While hindsight is, as always, 20/20, why Aretha Franklin’s 1977 collaboration with Motown house songwriter Lamont Dozier (of Holland-Dozier-Holland) Sweet Passion is considered anything less than a masterpiece is beyond me. If nothing else at all, her “Mumbles/I’ve Got The Music In Me” is one of her greatest moments as she scats against the jazz orchestration with astounding skill. This is the album Dean Of Rock Critics dismissed with “When I work at listening, I can tell that she still sings real good – C+”? How did Christgau get it so incredibly wrong?
Not to pick on Christgau, his opinion was echoed by fans and pundits. Maybe we were all too caught up with punk and the nascent rap, but never released (in the US) on CD or streaming platforms, Aretha’s music from 1974 – 1979 (excluding 1976’s Sparkle here) are in deep neglect. If it wasn’t for Youtube’s Aretha fanatics, you could only hear Aretha’s mid-70s Atlanta albums if you bought them on vinyl; you can buy Sweet Passion on vinyl for a pretty good $13 . Do you have a turntable?
Sweet Passion, album # 30 (Wikipedia claim it is #23, but they are missing some greatest hits and live in their addition), must be knocking on a great, lost part of Aretha’s backpages, roaming as it does through funk, soul, and disco, before settling for the last ten minutes as jazz morphs into the Franklin composed disco work out title track. It is better than, say, Let Me Be In Your Life (here) and that one was great, they are all great: nothing you hear from Aretha is ever bad, she is too strong a singer not to touch even the weakest of material with genius. For instance, the first single and opening track “Break It To Me Gently” is a Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager piece of generic soul and which Aretha sings to a standstill, the overwhelming bridge, “I need you baby”,” where she roars her desire like fire and brimstone on romance is a s good as it gets and then it gets better.
There might be a question now as to what Lamont adds it wouldn’t have had, I mean besides the three songs he wrote (not close to his best work), and my claim is he anchored everything around the melody, the band never transcended into jam without taking the tune with it. It is very catchy and that is undoubtedly Dozier. However, Bradley Briggs got it right when he wrote “H.B. Barnum arrangements on most tracks create perfect lush settings for Lady Soul to get loose and do her thang to the max.” That is indisputable, the arrangements work hand in hand with Aretha, it never leaves her stranded.
Aretha has sung better for sure (her Gospel material alone is superior), but her performance here is brash and emotional at the same time, she excavates her sweet passion with consistency and pop power. A great, lost album.
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