Aretha Franklin’s “Young, Gifted And Black” Reviewed
A case could be made for the 1972 Young, Gifted And Back as being her most complete album, # 22 is a very strong post-60s outing as black politics became mainstream and the fight against prejudice less jaundiced than in the 60s. With X and MLK both shot to death, US politics was stuck with contenders like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and, God knows, Elijah Muhammad. From the edges of black integration came the middle classness, something Curtis Mayfield had been proselytizing for a decade, and Aretha Franklin was not just a daughter of the revolution, she was a prime example. Young, Gifted And Black began life as the 1968 one woman play using the words of “A Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry, left uncompleted.
Hansberry was the black, closeted lesbian writer who broke the black woman barrier on Broadway, married her agent, and was dead by 34 years of age from cancer in 1965. A horrendous conclusion so overwhelmingly unfair. The play “To Be Young, Gifted And Black” was adapted by her former husband from Lorraine’s writings. In 1969, Nina Simone composed “To Be Young, Gifted And Back” (lyric by her bandleader Weldon Irvine) as a tribute to the late great woman (if you can, find Nina’s great Black Gold album). Nina’s take is the gold standard except, the song is all about stops, it is “Young. Gifted. And Black. And that’s a fact.” a beautiful set of exclamation marks. Aretha sings it better. Both of them use the piano as the front instrument. But Aretha stretches it with that incomparable voice and while she doesn’t improvise, doesn’t scat, doesn’t overwhelm the track, she does allow it to flow and Aretha’s soulfulness makes it sound like a call to arms where Nina is angrier and more resistant. To quote the BBC’s Daryl Easley (here) “She remodels (it) as a gospel anthem”.
Considered one of Aretha’s greatest achievement, I almost agree. My problem isn’t the dance track “Rock Steady” or the dreamy “Day Dreaming” (both written by Aretha herself), it is the three songs that end the album: McCartney’s saccharine “The Long And Winding Road,” the Delfonics Philly prerequisite “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time),” and Elton John’s “Border Song (Holy Moses)”, Aretha’s vocal on all three is exquisite, but two of them are not great songs, certainly not as great as she sings them, and if Aretha wanted to cover the Delfonics, she should have covered the Delfonics and not remove the pop for the soul. Having said that, that’s Billy Preston, who performed keyboards on the Beatles’ original sessions, on “Winding Road” and while I am not crazy about the Elton song (it was very early on, Elton will always be, first and foremost, a pop song writer), that voice…
Otherwise, the album is the greatest purveyors of soul in the world meeting behind Aretha to MANUFACTURE one astonishing performance after another. Produced by Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, Jerry Wexler, it doesn’t even matter because Aretha sings the other eleven songs to perfect, and her sisters add back up. It maneuvers into the heart of 1972 pop, not only is it sung so very well, it is also presented as the height of music, as the place where one aims. The first side is relentless genius, and the second side is about half as good. and, I might add, my feelings about the three covers that close it might well have been very different in 1972.
The album opens both sides with out and out bangers, and it never looks back, she builds in all directions, soul, gospel, funk, and she is tempered neither by Atlantic nor by Philly nor by Motown, they are all types of soul she can sing backwards. This is what John Hammond failed to pull off during her Columbia years. The album just enthralls from one end to the other, you feel as though you understand modern music as you listen to her, Aretha’s skill range is off the charts, she is at the pinnacle of her pop moment.