here are some widely acknowledged musical “truths” that are actually nothing of the sort; one of the foremost of these untruths is that since the ’70s, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, has recorded hardly anything worth a damn, save possibly the Who’s Zoomin’ Who? album (or more accurately for most audiences, its first single, “Freeway of Love”). Wrong, wrong, so wrong. Every long-player Franklin’s released since 1980 has honest-to-goodness highlights (well, except maybe one), and a number of them are actually good-to-great albums in their own rights. Herewith, a guide to Aretha in her Clive Davis years.
After 13 years with Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records, the hits had dried up, somewhat—and 1979’s La Diva was partially produced by Van McCoy, a/k/a the man behind “The Hustle.” Embarrassing. Accordingly, Franklin decided it was time for a change, and made her way into the welcoming arms of Clive Davis and Arista Records. If you know anything about the record industry’s past 40 years, one essential fact is that Clive Davis does not fuck around. He set his new star up with top-shelf talent, including producer/songwriter Chuck Jackson (who’d helped to make Natalie Cole a star in the mid-70s) and über-producer Arif Mardin, and was repaid with decent, if unspectacular, results.
Jackson and Mardin made glossy R&B;, and that’s what they brought to Aretha, a mild success featuring a trio of fine singles: Willard Price’s lovely “Come to Me,” Jackson’s majestic ballad “United Together,” with one of Franklin’s finest vocals in years, and a blissfully El Lay-buoyant cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes.” All the usual studio rats of 1980 were present and accounted for, from most of Toto to saxman David Sanborn, precisely because they were the personnel on a myriad of hit records of the day, and Clive wanted hits, period - Sanborn alone had appeared on records by Chaka Khan, James Taylor, the Eagles and Carly Simon in the previous year. The remainder of Aretha was solidly of its moment, very produced (meaning over-produced) R&B; that in another’s hands (by which I mean pipes) would sound various shades of generic to dull.
Love All the Hurt Away
Mardin was handed all of the reins for Franklin’s next album, Love All the Hurt Away, and helped make it her finest long-player since 1976’s Sparkle. The rare album whose slickness is not only for its own good but actually succeeds because of it, Hurt does so in large part because producer Mardin essentially installed Toto and friends (notably studio rats Greg Phillinganes and a pre-fame David Foster on piano and synthesizers) as Franklin’s band. Its glossy sheen suited both its time and material: the faux-funk cover of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Comin’” actually swings, as Mardin plays with the song’s arrangement (a tightening tweak here and there does wonders), while “Living in the Streets” is a horn-splashed gem accented with fat synth lines straight from the Rick James library. Franklin tackled two other famous numbers: hiring the Rev. James Cleveland (the ’70s and ’80s Kirk Franklin) and his choir to sweeten the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was a masterstroke, as was Aretha’s take on Diana Ross’s justifiably famed “It’s My Turn.” The Stones cover won’t make you forget the original, but the Ross might, as Franklin turns the ballad out with all her vocal power—and more importantly, her emotional power.
Jump to It
Her next two albums were even more soulful and more slick than Hurt, thanks to production by rising superstar Luther Vandross. He also wrote or co-wrote, with studio bassist extraordinaire/musical right-hand man Marcus Miller, half of Jump to It’s eight tracks, each of which sounded like much of Vandross’ own material of the time: note-perfect, airy R&B; which, apart from some occasional stylistic touches (such as Miller’s bass lines), were a true contrast to the overly funked-out, heavy tracks dominating the R&B; charts at the time. “If She Don’t Want Your Lovin’” and “(It’s Just) Your Love” notably possess the same easy, breezy quality of “Never Too Much”; however, the album lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, a problem its follow-up, Get It Right, doesn’t have.
Get It Right
Get It Right is basically Jump to It-lite, it’s true, but the rest throbs with an urgency its predecessor lacks. Miller’s nasty/nice bass anchors “Pretender” underneath the swirling backing vocals and strings, while the Queen herself gives an exacting reading of the soft-focus ballad “Better Friends Than Lovers.” In between, there’s the gorgeous confection “Every Girl (Wants My Guy)” and a cover of the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain” that threatens to steal the thunder from Motown’s greatest male group.
