Aretha Franklin’s “Lady Soul” Review
Welcome to Aretha Franklin’s best album (so far, but off the top of your head, can you think of a better one?) . It took fourteen attempts, including a live Gospel album from when she was a teen, and a Greatest hits, two record labels, world at war from the Black Rock to Muscle Shoals, for Aretha to reach a level of artistic perfection like Lady Soul. Lady Soul doesn’t have a “RESPECT” or “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You” but once you’ve said that, you’ve said everything.
Just start at the top, Don Covay was asked to write a song for Otis Redding but at the last moment decided to hand “Chain Of Fools” to Aretha, next is one of James Brown’s very best songs, “Money Won’t Change You” and third… Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”. All these years later, those three songs at the top are spellbinding exorcisms of racism and sexism at the altar of an artist’s artist. Aretha rattles the cages of institutionalized anything that takes away from her individuality. Her unique tap dance on submission opens, then she sings as well as Brown, before resurrecting her friend Curtius slow train of freedom coming. Ending the first side are two more masterpieces, a Pork Salad Annie type swamp thang for sexual aggression and ending the side with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. How is this possible? How could she reach such dizzying heights, such sublime humanism, suck ego power and fragility in the same frame. Carole King couldn’t sing “Natural Woman” this well. Nobody can. She plummets upwards in sexual exultation, in a version so clearly at the heart of feminism and freedom. The freedom to feel sexual desire and to transmogrify it into song.
A case could be made for Side A of Lady Soul to be the greatest recorded music of all time: listening to the songs in succession and on repeat it is spellbinding, ranging, soul singing that transform everything it touches, including the listener. The only recording its equal is Side Two of Abbey Road. Once, and forever, the audience caught on. The album itself was #1, #2 and #3 on Billboard’s Black Albums, Pop Albums and Jazz Albums charts, respectively with Grammy wins and three smash hit singles. O haven’t listened to it much in decades, so coming back again I was knocked for a loop. It instantly works its way into my Greatest albums of all time.
But Side B isn’t on that level, it is great for sure (Side A: A+, Side B: A) but it is the difference between pop and r&b plus a Young Rascals cover that isn’t entirely necessary, though it is entirely a pure joy. The problem is the two Aretha Co-writes with husband Ted White, “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” went top five and in any other circumstances it would be hubristic to complain but the songs dynamics are generic though again, Aretha wails it out by the end, “Come Back Baby” is 60s soul by the numbers. “Groovin'” is better than it has any right to be and “Ain’t No Way” (written by her sister Carolyn Franklin) is a bluesy ballad and a bit of a let down (relatively, I mean). If that doesn’t read as much of a complaint, it isn’t: there are two great songs, and three very, very good songs, directly following the epic genius that is Side A, it maintains a certain standard but doesn’t reach the heights.
Singing back-up is Whitney’s mom, Cissy Houston. The best concert I have seen in my entire life was Aretha’s Gospel show tribute the night after Whitney Houston -her Goddaughter- died, February 2012 (here). What may possibly stand as, if not Aretha’s greatest also features a Houston.