I say a little prayer for you

Let us all hail Jerry Wexler.

102521-jerry_wexler_617_409Who?

He is the savvy producer and executive at Atlantic Records who, in 1966, recognized how the phenomenal gospel-based talent of Aretha Franklin had been used so ineffectively by Columbia Records during their five-year contract.  The minute she was free to sign elsewhere, Wexler brought her into the fold at Atlantic, a hotbed of rhythm and blues artists since the 1940s, and paired her with the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, studio veterans, helped produce game-changing tracks like “Respect” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” and turned her into the iconic artist we all revere, and now mourn.

Aretha Franklin, “The Queen of Soul,” has died, a victim of pancreatic cancer at age 76.

Can you even imagine what our musical landscape would be like if Aretha had called it quits after her lackluster career singing dreary pop standards on Columbia?  Thankfully, we need not do so.  The wonderful chemistry between Franklin, Wexler and the Muscle Shoals crew (and, later, in Atlantic’s New York studios with some of the Muscle Shoals personnel) is well documented in the extraordinary musical works they produced:   ct-aretha-franklin-photos-20180813“Baby I Love You,” Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” “Think,” “The House That Jack Built” and “I Say a Little Prayer for You.”

All of these Top Ten hits came in the space of only two short years, and established her as the undisputed star of female soul singers, and among the best in American popular music in general.  Critic Ritchie Unterberger of AllMusic recently wrote, “Aretha is one of the true giants of soul music and, indeed, of American pop as a whole.  More than any other performer, she epitomized soul at its most gospel-charged.”

Franklin’s story, sadly, is riddled with early trauma.  She was born in 1942 to a Baptist preacher father and a pianist/vocalist mother, and they both influenced her love of gospel music.  But their marriage was tempestuous and ultimately doomed by infidelity on both sides, and Aretha stayed with her father when her mother moved out.  Aretha was only 10 years old

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The Reverend C.L. Franklin and Aretha

when her mother died of a heart attack.

 

As her father became a renowned traveling preacher on the Southern circuit, Aretha tagged along, singing solos on numerous hymns, sharing her amazing vocal range and impressive piano skills, which she had picked up on her own.  Her father helped her secure her first recording contract at age 14, covering gospel favorites on the little-known “Songs of Faith” LP.

By the time she reached 18, possessed of a powerful four-octave voice packed with emotional intensity, Franklin moved to New York City, hoping to follow the path of Sam Cooke, another spectacular vocal talent who had evolved from gospel to secular music and become a chart-topper (“You Send Me” and others).

The legendary John Hammond signed her to Columbia in 1960.  But he made the tactical error of envisioning her as a jazz singer tinged with blues and gospel, and he steered her toward middle-of-the-road fare like “Over the Rainbow,” “Ol’ Man River,” “Skylark,” “People” and “You Are My Sunshine.”  Franklin’s then-husband, Ted White, became her manager, who wanted her to try a little of everything, from Dinah Washington standards to remakes of recent pop hits, which consequently left radio stations and audiences confused.

The passion and spirit in Aretha’s voice finally surfaced at Atlantic once Wexler found the right CS324702-01A-BIGenvironment and accompaniment.  “I basically took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself,” as Wexler put it in Craig Werner’s book Higher Ground, an illuminating exploration of how Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield launched the soul music revolution of the 1960s.

Her defining moment, then and ever since, was when she took Otis Redding’s great 1966 song “Respect,” changed the arrangement and a few of the lyrics, and made it something else altogether.  If you listen to Redding’s original version now, it sounds positively lame without Franklin’s signature chorus “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, take care of T-C-B,” which helped turn it into a feminist and civil rights anthem just as those movements were coalescing in 1967.

When The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” ruled the album charts in the summer of ’67, it was “Respect” that was the Number One song in the country, her second of six consecutive Top Ten hit singles in 1967-68.  What’s more, her first four albums on Atlantic (“I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You,” “Aretha Arrives,” “Lady Soul” and “Aretha Now”) all 89ff36-20130219-aretha-franklin-time-magazinereached the Top Ten, an unprecedented feat at a time when urban audiences weren’t buying LPs yet.  Clearly, there was no stopping her over the next three years.

As Time wrote in its cover story on Franklin in June 1968, “Aretha’s vocal technique is simple enough:  a direct, natural style of delivery that ranges over a full four octaves, and the breath control to spin out long phrases that curl sinuously around the beat.  But what really accounts for her impact is her fierce, gritty conviction.  She flexes her rich, cutting voice like a whip.”

Aretha herself said at that time that she chose songs she could sing with sincerity because they frame her own perspective on life.  “If a song is about something I’ve experienced, or that could have happened to me, then it’s good.  But if it’s alien to me, then I can’t lend anything to it.  That’s what soul music is — just living and having to get along.”

