Bob Lefsetz On Aretha (With Responses From The Industry - Toni Tenille, Marhsall Crenshaw, Bruce Allen, Etc.)
By Atlantic Records (Billboard, page 9, 15 July 1967) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bob Lefsetz On Aretha (With Responses From The Industry – Toni Tenille, Marhsall Crenshaw, Bruce Allen, Etc.)

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“Hey nineteen

That’s ‘Retha Franklin

She don’t remember the Queen of Soul”

That was recorded by Steely Dan in 1980, when Aretha already appeared to be in the rearview mirror.

But she wasn’t.

Forget the forgettable Arista hits, but remember her appearances on the Grammys, at Obama’s inauguration and the Kennedy Center Honors. Aretha Franklin transcended the hit parade, she was an icon as big as the music business itself. She forged her own path, and we loved her for it.

Now you’ve got to understand it was a different era. That’s right, the baby boomers had it best, they lived through the Beatles and the explosion of soul. Back when you owned a transistor radio instead of a smartphone, when we were all excited by what emanated from the single speaker in the dashboard, when if you wanted to know which way the wind blew, you listened to music.

It started with “Respect.”

1967 was the Summer of Love, it was also the year before the deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. There was a brief respite before the darkness overtook the light. Not that the light never shined thereafter, it’s just that we always expected the other shoe to drop, and it did. Tell a denizen of the sixties that racism is now prevalent and minorities are excluded on the voting rolls and their heads spin. We fought for freedom, the sky was the limit, we were on action, not reaction, and ultimately we all got on the same team, rednecks grew their hair, they were ultimately against the Vietnam War, and the twin pillars were Motown and rock.

And then came Aretha.

She started off on Columbia, which didn’t know what to do with her. Sometimes you’re too early, sometimes you’re lacking chemistry, sometimes you need someone to midwife you to success.

Like Jerry Wexler. Used to be the Jews and the blacks walked side by side. Why African-Americans find fault with the Semitic people today I do not know, we’re both minorities, both fighting to end injustice.

And Columbia was part of a conglomerate, whereas the more nimble Atlantic had a long history in black music. Aretha was finally home, at least when it comes to record companies.

“What you want

Baby, I got it”

Talk about girl power, talk about the beginning of the feminist revolution, Aretha’s place in the pantheon has not been elucidated. It was women who embraced Aretha first, they could hear the power in her voice, her message.

And overnight, “Sock it to me baby” became par of the vernacular. On “Laugh-In,” hell, even Richard Nixon uttered it on television.

That’s the power of a hit single, that’s the power of music, at least back then, can you imagine Trump quoting Kendrick Lamar today?

No way.

But “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” sounded completely different, we shouldn’t have been surprised when she subbed for Pavarotti at the Grammys and hit “Nessun Dorma” far over the fence, she could sing anything, she could make it her own. That’s the mark of a great artist, one who has breadth, who is not one note. Arguably this number is the one that made Goffin and King household names, and it was only a few years later that Carole cut her version on “Tapestry,” but even King would admit that Aretha owns it.

As for “Chain Of Fools,” once again it was a new twist, unconnected to what came before, other than it had soul! Aretha may not have written these songs but she owned them. And unlike Michael Jackson, she did not coin her own moniker and she did not fight for the spotlight, she was quiet about her career, she just kept making hits. Whether it be 1972’s “Rock Steady,” from the album “Young, Gifted And Black,” or the surprise “comeback” hit from 1973, “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” in an era where FM ruled and AM was a backwater. I heard this on the jukebox at the Alibi in Middlebury, Vermont and I had to buy the album, to be able to play it at will, it’s all about the chorus, not that there isn’t so much more.

And then came the victory lap. Aretha’s triumphant appearance in the “Blues Brothers” movie, where she blew every other musician off the screen, owning the movie in a matter of minutes, back in an era where musical performances onscreen were still rare, unavailable, this voice that emanated from the radio, the performance was every bit as energetic and believable and then…

Aretha disappeared.

Well, there was a bit of MTV action, especially 1985’s “Freeway Of Love,” but the recording was overproduced, a relic of the early MTV era, when the oldsters still had traction before the popsters and the rappers took over. Aretha’s performance was stellar, but she didn’t star in the song like she did in previous numbers and the metronomic, rhythm machine track didn’t swing like the hits of old, it lacked an element of soul, not that the verse was not catchy.

