At the time, Franklin was going through a commercial drought: Her last Top 20 crossover hit was released in 1974, and she hadn’t had much success with the disco wave that was sweeping the nation. Robinson was also several years removed from a pop hit, though his 1975 LP A Quiet Storm proved to be one of the most influential R&B albums of the Seventies, and few months after this performance, “Cruisin” went Top Five.
In December of 1979, Soul Train aired a “Salute to Aretha Franklin.” Though the title suggests that Franklin’s catalog will be the center of attention, host Don Cornelius had something else in mind. “Normally, I guess our audience would expect you to sing a medley or sing one of your songs,” he says, but instead, he asks Franklin to sing one of Robinson’s tunes “as a change of pace.” “Wait a minute, now,” Robinson interjects, and Cornelius backtracks slightly. “I don’t mean it like that,” he says.
Though Franklin has a heap of solo hits to choose from, she graciously acquiesces to her host’s request and starts playing “Ooo Baby Baby,” the indelible Miracles hit from 1965, on the piano. The whole singing portion of her performance lasts just two minutes, but it’s a shocking display of casual virtuosity, and the tossed-off, effortless quality of the vocals somehow makes their beauty even more overwhelming.
Franklin sings with unhurried grace, stretching and re-making words as she goes: “Pay” is smeared over four glorious beats. Franklin’s remarkable range makes it easy for her to imbue other writer’s songs with new meaning, and here she moves fluidly between a conversational, bluesy delivery and acrobatic displays of melisma, adding dynamics to “Ooo Baby Baby” that weren’t present in the original.
While Franklin and Robinson both possess inimitable voices, they also have a rare gift for team play, an understanding of what it’s like to sing in a group setting. Robinson lets Franklin handle the first melodic vamp before adding gentle harmonies on the second; when Franklin passes the lead to her partner for the second verse, she starts to add sighing, wordless ad-libs behind him. The pair haven’t practiced together enough to synchronize their harmonies, but the slight sense of skew is pleasing, a glimpse of vulnerability amidst all the vocal perfection. They end the song by trading twirling falsetto lines.
“We should have been a duo,” Franklin quips at one point. “It’s not too late,” Robinson replies charmingly. But sadly an album’s worth of duets never came to be. Both performers enjoyed a commercial resurgence as solo stars in the 1980s. Franklin left her longtime label, Atlantic Records, for Clive Davis’ Arista Records, and she cracked the Top 20 three times in 1985.