Franklin to the Eighties (Franklin was one of a multitude of celebrities who popped up in John Landis’ The Blues Brothers, which flaunted soul legends James Brown and Ray Charles plus Hollywood luminaries like Steven Spielberg and Frank Oz).
Franklin’s growing preference for chart success did little to sully her glittering reputation as one of entertainment’s most thoughtful spokespersons. During a rousing performance of “Oh Happy Day,” Franklin happily offers her backing vocalists their moment of glory, cannily understanding that it adds to the excitement that emerges from the chorus. The favor did not go unnoticed, and Franklin – a singer by vocation and trade – was justly rewarded with virtuous works from songwriters Annie Lennox and Lauryn Hill. Acknowledging her influence on women of color, Hill proffered Franklin the excellent “A Rose Is Still A Rose”, a power ballad that exuded confidence in the world that changed to Franklin’s soaring voice.
The collection reaches the perfect apex midway through. All told, these performances offer a compelling portrait of an artist carving their legacy under the guise of music, tempering their voice for the purpose of the track.
The final tracks are mostly from the later years, although Franklin makes a conscious effort to sound contemporary on the pounding “Rolling In The Deep,” before the compendium closes on the very song that started Franklin on her life’s journey. Sifting through an incredible body of work, the album ends with “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,” marking the next generation of women to carry the mantle she’s left for them. It declares an artist, a singer, and a woman. It declares… Aretha.
Photo: Aretha Franklin (public domain)