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The Return Of Soul Sister Number One: Aretha Franklin

An elegant summary of the crowning moments in the career of R&B queen Aretha Franklin --Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Aretha: a name so singularly musical that it rolls off the tongue like an incantation. Almost four decades after 1967's "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," her first chart-topping single, Aretha Franklin's vocal signature remains among the most identifiable in American pop music.

Combining a powerful, chesty voice with a flawless sense of when to apply dynamic textures, Aretha Franklin's melismatic ad-libs are unsurpassed. Even during the 1980s, when her five-octave range lost much of its crystalline upper register, she maintained full interpretative powers. Because Franklin does things many other singers can't, she's sometimes judged unfairly when she sings in ordinary ways.

Franklin has no patience for the racist assumption that she should attempt only gospel-inflected material, and from the '60s on she included easy-listening tunes ("I Say a Little Prayer," "Elusive Butterfly") in her repertoire. Critics have derided Aretha's recordings of MOR material, work they might have praised coming from Linda Ronstadt or Carly Simon; whether backed by small combo or 22-piece orchestras at Carnegie Hall for the JVC Jazz Festival on June 26, she always makes an indelible impression. Was your first Aretha Franklin concert the Apollo in Madison Square Garden in '71? 'Retha and percussionist Baba Olatunji at Philharmonic Hall? Franklin paces herself as she belts a phrase, cues or pauses centre-stage at the grand piano. Cool, she also loves to spoof concert hall solemnity, burlesques her own image in costumes reminiscent of the vaudeville era.

She learned showmanship during her years on the gospel music circuit, playing piano from age 13 on for her father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, a renowned "singing" preacher whom she idolized. Born in Memphis, Tenn., and raised in Detroit, she grew up singing and arranging with her friends and four siblings around the piano in her home.

In the '50s the black church was an arbiter in the socio-political struggle of African-Americans - and Aretha Franklin's connection let her see the struggles unfold, up close and personal. She entered the recording industry with a foundation of familial and racial pride. If her career's path has not been smooth, through each phase she's gained knowledge and confidence.

Her seven years at Columbia Records ('61-'67) yielded no great hits; producer John Hammond didn't appreciate Aretha's uniquely funky swing. Yet she learned about formal studio technique and what the white pop aesthetic demanded in the way of phrasing and presentation.

When Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records got ahold of her, she was ready for creative freedom. Atlantic's success was based on black artists being themselves, so when Wexler asked her to cut her debut sides with funky white sidemen in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, she and husband-manager Ted White trusted his judgment. Urbane northerners Ted and Aretha, however, were offended by the complicated codes of interracial collaboration in the Deep South of '67.

That first Atlantic single was almost Franklin's last, due to a fistfight between White and session coordinator Rick Hall. Wexler patched up misunderstandings based on the galvanizing quality of "I Never Loved a Man," the first of a string of multimillion-sellers - "Respect," "Chain of Fools" - and the template of a sound that was largely Aretha's creation.

In following years, Franklin changed along with black music - perhaps neither always for the best. Jazz, funk and r&b musicians were bravely experimenting with style and content; similarly Franklin's 1970 rewrite of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" was a marvel of semiotic deconstruction. But once blithely apolitical, sybaritic disco took over clubs and airwaves, Franklin, like every singer, faced quite a different commercial context.

Synthesizers and drum machines did not agree with Aretha Franklin. Had not disco, hip-hop and new wave set pop trends for the next 15 years, her creative decisions might have been different. As it was, after her fine Sparkle soundtrack of '76, Franklin's recordings, though dotted with genius, were uneven and unfocussed.

She worked with diverse producers, songwriters and featured musicians, only occasionally on her own. In '79 she left Atlantic for smaller Arista, hoping Clive Davis' artistic vision might regenerate the environment that led to her decade-old triumphs. Her Arista output has its oddly inspired moments; collaborating with Keith Richards, Luther Vandross, Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston, she generated landmark singles. If her albums didn't burn up the sales charts, it wasn't for lack of smart ideas and polished execution.

From '83 to '89, Franklin withdrew from touring. Her flings with disco ("Jump to It" in '82), Brill Building retro ("Who's Zoomin' Who?" in '85), and orthodox spirituals (One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism in '87) were interesting, if not uniformly successful. They represent an artist taking time to consider where she'd been and where she was headed.

At an all-star AIDS benefit concert at New York's Nederlander Theater in 1993, Franklin gave definite notice that her woodshedding was over. Essaying masterful duets with Smokey Robinson, Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, Elton John and pop hip-hoppers P.M. Dawn, she showed off her generosity of spirit, new creative resolve and refurbished vocal range. Her effortless command over an array of singers and styles was network-broadcast and pointed to a new era of cultural leadership for the Queen of Soul.

As hip-hop stylists go back to live instrumentation and 16-year-old, church-trained singers such as Atlantic's Brandy storm the pop charts, Aretha Franklin returns, at the top of her form.


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