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‘Aretha Now’: Is This The Final “Pure Soul” Album Aretha Franklin Recorded?
In Depth

‘Aretha Now’: Is This The Final “Pure Soul” Album Aretha Franklin Recorded?

With the ‘Aretha Now’ album, Aretha Franklin served up an urgent classic that confirmed her recent crowning as ‘Queen Of Soul’.

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In Aretha Franklin’s best work there is urgency and vitality. The Aretha Now album – with its implicit exclamation mark – surges with confidence in her unassailable talent. This 1968 release arrived squarely in the middle of Franklin’s most creative and productive period, and became the fourth of four big Franklin albums in less than two years. Yet it is a record also infused with grief and pierced by emotional howls against the injustices perpetrated against Black America in the late 60s.

Listen to ‘Aretha Now’ here.

The backstory: “He placed a beautifully bejeweled crown on my head”

At the end of 1967, Franklin gained her most famous moniker – the “Queen Of Soul”. The Chicago DJ Pervis Spann “announced me ‘Queen Of Soul’ in the city of Chicago on the stage of the Regal Theater”, Franklin remembered in her autobiography, From These Roots. “He placed a beautifully bejeweled crown on my head, and I still cherish the memory of my silver-sequined gown.”

That wasn’t the only honour Franklin received; in early 1968, the Mayor of Detroit named 16 February Aretha Franklin Day in the city. At her celebratory performance, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, flew in as a special guest, presenting her with yet another accolade: the Drum Beat Award, from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the civil-rights organisation of which he was president). Aretha Franklin was loved everywhere she went; her artistry, her glamour and her big, big voice had become part of the fabric of North American society in under a year.

The inspiration: “The mourning for Dr King was not an easy process”

When King presented Aretha Franklin with that award, it was the last time she saw him alive. The great man was assassinated on 4 April 1968. “My personal memories of Dr King’s loving-kindness and profound humanity are precious,” Franklin reflected. “The mourning for Dr King was not an easy process for any of us.”

Franklin was a political woman and a political singer. Her upbringing had instilled pride in her Black identity and, through songs such as 1967’s Respect – still hailed as one of the best soul songs of all time – she herself became an impassioned voice for racial justice and gender equality. She has said she found the death of Dr King a “cataclysmic” experience, and as she continued to work hard, she tried to process her grief at the same time.

The songs: “As essential a part of field kits as C-rations and morphine”

Think, which was to be the opening track to Aretha Now, illustrates how closely Franklin’s grief and her work ethic were intertwined at this time. At face value, Think is about a personal relationship crisis; yet this soon becomes overtaken by cries of “Freedom!” from Franklin and her backing singers (the great Sweet Inspirations). The lyrics – written by Franklin and her then husband, Ted White – seem to be equally about the desperation for a solution to violence as they are about a dysfunctional romantic relationship. Recorded the same week as Dr King’s death, Franklin’s raw vocal emotion makes Think one of the most compelling tracks she ever recorded.

Many of the best Aretha Franklin songs do this – they use (deliberately or not) her political consciousness as a seedbed for understanding relationship issues and private emotions. I Say A Little Prayer, also recorded by Dionne Warwick, is another good example of this. With lyrics by Hal David, the song imagines a woman’s thoughts as her partner is fighting in the Vietnam War.

Already, the war was disproportionately affecting the Black community; while African Americans were, at the time, 11 per cent of the US population, they made up 16.5 per cent of all men drafted into the war. By 1969, nearly half of all Black Americans thought the draft unfair. I Say A Little Prayer is a beautiful, subtle expression of this helplessness and it sits alongside Franklin’s Chain Of Fools (from her previous album, Lady Soul), which overseas soldiers had begun to interpret as referring to the military chain of command. The historian Lee Andresen has written of how important Franklin’s music was to Black soldiers in Vietnam, where “tapes of [Franklin’s] music became as essential a part of field kits as C-rations and morphine”.

Franklin also used Aretha Now to reinterpret other, older songs, including The Right Time (originally recorded by Nappy Brown in 1957, and also interpreted by Ray Charles and James Brown). Most significantly, she recorded Sam Cooke’s You Send Me. “I was stunned by the death of Sam Cooke in 1964,” Franklin has said. “A great artist, great man, and good friend was gone at the age of 33.” Franklin’s version is a loving tribute: in ending the first side of Aretha Now with this homage to talent lost, the murder of Black men – through individual assassination or in the quagmire of Vietnam – suffuses the first half of the record.

Yet there is joy, too, especially on the second side of Aretha Now. I Take What I Want and A Change are strident sister funk, with The Sweet Inspirations in glorious call-and-response, and both are among Franklin’s most infectious tunes. I Can’t See Myself Leaving You was written by Ronnie Shannon (“an earthy writer and a good guy”, as Franklin put it), who had also composed I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You). On this track in particular, Franklin’s piano shines – her skills on the keys being an essential part of her art. And who could argue with the glorious Hello Sunshine, her optimistic, effervescent take on the King Curtis and Ronnie Miller number?

The release: “She knows how to get to you”

Both Franklin’s crowning as the “Queen Of Soul” and Dr King’s assassination were detailed in the liner notes to Aretha Now. “That’s one thing about Aretha,” Detroit DJ Jack Springer wrote. “She knows how to get to you. You couldn’t fight it even if you wanted to.” Released on 14 June 1968, the album sold more than a million copies in the US alone.

Think, in particular, gained a second life. Asked to act in the John Landis film The Blues Brothers, which was released in 1980, Franklin relished her role, which included a performance of the song. “Now, 11 years later, the song sounded better than ever, [and] the movie was a smash,” she reflected.

Next up for Franklin would be the diverse Soul ’69 album, which, despite its title, was incredibly varied. It could even be argued that Aretha Now was the final pure soul album that Franklin recorded, as she moved to incorporate ever more genres and styles into her repertoire. The album ultimately stands as a soul classic: Franklin’s loving tribute to all that has been lost, while never losing the hope for so much more to be gained.

Find out where Aretha Franklin ranks among the best female singers of all time.

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