Aretha Franklin's Time Magazine - Circa 1968
Friday, Jun 28, 1968
LADY SOUL SINGING IT LIKE IT IS
HAS it got soul? Man, that's the question of the hour. If it has soul, then it's tough, beautiful, out of sight. It passes the test of with-itness. It has the authenticity of collard greens boiling on the stove, the sassy style of the boogaloo in a hip discotheque, the solidarity signified by "Soul Brother" scrawled on a ghetto storefront.
But what is soul? "It's like electricity —we don't really know what it is," says Singer Ray Charles. "But it's a force that can light a room." The force radiates from a sense of selfhood, a sense of knowing where you've been and what it means. Soul is a way of life —but it is always the hard way. Its essence is ingrained in those who suffer and endure to laugh about it later. Soul is happening everywhere, in esthetics and anthropology, history and dietetics, haberdashery and politics—although Hubert Humphrey's recent declaration to college students that he was a "soul brother" was all wrong. Soul is letting others say you're a soul brother. Soul is not needing others to say it.
Where soul is really at today is pop music. It emanates from the rumble of gospel chords and the plaintive cry of the blues. It is compounded of raw emotion, pulsing rhythm and spare, earthy lyrics—all suffused with the sensual, somewhat melancholy vibrations of the Negro idiom. Always the Negro idiom. LeRoi Jones, the militant Negro playwright, says: "Soul music is music coming out of the black spirit." For decades, it only reverberated around the edges of white pop music, injecting its native accent here and there; now it has penetrated to the core, and its tone and beat are triumphant.
No Moon in June. Soul music is sincerity, a homely distillation of everybody's daily portion of pain and joy. "It pulls the cover off," explains Jim Stewart, a former banker and country fiddler who heads Memphis' soul-oriented Stax Records. "It's not the moon in June. It's life. Sometimes it's violence and sex. That's the way it is in this world. Sometimes there's animal in it; but let's face it, we've got a lot of animal in us." The difference between Tin Pan Alley and Soul is not hard to define. A conventional tunesmith might write: "You're still near, my darling, though we're apart/ I'll hold you always in my heart." The soul singer might put it: "Baby, since you split the scene the rent's come due/ Without you or your money it's hard, yeah, hard to be true."
In all its power, lyricism and ecstatic anguish, soul is a chunky, 5-ft. 5-in. girl of 26 named Aretha Franklin singing from the stage of a packed Philharmonic Hall in Manhattan. She leans her head back, forehead gleaming with perspiration, features twisted by her intensity, and her voice—plangent and supple—pierces the hall:
Oh baby, what you done to me . . .
You make me feel, you make me
feel, you make me feel like a
"Tell it like it is," her listeners exhort, on their feet, clapping and cheering. She goes into a "holiness shout"-a writhing dance derived from gospel services, all the while singing over the tumult. This is why her admirers call her Lady Soul.
Bearing Witness. Aretha's vocal technique is simple enough: a direct, natural style of delivery that ranges over a full four octaves, and the breath control to spin out long phrases that curl sinuously around the beat and dangle tantalizingly from blue notes. But what really accounts for her impact goes beyond technique: it is her fierce, gritty conviction. She flexes her rich, cutting voice like a whip; she lashes her listeners —in her words—"to the bone, for deepness." "Aretha's music makes you sweaty, gives you a chill, makes you want to stomp your feet," says Bobby Taylor, leader of a soul group called Bobby and the Vancouvers. More simply, a 19-year-old Chicago fan named Lorraine Williams explains: "If Aretha says it, then it's important."
She does not seem to be performing so much as bearing witness to a reality so simple and compelling that she could not possibly fake it. In her selection of songs, whether written by others or by herself, she unfailingly opts for those that frame her own view of life. "If a song's about something I've experienced or that could've happened to me, it's good," she says. "But if it's alien to me, I couldn't lend anything to it. Because that's what soul is about—just living and having to get along."
For Aretha, as for soul singers generally, "just living and having to get along" mostly involves love—seeking it, celebrating its fulfillment, and especially bemoaning its loss. Aretha pleads in Since You've Been Gone:
I'm cryin'! Take me back, consider me please;
If you walk in that door 1 can get up off my knees.
