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: Will Hermes on a late-’60s soul masterpiece.
I bought my copy of Lady Soul in the mid-’70s at my neighborhood record store in Queens for $2 – used but in perfect condition, a heavy black disc with the iconic red, white and green Atlantic label I knew from Led Zeppelin records. The front cover image was a concert close-up, soft-focus and regal: Aretha, bejeweled, with a mic in her manicured hand and a mighty up-do crown, so tall that the photo crops off the top. On the back cover were notes by Jon Landau, identified as a writer for Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone, a magazine roughly two months old when the album dropped in January 1968. She was, he announced, “bringing the soul message to new mass audiences.”
She sure was. I knew the lead track, “Chain of Fools,” a monster hit everywhere when I was in first grade, and an enduring radio staple that embossed itself on generations. Barack Obama, it’s worth recalling, quoted its lyrics to Aretha when they met. The word “chain” – its echo of slavery underscored by Roger Hawkins’ clanging cymbal work – is weaponized into a swaggering lovers’ rebuke; a sufferer testifying, gathering strength: “One of these mornings/The chain is gonna break/But up until the day/I’m gonna take all I can take.” It rocks like mad. So does “Niki Hoeky,” Aretha’s cover of a slim hit by Texas pop-rock journeyman P.J. Proby that pretty much erases his original. “Come Back Baby” matches Ray Charles’ 1954 version and then some.
Yet it was two downtempo numbers that struck me deepest, both slight songs on the surface. “Groovin'” was a ’67 number one hit by the Young Rascals, written by Lou Reed’s Syracuse University schoolmate Felix Cavaliere. The Muscle Shoals crew smooths and deepens the original’s Afro-Cuban-tinged groove, and Aretha soars over top, luxuriating in the titular oo‘s, stretching them out, following the hypothesis that “life could be ecstasy” with a window-shattering highnote. This is pop repurposing with jazz-like savvy. The backing singers’ “Sunday Sunday” aside is a winking echo of “Monday, Monday,” the Mamas and the Papas’ 1966 number one; Aretha’s tossed off “you send me” is an obvious nod to the Number One hit by her soul brother Sam Cooke, shot dead in an altercation just over three years prior – a sidewalk bloodstain beneath the airy summer anthem.
And then there was “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a hit for Aretha, though I don’t think the song registered in my consciousness until I heard it sung by its author, Carole King, on her 1971 Tapestry, an album my sister played constantly, along with millions of other blue-jeaned teenagers. It fascinated and puzzled me, as a 12-year-old boy – what was this “natural woman”? King’s seemed to be barefoot and liberated, discovering new freedoms in post-’60s Southern Cali bohemia. Aretha I imagined on an altar, surrounded by a string orchestra and a gospel choir – a black woman claiming her own freedom, sexual and political, as a sacred space, while giving thanks to a lover-ally. It’s an emotional disrobing infused with a double-helix of pain and joy, and decades later it would bring Obama to tears when she sang it at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. Like all her best work, the rest of Lady Soul included, it will endure.