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Aretha Franklin’s “Sparkle” Reviewed

“Sparkle” is the retelling of The Supremes story featuring Fame star Irene Cara and a cast of even less known actors/singers on the streets of Harlem recreating a fictionalized story of three sisters and a manager going to the top and then breaking up. Very dramatic stuff and you can catch it for free on Youtube:

https://youtube.com/watch?v=ezW_RMZ9wbw

If the movie devolves into a black soap opera, the man who wrote the soundtrack is Curtis Mayfield so you know just how great that it is without even checking. The soundtrack is a soulful beauty though it owes more to the Philadelphia sound than to Motown. There are eight songs, all written by Curtis, and a soundtrack album available.

But Aretha Franklin’s 29th album, released in 1976, isn’t that album. What it is is Curtis removing the vocals from Irene et all and recording the vocals again with his close friend Aretha Franklin for another Sparkle album that is very, very entertaining. Aretha was in her prime at 34 years old and despite a couple of clunkers in the previous two years, returns full force with a deliriously beautiful take on prime pop Mayfield. The album reached #18 in the Billboard 200 and while in 2021 that might mean you and ten other people bought a hard copy, in 1976 it was a hit.

“Giving Him Something He Can Feel” was the single and while it might have done better on the Hot 100 (#28 doesn’t really cut it), it certainly wasn’t a disaster. It is also a great song, and better than ever; better than En Vogue’s pretty darn good anyway take. Aretha made each of the girl group songs her own by making them about one song: how Aretha felt about love, Mayfield’s skill at constructing harmonies for a girl group are relegated to the back burner (though the Kitty Haywood Singers backing were added new -and not bad, but overwhelmed simply by Franklin’s presence) and while you lose that, who can sing like Aretha?

And it isn’t even the best moment that would be “Sparkle” -a song so great it is among the favorites in both the Curtis and Aretha songbook. I saw her perform it at Radio City in 2009 (here) and was blown away, I had always loved Curtis’s masterpiece about sexual manipulation and subjugation of love, but it was relegated to memory till I heard her perform it anew. What to make of “I have nothing in myself and I give myself to you”? What to say about “Submission isn’t easy for me”? That it is the most revealing line Aretha ever sang about her love life, and that in “Sparkle” – a song written for the movie- stands as a testament to how powerful a force love is in her life. The interloping of “It’s All In The Game” (the music was by Coolidge’s VP! and the words written thirty years later) adds a dimension to the track, it becomes a description of how all certain loves might feel.

Sparkle remains one of Aretha’s most consistent album, leading with two masterpiece and followed by six soul disco tracks including a vibrant “Jump” towards the end. Considering how the album was constructed, the instrumental arrangements and recordings not suited to her, it is a form of Aretha self-portrait. Curtis and Mayfield were so close, she knew how to sing him. Many years later you can hear her on one of Curtis’s most positive and glorious songs, 1997’s “Back To Living Again” -it should be an anthem for 2022. Paralyzed from the neck down after a freak accident, Aretha joins him during the last minute and she is sublime and even gets the last word: “Go ahead, Mayfield”. They are both testaments to just how much is left. Even the best r&b artists of 2021 are not this.

All eight songs here move past in a dream fuge, at 33 minutes in length you can listen to every single second with a sort of joyfulness that reminds you why you are a soul fanatic in the first place. That Mayfield could do this makes it all the sadder they didn’t make another album together. Between them, Aretha and Curtis express how love feels.

Grade: A+

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