And in the earthy candor of the soul sound, love is inescapably, bluntly physical. In Respect, she wails:
I'm out to give you all of my money,
And all I'm askin' in return, Honey,
Is to give me my propers when you get home . . .
Yeah, baby, whip it to me when you get home.*
"That's what most of the soul songs are all about," says Negro Comedian Godfrey Cambridge. "Take Aretha's Dr. Feelgood:
Don't send me no doctor fillin me up with all of those pills;
Got me a man named Dr. Feelgood and, oh yeah,
That man takes care of all of my pains and my ills.
A woman works all day cooking and cleaning a house for white folks, then comes home and has to cook and clean for her man. Sex is the only thing she's got to look forward to, to set her up to face the next day."
Rats in the Basement. No amount of empathy from outside can give a singer the realism and believability that constitute soul. He has to have "been down the line," as Negroes say, and "paid his dues" in life. Aretha, in spite of her youth, has paid heavily. "I might be just 26, but I'm an old woman in disguise—26 goin' on 65," she says only half jokingly. "Trying to grow up is hurting, you know. You make mistakes. You try to learn from them, and when you don't it hurts even more. And I've been hurt—hurt bad."
Aretha grew up on the fringe of Detroit's Negro East Side in the same neighborhood with several singers-to-be —Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and all of the Four Tops. The Franklin house was a big tree-shaded one with a tidy lawn, even though it did have cockroaches in the kitchen and rats in the basement. Yet the gamy life of the ghetto was only half a block away. Recalls Aretha's brother Cecil, 28: "The people that you saw who had any measure of success were the pimp and the hustler, the numbers man and the dope man. Aretha knew what they were all about without having to meet them personally." Her mother deserted the family when Aretha was six and died four years later, two shocks that deeply scarred the shy, withdrawn girl. "After her mama died," says Gospel Singer Mahalia Jackson, "the whole family wanted for love."
Aretha's father, the Rev. C. L. Franklin, was—and is—pastor of Detroit's 4,500-member New Bethel Baptist Church, where the preaching is so fiery that two white-uniformed nurses stand by to aid overwrought parishioners. Franklin commands up to $4,000 per appearance as a barnstorming evangelist, has recorded 70 steadily selling LPs of his sermons. He may not be a member of the Baptist Ministers Conference, but his Cadillac, diamond stickpins and $60 alligator shoes testify to an eminently successful pastorate. Just how successful is not altogether clear, although when he was convicted last year for failing to file federal tax returns, the Government had shown that his income between 1959 and 1962 was more than $76,000. Franklin paid a $25,000 fine. Now 51, he is a strapping, stentorious charmer who has never let his spiritual calling inhibit his fun-loving ways.
Through her father, Aretha became immersed in gospel music at home as well as in church. Such stars as Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward and James Cleveland often came by the house for jam sessions, whooping and clapping, singing and playing all through the night while Aretha watched intently from a corner. Once, at a funeral for an aunt of Aretha's, Clara Ward was singing the gospel tune Peace in the Valley; in her fervor, she tore off her hat and flung it on the ground. "That," says Aretha, "was when I wanted to become a singer." Aretha had the spirit, all right; after her first solo in church at the age of twelve, excited parishioners crowded around her father, saying, "Oh, that child can sure enough sing."
Cutting Loose. Two years later, she was a featured performer with her father's gospel caravan, an evangelist show that crisscrossed the country by car (except for Franklin, who preferred to travel by plane). Though it ripened her vocal and professional skills, the experience of touring was in other ways a harsh initiation for Aretha. Says Cecil dryly: "Driving eight or ten hours trying to make a gig, and being hungry and passing restaurants all along the road, and having to go off the highway into some little city to find a place to eat because you're black—that had its effect." And the post-performance parties among older troupers in hotel rooms, where the liquor and sex were both plentiful—they had their effect too.
