Aretha swings the blues
Coming after Aretha Franklin’s earthshaking first group of albums on Atlantic—I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Aretha Arrives and Lady Soul—and before a brilliant trio of albums at the start of the ’70s—Spirit in the Dark (quite possibly her best studio LP), Live at Fillmore West and Amazing Grace—Soul ’69 is one of the most overlooked of her records from that period.
It didn’t yield any smash singles, it wasn’t certified gold, and it failed, as no Aretha Atlantic LP had before, to make the top 10 on the Billboard album chart (although it did top the R&B chart). Recorded over five sessions in New York City in September 1968 (a couple of tracks were leftovers from the Aretha Now recording dates in April), Soul ’69 is an album out of time, and out of sync. In a period when soul was becoming funkier, when the impact of Sly and the Family Stone was rippling through black music, when artists like James Brown and the Isley Brothers were releasing tracks like “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “It’s Your Thing,” when Motown was dipping into psychedelic soul, Aretha was taking a look back. Soul ’69 at 50 years old still feels like Aretha unleashed, unconcerned with trends (for the most part). She knew she could out-sing and out-swing anyone out there, and her confidence is a thing of joy.
“I got the blues.” Those are the words she sings, on Big Maybelle’s “Ramblin’,” to kick off Soul ’69, after a brassy fanfare that announces the intent of the whole shebang. It’s a big, blaring sound, the musicians an esteemed lineup of jazz players, some of them veterans of ensembles like Count Basie’s orchestra, some of whom had contributed to side one of the Atlantic album this one most closely resembles, The Genius of Ray Charles (the label could’ve called this The Genius of Aretha and it’d have been on the mark: she was the inheritor of his stature on the roster). Snookie Young (trumpet), David “Fathead” Newman (on most sax solos), Frank Wess (alto sax), Joe Newman (trumpet), Pepper Adams (baritone sax), Urbie Green (trombone)…it’s a killer crew of horns, and among the other musicians on hand were guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Ron Carter and keyboard player Joe Zawinul.
The setting—and some of the participants—puts Aretha in the tradition of predecessors Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington on such albums as No Count Sarah and The Swingin’ Miss “D.” This concept might’ve been what John Hammond originally had in mind when he signed Aretha to Columbia, and what she was able to pull off occasionally, as on her Dinah tribute album. One Soul ’69 song, “Today I Sing the Blues,” appeared on her Columbia debut, and on the new version, one of the Now outtakes, she’s backed by members of the Muscle Shoals gang, and accompanies herself on piano (the other track from that session is a less-than-transcendent version of “Tracks of My Tears”).
There’s a thread of homage that runs through the album, as Aretha and her Atlantic team (producers Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd, arranger Arif Mardin) make connections to her influences, and to the singers that came before her at Atlantic. “So Long,” a song that goes back to 1940, was a hit for Ruth Brown on the label, and was done by Sarah Vaughan and Aretha’s teen idol Sam Cooke. Vaughan and Cooke are two of the singers who did the standard “Crazy He Calls Me,” and although it’s likely that Aretha picked up “I’ll Never Be Free”—which she completely slays—from Dinah Washington’s record, it was also cut by Atlantic’s LaVern Baker. As on Aretha Now and I Never Loved a Man, Aretha goes into Cooke’s catalog, for a brassy take on “Bring It on Home to Me.” (She also recorded, on the same date, Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” but that has stayed in the can.) It’s a kick to hear Aretha so freewheeling, like she’s been waiting for the chance to kick off her shoes; by ’68’s Aretha Now, the formula was getting predictable, and the Aretha in Paris live album that followed was pretty phoned-in. Soul ’69 gave her license to wail, which she does on “Pitiful” (another song done by Big Maybelle, in the late ’50s) and on Rudy Clark’s “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody” (a hit for James Ray, also recorded by Maxine Brown). It was a bold move, with only a couple of what you might call commercial concessions.
It was a bizarre decision to have Aretha and the big band blast through Bob Lind’s trippy folk-rocky “Elusive Butterfly” and John Hartford’s ramblin’ “Gentle On My Mind”—singers of all stripes found them hard to resist—but in each case someone (Jerry? Arif?) had the notion of trimming the excess. A verse is subtracted from “Gentle on My Mind,” so Aretha doesn’t get around to being lost in the wheatfields and the clotheslines, and isn’t required to sing the line about “the gurglin’ cracklin’ caldron in some trainyard.” And on “Elusive Butterfly,” the section with the “canyons of your mind” is snipped out. Arif’s arrangement is so cooking, and Aretha’s vocal is so acrobatic, that you wish the song were better. “You might have seeeeen me running!” she shouts. God, was she amazing. And she decides to end the song with an exclamation that isn’t in the Lind original: “I’m right behind ya!” You have to give her credit for digging deep into the song for some meaning, for not letting the actual words impede her. In that era, she had an uncanny ability, like Billie Holiday’s, to redeem silliness. It’s a mismatch of artist and song, but it honestly doesn’t matter. I’d bet Aretha brought those songs into the room, and convinced everyone she could turn them into something Aretha-worthy. She could do that, and she was right a lot of the time.
Sadly, Aretha never attempted this kind of project again, so Soul ’69 (and an outtake, Little Willie John’s “Talk to Me” on a collection of rarities) is the last evidence we have of Aretha the incredible jazz-blues singer, backed by a room of top-notch players. She continued to do some remarkable work, because there was very little she was not capable of, and on her final studio album there’s a subtle take on “Teach Me Tonight” that hints at what might have been, but in her later years I always held out the hope that someone would take her into the studio with a dozen songs like “Crazy He Calls Me” and the best contemporary jazz musicians, and roll tape.