Reviewed on this page:
Her First Twelve Sides - Unforgettable - I Never Loved A Man - Aretha Arrives - Lady Soul - Aretha In Paris -
Aretha Now - Soul '69 -
This Girl's In Love With You - Spirit In The Dark - Live At Fillmore
West - Young, Gifted and Black - Amazing Grace -
Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) - Let Me In Your Life -
Rare & Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign Of The Queen Of Soul -
Everything I Feel In Me - You - Sparkle - Sweet Passion
- Almighty Fire - La Diva
- Aretha (1980) - Love All The Hurt Away - Jump To It - Get It Right - Who's Zoomin' Who? - Aretha (1986) - One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism - Through The Storm
- What You See Is What You Sweat - A Rose Is Still A Rose -
So Damn Happy - This Christmas
Aretha Franklin, a preacher's daughter from Detroit, started out
singing gospel as a young child (like so many other black future
pop and soul stars). She made her first gospel records in the 50's
(in her mid-teens), then went pop with a series of
unsuccessful early 60s albums for Columbia. In 1967 she was signed
to Atlantic Records and recorded a bunch of gritty R&B sides (with
the Muscle Shoals rhythm section) that made her reputation. Since
the early 70s Franklin has recorded soul, pop and gospel with
varying degrees of success - she still has a hit single or duet
from time to time - but at her brief zenith she was the world's
foremost soul practioner, and did more than any artist besides James Brown to bring unvarnished, funky R&B
into the musical mainstream.
I've got Franklin's autobiography, which I reviewed on our book review page, and I caught her 2003
tour, which I've reviewed on our concert review page.
And without a shred of serious intent, I've compared songs sung by Franklin, Dionne Warwick
and Diana Ross on our Diva Demolition Derby page.
Note: Make sure you get the recent Rhino reissues, which have terrific liner notes and occasional bonus tracks.
Her First Twelve Sides (rec. 1960, rel. 1971)
According to the liner notes on my LP, this collection of single sides
wasn't released until well after Franklin hit the big time.
Nevertheless, it's a lot of fun - a vocal jazz record with a strong
blues influence. The small combo atmosphere (featuring Spike's father
Bill Lee on bass; Aretha plays piano on four tracks) leaves lots of room
for Franklin, and her voice is at its most earthy and engaging. Half the
tunes are by Johnny McFarland, including the fine blues shouter "Won't
Be Long" and the contemplative "(Blue) By Myself." The six standards are
less consistent: she gives a magnificent performance of the gospel "Are
You Sure," but seems unsure of herself on the Gershwin's "It Ain't
Necessarily So," and doesn't add anything new to "Over The Rainbow."
Though far from the funky R&B of her best-known work, and she doesn't write any of the tunes, this is an extraordinary testimony to how well developed her talent was at the age of 18. (DBW)
Her secular recording debut, on Columbia. (DBW)
The Electrifying Aretha Franklin (1962)
Laughing On The Outside (1963)
The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin (1963)
Running Out Of Fools (1964)
Contains a cover of Bacharach and David's "Walk On By." (DBW)
A tribute to Dinah Washington, done up in big band jazz style. Franklin's singing is far smoother and less individual than her later work - it's pleasant rather than moving - and you can smell the mothballs on worn standards like the title track and "What A Diff'rence A Day Made" (for comparison see India's full-throttle 1996 version). She's most effective on the blues belters ("Nobody Knows The Way I Feel This Morning" and "Evil Gal Blues") and the mournful "This Bitter Earth." The arrangements, by Robert Mersey, are pretty much by the book, except for some curiously dissonant strings. The CD rerelease contains a bonus track, Ted White's "Lee Cross." (DBW)
Songs Of Faith (1964)
In Person (1965)
Soul Sister (1966)
Winding up six hitless years at Columbia, Franklin switched to
Atlantic after this release. (DBW)
I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You (1967)
- Franklin's first Atlantic recording is a classic from start
to finish. The covers are very strong: "Respect" is still her best-known recording, and there are also powerful interpretations of Ray
Charles's "Drown In My Own Tears" and Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna
Come." But the original material is even stronger: "Dr. Feelgood"
is an incomparable performance, "Save Me" is smoking R&B, and "Baby
Baby Baby" is a tender ballad. She also had hits with the title
track and "Do Right Man - Do Right Woman." Throughout, the Muscle
Shoals rhythm section - directed by Franklin on piano - is
sensitive and solid. Do yourself a favor and pick this up.
