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: Rob Sheffield on the magic moment when Aretha met Luther.
No star has ever glittered with as much goddess dust as Aretha Franklin in the 1980s. She’d never exactly been low-profile, but this was when the world fully caught up with her. Eighties Aretha was like Nineties Neil Young, Sixties Sinatra or twenty-first century Springsteen — one of those moments where a living legend finds herself suddenly back in fashion, worshipped by a new generation of young fans, and gets inspired to go off on a creative hot streak. Jump To It, from 1982, was easily her best album in a decade: Lady Soul dressed up in the most glam Quiet Storm R&B finery, produced by Luther Vandross. He epitomized a wave of fans who’d grown up adoring the Queen, and Jump To It was the comeback album he’d spent years dreaming she’d make. He wasn’t alone.
Luther was the hot young R&B romantic on the radio, with hits like “Never Too Much.” But what he wanted to do with all his newfound clout was craft a love letter to his idol. “Jump To It” was her first Top 40 hit in years, an uptempo stomp where she dishes the dirt with the girls, or as she puts it, “giving each other the 411 on who drop-kicked who this week.” Like the rest of the album, the song showed off her recharged confidence, her humor, her middle-aged sex drive, her absolute assurance that this time she was making a record worthy of her powers.
Jump To It has the magic that can happen when a superfan gets to thank one of their heroes — think of Jack White producing Loretta Lynn’s 2004 Van Lear Rose or Johnny Winters doing the honors for Muddy Waters on 1980’s Hard Again. Luther told anyone who’d listen he was making music because of Aretha. For him, she summed up the whole soul tradition. As he put it in a 1982 interview with Black Collegian magazine, “There is a marked difference between Black families and white families. To me the difference is this: in white families, the mother and the father like Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli and the sons like Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, whereas in Black families the mother loves Aretha Franklin and the sons and daughters love Aretha Franklin.”
Weirdly (or not), it was David Bowie who brought them together. When Bowie was in Philly making his 1975 soul trip Young Americans, he heard a kid in the hallway singing along — the totally unknown Luther, a childhood friend of Bowie’s new guitarist Carlos Alomar. Luther had zero professional experience, but dropped by the studio to visit Alomar. As soon as Bowie heard him, he recruited him on the spot, put him on the mic, and cut him in on the songwriting credits. When he went on tour, he took Luther as his opening act. The first night, the audience got restless and chanted for Bowie. Luther wanted to quit. “Bowie said, ‘Please. Later for these people. Later for them. You go out there and get your art together.'” Luther took his advice and stayed on the tour. Within a few years, he was producing Bowie’s idol. As the old song goes, she wanted the young American.
Like Lou Reed, another Sixties veteran born in March 1942, Aretha celebrated the big 4-0 in style, with an adult grit that suited a singer who’d never quite sounded young or innocent. (Lou Reed’s equivalent comeback was The Blue Mask, with punk guitar god Robert Quine and bassist Fernando Saunders sharing the Vandross role.) Her mood is festive, as she drops asides like “Tell her, come see Sugar Ray Aretha.” “(It’s Just) Your Love” deserved to be a smash — a slick valentine flattering all the contours of her voice — while “Love Me Right” is a Luther pas a deux where the Queen knows her partner can keep up with her. “Make It Up To You” is a fond duet with the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, an expert ham who never needed encouragement to chew the scenery.
But the clincher is the lush finale, “Just My Daydream,” written for her by Smokey Robinson, another old-school soul survivor from Detroit. The Smokey/Aretha bond ran deep — witness their beautifully spontaneous 1979 duet on Soul Train. You can hear that in “Just My Daydream”: the bittersweet romance of his melody, the affectionate way she toys with his intricate rhymes. A year after Jump To It, the Big Chill soundtrack would make both Aretha and Smokey even bigger. It was an anthology of then-underplayed Sixties oldies that unexpectedly blew up into one of the decade’s most influential blockbusters. “Just My Daydream” is a ballad that flatters them both.
Aretha built on the modern sound of Jump To It as she racked up more Eighties hits — the salacious “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” (“You will remember my name — I’m the one who beat you at your game”), the frisky “Jimmy Lee,” the disco filth-fest “Freeway of Love,” the unjustly forgotten break-up jam “Another Night.” (“I’m where the music is loud! And the people are la-ha-ha-haughing!“) This comeback turned out to be permanent. How much mystique did Aretha exude in the 1980s? Let’s put it this way: When Whitney Houston scored her breakthrough smash “How Will I Know,” an explicit “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” tribute (from the same producer, Narada Michael Walden), she had a video screen close-up of Aretha in the video, so Whitney could sing the line “I’m asking you because you know about these things” directly to Lady Soul Herself. We knew how Whitney felt. We all brought our deepest questions to Aretha, because she really did know about these things. Whitney was no slouch in the diva-attitude department, even then, but she knew damn well whose ring she needed to kiss. When Aretha said jump, the entire world jump-jump-jumped to it.