Here’s what I wrote about Aretha Franklin when I started this project. (If you’ve forgotten, if you weren’t paying attention, or if you have actual significant other things to do, I’m listening to all the black music of the 1970s.) So anyway:

“With Aretha Franklin, it’s always 1967, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You is on the turntable, and you’re about to drop the needle on the first track, ‘Respect.’ ”

For most people, the top five Aretha Franklin songs are “Respect,” “Respect,” “Respect,” “Respect,” and “Respect.” Spam spam spam eggs sausage and spam. I just checked the five most-streamed Franklin tracks from Spotify and they are “Respect,” “Respect” (re-mastered), “Think” (from The Blues Brothers soundtrack), “I Say a Little Prayer for You,” and “(You Make Me Feel like a) Natural Woman.”

Except for “Think,” these songs are all from the ’60s. Come on, folks! The woman’s career didn’t end at midnight on December 31, 1969! Let’s move boldly into the ’70s and respectfully see what Franklin was up to.

This Girl’s in Love with You (1970)
I haven’t heard this one, or if I did I was 15 and I don’t remember it. It was recorded in 1969 so it’s disqualified. That was handy.

Spirit in the Dark (1970)
Franklin wrote five of the 12 songs here. Of all the divas of the ’70s, Aretha Franklin and, guess who, Donna Summer, most resemble Marvin Gaye in that they wrote or co-wrote so many of their own songs.

Spirit in the Dark is overshadowed by her work from the ’60s and by the two albums that followed it in the ’70s. It has some weak stretches. But it also has “Spirit in the Dark,” which is Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” as a woman sees it:

It’s like Sally Walker sittin’ in a saucer
That’s how ya do it, it ain’t nothin’ to it
Rise, Sally, rise, put your hands on your hips
And cover your eyes, and move on with the spirit

“Spirit in the Dark” and four others (“Don’t Play that Song,” “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Pullin’,” and “When the Battle Is Over”) make this disc a Buy.

Live At the Fillmore West (1971)
This live set, which brings us the highlights from four nights at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, opens with “Respect” played 1.5 times faster than the version everyone knows from downloading it on Spotify. I just listened to it 3.0 times.

Live At the Fillmore West gets even better after that. Franklin covers Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With,” which had appeared the year before on Stills’ first solo album. She doesn’t take it away from him the way she took “Respect” from Otis Redding, but she comes close.

Then we swing into “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” You should buy Live At the Fillmore West just for this track. The three women in the chorus, the “Sweethearts of Soul,” come in after about a minute and a half of quiet musical reflection. Franklin follows, as if she were leading her congregation. “Still waters run deep,” she intones, then slowly and steadily turns this song into a hair-raising hymn of praise. How can one human being sing like this? Art Garfunkel was a one-man orchestra, but compared to Aretha, Artie is an AM/FM radio.

Her backing band is stunning. I haven’t checked the credits, but I assume it must be the Justice League of America.

We then move to a superlative four-song set in which Franklin accompanies herself on her electrified piano. We get her cover of “Eleanor Rigby,” the boogie of “Don’t Play that Song,” and then “Dr. Feelgood” from I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You:

I tell you I don’t mind company
Because company’s alright with me
Every once in a while, yeah
But oh, when me and that man get to lovin’
I tell you girls
I dig you but I just don’t have time
To sit and chit and sit and chit-chat and smile

“Good God Almighty,” she cries, “that man makes me feelllllllllllllllllllll – ” I can’t tell what that man makes her feel, but I predict he’s going to do well when the results come back from the customer-satisfaction survey.

“Spirit in the Dark” follows, this time with the ability to bring eyesight to the blind.

OK. What a record. The only unpleasureable song for me is Franklin’s fruitless effort to turn “Make It with You” by Bread into something more than soggy toast. Everything else is going well. The crowd is hers. She practically controls their breathing. Everyone who attended one of these concerts was blessed.

There’s nothing Franklin can do to top this. Right? This is about as good as it gets. Right? You know I’m going to say Wrong!

Guess who shows up? Ray Charles! And what do they do? They do “Spirit in the Dark” all over again! “Well I tell you what,” Franklin says to her guest, as she gets up from her piano, “why don’t you sit right here?” If this magic moment doesn’t get your blood pumping, I guess you shouldn’t have bought your Pacemaker at Walmart.

“Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” ends the record. It’s a snore, but it’s her good-night to the audience. She earned it.

Overall rating: Good God Almighty!

Young, Gifted and Black (1972)
This is the one with “Rock Steady,” another of her originals, and her cover of Weldon Irvine and Nina Simone’s civil-rights anthem “Young, Gifted and Black.” It also has the Jerry Butler/Otis Redding classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” a bass-heavy version with a gospel-tinged piano (well, everything she did in those years was gospel-tinged). And the wonder of “The Long and Winding Road.” Her interpretations of The Beatles are always interesting. Her interpretations of everyone are always interesting (except for Bread).

Amazing Grace (1972 – six months later)
If you honk because you love Jesus – even when you’re parked in your garage – you’ll find there’s no better way to cast your bread upon the waters than by cuing up Amazing Grace. Franklin shifts tectonic plates with her performance, particularly on “How I Got Over.” If there were a song like that about Maimonides, I might still be going to the synagogue on Saturdays.

The original release was a live, double LP with 14 tracks. The reissue has 27 tracks and vastly expands the number of announcements, introductions, and theological musings from the clergyman on duty. In the name of Our Lord Satan, please get the hell off of Aretha’s record.

Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) (1973)
This album usually gets panned, starting with its cover, which was drawn by a high school yearbook editor on mescaline. It’s also the last album before she gets totaled by disco. I can’t recommend it, but a few of the songs are worth a spin.

“Hey Now Hey” is fascinating, a stop-and-go, straight ballad and jazzy gospel infusion that’s a very different sound for her.

“Just Right Tonight” is an 8-minute funky blues in which Aretha doesn’t start singing until she’s three and a half minutes in. This song proves that Aretha Franklin could be Aretha Franklin plus she could be James Brown in her spare time.

“Master of Eyes,” the closer, isn’t great, but I note it because it would’ve fit perfectly on at least half a dozen blaxploitation soundtracks.

Sparkle (1976)
A forgotten movie about a fictional ’60s girl group. Music by Curtis Mayfield, except for “Jump,” which was written by Marcus Miller and Luther Vandross.

Mayfield is missing his Super Fly superpowers here. “Hooked on Your Love” is the only number that’s worthy of Franklin, though “I Get a High” (another Mayfield anti-drug number) is close. “Jump” is nowhere near as good as the hit version by The Pointer Sisters. Yes, somebody finally took a song away from her.

Sadly, the next Aretha Franklin record you should listen to is Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, and that won’t appear until 1985. I haven’t followed her career past ’85 because I’m afraid of what I’ll discover. But from approximately 1966 through 1973 you could find few women or men who could move us like Aretha Franklin. I don’t care that her two most downloaded songs are “Respect” and “Respect.” Thanks for still being here and still singing. Rock steady.



  1. Wm Seabrook says:

    Hey Nineteen
    That’s ‘Retha Franklin
    She don’t remember the Queen of Soul
    It’s hard times befallen
    The Soul Survivors
    She thinks I’m crazy
    But I’m just growin’ old

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