- Like the next few records, this was produced by Jerry Wexler
and engineered by Tom Dowd. They milk a fat, sassy Stax-Volt sound
out of the horn and rhythm sections, and a few tunes are graced
with fine female choruses. It's good, with several total classics
like "Do Right..." But a lot of it is pedestrian mid-60s soul, and
there are better Stax-Volt records out there. (JA)
Aretha Arrives (1967)
This was rushed out after the amazing success of her first Atlantic
record, and it's patchy -- Aretha didn't write anything, and her
sister Carolyn contributes just one tune: the thumping "Ain't
Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around)." The sinuous midtempo "Baby, I Love
You" was the only single; the traditional "Going Down Slow" is also
terrific, perhaps her best blues vocal. There are a lot of covers,
some of which, like Willie Nelson's "Night Life," work better than
you'd ever think possible. Others, like "You Are My Sunshine" and
"That's Life," don't quite come off despite her impassioned vocals.
She continues to follow Otis Redding's
lead, covering the Rolling Stones'
"Satisfaction" in a soul version not unlike Redding's 1965 take.
Lady Soul (1968)
- Hits galore: "(You Make Me Feel
Like) A Natural Woman," Don Covay's "Chain Of Fools," and the
incredible groove "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone"
written by Franklin and then-husband Ted White. In addition, the
album features the fine soul ballad "Good To Me As I Am To You"
with Eric Clapton on guitar, "Ain't No
Way" by Aretha's sister Carolyn, and several classy covers -
there's a lot of variety here. (DBW)
- Although the Stax-Volt sound is still unmistakable here,
it's considerably modernized: a heavier guitar sound, more
sophisticated orchestration, occasional percussion, and most
importantly, freer, more Jamerson-like bass playing. But it's not really
an improvement, and it doesn't have the historical import
of her Atlantic debut record. Aretha only wrote two numbers, and
sources include Ray Charles ("Come Back Baby"), Curtis Mayfield
("People Get Ready"), and James Brown
("Money Won't Change You"). There's also a take on the Rascals'
monster 1967 hit "Groovin'," with flute and cheesy organ failing to
ruin Aretha's classy performance. Just to cover all its bets,
Atlantic followed the three major Top 10 hit singles with "Ain't No
Way," and it too hit the Top 40. (JA)
Aretha Now (1968)
Once again, a mix of soulful new material and more popwise covers.
The formula starting to lose some of its freshness, but it's still
pretty effective. Much of the new material is first-rate: Aretha's
magnificent "Think," Ronnie Shannon's funky "Sweet Sweet Man" and
mournful "I Can't See Myself Leaving You." The covers are more
uneven: "Night Time Is The Right Time," another Ray Charles hit,
and Sam Cooke's "You Send Me" are professionally done but don't
outdo the originals or put a new spin on them; "I Say A Little
Prayer" by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (originally recorded by Dionne Warwick)
, is given a lovely,
soulful reading. "See Saw" by Steve Cropper (Booker T's guitarist
and Otis Redding's producer) and Don Covay
was also a hit; it's okay but just routine for this period. During
sessions for this album longtime bassist Tommy Cogbill was replaced
by Jerry Jemmott; the rest of the band remains much the same.
Arrangements by Dowd and Arif Mardin.