Who’s Zoomin’ Who?
Who’s Zoomin’ Who? is likely the most overrated album in Franklin’s catalog. Producer Narada Michael Walden’s co-write “Until You Say You Love Me” is a fine example of where this album goes wrong—not only is the song a load of mid-tempo claptrap Diane Warren would be proud to have her name on, it’s seemingly produced to sound as generic as possible. Walden, who started out as a jazz drummer in the ��70s before making a series of watery pop-soul-dance albums, had become a middling R&B; producer by the mid-��80s, manning the boards for the likes of Stacy Lattisaw, Angela Bofill, and Patti Austin. Clive Davis must have seen something in Walden he liked, however, because he was installed as one of Arista’s house producers; in ’85 and ’86 alone, he worked not only with Franklin but on Whitney Houston’s debut and Kenny G’s multi-platinum breakthrough Duotones.
At times, Walden’s trademark symphony of syrupy synths threatens to overwhelm Franklin herself. “Freeway of Love,” meanwhile, isn’t the classic you’ve been told it is; its forced enthusiasm is reminiscent of Natalie Cole’s “Pink Cadillac,” exemplifying some of the worst impulses of ’80s pop; and the “All Night Long” cod-Caribbeanisms of “Ain’t Nobody Ever Loved You” are just horrifying, utterly beneath Franklin (she’s never been a good judge of such things). Zoomin’ isn’t without its charms—the title track is a four-minute sugar rush, and “Another Night” was a good Tina Turner hit masquerading as an Aretha hit—but overall, it’s a heavily dated, not-so-good album.
The much-maligned 1986 Aretha (her second album with that title in seven years!) actually sounds better than Zoomin’ these days. Now that she was “back” (i.e. non-R&B; audiences noticed her for the first time in over a decade), some big guns got involved: not only did Keith Richards produce and play on a cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (bringing Ron Wood along), but newly minted superstar George Michael dueted with the Queen on “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” which became a format-straddling colossus (it hit top five on Pop, R&B;, and Adult Contemporary charts, #12 Dance, and was her first and only UK chart-topper), and Andy Warhol designed the album’s cover. Walden was again in charge, and while not all of this Aretha gels—“Do You Still Remember” is straight-up treacle—enough does to recommend it. Somehow, his formula(s) for Franklin sounded fresher this time around. To wit, opener “Jimmy Lee” is 5:45 of pure joy, a reminiscence of high school love that feels retro without actually being retro (its production is as of-the-moment as it gets). “I Knew You Were Waiting” is still a blast of fresh air, and the absurd “Rock-A-Lott” features the marvelous weirdness of hearing the Queen of Soul command, “Freaks, get up against the wall!”
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism
Franklin interrupted this poptastic time to record her second gospel album, 1987’s One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. Cut live at her childhood church, Detroit’s Bethel Baptist, this is a gorgeous showcase for Franklin’s voice. Most of the arrangements of these gospel classics (and a stop-you-in-your-tracks “Ave Maria”) are simple and stripped-down; “Maria” finds Franklin accompanied only by Thomas Whitfield’s piano. One Lord is a mighty, powerful album that would’ve been brilliant were its spoken interludes (more than one by the Rev. Jesse Jackson) trimmed down. Its remastered reissue from 2003 includes an additional four tracks, two of which feature Mavis Staples, and all of which augment what was already a fine record.
Through the Storm
Then, the wheels came off. 1989’s Through the Storm was all diminishing returns, all the time, starting with its cover, which traded its predecessor’s Warhol for the hack Peter Max. Of the album’s eight tracks, four were duets, and another two were covers of songs Franklin had already done. The tinny “Think (1989),” one of Arif Mardin’s biggest missteps ever, may also be Franklin’s most unnecessary recording. The re-do of “Come to Me” (originally recorded on the 1980 Aretha), at least, doesn’t sully the song; it’s basically as simple and pretty as the original. Duets: the James Brown and Four Tops are throwaways, the Whitney Houston a catfight that really isn’t, and the Elton John gets by on the exuberance of its singers and little else.
