Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16th at age 76, recorded more than 40 full-length albums in her six-decade career. It’s a deep catalog, crowded with indisputable classics and hidden gems. Rolling Stone’s music staff is paying its R.E.S.P.E.C.T.s to the Queen with tributes to our favorite Aretha LPs. Next up: Kory Grow on her second great album of the year 1968.
By the time Aretha Now arrived in the summer of 1968, Aretha Franklin was on one of pop music’s great winning streaks. She’d already redefined soul music with the previous year’s brilliant I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You; scored hit single after hit single with “Respect,” “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools” and a rave-up rendition of the Stones’ “Satisfaction”; and released another all-time classic LP, Lady Soul, just a few months earlier, in January 1968. On paper, then, Aretha Now might look like a rush job or a place-holder. But this is Aretha.
As usual in this era, her collaborators were top-notch. Producer Jerry Wexler, who’d helped transform Franklin into a pop megastar, was still behind the mixing desk. Depending on the song, the band featured Bobby Womack on guitar (those are his wailing blues bends on “A Change”), a few Muscle Shoals legends (keyboardist Spooner Oldham, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and groovemaster general Roger Hawkins on drums) and the Sweet Inspirations on backup vocals. It’s an all-star production before Franklin even steps in front of the mic.
But of course it’s Franklin who makes this record unforgettable. The showstopper is “Think,” the Number One R&B hit on which Franklin puts a full-of-himself man in his place, warning him, “Freedom stands for freedom … think about it!” If you were to isolate the vocals and take out the funky piano and blaring horns, you’d hear confidence, plain and simple – the sound of a woman who won’t take no for an answer. It’s awe-inspiring, and it’s no wonder her performance of the song years later in The Blues Brothers became an iconic film moment. Then she does a 180. Less than a year after Dionne Warwick scored a Number Four pop hit with “I Say a Little Prayer,” Aretha strips the song of its easy-listening affectations and summons the song’s inherent emotion. She lets the Sweet Inspirations do a lot of the heavy lifting in the chorus, only because she sounds so weepy in the rest of it. She’s divined the soul from the song. You want to answer her prayer.
She glides from mood to mood with similar ease, constantly hitting her marks. On “See Saw” (a Number 14 pop hit), she’s confused and emotionally abused. She sounds like a woman on the hunt on the Isaac Hayes-penned “I Take What I Want”; she stretches Jimmy Cliff’s “Hello Sunshine” from a jittery reggae number into a barnburner; and on the Number Three R&B hit “I Can’t See Myself Leaving You,” she sounds like she’s just trying to keep it together. (But don’t worry too much: She still has that trademark self-assurance beaming through her voice.)
On her brilliant interpretation of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” she sounds enraptured, cooing words like “You thrill me” and shouting at the top of her lungs “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah” when she wants to get married. It’s also worth noting that Franklin, who possessed one of the most stirring voices in recorded history, might be the only other singer worthy of singing a Sam Cooke song.
She quickly followed up Aretha Now with new work, capping 1968 with her live debut, Aretha in Paris, and keeping her studio momentum going with Soul ’69 that January – that time twisting Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” into a bluesy floor-stomper and brilliantly reworking Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” into a slow-simmering guitar ballad. Decades later, though, Aretha Now endures as one of her most transcendent performances. Think (think, think) about it.