But Aretha suddenly became unavailable. Especially at the turn of the century, when seemingly every classic act took to the boards since they could no longer have radio hits, in an endless dash for cash, to the point where the younger generation became unfamiliar with her, she certainly was a legend, but they didn’t realize she was a living, breathing person who could still deliver. She was a diva, she had to do it her way, but when you saw her her magnetism attracted you and then you found yourself hovering over the arena, able to fly on the notes alone.

She knew she was that good, that great, that phenomenal, truly above everybody else. But she didn’t have to advertise herself, the penumbra was irrelevant, all she had to do was open her mouth.

For her last famous public appearance on the Kennedy Center Honors. You didn’t want to follow Aretha, you couldn’t! She came out playing the piano, people aren’t supposed to be trained, but Aretha paid her dues in church, she didn’t burst on the scene with no backstory. And when she stood and shed her fur and sang… You could say belted, but this was not Mariah Carey, Aretha was always in service to the song, she showed off without trying to, all she had to do was perform!

And there you have it folks, she was here and now she’s gone.

Too many of them are gone. From Bowie to Frey to those who O.D.’ed before their time, like Prince. But pancreatic cancer got the Queen of Soul. There’s really no treatment, it’s a death sentence, a couple of months and you’re out, done, finished.

And in this case Roger Friedman gave us advance warning, so we weren’t surprised, today these deaths come from seemingly nowhere, like records.


But still…

76 ain’t young, but it’s not old either. Paul McCartney is 76 and he’s got a new album, he’s still touring, he’s still alive, we expect these musicians to live forever.

But they don’t.

And when they’re gone they’re never coming back, like the era they dominated.

But most of the classic acts have been forgotten, touring sans original members, there are only a few giants, superstars who can still sell every ticket, but no one lives forever and at some point this era will fade.

Will the music survive?

It appears so, because it was built on a different foundation. When you could not be famous for nothing, when you had to have talent to make it, when you had to pay endless dues to break through. We baby boomers lived through the Renaissance, they painted and sculpted after Raphael and Michelangelo, but at no time thereafter was there such a burst of genius, such dominance. Same deal with music. I know, I know, you want to believe it’s the same as ever, but change happens, and it has.

So certainly spin the records. But if you ever had a hankering to see these legends, go now. It was joke that this was the last time for the Stones, that you had to see them before they died, but at some point Mick and Keith will truly go, then what?

It’ll be like today. Aretha was here, always in the back of our mind, the records still as vital as they were yesterday, and now, pfft, she’s gone!

Kinda funny in a country focused on youth. We only give legends their due when they pass.

But that’s not true of Aretha, she was always here, those records are forever. Just go to a wedding or bar mitzvah, you’ll hear ’em, everybody knows them. As big as Michael Jackson was, Aretha was bigger. But she lived her life privately, with fewer shenanigans. And she tried to live it for herself, but there were endless tragedies and mistreatments. But still, we were and still are the beneficiaries of her fantastic talent. She ultimately suffered for us.

And we still remember the Queen of Soul.

The Industry Responds:

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Back in the day (late 60’s), I represented Hines, Hines & Dad, the cabaret act that spawned Gregory and Maurice Hines, the two brilliant dancers. Their uncle was a man named Vernon “Doc” Lawless. Doc was a character of the 1st order, but everybody loved him. He hit a number up in Harlem one day, and used the cash to buy a limousine, which he drove himself. I sat in the office after my day gig, and took calls and did the books.

When Aretha discovered him, it was nearly the end of the business, because she’d come into town and book him 24/7.. no one else could get a ride. We finally got him an SBA Ioan, and bought another car to keep the customers happy… Doc pretty much loved everybody, but he always said ‘Retha’s my gal’ .. How ironic…pancreatic cancer. It’s what got Gregory Hines, too. He was only 56 or so… They seem to be finding cures for all sorts of cancer these days, but I never hear even a whisper about stopping this one..

