Sunday, August 19, 2018

Angelic voices, #4: Aretha Franklin performs before Barack Obama and Carole King

Aretha Franklin had a voice and a career without parallel among soul vocalists. 

Like many other black singers, Franklin learned her craft in a place of worship, the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, where her father was the pastor. By the age of 14, she already had the It Factor, as heard in this gospel recording from 1956. 

When Franklin was 21, her first major-label album, "Laughing on the Outside," was released by Columbia Records. Opinions vary on her Columbia catalog, which leaned on pop and jazz arrangements. What's undeniable is that she found her stride, commercially and artistically, after leaving Columbia and signing with Atlantic Records in the mid-'60s. As detailed in the wonderful documentary "Muscle Shoals," Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler brought Franklin together with the Swampers, a crack team of Southern R & B studio musicians. The results were a string of timeless hits:  "Chain of Fools," "Think," "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman," "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," "Respect," and the crown jewel, "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," below.

This period would serve as a trampoline for a magnificent career that would include 112 singles in the Billboard top 200, 75 million records sold, and Franklin becoming the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

Unlike many entertainers who play it safe to line their pockets, Franklin made her humanistic values clear, singing at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral, Jimmy Carter's inaugural, both of Bill Clinton's inaugurals, and Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony. Among Franklin's most dramatic public performances was her rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman" in 2015 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where Carole King, among others, was receiving a lifetime achievement award. King's delight at this startling tribute is moving, as is the presence of our elegant first lady and president, whose preternatural cool melts at the beauty of it all. This moment combined some of the best elements of America, from the the marriage of Brill Building songwriting and gospel to the fruits of the civil rights movement to the unification of a large crowd of people from very diverse backgrounds that only music can provide. Aretha was, quite simply, the most transcendent singer this country has produced. 

                                           Other "Truth and Beauty" vocalist profiles: 

                        There must be something in the water:  the magic of "Muscle Shoals" 

             A look back at "Strange Fruit" on the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth

Angelic voices, #3:  Janis Joplin sings "Cry Baby"