When I was an innocent 17-year-old freshman, a black grad student I met invited me to play guitar at this “discussion group” he “chaired” at a downtown Pittsburgh “hall.” Well, that sounded good enough, so one evening I went to the address he gave me and found myself the only white person — youngest to boot — in the middle of a Pittsburgh-ghetto-preaching and shouting non-denominational-holy rollering one-preacher-30-parishoner-store-front church.
My grad student friend was the one preacher.
He stepped up to the pulpit to face his flock, and immediately you could feel the religious energy in the room start to build. First he said isn’t it nice the way all God’s children can come together and raise their voices on high to the glory of God. A-men. Amen. That’s right, and he said when we all get together, all God’s children, and sing unto Him, I know His light shines upon us. That’s right. Amen.
Next he’s introducing brother Isaac Turner who’s gonna play the-organ for us while we sing His praises: Brother Isaac. And Brother Isaac sits down and stomps on that organ, and Reverend Thomas sings the first line of his song and the congregation sings its answer, and he shouts the next line and they shout back, and ten verses later, when he had done all the hymnal verses, when Brother Issac was wailing that organ away, when you were jumpin’ up and down just to keep from getting knocked over by the people rollin’ on the floor, at that height of religious pandemonium, Reverend Thomas started testifying … singing his soul out to the Lord, confessing, shouting: testifying with the heart’s words his love supreme for the Almighty.
And that’s just where Aretha Franklin starts to sing. Whether denying her man’s two-timing or declaring her love for him, Aretha makes her song sound like a “testifying” of her feelings.
This is the spirit she lavished on “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “See Saw” and the like, and which has been sorely missed since her Aretha 69 album. That record saw her strapped to a big band jazz format in a concerted but somehow unexciting effort; maybe it just never stood a chance following her hard stuff. The next album, This Girl’s in Love With You, was back to soul grits, but smelled like something had gone amiss in the kitchen. It was concocted from cuts which had probably been lying around in the can, refried hits of white groups — “Let It Be,” “Elanor Rigby,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “The Weight” — and one Aretha original, “Call Me.” Spice with uninspired arrangements and vocals. Cook at below standard temperature (for Muscle Shoals). Serve tepid.
But, Aretha fans, relief has arrived. Spirit in the Dark has the soul (and spirit) of the Aretha Franklin we all know and love. The Queen has made a strong return to her gospel roots, and therein lies the success of this album. Cut after cut is underlined by her rolling, gospel piano on solid fills and funky solos. Aretha’s piano work on “The Thrill is Gone” typifies her unique gospel way of interpreting blues material. She delivers her message tersely and, incredibly, maintains the musical tension and aura of desperation which haunt the tune.
I don’t know what to say, what to single out, about the arrangements on this album. They possess a kind of soul freakishness in their constant flow of fresh ideas and subtle, stoney effects hidden under layers of innocent-sounding, hard-ass, rocking soul. The do-wah-bop-sha-bang girls (besides singing in shimmering harmony) pop up at weird moments to offer words of advice or warning when Aretha makes a particularly impassioned confession of love. Sort of a latter day Greek Chrous in their effect. Other remarkable feats of arrangement: steadily rising, ass-kicking climax on almost every tune, guided by the sure hand (foot?) of master musicians and producers. If the MGs were at their best under Otis Redding, these various bands sound best under Aretha. Yup, she pulled a good performance out of everyone on these sessions.
Aretha wrote five of the tunes on this album and all are strong compositions and excellent vehicles for her. The standouts, “Pullin” and “Spirit in the Dark” are masterpieces of composition and performance. Why “Don’t Play That Song” was chosen over either of them for the single release is beyond me. Only two tunes here have been hits previously (both by B. B. King). “The Thrill is Gone,” and “Why I Sing the Blues,” and both, if you believe it’s possible, are more chillingly done than the originals.
‘Nuf said about Spirit in the Dark. If you’re into Aretha’s singing you already know the majesty and supreme power she’s capable of. Its all here: sweet soul music done as only Aretha Franklin can do it.
Turns out Reverend Thomas played a pretty mean game of tennis too.