_103066216_1968_bbc_3While her career was on fire, her marriage was in ashes, as White publicly berated her and physically abused her.  By 1970, she was on her own again, and another set of hits kept her all over the airwaves.  The great Paul Simon has said he wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with Aretha in mind, and he got his wish when her version followed his into the Top Ten in 1971, followed by the major pop hits “Spanish Harlem” (#2), “Rock Steady” (#9) and “Day Dreaming” (#5).

Even as her “Amazing Grace” album (1972) sold two million copies and became the best-selling gospel album ever, the disco era was on the rise, and curiously, Franklin’s light began dimming somewhat.  She still had the occasional minor hit, and she scored big on the more limited R&B charts, but her albums stiffed, and she found herself out of favor for a spell.

Aretha endured more heartbreak in 1979 when her father was shot during a home invasion and remained in a coma for five long years until his death in 1984.  As the dutiful daughter, she flew back and forth from L.A. to Detroit numerous times during

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The diner scene from “The Blues Brothers” (1980)

that period, and one particularly turbulent flight in 1983 affected her so traumatically that she refused to ever fly again.

 

Things had started improving again for Aretha when she did an incredible turn as a diner waitress singing and dancing to a frantic version of “Think” in the 1980 blockbuster film “The Blues Brothers.”  When she signed with Arista Records, she eventually re-emerged on the charts in 1985 with a huge album, the “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” LP and the #3 hit single, “Freeway of Love.”   This also began a string of hugely popular duets with the likes of The Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox (“Sisters Are Doing images-28It For Themselves” was #18 in 1985), George Michael (“I Knew Your Were Waiting For Me” was #1 in 1987), plus lesser numbers with Elton John, Whitney Houston, James Brown and Michael McDonald.

Another fallow period came in the 1990s, but she rallied again in 1998 with a noteworthy appearance at the 1998 Grammy Awards, substituting at the last minute for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti by singing a Puccini aria that met with mixed reviews (opera folks were appalled).  On a VH1 special called “Divas Live,” she made mincemeat of newer-generation stars in duets, among them Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.

Aretha battled weight problems much of her life, which led to other medical issues, but she was always very private about them.  Even today in the wake of her death, little is known about the specific ailments that made her life difficult in the 1990s and beyond.

merlin_127020776_a4590586-9b4b-4eb5-b6bf-46eb7e918a06-superJumboStill, she was able to overcome them well enough to make several seismic public showings in more recent years.  She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by George W. Bush in 2005.  When Barack Obama stood before America for his inauguration in January 2009, he made history, but it was Aretha Franklin who pretty much stole the show.  Obama may have been sworn in as America’s first black president, but when Aretha stood to sing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she was, without a shadow of a doubt, its first Queen.

Rolling Stone ranked her #1 on its 2010 list of “The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time,” and Mary J. Blige had this to say about that:  “Aretha is a gift from God.  When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there’s no one who can touch her.  She is the reason why women want to sing.”

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At Obama’s inauguration in 2009

Music journalists didn’t care for how Franklin tended to maintain a very strict discipline over her career message, but I think it’s likely she insisted on that control because she didn’t want her life story to follow the weary stereotype of strong black women.  You know what I mean:  the tale of a lifelong struggle against demons within and without, culminating in an exhilarating victory over hard times.

 

In my mind, Aretha’s story is more one of incalculable influence, spine-tingling recordings, a voice unmatched by anyone anywhere.  As someone once said, “That woman could sing the phone book, and I’d buy it.”

Here’s what her contemporaries said in the wake of her passing a week ago:

“Aretha was a rare treasure whose unmatched musical genius helped craft the soundtrack to the lives of so many.”  — Patti LaBelle

“I was fortunate enough to witness her last performance — a benefit for the AIDS Foundation.  She sang and played magnificently, and we all wept.  We were witnessing the greatest soul artist of all time.”  — Elton John

“Let us give thanks for the beautiful life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of our souls, who inspired us for many, many years.  The memory of her greatness as a musician and fine human being will live with us forever.”  — Paul McCartney

“A salute to the Queen.  The greatest vocalist I’ve ever known.”  — John Legend

hbz-aretha-franklin-670443922-1534168488“Aretha, the power of your voice in music and in civil rights blew open the door for me and so many others.  You were my inspiration, my mentor and my friend.”  — Mariah Carey

“The greatest voice in popular music has been stilled.  For me, she was a musical lighthouse, guiding and inspiring with every note.” — Bette Midler

We will miss her majestic voice and her reassuring presence.  And we can all be grateful there are so many of her recordings available for us to crank up when we need a little pick-me-up.  Below is my Spotify playlist of “Essential Aretha.”  Turn it up!