Along with the preceding record, this collects most of Franklin's
amazing haul of a half-dozen hits in one year. However, her chart
performances were already starting to flag at this point, despite
steady output. (JA)
Aretha In Paris (1968)
Recorded live on May 7, 1968. Even the liner notes to the reissue concede that this is less than
Aretha at her best: she rushes the tempos ("Night Life"), plays a
predictable mix of material from her three Atlantic albums ("Baby I Love
You," "Respect," "Chain Of Fools," etc.) and her road band (which Wexler
never used on any studio releases) is lackluster. Granting all that,
this is still great material delivered with passion by a great singer,
so how bad a buy can it be? The sound quality is surprisingly good,
several of the performances are outstanding ("Dr. Feelgood," "Don't
Let Me Lose This Dream"), and though the breakneck pace is exhausting,
the sheer energy is also exhilarating. The band is Garry
Illingworth (piano), Jerry Weaver (guitar), Rodderick Hicks
(bass) and George Davidson (drums). Produced by Wexler. (DBW)
Soul '69 (1969)
Two tracks were recorded at the same time as Now, and
they're gripping soul in the same mold as Aretha's early Atlantic
work: "Today I Sing The Blues" and Smokey
Robinson's "The Tracks Of My Tears." The rest of the album is
turned over to big-band jazz arrangements, featuring top musicians
like Ron Carter, Kenny Burrell and Joe Zawinul. The brass-heavy
arrangements (by Mardin) are corny, sometimes drowning her out even
when she's belting out a Big Maybelle blues like "Pitiful." One
more Cooke cover, "Bring It On Home To Me," is given a bouncy,
distressingly lightweight treatment. She also does "So Long,"
earlier recorded by James Brown.
This Girl's In Love With You (1970)
Franklin was struggling personally and commercially at this point;
she took nine months off during the recording of this album, and
the music here is lifeless and diffuse compared to her other
Atlantic output. Wexler abandoned the experimentation of the
previous album, returning to her earlier sound; in an attempt to
recapture the top of the charts, Wexler persuaded Franklin to
record "The Weight," about which he
later said, "Commercial stupidity and greed got the upper hand in
me." Her cover of The Beatles's
"Eleanor Rigby" steamrollers the melody, gives the tune a standard
Muscle Shoals arrangement and turns it into a soul cliché.
The other singles were "Share Your Love With Me" (a 1964 hit for
Bobby Bland) and Franklin's own love song "Call Me." The album also
has a fine cover of the Beatles' "Let It Be," plus the title track
(also recorded by Warwick and many others), and "Son Of A Preacher
Man," a 1968 hit for Dusty Springfield. By now David Hood was on bass,
beginning his successful partnership with Roger Hawkins. Duane Allman adds guitar to "The Weight"
and the bluesy "It Ain't Fair." Produced by Wexler, Dowd & Mardin.
Spirit In The Dark (1970)
A solid, blues-based return to form. Besides the gospelly hit title
track (one of five Franklin compositions here) there's plenty of
stripped-down soul recalling her heyday, including a cover of the
1962 Ben E. King hit "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)." She covers
two B.B. King hits, "Why I Sing The Blues" and "The Thrill Is Gone"
(with a spine-tingling echo of Martin Luther King's "Great God
A'mighty, I am free at last"); her version of Jimmy Reed's "Honest
I Do" puts the Rolling Stones to shame.
Half the tracks were cut with the Memphis Shoals section, the rest
with the Dixie Flyers, featuring Jim
Dickinson and Mike Utley on piano, Tommy McClure on bass,
Charlie Freeman on guitar, and Sammy Creason on drums. Allman turns
up again, on "When The Battle Is Over," first recorded by Delaney
& Bonnie, and Franklin's "Pullin'" -- an excellent tune with odd
tempo and chord changes. (DBW)
Live At Fillmore West (1971)
Her first gold album in three years. Everything, from the West Coast hippie venue to the familiar assortment of rock tunes to the star-studded backing band, was crafted to capture a cross-over audience - and it works brilliantly.
King Curtis led a band including Cornell DuPree and his Kingpins, the Memphis Horns, Franklin's usual backup singers, and Billy Preston. The fresh, but well-practiced combination of talent is exciting and powerful. Meanwhile, Ray Charles shows up for an encore version of "Spirit In The Dark" that absolutely rocks the house - Charles milks the song's sexual innuendos for all they're worth.
And the material is flawless, including the covers "Love The One You're With," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and "Eleanor Rigby"; Aretha's "Dr. Feelgood"; and of course "Respect," done here at a gallop. There's even Aretha's great take on Diana Ross's contemporary hit "Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand)."