At 18, inspired by the example of former Gospel Singer Sam Cooke, Aretha decided to try the pop field. She started by auditioning for a New York manager named Jo King. "Aretha did everything wrong," recalls Mrs. King, "but it came out right. She had something—a concept of her own about music that needed no gimmickry. She was a completely honest musician." Groomed by Mrs. King, signed to a Columbia Records contract, Aretha began plying a sometimes seamy circuit of jazz and rhythm & blues clubs—with disheartening results. "I was afraid," she says. "I sang to the floor a lot." In the recording studio, she cut side after side with stereotyped pop arrangements —which sold indifferently. Deep down, she knew what was wrong with her repertory of standards, jazz tunes and novelties: "It wasn't really me."
Then 18 months ago she switched to Atlantic Records, which for two decades has specialized in bedrock rhythm & blues. Savvy Producer Jerry Wexler backed her with a funky Memphis rhythm section (which she ably joined on piano), and cut her loose to swing into the soul groove. Her first disk, I Never Loved a Man, sold a million copies. "It had looked for the longest time like I would never have a gold record," she says. "I wanted one so bad."
It was only the beginning. Aretha embarked on a remarkable year. She collected four more gold single records, sold a total of 1,200,000 albums, won two Grammy awards for record performances, and was cited by Billboard magazine as the top female vocalist of 1967. She toured Europe and was hailed in England as the new Bessie Smith—the first (1894-1937) of the great blues belters. Ray Charles called her "one of the greatest I've heard any time." Janis Joplin, 25, probably the most powerful singer to emerge from the white rock movement, ranked her as "the best chick singer since Billie Holiday." Her troubles were over.
Wrestling Demons. Professionally, that is. Personally, she remains cloaked in a brooding sadness, all the more achingly impenetrable because she rarely talks about it—except when she sings. "I'm gonna make a gospel record," she told Mahalia Jackson not long ago, "and tell Jesus I cannot bear these burdens alone."
What one of these burdens might be came out last year when Aretha's husband, Ted White, roughed her up in public at Atlanta's Regency Hyatt House Hotel. It was not the first such incident. White, 37, a former dabbler in Detroit real estate and a street-corner wheeler-dealer, has come a long way since he married Aretha and took over the management of her career. Sighs Mahalia Jackson: "I don't think she's happy. Somebody else is making her sing the blues." But Aretha says nothing, and others can only speculate on the significance of her singing lyrics like these:
I don't know why I let you do these things to me;
My friends keep telling me that you ain't no good,
But oh, they don't know that I'd leave you if I could . . .
I ain't never loved a man the way that I love you.
Now that Aretha can afford to be in Detroit for up to two weeks out of a month, she retreats regularly to her twelve-room, $60,000 colonial house to be with her three sons (aged nine, eight and five) and wrestles with her private demons. She sleeps till afternoon, then mopes in front of the television set, chain-smoking Kools and snacking compulsively. She does bestir herself to cook—a pastime she enjoys and is good at—and occasionally likes to get away for some fishing. But most of her socializing is confined to the small circle of girlhood friends with whom, until a couple of years ago, she spent Wednesday nights skating at the Arcadia Roller Rink.
The only other breaks in her routine are visits to her father, her brother Cecil —now assistant pastor of the New Bethel Church—or sister Carolyn, 23, who leads Aretha's accompanying vocal trio and writes songs for her. Another sister, Erma, 29, is a pop singer living in New York City. Sometimes, with her family, she opens up enough to put on her W. C. Fields voice or do her imitation of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula ("Goodt eeeeevnink, Mr. Renfieldt; I've been expectink you!"). But Cecil says: "For the last few years Aretha is simply not Aretha. You see flashes of her, and then she's back in her shell." Since, as a friend puts it, "Aretha comes alive only when she's singing," her only real solace is at the piano, working out a new song, going over a familiar gospel tune, or loosing her feelings in a mournful blues:
Oh listen to the blues, to the blues and what they're sayin' . . .
Oh they tell me, they tell me that life's just an empty scene,
Older than the oldest broken hearts, newer than the newest broken dreams.
