Thursday, August 16, 2018

Aretha without tears

Buying Aretha Franklin records is risky business. To be blunt, a lot of them are just horrible. Even buying only greatest hits collections is no guarantee for you can end up with a collection with two or three great songs and a whole lot of crap besides. Yeah, she was the "Queen of Soul" because she recorded some of the best soulful R&B ever recorded. What rarely gets mentioned is that she also produced a lot of dross. The ratio of her utterly forgettable songs to her really great songs is at least 10 to 1 and probably even worse than that.

You really only need one Aretha album and that is 1967's I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. If you want more, you can also buy a greatest hits compilation with "Baby, I Love You", "Natural Woman", "Chain of Fools", "I Say a Little Prayer", and "Think" on it. Better yet, buy the other singles you like as individual cuts. And that's it. I know, that sounds blasphemous but it's true. That's all that's worth owning in the entire Aretha Franklin catalogue.

And the issue is even touchier than that. Note the following claim from the Allmusic review of  I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You:
Much of the credit is due to producer Jerry Wexler, who finally unleashed the soulful intensity so long kept under wraps during her Columbia tenure; assembling a crack Muscle Shoals backing band along with an abundance of impeccable material, Wexler creates the ideal setting to allow Aretha to ascend to the throne of Queen of Soul, and she responds with the strongest performances of her career. 
Well, actually, No! All of the credit goes to Rick Hall of FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and his studio musicians, especially the rhythm section affectionately know as "The Swampers". The only credit Wexler deserves is for having the good sense to turn the project over to someone smarter than himself. And Wexler proved this beyond any doubt when he tried to reproduce the magic without Rick Hall on the next few Aretha records and failed miserably. With the help of The Swampers, whom he hired away from Hall, Wexler and produced a number of great songs (but no great albums) after that. And you can hear why if you listen to them; a song like "Think" succeeds because it imitates Hall's previous work.

And that's it. Things go steadily downhill from there.

Well, that's not quite it because there is the difficult question of what went wrong at FAME studios. Something happened but it's not quite clear what exactly it was. There was an ugly incident of a sexual/racist nature is all we know for certain. The most commonly repeated story is that one of the white musicians on the session made a play for Franklin right in front of her husband. Whatever it was, Franklin never returned.

(Was it all that incident? Or did Wexler or, more likely Franklin's husband Terry White's ego suffer when he realized that Hall was vastly more talented? I'd guess that was it.)

But that issue conceals a truth about "The Queen of Soul" that few want to acknowledge and  that is that she is one of a large number of musicians who had immense talent and no idea what to do with it. She needed the right collaborators working with her or else she couldn't do it. When working with Rick Hall, she was great. When not, she was mostly not great. For some people, the issue is further complicated by the fact that her greatest records were the ones where she collaborated with white southerners; indeed, a lot of the best soul and R&B music produced was the result of collaborations with white southerners. That kinda messes up the narrative for some people. When that happens, reasonable people toss the narrative.

(Aretha Franklin is not the only one. Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett and The Staples Singers produced their best music, by far, when working with Rick Hall and/or The Swampers.)

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