The One after the Big One: Aretha Franklin, ARETHA NOW
Aretha Franklin had some modest success as a singer of standards and torch songs, during her tenure with Columbia Records in the early- and mid-'60s, but it wasn't until she signed with Atlantic Records in 1967 that she found her true voice, becoming, in essence, the Aretha Franklin the world came to love—the Queen of Soul.
1968 was a watershed year for Franklin. In January, she released LADY SOUL, one of her finest and most popular albums—a Number Two record that featured her take on Carole King's "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" and the immortal "Chain of Fools." She closed out the year with her first live album, ARETHA IN PARIS, performing some of her best Atlantic material in a concert setting.
Sandwiched between those two records was ARETHA NOW, a continuation of the great, grooving R&B she'd made her own since signing with Atlantic. Side One is a flat-out classic. It starts with "Think," the timeless empowerment anthem, with its gospel call and response and "Freedom!" refrain—truly one of the '60s great soul songs. A reinvention of the Bacharach/David hit "I Say a Little Prayer" follows, as Franklin both leads and yields to the Sweet Inspirations, whose harmonies define this new version of the Dionne Warwick hit. A slinky take on "See Saw" leads into Franklin's brassy cover of "The Night Time is the Right Time," taking the sweaty Nappy Brown/Ray Charles bedroom come-on to church, as only Franklin could do it. She also takes a spritely stroll through Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," ending the side on a romantic high.
Take a breath before flipping over to Side Two—you're going to need it, not just to recover from the string of knockouts on Side One, but also to marshal the energy you'll need to dance through the up-tempo stunners to come. Roger Hawkins' drums are the first thing you hear when the needle hits the groove—the count in to "You're a Sweet, Sweet Man," which gets the head bobbing. By the time Franklin sprints through the Clyde Otis tune "A Change," you'll be shimmying across whatever floor you happen to be standing on. It all leads up to the album closer, the simmering "I Can't See Myself Leaving You," an R&B chart smash with an understated vocal that should be considered among Franklin's finest performances.
ARETHA NOW was a hit album in its own right, but it's sometimes overlooked, standing as it does in the shadow of LADY SOUL. That's a shame; there are plenty of great, soulful moments to be experienced to all who give it a spin.
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