Pour myself a cup of ambition

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the 50-year career of a woman who has managed to shine in multiple disciplines:  songwriting, singing, recording, films, television, entertainment businesses and philanthropic endeavors — Dolly Parton.

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“I’ve never been offended by all the dumb blonde jokes people tell about me.  You know why?  It’s because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know I’m not blonde.”

SDEEUR3US434LJWCR55D3OUGBEThis famous Dolly Parton quote succinctly captures her essence:  Keen self-awareness.  Honest humility.  Positive attitude.  A wonderful sense of humor.

If you’re looking for proof that Dolly Parton is not a “dim bulb,” as she might put it, there’s a revealing story about what happened — or what could have happened but didn’t — with one of her most famous songs.

In 1973, Parton wrote “I Will Always Love You,” which was meant as a fond tribute to her friend and singing partner, Porter Wagoner, with whom she was amicably ending a seven-year professional collaboration.  Dolly recorded it herself, and then watched as it soared to #1 on the Hot Country charts (although it didn’t even make the Pop charts).

Elvis Presley let it be known that he loved the song and wanted to do his own version.  He was all set to record it when Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told Parton that it was customary for songwriters to give up half of the publishing rights to Presley for any song he recorded.  While others had gladly relented just to have Elvis sing their song, Parton politely declined.

Dolly recalls, “I said, ‘I’m really sorry, I just can’t do it,’ and I cried all night.  I mean, it was like the worst thing.  You know, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Elvis Presley.’  And other people were saying, ‘You’re nuts. It’s Elvis Presley.’  But I said, ‘I just can’t do that.’ Something in my heart said, ‘Don’t do that.’  And I just didn’t do it… Of course, he would MV5BOGIwZmIyOTctOWU1Mi00NzYwLWI4ZjQtNjAwZGQzZjBhZmU4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQ5MDYzMTk@._V1_have done a killer rendition…but anyway, so he didn’t.  Then, when Whitney Houston’s version came out years later, I made so much money from it, I could’ve bought Graceland!”

Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You,” released in 1992 on the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard,” spent an incredible 14 weeks at #1 on the Pop charts, bringing the song to an exponentially wider mainstream audience than Parton’s original had achieved.  It played a large part in turning her into one of the wealthiest songwriters in music history (current estimates put her in the $500 million range).

And that’s merely the most famous of more than 3,000 (!) songs she has written since breaking into show business in 1967, earning her a much-deserved spot in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.  “Songwriting is my way of channeling my feelings and my thoughts,” Parton has said.  “Not just mine, but the things I see, the people I care about. I think my head would explode if I didn’t get some of that stuff out.”

Full confession:  I’ve never been much of a country music fan myself.  Consequently, my knowledge of and appreciation for Parton’s recorded catalog has until recently been limited to her most well-known songs, particularly 1977’s “Here You Come Again” (the engaging Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil tune that marked her first appearance in the mainstream Top Ten), her perky 1981 #1 international hit “9 to 5” from the hit film comedy, and “Islands in the Stream,” the frankly icky 1983 chart-topping duet with Kenny Rogers.

71-+fobEsRL._SX355_Now that my two daughters have become big fans of country artists, I’ve been compelled, somewhat grudgingly, to give the genre more attention.  Although I suspect I’ll always be a rock and roll guy at heart, I have broadened my horizons to examine and eventually embrace many country songs, including several of Dolly’s.

It was only last year that I first heard “Jolene,” an irresistible 1973 tune she wrote about a gorgeous woman who had been making eyes at her new husband.  “Please don’t take him just because you can,” the lyrics implore, and that sentiment rang true with millions of country fans who sent it to #1 on the country charts.  Even Rolling Stone ranked “Jolene” #214 on its list of “the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Beyond her voluminous recorded catalog of more than 50 solo albums and another dozen LPs with Wagoner, Parton has also impressed me with her film appearances, especially her hilarious debut in “9 to 5” and her award-winning turn as the madam in the-best-little-whorehouse-in-texas“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”  As in nearly every television performance or interview you can find on YouTube, Parton absolutely lights ups the screen with her affable, cheery disposition.

No essay about Parton can omit mention of the breathtaking real estate Parton displays between her neck and her navel.  Even the normally discreet Johnny Carson was once moved to say to her, “I’d give up a year’s salary for one peek under your blouse!”

True to her self-deprecating nature, she has always taken such comments in stride, and now tells jokes of her own about her “substantial bosom,” as she calls it.  “I was one of the first women to burn my bra.  It took the fire department four days to put it out!”

Just like in the rock music business, the country music industry has many dozens of examples of singers whose light shone brightly for a few years and then petered out.  Parton is one of only a handful of country artists whose careers have lasted more than half a century.

While her biggest years of commercial success came in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she has been no slouch in the years since.  Since 1990, she has released 18 albums, all of which reached the Top Twenty on the country charts, and three of those — 1993’s “Slow Dancing With the Moon,” 2008’s “Backwoods Barbie” and 2014’s “Blue Smoke” — made the Top Ten on the Pop charts as well.

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Katy Perry (left) and Kacey Musgraves with Parton at the 2019 Grammy Awards

Just last week, Parton was named the MusiCares Person of the Year, the first country artist to be so honored, and the Grammy Awards also paid tribute to her, with rousing performances by current stars Kacey Musgraves, Katy Perry and Maren Morris, and Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus, and by Parton herself.

Still relevant today?  Damn right she is.

