Wednesday, June 10, 2009

June 10: Aretha Franklin, "Lady Soul"

Artist: Aretha Franklin
Album: Lady Soul
Year: 1968
Label: Atlantic

Think of any female singer of the past forty years, it really doesn't matter the genre or era. Each and every one of the these performers owes a great deal of their career to one woman: Aretha Franklin. Known as "Soul Sister #1," "Lady Soul," "Queen of Soul," and a host of other nicknames, countless publications have cited her as the greatest singer of all time. From soul to jazz to pop and everything in between, Aretha is the ultimate singer, capturing an astounding eighteen Grammy awards throughout her career, including a stunning eight consecutive wins in the "Best Female R&B Performance" category. Responsible for a number of the most famous songs in history, it is difficult to find any recording from her early career that isn't anything but fantastic. In 1968, she released an album of originals and covers that would become, in many ways, her finest album, the immortal record, Lady Soul.

The lineup on Lady Soul reads like a "who's who" of the music scene. With legends like Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler handing engineering and production duties respectively, their names alone would make the album significant. The leader of Aretha's backing band, The Kingpins, was none other than saxophone legend, King Curtis. Handing guitar were the one and only Joe South, as well as an up and coming performer names Bobby Womack. Another guitar credit on the album is given to a young man named Eric Clapton. The backing vocals on Lady Soul were provided by Aretha's real life sisters, Erma and Carolyn Franklin. With this lineup, it is little surprise that Lady Soul hit number one on the album charts, and produced a trio of chart topping singles. Two of these singles still stand as landmarks of American music, and are easily two of Aretha's most recognizable songs: "Chain Of Fools" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." The latter of these songs was written for Aretha by Carole King and Gerry Goffin and it has been covered by artists from Mary J. Blige to Celine Dion to King herself, as well as a different view in Rod Stewart's, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Man." The song still stands as a worldwide anthem and is one of the most recognizable melodies ever written.

As has been show above, the musicians on Lady Soul make it almost impossible for the album to be anything short of phenomenal. With their varying styles, it is Joe Smith that put the signature riff on "Chain of Fools," while Cleveland, Ohio's own Womack adds his signature style throughout many of the other songs. Even if you didn't know he was on the album, when you hear the fantastic, soulful, "Good To Me As I Am To You," it is obvious that the brilliant, bluesy guitar playing is that of Eric Clapton. This variance in guitar players enables the songs on Lady Soul to have a great diversity in sound, yet Franklin's vocals keep everything cohesive. The horn section for Lady Soul, which included the likes of Frank Wess and Seldon Powell alongside King Curtis, is just as impressive as the guitar players, and they keep each track bright and poppy. Roger Hawkins, who is best known as part of Muscle Shoals, handles nearly all of the drumming on the album, and he shines across the genres presented, performing flawlessly throughout. At times, Lady Soul swings, it sometimes cries, and it often is pure pop bliss, and the musicians succeed in being a perfect backing sound to the finest singer that the world has ever seen.

Throw away all of the amazing musicians, and the songs would still be stellar, thanks to the incomparable vocals of Aretha Franklin. It is nearly impossible to come up with things to say about her voice and delivery that haven't been said countless times before. The fact that Aretha can sing anywhere in the musical scale with equal prowess only adds to the range in which her songs can fall. The sheer power that Franklin is able to bring to the vocal booth has rarely been equaled, and the emotion she conveys in each song is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Aretha has one of the most recognizable voices in history, and it is often moreso in "how" she delivers the vocals, as opposed to "what" she is singing. The title of "Soul Sister #1" is more than fitting, and the inherent link to James Brown that the title gives is truly fitting, and she is easily on a level field as him, if not perhaps a higher one. Whether belting out on "Chain of Fools" or crooning on "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," Aretha's vocal performance is absolutely perfect, and her delivery often leaves one speechless. The fact that Aretha Franklin is consistently referred to as the greatest singer of all time is a very fitting honor, and it is rarely more apparent than on each song found on Lady Soul.

By simply mentioning the name "Aretha Franklin," countless sounds, images, and moods come instantly to mind. Throughout the world, few artists have had as much impact or stand as highly regarded. Singing everything from civil rights anthems, to songs of female empowerment, to songs of pure celebration, Franklin was one of the most courageous, barrier breaking performers in history. Superbly delivering in every style imaginable, Aretha Franklin stands high above nearly ever other performer in the history of recorded music. Serving as the inspiration for countless singers who came after her, Aretha's sound and style remain unmatched, and her records have truly become timeless. It is fitting that, as one of the most phenomenal singers in history, on Lady Soul, Aretha is afforded the luxury of having one of the most amazing lineups of backing musicians that there has ever been on a single album. Containing mammoth singles like "Chain Of Fools" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," Aretha's 1968 album, Lady Soul, remains one of the most stunning musical works that the world has ever seen.

Standout tracks: "Chain Of Fools," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and "Ain't No Way."

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