What You See Is What You Sweat
1991’s What You See Is What You Sweat, however, doesn’t get by on anything. Franklin’s always liked to pepper her albums with the patois of the day, but to hear her open an already-ill-advised cover of “Everyday People” with “Yo, gang, let’s kick the ballistics!” is utterly mortifying. Again, blame Warden (he helmed much of Storm as well), though “People” is his only contribution to this tasteless powered doughnut of a record. “Mary Goes Round” came from Paula Abdul’s hitmakers and sounded like it, and the Vandross drop-in “Doctor’s Orders” is utterly limp. This album is as poor as its title.
Greatest Hits (1980-1994)
Greatest Hits (1980-1994), an oddly-sequenced compendium of her Clive years, included most of her highlights of the time covered, plus a handful of new tracks. The C+C Music Factory donation “A Deeper Love” soars—this may be the most appealing dancefloor force-fit since Chic manned the boards behind Diana Ross some 14 years prior. Babyface, a natural choice to produce Franklin in the mid-90s, contributed the written-in-his-sleep “Honey” (pretty and not much else) and the genius “Willing to Forgive” (“Not Gon’ Cry” without the anger). Which means that this is a pretty damned good Aretha-in-the-’80s-and-’90s starter kit made nearly essential by “Love” and “Forgive.”
A Rose Is Still a Rose
After a seven-year break between studio albums, Franklin returned in a major way with 1998’s A Rose Is Still a Rose, wherein the Queen’s sound received a direly needed update. Clive Davis hired the cream of the late-90s R&B; crop for largely smashing results. (Inexplicably, Narada Michael Walden got a pair of tracks; they’re as limp as you’d expect from one so far past his sell-by date.) Michael J. Powell is Anita Baker’s right-hand man, and “Love Pang” sounds like a great Baker outtake; Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs’s “Never Leave You Again” gently bumps; Daryl Simmons’ “In Case You Forgot” shows how much he learned at Babyface’s mixing board; and Jermaine Dupri’s “Here We Go Again” samples Change’s “Glow of Love” but sounds more like Mark Morrison’s glorious “Return of the Mack”—it’s Franklin-as-jeep-music, and works like a charm. None of these, however, match Hill’s gift, Rose’s title track, a tremendous song positing Franklin as an advice-giver/mentor to a younger girl that’s not only likely the finest thing Hill’s put her name to, but Franklin’s finest single since “Jump To It.” Franklin’s vocal swoops and takes flight while Hill swirls a myriad of elements together like the best batch of moose tracks ice cream ever made. Rose was simply Franklin’s greatest long-player in 15 years.
So Damn Happy
Five years hence came Franklin’s first album in 23 years not overseen by Davis, who’d moved on to his new label J Records in the interim, and some magic was missing. Much of So Damn Happy was helmed by Troy Taylor, who makes perfectly serviceable, and perfectly generic, adult R&B.; Rose proved that Franklin, age be damned, needn’t be put to pasture, but that’s exactly what Happy inadvertently attempts to do. Even a pair of Mary J. Blige co-writes don’t help—and what is Burt Bachrach doing here, helming the tired-sounding “Falling Out of Love”? It might as well be 1982 all over again. This isn’t bad, but it’s dull.
With Happy, Franklin ended over 20 years with Arista Records; her next album, due later in 2007, will apparently be released on her own label. I don’t expect much more than an extension of her previous album, as Aretha seems happy to gracefully fade into the sunset on a string of mid-tempo numbers (especially if she’s producing herself). Her voice is still (almost all) there, and as she’s shown more than once in the past 27 years, she can still do damned near anything she wants, musically speaking. Though perhaps they must be taken on the back of her prior accomplishments, Aretha’s ’80s and ’90s albums have nearly as many gems as those that came before, albeit ones you may have to dig a bit more deeply to unearth. I wish she wanted more, but you can’t really begrudge the Queen of Soul for coasting and taking it easy these days, considering the body of work behind her.
Albums reviewed (all on Arista):
Aretha (1980): B-
Love All the Hurt Away: A-
Jump To It: B+
Get It Right: A-
Who’s Zoomin’ Who?: B-
Aretha (1986): B+
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: A-
Through the Storm: C+
What You See Is What You Sweat: D
Greatest Hits (1980-1994): A-
A Rose Is Still A Rose: A
So Damn Happy: B