What a remarkable ride she has had — “from the back hills of Tennessee to the Hollywood Hills,” as she put it at the MusiCares ceremony.  She was one of 12 children born in a one-room cabin near the hardscrabble hamlet of Pittman Center in eastern Tennessee, where her father worked the land and her mother struggled to raise the

MV5BOTA4YjU4NGEtMDJkNS00NWQ0LThmNmQtYTZkYTc2MGRkNDA1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTEwODg2MDY@._V1_

Avie Lee, Dolly, and Robert Parton

family while instilling in Dolly her love of music and folklore.  Raised in the Church of God where her grandfather pastored, Parton first sang in church at age 6 and started playing guitar and writing songs at age 8.

 

Appearances on local radio and TV programs eventually caught the eye of industry folks, and upon graduation from high school, she moved to Nashville and signed with Combine Publishing.  Several of her earliest compositions (“Put It Off Until Tomorrow” and “Fuel to the Flame”) became Top Ten country hits, and still others were recorded by major country names like Kitty Wells and Hank Williams Jr.

Parton has always been reverential about these artists who so influenced her at an early age.  “Kitty Wells was the first and only Queen of Country Music, no matter what they call the rest of us now.  She was a great inspiration to me as well as every other female singer in the country music business.  In addition to being a wonderful asset to country music, she was a wonderful woman.”

When Monument Records signed Dolly as a recording artist at age 20, it was initially as a bubblegum pop singer, but when that didn’t pan out, and her country songs achieved notoriety as covered by others, she was given the chance to record “Hello, I’m Dolly,” her debut as a country singer.  It didn’t take long for Wagoner, an established country star 170px-Porter_Wagoner_and_Dolly_Parton_1969with multiple #1 hits to his credit, to offer her a regular spot on his weekly syndicated TV gig “The Porter Wagoner Show,” which at its peak was reaching three million viewers in 100 markets.

As she and Wagoner scored big with a dozen collaboration albums during this period, Dolly aimed her ambitions higher, persevering in the face of reluctant record company people to record solo albums and establish a name for herself outside of her association with Wagoner.  To his credit, Wagoner supported her efforts, both financially and as a friend.

Her hard work paid off.  Between 1971 and 1991, Dolly Parton racked up a staggering total of 40 Top Ten country singles, including an incredible 22 chart-toppers!

Beginning in the 1990s, country music evolved from its purist roots to embrace a newer, more contemporary sound, one that utilized more rock arrangements, tempos and shutterstock_6498011a-46699850-e065-4bdb-a88c-afeaec0403cbinstruments.  Artists like Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus packed the arenas and topped the charts while more traditional artists like Parton were left by the wayside, at least for a while.

Rock music fans should take note that Parton has occasionally stuck her toe into non-country music genres, with varying degrees of success.  Her well-received collaborative albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999) with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris included tracks like Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush,” and she has also recorded startling covers of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” The Four Tops “I Can’t Help Myself,” Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears.”  On the other hand, you might want to steer clear of her train-wreck renditions of Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover,” Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy” and Bon Jovi’s “Lay Your Hands on Me,” and (shudder) a bluegrass arrangement of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Beginning in the late ’80s, Parton began focusing most of her attentions on establishing Dollywood, the amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and the Dollywood Foundation, which supports and raises millions of dollars to help with educational and health-related charities, particularly in her home state of Tennessee.  “I always thought that if I became successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something dollyparton-bookcharity-480x270that would bring a lot of jobs into this area,” she said.

Particularly notable has been her literacy awareness program, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, sparked by her devotion to her father, who couldn’t read nor write.  The program seeks to instill a love for books and a yearn to learn how to read at a young age by donating one book every month to each enrolled child.  The Imagination Library was recently honored by the Library of Congress for donating its 100 millionth book.

“Everywhere I go these days, the kids call me ‘the book lady,'” Parton said.  “The older I get, the more appreciative I am of the ‘book lady’ title.  It makes me feel more like a legitimate person, not just a singer or an entertainer.  It makes me feel like I’ve done something really worthwhile with my life and with my success.”

Dolly-Parton-Husband-1Parton and her husband of 52 years, Carl Dean, have never had children.  “I’ve never been fortunate enough to get pregnant, so I just feel God didn’t mean for me to have kids,” said Parton.  “So I guess I just look at everybody else’s children as mine, and I reach out to help kids in every way I can.”

Meanwhile, this glitzy, big-haired, 73-year-old ball of fun and enthusiasm (“I’m just a Backwoods Barbie in a pushup bra and heels”) intends to keep at it, on stage and in the studio.  “I don’t think I’ve ever been a natural beauty, so I try to make the best of everything.”  She knows people kid her about her cosmetic surgery, but she just doesn’t care.  “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging, I’ll get it nipped, tucked or sucked!”

636689053099642487-kns-DollywoodExpansion-BP-13People say to her, “Why don’t you retire?” Her reply:  “And do what?  What does that even mean?  I always count my blessings more than I count my money.  For me, it’s about the art.  I love the job.  I love to work.”

Her voice has always been marked by a funny little wavering quality, and that vibrato has perhaps become more pronounced with age, at least in her lower vocal register (check out the songs on the recent “Dumplin'” soundtrack).  Nevertheless, she continues to command the respect and admiration of just about everyone who comes in contact with her.  Including me, apparently.

No doubt about it.  The woman is a living legend.

 

 

 

 

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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!