A must-have for any fan. In 1971 Franklin also had two major Top Ten hit singles that didn't appear on an LP: studio versions of "Bridge
Over Troubled Water" and Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem,"
which rocketed to #2. Her sudden commercial comeback lasted a couple
Young, Gifted and Black (1972)
- Another classic (and another Grammy) as Franklin puts together her
meditative side ("Day Dreaming") with straight-ahead belting ("A
Brand New Me") and funky soul ("Rock Steady"). Plus her moving way
with a ballad ("All The King's Horses"). She sounds more driven
than usual, particularly on the title track (by Nina Simone), and
the new studio band (with Franklin back on keyboards) is right on
the mark (Chuck Rainey's bass playing is outstanding on "April
Fools" and "Rock Steady"). Covers include yet another Otis Redding
song ("I've Been Loving You Too Long") and Elton John's "Border Song." Billy Preston is on organ, as is Donny
Hathaway, and Al Jackson of MG's
fame plays drums on two tracks; other guests include Dr. John,
Hubert Laws and Eric Gale (on bass rather than his usual guitar).
This was recorded in late 1970 and early 1971, but held back to
allow for the release of Fillmore West and a greatest hits
- A solid, updated-sounding album that represents her commercial peak in this period, with two Top 10 singles ("Rock Steady," energetic funk James Brown-style; the bossa nova-like "Day Dreaming") and two other Top 40 singles (the mellow, nicely orchestrated "All The King's Horses"; "Border Song"), three of which she wrote herself. It shows off all of her stylistic range, including gospel (title track), big-band jazz ("A Brand New Me"), upbeat, Motown-influenced pop ("April Fools"), and even Philly soul (Thom Bell's "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time," a hit for the Delfonics the previous year).
Some of the record drags and it's consistently too slick-sounding, but if you don't enjoy it you won't enjoy anything she's done.
The big minus with respect to the Rhino/Atlantic re-release is the pile of contemporary single sides ("Bridge Over...") and unreleased tunes mentioned by the CD liner notes, none of which were used as bonus tracks. (JA)
Amazing Grace (1972)
A two-record set of gospel and other religious tunes recorded live
in a church; includes her version of Marvin
Gaye's "Wholly Holy." I'm not a gospel expert at all, but
Franklin certainly gets some serious testifying in here: "God Will
Take Care Of You" and the title track are outstanding. I find a lot
of the softer numbers less affecting ("Old Landmark," "Never Grow
Old"), and many of the tracks go on forever ("Precious Memories").
She's not Mahalia Jackson, but she was the first pop star to go
back to recording gospel, and the record was important in bringing
the music to a wider audience. The backing vocals are by James
Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, and the
instruments are ably handled by Franklin's regular band, including
Cornell Dupree on guitar and Chuck Rainey. (DBW)
Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) (1973)
An underrated experimental set, co-produced by Franklin and Quincy Jones. The lovely ballad
"Angel" (by Frankin's sister Carolyn) was a successful single, but
there's much more to like: Franklin's originals are excellent (the
funky "Sister From Texas," the light soul "So Swell When You're
Well," and the stomping title track), and Jones has plenty of
interesting arranging ideas (including odd strings on "Somewhere"
from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story) and a solid sense
of groove. Plus there's the long, bizarre ode to a drug user,
"Mister Spain," and a frantic, pure jazz rendition of "Moody's
Mode" by James Moody, though I could have lived without the long
rambling blues "Just Right Tonight." Throughout, Franklin's voice
is better-recorded than before, and she's clear and expressive, far
from her usual style but still compelling. An army of uncredited
musicians appears here, along with featured soloists Billy Preston,
alto sax hero Phil Woods, and Joe Farrell on tenor sax and flute;
Franklin herself gets in swinging piano solos on "Somewhere" and
"So Swell When You're Well." The Grammy-winning minor hit "Master
Of Eyes (The Deepness Of Your Eyes)" (co-written by Aretha) was
released around this time, and is included as a bonus track.
