Aretha Franklin’s Aretha In Paris (Live) Reviewed
It is hard to imagine, but Aretha Franklin was still only twenty-six years of age when she released this greatest hits album in October 1968. Her sixteenth album, and second live album, and an accomplished soul great and a top pop star, pushing a product that while not bad, simply adds mediocre versions of already released performances, though in 2020 we are happy to have it. The band is session folks and not Muscle Shoals, the arrangements are clear delineation of everything we know about her, and while the sound is fine, and the complex you hadda be there vibe is alluring, Aretha isn’t working up a sweat here. She isn’t pushing herself.
I’ve had a live problem nearly constantly with Aretha till she hit the mid 00s. In the 1990s, the woman was specifically dreadful, overweight, out of breadth, her performances were smoke and mirrors with Aretha off stage while her son performed a rap show mid-concert.
This was thirty years earlier, and it isn’t quite laziness as a lack of imagination, Aretha is so restrained on In Paris, where she performed at the Olympia, a venue you may remain from the Beatles three week residency there from January 16th to February 4th,1964. SO, a major venue, and a major performance, with Aretha hardly the first great American person of color to break Paris big (Hi Josephine Baker, hi Louis Armstrong). Aretha was in Paris on May 7th, 1968, she released Aretha Now on June 17th, so in Paris she didn’t give us “I Say A Little Prayer” or “Think”. And perish the thought that she’d go as far back as, even, 1966’s Columbia release Soul Sister. All fourteen songs are from her first three Atlantic Records releases, four from I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, three from Aretha Arrives, and a whopping seven off her concurrent release, Lady Soul. This is a great collection of songs during her most fertile period, a 26 year old woman at the height of her youthfulness and power, with Gospel (or do I mean spirituals?) on the back burner and Aretha the popstar front and center. Despite an arresting touch here and there (the “sunday sunday” from the back up singers clarifies “Groovin’,” the jumped forward at the bridge), there is a sense of the unnecessary here. Compared to her first live recording from 1956, Songs Of Faith, when Aretha was FOURTEEN, Paris just isn’t the same thing.
OKay, so it isn’t some of the best Gospel of all time, it is a 40 minutes of Aretha captured at a great period of her career, I wish she had performed “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Think” but she kept to already released material, and built her three hit albums into a moat around her soul. Opening with a race entwining, rock and roll and soul definition of the Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” soon there would be the Young Rascals “Groovin'” and still building, r&b and soul songs, singles but still relatively obscure, she gets to where the hits burst through. By the end she goes from “(I Never Loved A Man) The Way I Loved You” to “Chain Of Fools” to “Respect” to end the concert. You’ll be happy that the gig was recorded, you will be happy to know that in 2020 we can hear Aretha as vivrant and powerful as possible. Not calling it in, but not pushing to the edges, Aretha was the essence of pop stardom.
The best moment was a can do no wrong (“You Make Me Feel Like A ) Natural Woman”. For better, Aretha is singing about the naturalness of sex, of orgasm, of pleasure in love. And in 1968 it might have been coded but it wasn’t invisible. Written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, you would think that at the very least the song would save Goffin from his fate as Ike Turner by other means, clearly the man was deeply empathic (and seriously, troubled and brooding), a bad guy who wants to be a good guy and who paid for his failure, his infidelity, by being written out of musical history like murderer Phil Spector before him. Pop music is left wondering how to honor both men and have, essentially given it up; but Gerry wasn’t Ike and he wasn’t Phil and infidelity is no excuse for the ,an who wrote the words to “Up On The Roof” to be so disrespected. Yes, he cheated on Carole, and he paid big time, now give the late rock and roll poet, who can be mentioned in the same breath as Chuck Berry as a chronicler of teen angst, time to forward him the respect he is owed. At the Lincoln Honors in 2015, the quote goes: “Carole was losing her mind, Obama was losing his mind, everyone was going wild”. The quote is that, and if Aretha didn’t go there in 1968, she still sounded like a woman enthral to love and sex. It is like the two parts of Aretha, the submissive and the soul royalty, came together.