This is the summer of 50th anniversaries in the music world.
It was 50 years ago over this last three days that the Beatles recorded “Hey Jude.” When they released it at the end of August, “Hey Jude” spent 7 weeks at number 1.
This is also the 50th anniversary of the zenith of Aretha Franklin’s amazing recording career at Atlantic Records. In January 1968, the Queen of Soul released “Lady Soul,” with the hits “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman,” “Ain’t No Way,” and “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You Been Gone.”
If that wasn’t enough, in June Aretha issued “Aretha Now,” solidifying her royal role. There was no one bigger in R&B or pop or just music. Any kind of music.
“Aretha Now” kicks off with “Think,” which she herself wrote (she penned a number of her own hits, and does not get enough credit. She also wrote “Daydreamin'” and “Rock Steady,” among others.) “Think” is followed by Aretha’s cover of her friend Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” — written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “Prayer” had been a million seller the previous autumn for Dionne. Aretha’s version was supposed to be a B side for “The House that Jack Built.” But it took off on its own, and today it’s a classic. It’s different enough from Dionne’s take that the two can live side by side.
There are only five tracks on side 1 of “Aretha Now” and those are the first two–what would be instant classics. The third track is a cover of Don Covay’s “See Saw,” which would itself see saw up the singles charts. Although Covay’s original was cemented in history, Aretha takes the song and makes it her own– just as she did on so many, in particular Otis Redding’s “Respect.” In coming years she’d reinvent Simon * Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem.” Her interpretations were the key readings songs never knew they needed.
Two more covers grace side 1– Ray Charles’ “Night Time is the Right Time” and Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” They are her waxed seals of approval.
Side 2 starts with “You’re a Sweet Sweet Man” was one of four songs Aretha recorded by Ronnie Shannon. Two of the others were big, big hits– “I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You” and “Baby I Love You.” This one may be its lesser cousin, but Aretha sings it with abandon– there’s a lightness in “Sweet Sweet Man.” She sounds happy, relieved.
“I Take What I Want” is a nod to Aretha’s birthplace, Memphis– written by Isaac Hayes and David Porter from Stax, with Hi Records’ soon-to-be legend Teenie Hodges. Cissy Houston and the Sweet Inspirations sing background as they do on all the tracks. Following the Shannon song, Jerry Wexler finds another deceptively light track. Side 2 is much less ponderous because of it. King Curtis’s tenor sax finds just the right attitude.
Track 3 is a bit of a lost gem, co-written by Curtis with Jimmy Cliff, who was not yet a star. “Hello Sunshine” in retrospect sounds like a top ten hit. But who knows? Wexler was already overwhelmed with riches. Maybe he let it sit there for five decades and a re-discovery. The same goes for the fourth track, “A Change,” a hand-clapping, foot stomping upbeat pop-gospel number that shifts the side’s tone on a dime.
Aretha charges forward. Wexler puts it there to remind you she’s not resting on her laurels. He lets “Aretha Now” end with a uptempo ballad, again by Shannon, that shows off Aretha’s range. Wexler, who’s also shepherding Dusty Springfield at this time, can out-Dusty with “I Can’t See Myself Leaving You”– her second declaration of freedom after “Think.” “I say we’re through,” Aretha sings. She’s not begging anyone to come back.
The Queen of Soul goes from “Aretha Now” to a two year period of thrilling, live recordings, key covers. Nothing prepares you, though, for a stunning new album of originals in 1970, “Spirit in the Dark,” which would kick off a second decade of Aretha landmarks.