Let Me In Your Life (1974)
Back to Wexler, Dowd, Mardin and more standard soul; the hits are
Stevie Wonder's "Until You Come Back To
Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)" and "I'm In Love" by Bobby Womack
(originally recorded by Wilson Pickett) with a soaring vocal. She
also covers "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," earlier a hit duet
for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, and Leon
Russell's "A Song For You," which everyone recorded in this
period. It's enjoyable, but it's the same formula as her early work
without the same kick. The guest list is impressive: Bob James,
Stanley Clarke, future disco producer Eumir Deodato, Hathaway, Willie Weeks, Hugh McCracken, plus
old standbys Dupree and Rainey; Cissy Houston and Gwen Guthrie are
among a horde of backup singers. (DBW)
Rare & Unreleased Recordings From The Golden Reign Of The Queen Of Soul (rec. 1966-1973, rel. 2007)
A two-CD set of unreleased and underreleased material from Franklin's best regarded period, ranging from 1966 demos of her first Atlantic singles to outtakes from Let Me In Your Life. I'm assuming that Franklin didn't cooperate with this project at all: though there are detailed liner notes from Wexler, more than a dozen tunes - many of them from the innovative Hey Now Hey sessions - have no composer information, and I'm sure Ree could have straightened that out in fifteen minutes had she been so inclined.
Then there are a bunch of covers of well known songs ("Fool On The Hill";
"Suzanne"; "You Keep Me Hangin' On," with bizarrely prominent slide from Allman),
and decent but unexceptional originals ("So Soon").
There's one mind-blowing cut here, a powerful but subdued version of Paul Anka's "My Way" that will forever change the way you hear that song. If you agree with me that Hey Now Hey is woefully overlooked, you'll love the many moving, weird outtakes from that set ("Tree Of Life"; "Sweetest Smile And The Funkiest Style"), though the tracks don't sound finished.
Apart from that, the live duet with Charles on Duke Ellington's "Ain't But The One" is worth hearing,
and the various B-sides ("Lean On Me," not the Bill Withers song) are a boon for collectors.
With Everything I Feel In Me (1974)
A refreshing return to the heavy Muscle Shoals sound of her first Atlantic
releases, with Wexler, Mardin and Franklin producing; Franklin
plays piano on every track, and much of her old band is back: Dupree,
Rainey, Tee, Purdie. The originals (title track by Aretha, "Without Love"
and "Sing It Again - Say It Again" by Carolyn) are terrific, Franklin
testifying and crooning the way she does best. The covers, however, are
a letdown: she tackles Bacharach & David's
"You'll Never Get To Heaven" and Wonder's
"I Love Every Little Thing About You," and in each case she loses the
delicate melody by overdoing the R&B belting - it's disappointing and
strange, considering the fine job she'd done with "I Say A Little
Prayer" and "Until You Come Back To Me." A good score for fans, but
there's nothing really new here, and the retro approach was commercial
poison: this was her first LP in seven years not to crack the Top
Franklin's last collaboration with Wexler, and though the personnel is
almost completely different from the last release - she doesn't play a
note, and her classic band is replaced by anonymous session players -
it turns out much the same: solid, down to earth R&B. There are some
powerful uptempo numbers ("Without You," Aretha's own "Mr. D.J. (5 For
the D.J." - a single) and moving ballads (the title track by Chuck
Jackson - another single). Plus "You Got All The Aces," a steady-rolling
Ronnie Shannon love song that Franklin does in classic, effortless
style. It's probably more consistent than With Everything, though
there is some weak songwriting ("I'm Not Strong Enough To Love You
Again"), and Carolyn's closing "As Long As You Are There" wanders amid
atmospheric flutes. But the album was a commercial flop (I've never seen
it on CD) and she hasn't cut a straightforward R&B record since. Players
include Tom Scott, Ernie Watts, David T. Walker, Ray Parker,
Tony Newton (bass) and Ed Greene (drums). (DBW)
Produced and composed by Curtis Mayfield; soundtrack to the film of
the same name (starring two future recording artists, Philip
Michael Thomas and Irene Cara). It's highly orchestrated smooth R&B, not far from the Philadelphia sound. The hit single was "Something He
Can Feel," covered by En Vogue in 1992 (they also covered this album's other best track, "Hooked On Your Love"). I don't see why this was
considered such a comeback; her voice is great, as always, but the production
is faceless, and the songs start to blend together after a while.
Sweet Passion (1977)
I have this on LP; I've never seen it on CD. It was a complete flop, but it's interesting, with no less than five Franklin originals including the sweet pop "When I Think About You" and the extraordinary title track, which wanders from one blues-tinged melody to another over its seven-minute running time without ever losing focus. "Meadows Of Springtime" is a bizarre, diffuse effort, mostly spoken word over orchestral backing. Then there's "Mumbles," a fine scat-sung jazz number that outshines almost anything on her earlier jazz-oriented albums. Producer Lamont Dozier also contributes three tunes, but
they're weak disco-y efforts, and Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager come up with the surprisingly funky single "Break It To Me Gently." Not exactly a lost masterpiece, but better than a lot of Aretha that is currently available on CD - fans should snap this up if they can find a copy. (DBW)
Almighty Fire (1978)
Another collaboration with Mayfield; this one didn't sell, which is no
surprise: it's dull and monotonous, with the same smooth disco sheen
over every track, and hardly any real melodies or interesting lyrics.
The only tracks saving the disc from total disaster are the opening
"Almighty Fire (Woman Of The Future)," which makes nice use of layered
vocals and allusive lyrics; "No Matter Who You Love," which has a nice
tune to offset its mind-numbing arrangement; and Aretha's one
composition, a slow, sketchy piano-and-vocal number ("I'm Your Speed")
that's affecting despite being rather diffuse and incoherent. (DBW)
La Diva (1979)
Franklin was having a hard time in this period, and this is perhaps the
most embarrassing outing of them all. Mostly produced by Van "Do The Hustle"
McCoy in formula disco style ("The Feeling"); even two of Aretha's
originals are mindless, mechanical dance tracks ("Ladies Only," "Only
Star"). The one good tune was contributed by Skip
Scarborough and Wanda Hutchinson; maybe Scarborough would've broken
Franklin out of her slump if he'd gotten to do a whole album for her.
Anyway, "Honey I Need Your Love" is her usual plaintive soul, but not
as moving as usual, and the other tracks are so bad they're scary ("Half
A Love"). Even if you don't have any respect for yourself, think of Franklin,
and pass this one over. (DBW)
Her Arista debut, and though it didn't sell, it would prove to be her best album of the 80s. Chuck Jackson produced half the record, and he went for a tight soul sound
that walked the line between retro and contemporary while leaving Franklin plenty of room to belt ("Take Me With You," Aretha's "School Days"). Meanwhile, she's also in exceptional voice on the tracks produced by Mardin (his first work with Franklin in years)
including a reading of the Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes" that is (believe it or not) almost convincing, with a hot bass line from Louis Johnson. Mardin managed to be cutting edge with "Can't Turn You Loose," yet another Otis Redding cover: the spare rhythm guitar-led groove is remarkably like the sounds emanating from Minneapolis right around that time.
The Jackson ballad "United Together" was the curious choice for a single. Lots of session musicians, including most of Toto, David Foster, Richard Tee, Scott Edwards, Paul Jackson Jr., Cornell Dupree and Bernard Purdie. Jackson's tunes include some of bass legend James Jamerson's last recorded work. (DBW)
Love All The Hurt Away (1981)
The whole disc is turned over to Mardin, and the
result is painfully pop-oriented and tacky: most embarassing are uptempo hi-tech covers of Sam & Dave's "Hold On I'm Comin'" (by Isaac Hayes) and the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." But the originals aren't much better: the
title track is an ultrabland Adult Contemporary duet with George Benson; Rod Temperton's "Living In The Streets" is overrun with clichéd slap and pop bass; even Franklin's own "Whole Lot Of Me" and "Kind Of Man" are dull and devoid of panache. If you want to know why she was having such commercial difficulties in this period, check out this disc. An impressive array of LA session cats, including most of Toto, Louis Johnson, Greg Phillinganes, Marcus Miller, Paulinho Da Costa, etc. (DBW)
Jump To It (1982)
Franklin adjusted to the conservative 80s with a set of appallingly anti-woman numbers, produced by Luther Vandross: the hit title track features Aretha telling her girlfriends that she doesn't have any time for them anymore because she has to dance attendance on her man, and it doesn't get any better from there on in. The music is sluggish post-disco, all synth and slap bass, and her vocals are almost in the background. Commercially it was a big success,
but the only track that's solidly enjoyable is a cover of the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing."
Franklin wrote one song, "I Wanna Make It Up To You," featuring the Four Tops, but it's as self-abasing as the rest. Despite some solid bass playing by Marcus Miller, this is one to skip. (DBW)
Get It Right (1983)
Vandross takes another shot, in exactly the same direction as his previous
production, but he didn't generate any hits this time. Everything's in the
slow to very slow tempo range, with slap bass
from Miller, and the only way you can tell the ballads ("Giving In")
from the funk (title track) is by the presence or absence of strings. The
cover tune this time is the Temptations' "I
Wish It Would Rain," soporifically slow like the rest of the disc. Franklin's game, and
in better voice than most of her late 70s/early 80s work, but doesn't
have much to work with. The musicians are Vandross' usual stable: Horton,
Adderley, Doc Powell. (DBW)
Who's Zoomin' Who? (1985)
Very commercially successful album produced by Narada Michael
Walden, with the huge retro hit "Freeway Of
Love." The catchy, laid-back title track also got airplay, and then
there's the hit collaboration with the Eurythmics, "Sisters Are
Doing It For Themselves." Everything's got standard mid-80s pop
trappings: tasteful bell-like keyboards, then-tasteful snare hits
- overall it's too sedate for its own good. There's only
one song by Franklin (plus a co-write on the title track),
"Integrity," and it's just as anonymous-sounding as the rest,
except for a nasty bass groove by Louis Johnson. Other guests
include Carlos Santana on guitar,
Clarence Clemons on sax, Peter Wolf on vocals, and future Mariah Carey collaborator Walter Afanasieff
& future Stanley Jordan
producer Preston Glass. (DBW)
Big-time nostalgia here, with "Jimmy Lee" recalling early 60s girl groups, Franklin's own "He'll Come Along," the 1946 standard "Look To The Rainbow," and her cover of "Jumping Jack Flash,"
produced by Keith Richards, from the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle of the
same name. All the other tracks were produced by Walden, including the hit duet with George Michael "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)"; it's generic pop like the last record, but not as tuneful. Larry Graham drops by to duet on the ballad "If You Need My Love Tonight." Glass and Afanasieff are on hand again, and the predictable set of backing musicians includes Randy Jackson, Aretha's son Ted White, and (on the Stones tune) Richards, Ron Wood, Chuck Leavell and Steve Jordan. (DBW)
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (1987)
Another return to gospel, apparently inspired by the 1984 death of
her father. Rev. Jesse Jackson makes some remarks, as do Rev. Jasper
Williams and Rev. Cecil Franklin. The production (by Aretha) is
overblown in standard modern gospel style - personally I much prefer the
uncluttered approach of Amazing Grace; I also don't find the
tunes or the performances as inspiring. Mavis Staples duets on two numbers,
including the record's best track: the powerfully testifying "Oh Happy
Day." The original two-LP set was condensed to one CD by cutting out
some of the spoken invocations. If you're not already a gospel fan, this
set is not going to change your mind. (DBW)
Through The Storm (1989)
When I saw the negative reviews by people calling this a soulless
electronic funk album, I assumed they were a bunch of 60s soul
purists who just didn't like electronic funk. But it turns out that
even if you dig synths and drum machines you probably won't like
the dull, repetitive grooves on "Mercy," "It Isn't, It Wasn't, It
Ain't Never Gonna Be" with Whitney
Houston, or "Gimme Your Love" with James
Brown - the remake of "Think" is more subdued and works
better, although it's pointless. She shines, though, on the
quieter, more acoustic numbers: her own composition "He's The Boy"
is full of playful desire; her cover of "Come To Me" (the same Willard
Price song she'd covered back in 1980, not the France Joli disco tune) recalls her early 70s
ballad work, and Diane Warren's title track (a duet with Elton John)
sounds like a hit, although I don't think it was. And
the dreaded Kenny G is surprisingly inoffensive on "If Ever A Love
There Was," also featuring the Four
What You See Is What You Sweat (1991)
Twelve different producers this time... A cover of Sly Stone's "Everyday People" sets the
stage: there will be nothing new about this record. There are still
more duets (with Luther Vandross and former Doobie Brother Michael
McDonald), more glossy hi-tech ("Mary Goes Around" by Oliver Leiber; title track), and a couple of fine songs
(Aretha's own "You Can't Take Me For Granted" with her son Teddy
White on guitar, and Burt Bacharach & Carole Bayer Sager's ballad
"Someone Else's Eyes"). If you're not addicted to Franklin's voice,
you won't find yourself listening to this very often. (DBW)
Greatest Hits: 1980-1994 (1994)
Her 80s hits, plus four new songs: a lame live version of "Natural
Woman" with Gloria Estefan, Clivillés & Cole's house hit "A Deeper
Love," and two by Babyface, his usual
midtempo ballad ("Willing To Forgive") and a moving love song ("Honey")
that really shows off Ree's voice. This is a decent buy, especially
because none of her 80s albums are really worth owning. (DBW)
In 1995, Franklin appeared on the Waiting To Exhale Soundtrack.
