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: Mosi Reeves on the creative sparks that flew when Aretha met Curtis Mayfield.
When Aretha Franklin’s revelatory Southern soul collaborations with producer Jerry Wexler cooled in the early ’70s, she spent nearly a decade experimenting with different sounds. She remained a major presence on the Billboard R&B charts throughout the decade, but little she released had the same wide impact as her ’60s peak.
Sparkle was an oasis in this period. It was Franklin’s only album to be certified gold between 1972, the year of her Nina Simone-inspired Young, Gifted and Black, and her Luther Vandross-helmed comeback, 1982’s Jump to It. With its shimmering girl-group sound and urban gospel tone, Sparkle marked a final, shining moment for classic soul just before disco, funk and quiet storm took over the R&B charts for good. Album producer Curtis Mayfield – whose own career stretched from his breakout role in The Impressions to composing incendiary, socially-conscious works such as the Super Fly soundtrack and establishing the criminally-underrated Curtom imprint – would never write a major hit after Sparkle.
The origins of Franklin and Mayfield’s pairing are convoluted. Sparkle originated as a movie showcase for talented young actors like Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, Philip Michael Thomas (who later found fame on Miami Vice) and Dorian Harewood. Assembled by disco impresario Robert Stigwood’s RSO company, the film took dramatic cues from the legend of The Supremes as it plotted three sisters’ rise to fame in Harlem at the turn of the 1960s. In the film, Cara, McKee and Dwan Smith sang Mayfield’s numbers. However, he wanted an established star to voice the soundtrack LP. (A recording of the women’s performances has never been released.)
“[Mayfield] thought two of the actresses, Irene Cara and Lonette McKee, were excellent singers for the movie but wanted a more experienced R&B vocalist to cut the album,” Carolyn Franklin told David Ritz for his 2014 Aretha Franklin biography, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin. Carolyn – who nurtured a fledging solo career in addition to singing background for Aretha – asserted that she and Mayfield planned to cut the Sparkle songs but were thwarted by Aretha’s enthusiasm for the project. Bruised feelings abounded, not only with Carolyn (“It’s hard for me to talk about it now,” she said) but also with McKee, who had hoped the Sparkle soundtrack would establish her music career. (Cara, for her part, would later score dance-pop hits in the ’80s with “Fame” and “Flashdance … What a Feeling.”)
Despite the backroom machinations, the Sparkle recording sessions yielded marvelous results. The entire album is enveloped in orchestral strings, thanks to Rich Tufo’s lovingly detailed arrangements. Its high point is “Something He Can Feel,” a deeply sensual number underlined by bluesy, swaggering horns, flickering guitar and the Kitty Haywood Singers’ steady, supportive backing vocals. “Living in the world of ghetto life, everybody around seems so uptight,” Franklin shouts with assertiveness. “But nothing’s wrong, it’s all right with my man.”
“Something He Can Feel” was the album’s major pop hit, landing at number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 1992, modern day girl-group En Vogue turned their cover homage into an even bigger hit, peaking at number 3. Meanwhile, the peppery, popping funk riffs of “Jump” yielded some vintage Franklin vocalese as well as a buoyant chorus that the Pointer Sisters would swipe for 1984’s “Jump (For My Love).” And with its joyous interplay between Franklin and the Haywood singers – “What can I do with this feeling?” they ask with unfettered soul delight – “Hooked On Your Love” reflects the movie’s storyline of a girl-group on the rise.
But Sparkle‘s emotional centerpiece may be “I Get High.” As crisp, wintry strings swirl around her and horns blare like air-siren warnings, Franklin sings mournfully in self-pitying tones. Her performance reflects McKee’s character in the film, Sister Williams, and her descent into drug addiction. Aretha begins with a haunting, ear-piercing cry, then downshifts into a lament: “Woke up this morning, looking back over the darkness of my life.” The song unfolds for four thrilling minutes, with the singer switching between what feels like a horrific scream and an introspective tone full of regret. The chorus can barely admit to the pain she feels. “Sister gets… (yeah, she do) … sister gets… (sure do, y’all),” she and the Haywood Singers murmur.
Franklin’s vocal genius is evident throughout Sparkle, from the way she shivers “Hope you understand these feelings, baby, got me ree-ee-ling” on “Hooked On Your Love,” to her flirtatious lilt on “Look Into Your Heart,” and the way she pulses with vivacious energy on “Rock With Me.” Every track is an opportunity for her to unleash her pioneering vamp flourishes and transform Mayfield’s lyrics into a vehicle for pure self-expression. “Here’s an act who, totally within her own ability, could produce herself,” Mayfield later told Billboard magazine. Not for the last time, Sparkle proved Franklin’s ability to make every song hers, whether she wrote it or not.