Hollers & Blues. Negroes have been sifting their sorrows in songs like this for centuries. It started, says Mahalia Jackson, who is now 56, with "the groans and moans of the people in the cotton fields. Before it got the name of soul, men were sellin' watermelons and vegetables on a wagon drawn by a mule, hollerin' 'watermellllon!' with a cry in their voices. And the men on the railroad track layin' crossties—every time they hit the hammer it was with a sad feelin', but with a beat. And the Baptist preacher—he the one who had the soul—he give out the meter, a long and short meter, and the old mothers of the church would reply. This musical thing has been here since America been here. This is trial-and-tribulation music."
Out of the matrix of these Negro work songs, field hollers and spirituals of the 19th century sprang the first crude country blues. It was spread by bardic singers with guitars or harmonicas—beggars, itinerant farm laborers, members of jug bands and medicine or minstrel shows. Then, with the Negro migrations to Northern cities in the early decades of the 20th century, the blues gathered a more elaborate accompaniment around itself (sometimes a jazz group) and moved into theaters, dance halls and recording studios. This was the era of Bessie Smith's classic records. By the 1930s, a new style was forged around tenements, speakeasies and rent parties—a harsher, more nervous brand of blues that reflected the stress and tempo of urban living. This style mingled with the blaring jazz and blues that swept out of the Southwest during the swing era (Andy Kirk, Count Basic), and so the stage was set for the emergence, after World War II, of rhythm & blues.
Proxy Performances. Even more slashing and frenetic than urban blues, R & B introduced amplified guitars, honking saxophones and gyrating singers in lamé costumes. Popularized and commercialized as it was, it still retained the fundamental quality of the blues. Such was the force of R & B, in fact, that white singers of the 1950s quickly saw the potential for lifting it out of the limited Negro market and filtering it into the far more lucrative pop field. Much, if not most of what the white public knew as rock 'n' roll during this period consisted of proxy performances of Negro R & B music by people like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. The success of the white performers produced a caustic resentment among the Negro musicians, many of whom still bridle at the irony of it all —they produced the music, but the white men cashed in on it. In those days, the only way for Negroes to really make it in the white world was to do precisely and painfully what the Nat King Coles and Lena Homes did: forsake their own music and sing white pop.
All this began to change with such English rock 'n' roll groups as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Animals, who made a point of crediting their sources—not only R & B figures such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, but also country and urban bluesmen such as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and B. B. King. "Until the Beatles exposed the origins," says Waters, "the white kids didn't know anything about the music. But now they've learned that it was in their backyard all the time."
Jubilation Shouts. Meanwhile, the rhythm-&-blues strain was picking up new momentum, while post-Beatle rock charged off on its own creative path. The man who gave R & B its fresh thrust was a blind, Georgia-born bard named Ray Charles, one of the most hauntingly effective and versatile Negro singers in the history of pop music.
Negroes had always rigorously main tained a distinction between gospel and blues—the sacred and profane—despite the affinity of their sounds. But Charles boldly brought them together, blending foot-stamping orgiastic jubilation shouts with the abrasive, existentialist irony of "devil songs." He even carried over the original gospel tunes and changed the words to fit the emotion. "Lord" became "you," or "baby," and it didn't matter if the bulk of the prayerful text remained the same. Thus Clara Ward's rousing old gospel song, This Little Light of Mine, became Charles's This Little Girl of Mine. (A wonderful indemnification!) Oldtimers who had once been forced to choose between the two genres were offended. "I know that's wrong," said Bluesman and former Preacher Big Bill Broonzy. "He should be singing in a church."
But Charles's innovation brought waves of gospel talent into the blues field, and at the same time offered blues performers a chance to employ the climactic cadences and mythic ritual of black evangelism. Some of his more ardent followers adopted stage mannerisms in which they appeared to be seized by God; they tore off their clothes, called for witnesses, collapsed and rose up again. The bespangled James Brown's whirling, convulsive performances have even been analyzed as enactments of the Crucifixion.
Most important, once Charles broke the barrier between gospel and blues, the way was open for a whole cluster of ingredients to converge around an R & B core and form the potent, musical mix now known as soul—among them, in Critic Albert Goldman's words, "a racial ragbag of Delta blues, hillbilly strumming, gutbucket jazz, boogie-woogie piano, pop lyricism and storefront shouting."