 

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I’m just a singer in a rock ‘n roll band

In 1975, immediately following completion of the group’s “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” tour, Peter Gabriel, Genesis’s brilliantly charismatic frontman and singer, announced his retirement from the band.

Most observers felt the group would never survive the loss.  Even the remaining band members were unsure of how to proceed.  They’d written some new songs and laid down some backing tracks, but who would handle the vocals?  They held auditions for Gabriel’s replacement, which lasted nearly two months and involved more than 50 8c5af6c6d18b512cc7048802eed7be1a--phil-collins-rock-bandcandidates.  None seemed promising.  They tried one fellow in the studio, but it didn’t pan out.

With tour dates looming, and studio hours piling up, Genesis was getting desperate.  Finally, drummer Phil Collins surprised his mates when he suggested, “How about I have a go?”  They sighed and said, “Might as well.”  So he takes a shot at singing “Squonk,” a track from their album-in-progress, “A Trick of the Tail.”  The others look at each other in the control room, and their eyebrows say it all:  By George, I think he’s got it!

In his autobiography, “Not Dead Yet,” Collins recalls that day.  “Looking back, it was a defining moment for me.  And yet we were still dazed and confused.  The one guy we thought might manage the vocals has proved a bust, and now the drummer’s had a pop and doesn’t sound bad.  But over the whole album?  Is that wise?

“We’re caught between a rock and a soft place.  Having explored every other angle, it seems like the drummer is the last-ditch, last-resort-only option.  None of us can take this entirely seriously.  Surely some mistake?  I’m just as conflicted, because I really enjoy playing the drums.  That’s where I live.  Yet there’s no denying the truth:  I can sing the songs.  

“Finally, a compromise:  I might consider this if we can find another drummer I like, Singer-Phil-Collins-performs-in-concert-at-Newcastle-Arena-9-November-1997because I’m not up for double duty.  Don Henley (in The Eagles) did OK for a song or two, and Levon Helm (in The Band) did great for a song or two.  But neither would have been able to sustain contact with an audience throughout a two-hour set, and neither could I.  

“The lead singer singing from behind a drum kit is alienating for an audience.  There’s all these cymbals and stuff getting in the way of any connection between vocalist and crowd.”

**************

And that, in a nutshell, is why you so rarely see a drummer — or a bass player, for that matter — as the lead vocalist in a rock band.

Most musicians and those with showmanship savvy don’t find this all that surprising, but the average fan might wonder, “You know, I never thought about it before, but it’s true.  Why aren’t there many lead vocalists who also play drums, or bass?”

Since the dawning days of rock, lead singers have been the focal point, the visual center of any band, especially in live performances.

Because the vocals are so crucial, they are often handled by someone whose attention is focused exclusively on the microphone, like Gabriel.  Or Mick Jagger.  Or Roger Daltrey.  Or Janis Joplin.  Or Joe Cocker.  Or Robert Plant.  Or Jon Anderson.  Or David Bowie.  Or Freddie Mercury.  Or Bono.

Alternatively, many bands have employed a lead singer who also plays guitar.  Think of Chuck Berry, or John Lennon, or Jimi Hendrix, or Tom Petty, or Neil Young, or Joan Jett.

And then there are the lead singers who sit at the keyboards, like Jerry Lee Lewis, or Leon Russell, or Elton John, or Stevie Wonder, or Gregg Allman, or Steve Winwood.

What you rarely see is a lead singer who’s in the back, sitting behind a drum kit.  As 2906bd5dc32bca19538f3e923d6253a0--eagles-band-the-eaglesdrummers explain it, there are various good reasons for this.

In a 1989 Drummer magazine interview, Don Henley said,  “I have a bad back today partially from my years playing the drums and singing.  I had to hold my body in such a position that my spine got out of alignment.  Between playing drums and keeping my mouth in front of the microphone, it really twisted my whole body.  One of my shoulders got to be an inch or two higher than the other one.”

My friend Paul Vayda, who’s been playing drums for 50 years, points out, “Drummers think differently than singers or guitarists.  They care more about the rhythm and tempo than melody or lyrics.  The few drummers who also sing are generally just keeping the beat while singing rather than doing anything intricate.”

Then there’s the issue of being the center of attention.  Many drummers want to avoid it.   My son-in-law Mike Reaves, whose many talents include drumming, notes, “As a drummer, I’m not sure I want the attention.  I want to be part of the group, part of the 74135546-612x612music making, but not the focal point.”