Take care.
Nick

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Beautifully written, Bob, and I agree with everything you said.  Once Aretha sang or recorded a song, she owned it, and the rest of us dared not touch it.  When she sang, her joy flew from her mouth on wings straight to the heart of her listeners.  She is gone forever now, and we are all feeling that great loss….and yes, I feel sad.  But when I think of her and her brilliant, solid soul voice, I have to smile.  And thank God we have all the videos and recordings to bring her back into our hearts whenever we wish.  She has left us her great Legacy.  Thank you, Queen Aretha.  Sing now with the angels.

TONI TENNILLE

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Let’s remember too, she was one of the best songwriters of her time: “Think”, “Day Dreaming”, “Spirit In the Dark”, “Rock Steady”, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, on and on.
A brilliant writer, along with everything else..

Marshall Crenshaw

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I’m sorry, but as I sit here in studio A of FAME recording studios in Muscle Shoals, AL; the very first time Aretha found her home sound was here, in this very building…..
It was With Rick Hall and Jerry Wexler-who brought her here to record with Rick and the Swampers…. “Never Loved A Man” was her first hit and that led to the rest being recorded…. it started here in Muscle Shoals at Fame. Just for the record.

Many thanks for your writing, your views and an unadulterated take on the music business. I wish the industry would take a lesson and be like we still are here in Muscle Shoals-the integrity of the music comes first.   You should come visit. You’d appreciate it.

Much love….

Jo Ann Rossi

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Nice job, Bob. Aretha was the recipient of the Muscle Shoals sound that put both of them on the map. Strange. The King of Rock and the Queen of Soul leave the scene on the same day.
I can’t even imagine what is going on upstairs!

Bruce Allen

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Imagine Robert Johnson, Elvis and Aretha dying on the same day?

Ted Lindsay

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In 1996 Aretha sang the national anthem at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Earlier that day she rehearsed it to an empty room, save for the network camera crews and the janitors cleaning up after the previous night’s festivities. MTV had a position looking out over the arena, and a few of us got to watch and listen. Aretha was under-singing it…saving it up for that night…but then the “rockets red glare the bombs bursting in air” portion came, and there was only one thing she could do. Off went the roof of the United Center.

When she finished the anthem, the 40 or so people in the empty arena all clapped and whooped. She smiled and said “thank you”. That night I saw her sing it again for the packed convention (and it was glorious) but what stays with me most is when she lifted the building off the ground in rehearsal.

Michael Alex

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When I was 17 years old, I was working in the mailroom of ATLANTIC RECORDS in NYC ( my young band, THE BAY RIDGE, was also signed to ATLANTIC ). Label Vice President Jerry Wexler hired me. One day, I got a message that Jerry wanted me to go to the studio. The studio was on the same floor of where I worked in the mailroom. When i got there I was surprised to see Jerry with Aretha Franklin. He said he wanted me to meet her. She was very kind, and I asked her for an autograph, but she shrugged and showed me her right arm in a cast (from a fall from a concert stage). I should have asked her to sign with her left hand ! And…of course, no I-phones back then to take a photo. That day,  I watched the recording session with Aretha playing piano with only her left hand, and singing a guide vocal for the rhythm session musicians to set the groove. Jerry Wexler producing, Tom Dowd engineering, Arif Mardin arranging, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section…and the Queen of Soul on left hand piano and vocals. Can you imagine the impression it made on a 17 year old kid? It was amazing!

R.I.P. the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

Joey Carbone

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I never met Aretha, but I did get to review her performance contract for a client a few years ago.  I think she’d been using the contract for a few years.  It specified that Ms. Franklin would not play segregated venues.  She got paid a lot of money for her show, but there was one interesting clause:  that $25,000 in cash would be paid before the show directly to Ms. Franklin and to no one but Ms. Franklin.  She came out on stage wearing a bright red glittery dress, and placed on the grand piano a fairly large matching red glittery purse.  The purse stayed on the
piano the entire show.  When she left the stage after the encore she took the purse with her.  Somebody must have gotten burned once upon a time, and wasn’t about to let that happen again.

Paul C. Rapp, Esq

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Ellie Greenwich dreamed up and sang the “whoop-whoop” background vocals on “Chain of Fools,” the unedited version of which opens with a jaw-dropping guitar solo by Joe South.

