Aretha Franklin – ‘Lady Soul’
What are the most important albums in the evolution of black music? It’s an impossibly dense and insurmountable question, especially since the history of black music is, by and large, the history of all American music. Black musicians invented blues, jazz, rock and roll, hip hop, disco and house music. That’s a hell of a lot of material to whittle down to just a few important albums. But what if you want the history of black music in less than half an hour? Well, there’s only one place to go: Aretha Franklin and her 1968 opus Lady Soul.
Franklin had already established herself as a crossover success with the 1967 LP I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You and its number-one hit single ‘Respect’. Aretha had already been queened ‘Lady Soul’, but she wasn’t ready to start coasting yet. Instead, Franklin decided to make an album that featured grinding funk, soulful ballads, groovy R&B, high-energy rock, and bluesy workouts. In essence, Franklin brought decades of black music full circle in one album.
Lady Soul is a towering achievement not just because of its material, but also because of the efficiency of its production. After a dust-up between FAME Studios owner Rich Hall and Franklin’s husband, Franklin recorded most of I Never Loved A Man and all of her follow-up, Aretha Arrives, at Atlantic Recording Studios in New York. But there was something about those musicians at FAME Studios, later known as The Swampers, that made Franklin return to Muscle Shoals between tours and appearances. She needed these white boys to play some of the funkiest music of all time.
That’s something that gets slightly underplayed when talking about Lady Soul. It was a landmark of black music and still probably remains the benchmark. And yet most of the key players, including the session musicians and producer Jerry Wexler, were white. The Swampers’ natural funk had something to do with it, but mostly, it was thanks to the legendary names in the songwriting credits and Franklin’s titanic abilities that made Lady Soul what it is.
Speaking of those songwriting credits, check out who helped write Lady Soul: James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Don Covay, The Rascals, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Franklin’s younger sister, Carolyn, who had previously helped rearrange and transform ‘Respect’ from Otis Redding’s original funky vamp to something completely indelible.
Aretha’s name might only appear once in the songwriting credits, next to her husband Ted White on the song ‘(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone’, but her fingerprints are all over every song. From the gospel-infused introduction to ‘People Get Ready’ to the smooth-as-silk reinterpretations of The Rascals’ ‘Groovin’, Franklin had the gift of making even the most famous of songs from other writers her own. Giving Franklin a song came with an understanding: it wasn’t yours anymore. It belonged to Aretha Franklin now.
Opening with the unrelenting groove of ‘Chain of Fools’, Lady Soul packs up 50 years of music and blasts it straight into the future. James Brown might have been inventing funk at the time, but Franklin needs to get some credit as well. The one-chord thump of ‘Chain of Fools’ could have fallen flat with just about anyone else. Instead, Franklin injects excitement and raucous rhythms into what could very well be the first true-blue funk song (with an assist from bassist Tommy Cogbill and drummer Roger Hawkins, who lay down a groove for the ages).
From there, Franklin remains intent on searching through different genres and styles to find the perfect material. Throughout it all, Franklin sequences the album to tell a sonic story, if not a narrative one. Even though they don’t have any real connection, the souped-up energy of ‘Money Won’t Change You’ flows perfectly into the reflective balladry of ‘People Get Ready’. The slight garage rock tinge of ‘Niki Hoeky’ has to lead into Franklin’s definitive tour-de-force, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like ) A Natural Woman’.
‘Natural Woman’ is reckoning with Franklin’s past in multiple ways. Even though she didn’t write it, Franklin lived every moment of ‘Natural Woman’, largely despite the conflict that erupted from her marriage to White. There’s also a nod to the way Franklin was mismanaged early in her recording career, with her initial albums being a collection of anonymous jazz standards that saw Franklin get drowned out by orchestras. The strings and brass in ‘Natural Woman’ lift Franklin up, but they never overpower her.
In the back half of Lady Soul, Franklin really starts to get the party started. The intense builds in ‘(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone’ explode into joyous choruses, while the following track features a surprise appearance: Eric Clapton unfurling bluesy lead guitar on ‘Good to Me as I Am to You’. Franklin and Clapton work in tandem, poking and prodding each other to reach higher peaks with each verse. After the wild workout of ‘Good to Me as I Am to You’, Franklin once again realises it’s time to let loose with the high-energy romp ‘Come Back Baby’.
The final pairing of Lady Soul is one of its most genius. The sweet tones of ‘Groovin’ help bring the listener to a place of extreme comfort. As Franklin and her sisters gently coo out the song’s chorus, it feels like a soft pillow that could ease you out of the album in style. But Franklin has one more trick up her sleeve: a jazz ballad courtesy of Carolyn Franklin. Aretha even cedes the spotlight to Cissy Houston by the song’s conclusion, foreshadowing the same extreme high notes that would eventually be hit by Houston’s daughter, Whitney.
By the time Lady Soul comes and goes, you must stop and wonder how it all went by so fast. The solution is obvious at just 29 minutes long – flip the record back to side one and start the journey all over again. Lady Soul is so immaculately constructed and incredibly easy to digest that it demands you to go through it multiple times before you decide that you’re done with it. But you’re never really done with it. You’ll be back to Lady Soul in due time.
Audiences were certainly enamoured with Lady Soul. All three of the album’s singles – ‘Chain of Fools’, ‘A Natural Woman’, and ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ – hit the top ten on the US Charts. Lady Soul was a number two entry on the Billboard album charts, but unsurprisingly, it hit number one on the soul album charts (then known as the Hot R&B LPs chart). Some audiences were still late to the game, but for most, it was crystal clear: Franklin was the most important singer in America.
Aretha Franklin released nearly 40 studio albums across her career, with revolutionary additions to the canons of R&B, soul, gospel, and rock. But only one album brings all of those genres together into one total package. Lady Soul is transcendent in ways that don’t always seem obvious on the surface. That’s because, when you put on Lady Soul for the first time, you don’t have to think about history. All you have to do is let some of the best music of all time wash over you.
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