Chitlin Circuit. It was not long before the soul sound began to move directly into the white market of pop music, and its purveyors started outstripping their white imitators. Charles was the first to reach a mass white public, starting as far back as 1955 with his hit record, I Got a Woman. In more recent years, a string of others have come along behind him. Lou Rawls, for example, is a former gospel trouper who spices his blues songs with reminiscences of his boyhood in Chicago's South Side slums. He used to work only in the Negro nightclub "chitlin circuit." As for radio, Rawls says, "I never got played on the top 40 stations because they said I was too, uh—well, not too 'limited,' but too . . ." Black? "Yeah." Now Rawls's albums sell upwards of 200,000 copies from coast to coast and are played throughout the radio band. He has filled Manhattan's Carnegie Hall three times in concert appearances.
Before this started happening, soul music was recorded mostly by small, independent companies and shipped straight to the South's black belt and the North's big-city ghettos. Now the upsurge of nationwide soul-oriented firms is so strong that it has jostled the balance of power in the pop record industry. Manhattan-based Atlantic, with such singers as Aretha, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave, can now sell more records in a week (1,300,000) than it did in six months in 1950; now it ranks with the top singles producers in the business. Detroit's Motown Records, formed eight years ago by Berry Gordy Jr. with a $700 loan, last year grossed a soulful $30 million. Gordy's slick, carefully controlled "Motown sound" (noted for its rhythmic accent on all four beats of the bar instead of the usual R & B emphasis on alternating beats) has launched, among others, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, and Martha and the Vandellas.
Badge of Identity. By all the commercial yardsticks used in the trade, soul has arrived—and it has arrived in the hit parade as well as the "race market," in the suburbs as well as the ghettos, in the Midwestern campuses as well as Harlem's Apollo Theater.
By yardsticks used outside the trade, soul's arrival is even more significant. Since its tortuous evolution is so intertwined with Negro history and so expressive of Negro culture, Negroes naturally tend to value it as a sort of badge of black identity. "The abiding moods expressed in our most vital popular art form are not simply a matter of entertainment," says Negro Novelist Ralph Ellison. "They also tell us who and where we are."
Militant young Negroes put a more defiant slant on it. Explains Charles Keil, a white ethnomusicologist and the author of Urban Blues: "For a Negro to say 'B. B. King is my main man' is to say 'I take pride in who I am.' With this self-acceptance, a measure of unity is gained, and a demand is made upon white America: 'Accept us on our own terms.' " Yet when soul solidarity is founded on a fellowship of suffering, it may involve not a demand for white acceptance but an outright exclusion of whites, as Godfrey Cambridge makes clear. "Soul is getting kicked in the ass until you don't know what it's for," he says. "It's being broke and down and out, and people telling you you're no good. It's the language of the subculture; but you can't learn it, because no one can give you black lessons."
Used in this way, the soul concept becomes a mystique, a glorification of Negritude in all its manifestations. The soul brother makes a point of emphasizing Negro inflections such as "yo" for "your," of abandoning slang words and phrases as soon as they reach universal currency, of eating foods such as chitlins, pig's feet and black-eyed peas, in mastering a loose, cocky way of walking down the street—in doing all the things that are closed off or alien to Whitey.
Blue-Eyed Soul. Does this mean that white musicians by definition don't have soul? A very few Negroes will concede that such white singers as Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee have it, and Aretha also nominates Frenchman Charles Aznavour. A few more will accept such blues-oriented whites as the Righteous Brothers, Paul Butterfield, and England's Stevie Winwood—largely because their sound is almost indistinguishable from Negro performers'. But for the most part, Negroes leave it up to whites to defend the idea of "blue-eyed soul," whether by the criterion of talent, experience or temperament. Janis Joplin argues it this way: "There's no patent on it. It's just feeling things. A housewife in Nebraska has soul, but she represses it, makes it conform to a lot of rules like marriage, or sugarcoats it."
