When I think about Aretha Franklin, I think about ecstasy: the feeling of completely abandoning the self, a state of expanded consciousness achieved through heightened concentration and profound emotion. For thousands of years, religion, drugs, and music (or some combination of the three) have proven reliable fuel for ecstatic experiences, as documented in writing ranging from terrible to sublime. In an example from the latter category, Milan Kundera uses the act of making music to explain this mystical state: “The boy banging on the keyboard feels … a sorrow, or a delight, and the emotion rises to such a pitch of intensity that it becomes unbearable: the boy flees into the state of blindness and deafness where everything is forgotten, even oneself. Through ecstasy, emotion reaches its climax, and thereby at the same time its negation.”
That last sentence is particularly important to understanding Aretha. For her, making music always seemed to be a way to remember and to forget; to center herself and to distract from herself; to take control and to surrender. Like each of us, Aretha was complicated. Like my other favorite American Walt Whitman, she contradicts herself, she is large, she contains multitudes. Like no one else, Aretha had the voice and ability to express herself in a way that absolutely crystallizes how it feels to be powerful and powerless at the same time. In one particularly affecting moment in Respect, Ritz’ second biography of Aretha, he quotes her older sister Erma recalling Aretha’s first solo in their father’s church. She was 10 and her mother had suddenly passed away, four years after leaving her father, Aretha, and her siblings Cecil, Erma, and Carolyn:
“[Aretha] stood behind the piano and looked out…there might have been a couple of thousand people in attendance that day — and paused before starting. I wondered if she could do it. We all knew she had a beautiful voice, but we also knew she had been an emotional mess all week. It took her a minute to get it together, but when she did it, it all came pouring out. The transition was incredible. She transformed her extreme pain to extreme beauty. That’s my sister’s gift. She had it as a child and has never lost it, not for a second.”
Aretha’s talents were apparent early on, and she needed no tutelage. Even as a child, whether singing or playing the piano by ear, her technical skills and stylistic instincts were so perfect as to seem uncanny. Her home environment nurtured those gifts and acknowledged their significance. In 1946 her father, the Reverend Clarence LaVaughn “C.L.” Franklin, moved the Franklins from Memphis to Detroit to lead New Bethel Baptist, where he became a figure of considerable spiritual, social, and cultural renown. The likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Della Reese, and Nat King Cole jammed at the Franklins’ house, as well as future Motown stars Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross and gospel legends like Mahalia Jackson and the Reverend James Cleveland, who taught Aretha her first piano chords. Aretha spent her formative years immersed in music and part of a community where black pride, power, and agency were both preached and practiced: C.L.’s God was a God of justice, grace, and equity, and he used his position as the head of his church to lift up the community, hiring black workers and artisans; preaching black liberation theology and other progressive politics; and signal-boosting emerging civil rights leaders.
The home C.L. created cultivated Aretha’s talent and awakened her ambition — but on top of the loss of her mother left her home life feeling shifty, unstable, and temporary. It changed Aretha, pushing her deep into herself early on. Erma’s description of Aretha’s first solo suggests that Aretha immediately and innately understood that music could be her safe place to express unsafe feelings. Her entire body of work is a testament to that truth — particularly her astounding 12-year, 19-album run on Atlantic Records.
Released on the heels of splashier albums like I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You (VMP Essentials #84) and Lady Soul, Aretha Now is often — and unfortunately — overlooked in her body of work. I find this album to be interesting and important because it does in 10 songs what her handlers at Columbia spent six years trying to do: demonstrate her ability to sing anything and everything without reading as gimmicky or unfocused like so many of her early albums, which ping-ponged from jazz, to Broadway standards, to novelty songs, resembling a person trying a series of keys in a door in an attempt to determine which one will unlock it. Aretha Now is an evolved — and effortless-sounding — showcase of her range and versatility; her ability to not only elevate any song she sang, but to make it completely hers in such a way that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing it.
