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: Elias Leight on an underrated turning point in Aretha’s career.
By commercial standards, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky) was a precipitous failure in 1973: Not only was it Aretha Franklin’s first Atlantic Records release to miss the Top 25, it failed to sell even 500,000 copies, a paltry total compared to its predecessor, the double-platinum gospel insta-classic Amazing Grace. But Hey Now Hey was a necessity, a pivotal LP that prevented aesthetic stagnation and cleared a path for much of Franklin’s subsequent vital work.
Leading into Hey Now Hey, Franklin had been working at an unrelenting pace, recording enough material for 11 albums on Atlantic since 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. (During those years, her former label Columbia also released two additional Franklin LPs composed primarily of old songs, further flooding the market.) This period spawned most of the Franklin canon, but her formula was beginning to wear thin. Every LP on Atlantic was produced or co-produced by label head Jerry Wexler, and each one took several already-familiar hits and made them over in Aretha’s image.
Hey Now Hey was anything but formulaic – at times, in fact, it’s more like a mess. But it’s a bold mess. There’s a looseness that is rarely felt on Franklin LPs, which are usually closely regulated even as they make room for her daredevil, improvisatory vocal runs. You can feel the singer stretching out in her choice of material: There are no Beatles covers here, no renditions of Burt Bacharach and Hal David tunes, no versions of well-known Southern soul hits.
You can feel her stretching literally, too, pushing past conventional pop song structures. Two tracks on Hey Now Hey are more than six minutes long, while two others exceed seven minutes. This didn’t happen on any other Franklin LP over the course of a career that included releases from the 1950s to the 2010s.
In place of short songs that were already market-tested, Franklin bit into several tunes with shifting, intricate structures. She opens the album with the title track, which begins with a funk vamp that nods to her classic sound before darting into a lengthy digression, maddeningly slow and entrancingly beautiful. “Hey Now Hey” serves as a warning for the attentive listener, a guarantee of unpredictability.
Better known and even more impressive is the one hit that came out on the original version of Hey Now Hey: “Angel,” a sumptuous, multi-part single overflowing with rich melodic forays. This is a precursor to the complex, turn-on-a-dime ballads that ruled in the Quiet Storm era, beloved by Franklin’s new producer Quincy Jones — for evidence of his interest in the form, consult another one of his productions, Michael Jackson’s “The Lady in My Life” — and hated by Wexler, who liked his soul straight with no chaser. Sure enough, Wexler called Hey Now Hey “a disappointment.”
That’s an odd sentiment, considering that the album would be worth it solely for “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha,” on which Franklin hijacks a Bobby Womack song and explodes it from within. Her version is at once utterly laid-back — she luxuriates in every one of these seven minutes — and recklessly urgent, simultaneously a plea for empathy and a reassertion of romantic devotion. The cooled-out horn accompaniment and prominent rim-shot beat anticipate the nostalgic sound of Nineties neo-soul, and Franklin multi-tracks her voice into piercing clusters that burst and fade just as they threaten to overwhelm.
The brightness of “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” is not enough to hide songs like “So Swell When Your Well” and “Sister From Texas,” which are bluesy throwaways. But a couple of duds is a small price to pay for escaping redundancy. Though Franklin would work with Wexler again, the great successes of the later part of her career would stem from creative partnerships with Curtis Mayfield (1976’s Sparkle), Luther Vandross (1982’s Jump to It), Narada Michael Walden (1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who?) and Lauryn Hill (1998’s “A Rose Is Still a Rose”). None of those would exist without the off-kilter example of Hey Now Hey.