Collins, who only occasionally drummed and sang simultaneously, relinquished the role of being Genesis’s drummer, first to Bill Bruford for a year or so and then Chester Thompson from then on.  Collins, meanwhile, had to learn a new set of skills.  “I was insecure as hell about being a frontman, particularly following Pete (Gabriel).  The thing I most had to overcome was my fear of performing with just a microphone stand.  I was used to having a row of cymbals between me and the audience.  It was nerve-wracking.  In particular, what was I supposed to do when there’s no singing?”

Levon+HelmIn addition to Collins and Henley, The Band’s Levon Helm was a prominent drummer who handled some of his group’s lead vocals, most notably on hits like “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”

Even if just as a novelty, The Beatles gave Ringo Starr one ringo-starr_010song per album to sing, and he went on to sing and play drums together in concert on such songs as “Boys,” “Honey Don’t” and “Yellow Submarine.”

Singer extraordinaire Karen Carpenter was actually an impressive jazz-style drummer whose skills on the skins were often unknown to KarenCarpenterher fans, who insisted she come out from behind the drums to be the visual focal point.

Other drummers who have done at least some of the lead vocals include Buddy Miles (of Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys), Roger Taylor of Queen and Peter Criss of Kiss.

What about that bass?

For many of the same reasons drummers struggle with singing, bass players are likewise usually too busy concentrating on holding down the rhythm foundation to be able to sing at the same time.  If the bass part is simple, it’s not too difficult to manage lead vocals if the melody is also easy to sing.  But if the bass line is heavily syncopated, or even just emphasizes different parts of the beat than the vocal melody does, the bassist/vocalist must learn to synthesize the two parts almost like a jigsaw puzzle.  Some can’t manage this at all; others can but must work hard to master it for the songs where their voice is required.

“Bassists need to focus on keeping a solid rhythm foundation going that is harmony or counterpoint/syncopation to the melody, so that it makes it much more challenging to simultaneously sing the lead melody,” observes my friend Steve Rolnick, an accomplished bass player since the late ’60s.  “Maybe some backup harmonies or phrases, but not lead vocals.”

And yet, there are a few prominent examples of lead vocalist bass players in the rock Paul-McCartney-6pantheon.  We need look no further than Sir Paul McCartney, one of the finest bass players and overall musicians in the rock era.  He provided lead vocals or harmonies while playing bass on nearly every Beatles song when they performed live, and he continued to handle double duty on bass and lead vocals throughout his lengthy solo career.

It’s interesting to note that McCartney was a guitarist and piano player first, and only became a bassist when pressed into service when The Beatles needed one after the ineffective Stu Sutcliffe left their early lineup.  “Didn’t really want to play bass, but someone had to,” he recalled.  “So I learned as I went, and kept the bass lines pretty article-2699986-158BC372000005DC-578_634x578simple at first so I could also continue singing.”

As the group’s music became more sophisticated and their recordings showed more innovation, McCartney’s bass lines evolved into something more demanding.  “The thing for me that was hard, beginning around the time of ‘Revolver,’ was that some of the bass parts were now independent melodic parts, and it became much more difficult to sing the main melody simultaneously.  It was like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.  So I had to put special effort into that, which made it very interesting.”

So, like anything else, there’s really no big secret to singing one melody and playing a different melodic part on bass at the same time.  It’s a matter of hard work, practice and concentration, using what is often referred to as “muscle memory” to play the bass part while the mind focuses on singing the lyrics.

sting-performance-ny-advertising-week-2016-billboard-1548This may be why lead-vocal bassists are a little less rare than lead-vocal drummers.  Sting was the lead singer of The Police for 10 years, and he managed to simultaneously play some amazing bass lines on so many great songs, including those with complicated jazz, reggae and/or New Wave rhythms.  Once he went solo, Sting continued to sing and play bass on multiple world tours (although he also played guitar and other unusual stringed instruments on occasion).

Equally impressive was the late great Jack Bruce, who sang lead vocals on 90 percent of Cream’s sometimes complex blues rock repertoire.  Geddy Lee is another singing bass 26-jack-bruce.w529.h352player who successfully navigated the progressive rock material of Rush while handling both responsibilities.  Greg Lake, whose vocals are so pivotal on the early King Crimson albums as well as the complete oeuvre of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, also performed commanding bass lines at the same time.

Bassist Roger Waters shared lead vocals with guitarist David Gilmour on all but the earliest Pink Floyd albums, and somehow still managed to offer strong bass performances as well.  In the early years of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson played bass while still singing lead or primary harmony vocals when they performed in concert.  Peter Cetera was one of three lead vocalists during Chicago’s first decade in the business, and he offered fine bass work too.  Timothy B. Schmidt was a singing bass player with Poco and The Eagles, sometimes singing lead.  Same with John Lodge of The Moody Blues, Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead.