Sunday, August 19, 2018

In Memoriam: Aretha Franklin 1942-2018

"I sing to the realists; people who accept it like it is."

 Though she was born in Memphis, Tennessee, Aretha grew up in Detroit, Michigan.

Now, I'm sure you associate Detroit largely with the automobile industry, but as far as I know Studebaker, De Sotos, and certainly not Edsels had any affect on Aretha's formative years, but the above building, home of the New Bethal Baptist Church, most certainly did.

For it was here that Aretha's minister father, C.L. Franklin preached the Gospel:

When Franklin wasn't talking, he was singing:

Whether you're a true believer or not, you have to admit that a strong pair of vocal chords ran in that family. In fact, Rev. Franklin was known in ecclesiastic circles as The Man with The Million Dollar Voice.

Not just in Detroit, either, once a pioneering local black record producer and record store owner named Joe Von Battle put the Baptist preacher's sermons and gospel singing on vinyl. C.L. Franklin became a nationally-known figure, a star even, at least in the world of the black church.

Daughter Aretha wasn't forgotten about. While in her teens, she began singing with her father in church, and as his fame grew, began touring with him as well.

Franklin convinced the aforementioned Battle to record his daughter. In 1956, when Aretha was just 14, she came out with her first album Songs of Faith.

Around this time, Aretha met a young gospel singer named Sam Cooke who was about to make the jump into the pop mainstream. Impressed by his subsequent success, Aretha admitted to her father that she, too, would like record something a little bit more secular. If this was an R+B gender-changed version of The Jazz Singer, I suppose you'd expect him condemn her to fire and brimstone at this point, but fortunately, it's real life. Her reverend pop not only understood, but helped produce her two-song demo.

It didn't take long for a major label to sign her.

 John H. Hammond, whose many musical discoveries included Billie Holiday and Count Basie, produced Aretha's...

 ...first album, which also included...

 ...her first single.

Released in 1960, it reached #10 on the R+B chart.

Nevertheless, in her six years at Columbia, Aretha successes were sporadic, and in 1966...


...she decided to sign with another label. 

Though headquartered in New York City, Atlantic had their new artist record not there...

...but to a place further south, in Alabama.

FAME studios, where Aretha worked with music journalist-turned music producer...

...Jerry Wexler. Back in early 1950s when he was still writing for Billboard, Wexler had coined the term "rhythm and blues". There's no evidence he also coined the term "soul music", but the white, Jewish,  middle-aged Atlantic executive was one of the form's chief proponents.

But what was soul exactly? Since the 1970s (and due largely to the efforts of one Don Cornelius) it's been an umbrella term for African-American music in general. But back in the '60s, the meaning was more specific, the music was more specific. It had something to do with the blues, but was much more melodic, not just one note endlessly repeated. On the more rousing songs, you could clap and stomp your feet. Not just the audience, but the PERFORMERS sometime did this. Actually, you might mistake the audience as part of the performance, as there seem to be a bit of shouting going back and forth from the stage to the seats and the seats to the stage. Perhaps to really understand it, you have to look at Aretha's problems at Columbia. She being black, the label  pushed her into singing jazzy pop numbers, because jazz is, you know, what black people were known for. (Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Leontyne Price might have had some other ideas.) And Aretha was a pretty good  jazz/pop singer, but it's not what she was raised on. Nor was, for that matter, Ray Charles, who wasted a lot of his early career trying to sound like Nat King Cole. Many, many black artists, such as James Brown and Otis Redding, had learned how to sing in church. Sure, they may have wanted to do something less religious (and more lucrative) once they got a chance to do so, but did that really require a total retreat from their main musical training ground? The artists and producers operating out of Muscle Shoals, as well as those at Stax Records in Memphis, didn't think so. It's an oversimplification, but soul to a large extant is a secular form of African-American gospel. The emotion, the drama, the full-throated singing, the clapping, foot stomping, and if there's an audience present, the urge to call out to them expecting some sort of response. (Want to turn a gospel song into a soul song? Replace Jesus with a more earthbound lover, and Satan with a earthbound FORMER love who done you wrong. If it's a song of repentance, instead of dropping to your knees and asking the Lord for forgiveness, you promise that woman of yours that you'll no longer step out at night.) And it was just this secular gospel...

 ...that would transform Aretha Franklin's career.