With the exception of album highlight “Think” (credited to Aretha and Ted White, but in truth, all her), every song on Aretha Now is a well-chosen cover. At this point in her career, she had enough experience under her belt — as did her producers and managers — to make savvy choices when it came to selecting the songs to make her own, picking ones that would afford her opportunities to reframe an audience’s perception of a familiar tune, or find the pathos in a seemingly banal pop song. When it comes to covers, think of Aretha Now as her victory lap after a race where she blew past Otis Redding — after transforming “Respect” from a wheedling lament into a take-no-shit feminist anthem — and Sam Cooke, with a version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” that sounds like she’s determined to bring about the change herself. Her cover of Burt Bacharach’s “I Say A Little Prayer” (which producer Jerry Wexler advised her not to record, given how recently Dionne Warwick had made the song a hit; thankfully, Aretha didn’t listen to him) is an album standout. Aretha’s version strips away the shiny gloss that typically shellacs Bacharach songs; she sounds wistful, slightly haunted — a stark difference from Warwick’s smooth interpretation. Throughout the album, but especially on this song, the Sweet Inspirations’ backing vocals lend reverence and power; they don’t merely affirm Aretha, but enter into conversation with her, providing meaningful commentary and context of their own, like a gospel song or a Greek chorus. Aretha found something raw and unhealed here, and Bacharach himself deemed hers the definitive version.
Aretha Now was released in June 1968: the middle of a year characterized by national and global unrest, and a tumultuous time for Aretha personally and professionally. Wexler was pushing Aretha to capitalize on the momentum they’d generated together, encouraging her to record as many songs as she could as quickly as she could. Ted White was becoming more violent and increasingly cavalier when it came to caring who knew or saw it (in 1967, Aretha missed a performance for what Jet called an “eye injury suffered in a fall”). C.L. Franklin had recently been indicted for tax evasion and was still living and preaching in Detroit, where racial tension that had been building for years began to manifest in riots. By the time Aretha Now was released, Aretha would sing “Precious Lord” at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral; two months later, she’d be in Chicago singing the national anthem at the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention and finally leaving Ted for good, naming her brother Cecil as her new manager in the wake of their separation.
You can hear what had happened — and what was happening — to her in Aretha Now. In “Night Time Is The Right Time,” best associated with Ray Charles, she’s seeking comfort in a lover after the death of her mother; “You’re A Sweet Sweet Man” is written from the perspective of a woman who knows she should leave a man who’s bewitched her, body and soul; the Steve Cropper and Don Covay-penned “See Saw” concerns a woman who never knows where she stands with her lover, who sometimes lifts her up and sometimes sends her “tumbling to the ground.” (It’s worth noting that Franklin said of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” the happiest song she ever sang about a man, that she sang it thinking of her relationship with God.). However, in true Aretha fashion, no matter the song’s subject matter, she always sounds centered and powerful, sometimes hopeful and, occasionally, joyful. Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd’s precise, polished, and inventive arrangements go a long way toward achieving that effect, especially on the cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Hello Sunshine”: the best song on the album that isn’t “Think.” Aretha’s cover sounds like a woman welcoming spring after a 100-year winter, a husband home from war, a savior into her heart. In her voice, seeing the sun sounds like a hard-earned victory; a feeling only someone who’s intimately known darkness can elicit.
You could say the same of “Think,” the album’s best, best-known, and most enduring track — a song that can easily be read as a demand for either personal agency or social progress (to wit, it was released as a single one month after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral and immediately adopted as a civil rights anthem). Although she had always been outspoken advocate for progressive politics, by her own admission, Aretha never set out to write a civil rights or feminist anthem — but it feels natural to view “Think” through that lens. In her lyrics and her delivery, you can hear toughness born out of resilience: a reflection of her personal life, but more broadly (and inseparably), the experience of being a black woman in America. After he was caught wiping away tears during Aretha’s stunning performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, President Barack Obama commented, “Nobody embodies more fully the connection between the African-American spiritual, the blues, R&B, rock and roll — the way that hardship and sorrow were transformed into something full of beauty and vitality and hope. American history wells up when Aretha sings. That’s why, when she sits down at a piano and sings ‘A Natural Woman,’ she can move me to tears.” Aretha once described her own singing as “me with my hand outstretched, hoping someone will take it.” She may have gone above and beyond to control her image and her story, but like a preacher, Aretha understood that a powerful voice is simultaneously yours alone, and also never yours. She wouldn’t have the same effect on people without the experiences that shaped her and her otherworldly talent, but ironically, those two things — the very things that made her a powerful messenger — cede control of the message to the audience; when she sings, we feel it so deeply that it’s easy to write our own aches, desires, and dreams over her own. And for a thousand reasons, maybe part of her wanted it that way. When Aretha sang, she was no one, herself, and everyone.