If the earnest racial jockeying can be suspended, the question of who has soul actually becomes intriguing, if rather fanciful fun. The very elusiveness of the soul concept invites a freewheeling, parlor-game approach. Not long ago, in an eleven-page feature on the soul mystique, Esquire half seriously argued that there are only two kinds of people in the world: the haves and the havenots—soul-wise. Others have taken up the sport, which prompts the engaging notion that important personalities of history and legend can be classed in these terms (see box).
As for those to whom soul is anything but a parlor game, one thing is certain: the closer a Negro gets to a "white" sound nowadays, the less soulful he is considered to be, and the more he is regarded as having betrayed his heritage. Dionne Warwick singing Alfie? Impure! Diana Ross and the Supremes recording an album of Rodgers and Hart songs? Unacceptable! Yet many "deviations" may be solid professionalism, a matter of adapting to changing audiences. As Lou Rawls says, "Show business is so vast—why should I limit myself to any one aspect if I have the capabilities to do more?"
On the other hand, some soul singers are so deeply imbued with the enduring streams of blues and gospel, so consumed by those primal currents of racial experience and emotion, that they could never be anything but soulful. Aretha Franklin is one of them. No matter what she sings, Aretha will never go white, and that certainty is as gratifying to her white fans as to her Negro ones.
Going Home. The depth of Aretha's fidelity to her own heritage can be heard on an occasional Sunday night when she is in Detroit. Just as she did a dozen years ago, she goes to her father's services to sing a solo. She was there one recent evening, standing somewhat apart at first, a little dressy in mink-trimmed pink, preoccupied and somber. A drenching rain was falling outside, but 1,000 parishioners had shown up: Aretha was back.
She decided to sing the gospel song Precious Lord. The words, as the congregation knew them, were straightforward and simple:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand.
I get tired,
I get weak and worn.
Hear my cry,
Hear my call,
Hold my hand,
Lest I fall.
Take my hand,
Lead me on.
As the first mellow chords rippled from the organ and piano, Aretha stepped out of the robed choir that was massed on tiers behind the altar. Moving in front of a lectern, she closed her eyes and sang: "Precious Lord, take my hand ..." The congregation nodded or swayed gently in their seats. "Sing it!" they cried, clapping hands. "Amen, amen!" Her melodic lines curved out in steadily rising arcs as she let her spirit dictate variations on the lyrics, finally straining upward in pure soul:
Please! Please! Please! Hear my call, 'Cause I'm gonna need you to hold on to my hand,
And I'm gonna need my friends right now 'cause I might fall. . .
"All right!" answered the congregation. She was with them now. Her voice spiraled down to a breathy whisper, then broke into intense, halting phrases as she almost talked to the end:
You know what's happening . . . and it's bad times right now;
Just lead us, just lead us, lead us on—We've got to get home.
Afterward, spent and exalted, Lady Soul said something that nobody in the church that night needed to be told: "My heart is still there in gospel music. It never left."
* "Sock it to me," one of Aretha's variations on "whip it," is another in the long list of sexual terms from blues or jazz that have passed into respectable everyday language. Having come to prominence through such recordings as Aretha's and Mitch Ryder's, "Sock it to me" is now used in a neutral sense as a catch-phrase on TV's Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and is a common sight on bumper stickers and even political placards. Jazz (originally a copulative verb) and rock 'n' roll (from a blues lyric, "My baby rocks me with a steady roll") are other examples.
Been trying to track this down since 4ever,,,,enjoy
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I saw an early performance of "A natural woman" on youtube, in the chorus, notice how she sings "you make me feel...."
[Edited 9/23/06 11:33am]
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OMG! I've been lookng for that article too. THANKS SOOO MUCH
I'm not mad at you, I'm mad at the dirt.
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What a piece of history.
Love the Joplin quotes, love the reference to all of the soul acts and any idea of what the amount of money Motown was pulling in vs. today's dollar amount?
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". . .It's the language of the subculture; but you can't learn it, because no one can give you black lessons."
And there it is.
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Great article indeed.
Here's the actual link to the article:
"Ya see, we're not interested in what you know...but what you are willing to learn. C'mon y'all."
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