 Ironically, Aretha spent but a single day in Muscle Shoals. While she looks very happy in the above picture with a group of SPACE session singers, apparently her then-husband Ted White and studio owner Rick Hall got into an argument, and the session was abandoned, but Aretha was there just long enough to record..

...what up to then was the biggest hit of her career, peaking at #9 on the pop charts.

Aretha  would spend the rest of the 1960s recording up north, but she never forgot what she learned in Muscle Shoals, calling it "the turning point in my career."

I mentioned Otis Redding earlier. Today he's best known for  "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" which had hit the charts after he had already died in a plane crash. But when he was still alive, he had had a bit of success with a crossover hit that had peaked at #35 on the pop charts. But another version of the same song was going to go much higher than that.


Redding's feminist anthem--well, it might not have been a feminist anthem when HE sang it--reached #1 and became her signature song.

More hits followed:

Soon, Aretha didn't just sing soul...

 ...she owned it.

The daughter of a famous black preacher meets one even more famous.

She sang at his funeral.

More hits followed in the 1970s:


 Even when the hits stopped coming about midway through the decade, Aretha kept busy.

A return to her roots.

Aretha meets Jake and Elwood.

Aretha's father, meanwhile, continued to preach, and though obviously not the household name his daughter was, was still very popular in the black church. 

 On June 10, 1979, Rev. Franklin was shot twice by burglars at his Detroit home. He had been armed with a gun himself, had fired, but failed to hit anyone. He spent the next five years in a semi-coma. Upon his death, the crime became a homicide. Four men and two women were evenutally charged and found guilty ofr their participation in the crime. His four-hour funural was attended by 10,000 people. Rev. Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy.  

  Nothing can replace the death of a parent, but things were otherwise looking up by 1985, Aretha, now at Arista, had her first Platinum-certified album, which included...

...this hit single.

That same year she got together with the Eurythmics...

...and put out this hit.

Aretha in the 1990s.

 Aretha sings at the inauguration of the first African-American president.

It's not the branch of Christianity she was raised in, but Aretha sang for Pope Francis in 2015.

In 2016, Linwood Boulevard, where the New Bethel Baptist Church is located, was changed to C.L. Franklin Boulevard.

 Aretha singing at that very place her father preached.

 RIP, the Queen of Soul.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Vital Viewing (Multiple Grammys Edition)

Comedian Steve Martin was born on this day in 1945. Back in the 1970s when he mostly did stand-up, Martin often used props, such as an arrow through the head or a banjo that most of the time just hung from his neck. Or when he did play the instrument, it was just more comic shtick, as when he couldn't even get through the first line of  Stephen Foster's "The Old Folks at Home" ("Way down upon the Swanee River..." as, say, Bing Crosby sang it) because he played the wrong melody ("Way down upon the Swan...")  

But none of this means Martin couldn't play the banjo, and play it well, if he wanted to. In fact, he's a lifelong aficionado of the instrument, and about ten years ago, finally decided to let everyone know this, putting out a few albums, and playing seriously in front of an audience (albeit with a little comic schmoozing between numbers.) In the following clip, Martin explains why he likes the banjo so much:  

Even though you can play anything on it, maybe even Mozart for all I know, the type of music one probably most associates with the banjo these days is bluegrass. And without a doubt, the most recognizable bluegrass composition (thanks to it being the background music of Bonnie and Clyde as well as numerous 1970s rural car chase movies) is "Foggy Mountain Breakdown". In this next clip from 2011, Steve Martin and several others (including James Taylor, that's him in his trademark cap) rehearse Flatt's and Scruggs' famous instrumental for an upcoming celebration of Carnegie Hall's 120th anniversary:

Pretty god, huh? And that's just the rehearsal!

You know, I said before that "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was without a doubt the most recognizable bluegrass composition, but it just occurred to me that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs may have composed one that's even more well-known: 

 I guess it depends if you spend more time at Carnegie Hall or watching Nick at Nite.

 Anyway, it's time to bid Steve Martin adieu: 

I wonder if Tommy Newsom ever played bluegrass.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Quips and Quotaions (Play to Your Strengths Edition)

 If your head tells you one thing and your heart tells you another, before you do anything, you should first decide whether you have a better head or a better heart.

 --Marilyn vos Savant

 (She knows what she's talking about--the woman has an IQ of 228!)