CDS by Aretha Franklin
Aretha Gospel /
Aretha Now /
Young, Gifted And Black /Hey
Now Hey /
Aretha’s 30 Greatest Hits /
Great Early Aretha Franklin /Sisters
* * * *
Aretha Franklin Touches Us Inside
of Life Music
Commentary by Mtume ya Salaam
& Kalamu ya
Today, while listening to some Aretha
Franklin songs, I started thinking about expectations
and reputations. I was thinking about how Aretha
eventually gained a reputation as one of, if not the,
premier “shouters” in R&B. By virtue of classic sides
like “I Never Loved a Man,” “Dr. Feelgood,” “Do Right
Woman” and “Respect,” as well as the entire
Aretha Gospel album, Ms. Franklin became the
last word in soul vocalizing. So much so that, today,
forty years since Aretha actually cut “Dr. Feelgood,”
any young female vocalist with a big voice and a little
tunefulness is still being compared to Lady Soul. But
what about Aretha’s other side?
Nothing against Aretha’s biggest hits—honestly, they’re
classics for a reason—but my favorite Aretha Franklin
songs are the quiet, gentler ones. The real reason
Aretha is so revered as a vocalist is she could do it
all. She could blast the walls off the place if that’s
what she wanted to do, but if the occasion called for
it, she could also croon a delicate melody sweetly
enough to make you swoon.
Whether it was tender pop tunes in the sixties or gentle
soul songs in the seventies, Aretha had the ability and
the artistic maturity to keep that vocal firepower of
hers in check. I’m talking about songs like “I Say A
Little Prayer” from 1968’s
Aretha Now LP, or how’s about “Day Dreaming”
Young, Gifted And Black. Both records are so
soft and wistful – it’s almost like they aren’t really
there. It’s as if you’re dreaming them instead of
actually hearing them. Or try “Angel” from 1973’s
Hey Now Hey and “One Step Ahead,” which was
originally released as a single way back in 1965. On
“Angel,” Aretha lets a tiny bit of that gospel fire come
through, but for the most part, it’s more of the gentle
side of The Queen—a wistful, almost prayerful plea for
love and tenderness.
“One Step Ahead” first came my way as the sample source
for a Mos Def hit, but since then, it’s become one of my
favorite Aretha Franklin songs.
It’s not just Aretha’s
vocal performance. The lyrics too are a thing of beauty.
The narrator sings about how she’s only one step away
from either ending or restarting a love affair. In the
first verse, she imagines the heartbreak and misery
she’ll have if she takes that one step forward, a step
that will take her away from her man. But then the
lyrics also imply (though they never actually come out
and say) that the lover she’s trying to leave has been
unfaithful. So maybe the heartbreak and misery are
waiting for her no matter what she does, no matter which
step she takes. “It’s too soon to forget you,” Aretha
sings, but, “It’s too late to be free.”
Aretha will always be known as Lady
Soul, The Queen, the woman gifted with the biggest,
brassiest and boldest voice of them all. But just know,
there’s another side to her artistry—the softer side.
Check it out.
Every song mentioned in this post
(except for “One Step Ahead”) is available on
Aretha’s 30 Greatest Hits collection, a 2-CD set
that usually goes for $20 or so, but is on sale right
now at Amazon for $10.97. If you don’t have any Aretha
on CD, do yourself that favor. It’s never going to get
“One Step Ahead” is an early and rare single that never
appeared on an Aretha Franklin album. It is available on
a couple of compilations though. Try this one,
Sisters of Soul , a collection of rare soul
singles, or this one, a
3-CD set of early Aretha Franklin material.
—Mtume ya Salaam
* * * *
son has seen inside me
The soft side is the inside: the heart and gut side. The
brain side. All the parts of ourselves that must be
protected. And when exposed, it is said we are
vulnerable. Precisely because vulnerable means that our
insides can be easily touched.
Soft Aretha opens us. Touches us. Inside.
Soft Aretha. Dangerous music. Handle with care. Be
extremely careful who accompanies you when you listen to
this touching music. It is music that opens you to all
kinds of tender feelings.
Soft Aretha. What a wonderfulness.
Most of it is from the first half of the seventies, the
time of our people’s great ascendancy into the rarified
air of self-determination in opposition to our
oppression. We were escaping our exploitation, into the
blue wonder of black folk going full out for what all
that we know, all that we knew, and envisioned, and
dreamed we could be. We said nationtime and started
believing we actually could get together with each
Soft Aretha was natural Aretha. You ever seen her in the
pictures from that era? The calmness of her visage.
African attire. Her head crowned by a cinnamon-colored,
sexy ‘fro. Natural woman. For sure. Blackness in our
prime. What a number we was. Indivisible. Whole. A
golden mean. In fact, as I remember her then, Aretha
glowed, had a golden aura. She didn’t have to scream.
There was nothing to fight or be in flight from. Hey,
hey, hey we were on the other side of the sky.
Aretha soft was the best of us at one of the best of our
moments on earth, especially this un-native soil of
states united against our self expression. But we rose
to unmatched heights anyway and got so far out there for
a minute we were actually sun, moon and stars in our own
universe. Yes. Softly shining.
That the miracle of our rising did not last is not the
bottom line. The real deal is and will always be like
James Brown said: there was a time. And knowing that
there was a time is a rainbow promise that the comet of
our consciousness can possibly return again. What goes
Aretha soft. Oh, my lord. Baby, baby, baby. It’s inside
of me. Of us. And we’ll never let our softness harden.
Never. Especially as long as we have records of Aretha
touching us with the whisper of her powerful voice.
Soft Aretha voice. Aretha’s voice soft reaching into us.
Into the softness of us. Touching us softly. Forever.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
P.S. On the factual side,
the Aretha I really, really dig is the album you have
selected: Young, Gifted And Black. Sometimes I
put it on and just let it play over and over. It is not
the one with the most-est hits, nor any of the bluesy
R&B classics. Instead, this is the one where Aretha
really hit her conscious Black woman stride. I mean
check the first four cuts are: 1. “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A
Fool For You Baby),” 2. “Day Dreaming,” 3. “Rock
Steady,” and 4. “Young, Gifted And Black”. And that’s
just the first quarter of the album.
As a bonus: you can
go here and see clips of Aretha singing the first
three songs from the album—and they are beautiful
performances in which she gives a virtual clinic on soul
My favorite cut is an Aretha Franklin original that is
sounds like a soundtrack for an autobiographical movie.
“First Snow In Kokomo” is both personal and a beautiful
tribute to band members who travel on tour with
Aretha—at least that is what it sounds like to me.
Perhaps the mystery of not knowing for sure about whom
these very specific descriptions were pinned, perhaps
that uncertainty as to the specific origin of the
images, perhaps that is what gives the song a greater
impact. What is super clear is that Aretha really cares
about these people and that caring is a beautiful
caring. It is perhaps Aretha’s most intimate recording.
When you say soft Aretha, “First Snow” is the song I
I think I should also include “Border Song (Holy
Moses).” The message is so timely. So necessary. So
prime time Aretha. So classic soul. So softly insistent:
can we live in peace?
* * * *
* * * *
update 29 March 2009