At first glance there is something serendipitous about Aretha Franklin’s 26th album, from 1974, Let Me Be In Your Life, as though the gods of soul came together and aligned themselves to Aretha and the cream of them joined with her on one of the most soulful albums she ever released.
But, really, when you are covering Stevie Wonder, Bobby Womack, Bill Withers, Eddie Hinton (the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section lead guitarist at the time), Ashford And Simpson”, and Leon Russell, and more, fate will only take you so far. And with a production team of Arif Mardin, Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Aretha Franklin herself, the sound is going to be pretty much on the money. In other words, it was chance, but chance pushed hard through seven years of Atlantic Records guidance and care. It was chance if chance sounded like a carrion call wiping away the Paul Simons and Lennon-McCartneys and Bacharach and Davids, and returning to the greatest soul of the 20th century. Chance as planning, chance as smarting up, chance as songs on just the right side of not entirely known. Three hit singles came out of the sessions: “I’m In Love”, AIn’t Nothing Like The Real Thing ” and “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”.
Let Me Be In Your Life is a beautifully sung and modulated collection with a rhythm section in a groove and a keyboardist in Donny Hathaway worth celebrating. If it isn’t among her very best work it is because Aretha, like us, have muted expectations; she breaks no new ground, but her middle class, Christian and black ethics and ethnicity normalized whites and appealed to blacks. In 2021, the black artists, certainly in hip hop, go through a trajectory of extreme poverty to extreme wealth, in 1974 a society closed off was opened up through black music that was completely a part of its mainstream cultural appeal. Including outlier, Bobby Goldsboro’s “With Pen In Hand” which is re-written from singer songwriter country gutless confessional, to a gut wrenching pain manifesto and at the head of the second side also a surprise anchor, and absolutely helps the second side while the first side is one great song after another and needs no help. The first side is five great soul songs, perfectly sung and with nothing that Aretha considers necessary for her to prove anything, and the accent at the end is the 1939 vintage “The Masquerade Is Over” with triumphant horns -a sound that reaches its zenith on “Every Natural Thing”. The second side passes the crest and the two Aretha originals are not as good, and the Leon Russell closer is too laid back to end an album with.
But listening to the album nearly 50 years later, it sounds very good, it survives as Aretha with nothing to do but ride her career with well chosen, well sung soul songs and songs she makes soul songs, and with her entire Atlanta team behind her, she records them and they come together as Aretha as disposable but still indispensable soul god serendipity.
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Creem – America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, Reviewed Issue By Issue – May 1973 (Volume 4, Number 12)
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