Joel Selvin

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Boy did you nail it in that tribute. I was there In the studio when Arif Martin put the strings on Natural Women. I also saw her in the studio every time she recorded in NY. Was in Wexler office when we opened the demo of Let It Be from Paul . Loved her much. The voice,memories,and music will live on. Jerry Greenberg

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One of the reasons Wexler made it work for Atlantic was he was a real music man who knew when to get out of the way, and so he was the guy who moved the studio pianist over to organ and had Ms. Franklin exit the vocal booth, sit at the piano, and accompany herself, all live. This changed the dynamic and was the paradigm shift that made what she did live work on record. Without that stroke of organic, seeing-the-forest-for-the-trees history might now have been made.

Steve Jones
Co-Executive Producer
PBS: Great Performances

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I booked Ms. Franklin to perform in Indianapolis for a fundraiser in February 2017. It was her first show in approximately 7 months. I have many great tails from this experience including receiving a Sunday afternoon telephone call from her a few weeks before the show to review a few special requests. On the day of show I was fortunate to spend a few minutes with her and it was spectacular! Her stories were awesome!  She did not soundcheck nor did she rehearse prior to the show. When she hit the stage, she was spot on. Her voice was magnificent, and she sang beautifully with passion and enthusiasm. It was a surreal experience.

Steve Gerardi
Indianapolis

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Bravo Bob..That was an excellent piece. I will never ever forget the first time sitting in my fathers Dodge Coronet in Bklyn when I heard Respect for the first time. It took my family
to see Paul sing Michelle and Yesterday on Ed Sullivan for my parents to come around to the Beatles but after we heard Respect on WABC even my father said..they should play that again and we were flipping between WMCA,WABC and WINS until one of the DJs played it again. I was also fortunate years later to record a number of Albums with Luther Vandross who was not only a close friend to Aretha but also her number one fan..he was an Aretha Encyclopedia and I learned many lessons about Soul and RnB from him..The great ones you can accumulate Knowledge from…I saw Aretha at Luthers funeral and she slipped in and slipped out dressed incredibly respectful of the proceedings and not have any focus on her…We Just have to hope that the passing of these greats  will one day inspire another generation to hear these artists and build on their genius..You said it right about how fortunate many of us were to be there at the beginning..It is something that I’ve kept with me my whole life and career and still learn from…Thank You Aretha…. RIP

Jason Miles

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In 1996 Aretha sang the national anthem at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Earlier that day she rehearsed it to an empty room, save for the network camera crews and the janitors cleaning up after the previous night’s festivities. MTV had a position looking out over the arena, and a few of us got to watch and listen. Aretha was under-singing it…saving it up for that night…but then the “rockets red glare the bombs bursting in air” portion came, and there was only one thing she could do. Off went the roof of the United Center.

When she finished the anthem, the 40 or so people in the empty arena all clapped and whooped. She smiled and said “thank you”. That night I saw her sing it again for the packed convention (and it was glorious) but what stays with me most is when she lifted the building off the ground in rehearsal.

Michael Alex

__________________________________________

FYI BBC TV & radio here in the UK have pulled out all the stops to commemorate Aretha since the news broke, with as much airtime as for Bowie or George Michael. Even as I write a gospel choir are singing ‘Respect’ live on Jeremy Vine’s prime-time Radio 2 show with similar tributes going out all around the country, big respect indeed.

David Stark
SongLink, UK

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Aretha Franklin, will always be a Matriarch of Music.

Her musicianship, dedication, live and studio performances and focus has been an inspiration to all musicians.
Our founder, Duane Allman had the honor and privilege of contributing to one of Ms. Franklin’s quintessential recordings.
Our mentor, Tom Dowd helped bring her music to the world.
When we play “The Weight” and a guest joined us, they were always told, “We do the Aretha Arrangement”.
The Allman Brothers Band, Families, & Crew share the sadness of the Franklin family at the loss of their Queen of Soul.

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From: Melissa Evans

This quote from Billy Preston summed it up for me.

“I don’t care what they say about Aretha,” Billy Preston, who died in 2006, once said: “She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world.

“But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know – you’ll swear -that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.”

 

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