A Rose Is Still A Rose (1998)
After a long layoff, Franklin continues in the Babyface synth
ballad direction - every song is slow to very slow, which is a relief
after all the forced uptempo numbers on her previous Arista releases.
The problem is, Babyface didn't participate, and the crew of
producers here (including his former protege Daryl Simmons)
prove that his style isn't as easy to rip off as it sounds: track after
track is just dull (Jermaine
Dupri's "Every Little Bit Hurts," Walden's "How Many Times"), though
Franklin's voice is well-recorded and as affecting as ever.
Surprisingly, Sean "Puffy" Combs' "Never Leave
You Again" is one of the best tracks here; Dallas
Austin's "I'll Dip" is routine, though the use of live bass is
refreshing. Almost the only nod to dancability is the title track
written and produced by Fugee Lauryn
Hill (with a clever string arrangement performed by the Indigo Quartet), though the
sample of Edie Brickell's inane 80s hit "What I Am" nearly destroys
the mood. Critics went crazy over Franklin's jazz vocals
on the album-closer "The Woman" (the only tune here Franklin wrote), but
that's due more to her iconic status than the quality of her
performance: she's one of a handful of artists (like the Stones) who's assured of critical acclaim
any time she makes even a half-hearted effort. All told, though, this is
more enjoyable than any album she's done since 1980's Aretha,
which is sad to say about such a great artist. (DBW)
So Damn Happy (2003)
Doubtless due to the retro-soul/neo-soul boom, Franklin's latest is a return to the gentle sounds and live instrumentation of her 70s
releases. Unfortunately, flat songwriting makes it closer to La Diva and Almighty Fire than to Hey Now Hey or Sweet
Passion. The producers - Troy Taylor, Ron "AMEN-RA" Lawrence, Gordon Chambers & Barry J. Eastmond -
can't dredge up any originality or spark, just romantic clichés ("The Only Thing Missin'") and familiar-sounding melodies ("Ain't No
Way"). Burt Bacharach's "Falling Out Of Love" is as predictable as virtually everything else he's done in the
last thirty years.
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's "Everybody's Somebody's Fool" is another in a line of their "boys will be boys" numbers
going back to 1983's "Just Be Good To Me."
The reward for wading through this sea of mediocrity is Norman West's gospel tune "Good News" and two songs written and produced by Franklin, "You Are My Joy" and the title track
- slow testimonials like the rest, but put over by genuine feeling.
Two songs are co-written and co-sung by Mary J. Blige: "No Matter What" is as dull as the rest, but "Holdin' On"
is a highlight.
Jewels In The Crown: Duets With The Queen (2007)
A collection of duets, most of them previously released; the exceptions are "Put You Up On Game" with Fantasia, and "What Y'All Came To Do" with Johnny Legend.
This Christmas (2008)
You're not having dèjá vu: Patti LaBelle released a Christmas album a few years ago with the same Donny Hathaway title track.
Franklin's first Yuletide disc serves up the usual fare from "Ave Maria" to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
As she's apt to do, Franklin ranges from the silly (her reworking of "'Twas The Night Before Christmas") to the sublime ("14 Angels") to the wonderfully overdone ("Angels We Have Heard On High," with a gospel choir, classical orchestra and blues guitar solo). Her outsized personality does a lot to bring life to the most familiar material ("Silent Night"), though at times she injects so much personality she completely loses the melody ("My Grown-Up Christmas List"). And on the rare occasions that Franklin plays it straight, she can still knock it out of the park (a rollicking R&B take on Gamble/Huff's "Christmas Just Ain't Christmas (Without The One You Love)").
Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love (2009?)
Guests to include Faith Hill and gospel singers The Clark Sisters, Karen Clark Sheard and Shirley Caesar.