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

aretha-1

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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Here I am, signed, sealed, delivered

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 a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the man who evolved from a Motown prodigy to one of the most respected musical geniuses of all time:  Stevie Wonder.

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On May 13, 1950, a boy was born prematurely in Saginaw, Michigan, and put on oxygen treatment in an incubator.  Evidently, an excess of oxygen aggravated a rare visual condition known as “retinopathy of prematurity,” which caused total, irreparable blindness.

images-21The lack of sight seemed to turn to an advantage, as the boy realized his heightened sense of hearing allowed him to acutely absorb music of all kinds.  He sang in the church youth choir at age four.  In rapid succession, he learned piano, drums and harmonica, all by age nine.

No one could have possibly predicted the dizzying heights this prodigy would attain by his mid-20s.  Stevland Hardaway Judkins — later Stevland Morris when his mother remarried — became, by 1962, “Little Stevie Wonder,” a true phenomenon who evolved into Stevie Wonder, one of the two or three most important musical artist of our time, in the 1970s especially.

No less a musical giant than Paul Simon had this to say at Wonder’s 1989 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame introduction:  “Can anyone imagine what the last 25 years of American popular music would have been without Stevie Wonder?  He is the composer of his generation.”  At that same event, the normally cryptic Bob Dylan couldn’t have been clearer in his praise for the man:  “He’s a great mimic, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and is a true roadhouse musician at heart, but somehow with classical overtones, and he does it all with drama and style.  If anyone can be called a musical genius, Stevie Wonder can be.”

Unknown-21Even Marvin Gaye, who came closest to rivaling Wonder as Motown Records’ best vocalist, said, “I always hated it when he came out on stage before I did, because he had twice the energy of all of us combined.  He drained the fans dry.”

Hard to believe now, but Wonder’s career began in fits and starts.  While performing for some of his friends at the tender age of 11, he was discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles, who helped arrange an audition with kingpin Berry Gordy at Motown.  Gordy chose to sign the young man, not so much for his voice but for his spectacular harmonica playing.  “He sang pretty well, but his harmonica…man, I’d never heard anything like it,” Gordy said.

Even then, he could handle a chromatic harmonica in a way like none other, coaxing sounds that were alternately inspiring and heartbreaking.  Gordy put him to work on instrumental versions of jazz and blues standards, a full album of random Ray Charles tracks, and other more questionable material, only occasionally with vocals, keeping a tight rein on him, as was customary with new artists in the early ’60s, particularly at Motown.  Some of it was good stuff…but no one much noticed.

An appearance at the Regal Theatre in Chicago in the summer of 1962, recorded and released as a live album in 1963 called “The 12-Year-Old Genius,” changed things in a big hurry.  Suddenly the album was a chart-topper, thanks to the track “Fingertips,” an eight-1963-little-stevie-wonder-crop90minute tour-de-force edited down to a single (“Fingertips, Part 2”), which also rocketed to #1 that summer.

Wonder had modest success with a few more singles over the next year, but none even close to the level of “Fingertips, Pt. 2.”  His voice was going through the awkward changes every boy experiences in puberty, so he put his recording career on hold, studying classical piano for a spell.  When he re-emerged the following year, he returned to the Top Five with the infectious, typically Motown-sounding dance tune “Uptight (Everything’s Alright),” which was all the rage at #3 during Christmastime 1965.  Now he was without question an integral part of the famed stable of successful Motown artists (Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, and more).

By 1967-1968, Wonder was writing and producing tracks as well, putting his mark on such important classics as “I Was Made to Love Her” (check out that harmonica!) and the 161121_MUSIC_WonderWeek_Series_Harmonica.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2modern standard, “For Once in My Life,” both widely imitated but never bettered.  He continued to remain a vocal presence on the charts through 1969 and 1970 with either light ballads or proud soul such as “My Cherie Amour,” “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” and the effervescent “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.”

(Fascinating aside:  “I Was Made to Love Her” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” were both co-written by his mother, Lula Mae Hardaway, who came up with the idea and the lyrics, which her son then put to music.  Talk about a mother and child reunion…!)

(Fascinating aside #2:  Stevie wrote the music to one of Smokey Robinson’s biggest hits, “Tears of a Clown,” back in 1966, which didn’t become a hit single until 1970.  And as it turns out, The Spinners’ huge hit, “It’s a Shame,” was also a Stevie Wonder composition.  Should I also mention that “Tell Me Something Good,” the mid-’70s hit by Rufus with Chaka Khan, was also written by Stevie?  OK, I will.)

(Fascinating aside #3:  There have been some remarkable cover versions of Stevie Wonder tunes through the years which shouldn’t go unmentioned:  Peter Frampton, Art Garfunkel and others have had success with the 1972 track “I Believe (When I Fall in Love With You It Will Be Forever)”; Stevie Ray Vaughan had a big hit with his rendition of “Superstition” in 1986; even the Jackson 5 had a minor hit with their cover of “I Was Made to Love Her” in 1973.)

By 1971, Wonder was turning 21, and he not only had access to the trust funds held in reserve for him since his debut, he was no longer under the thumb of Gordy’s often dictatorial control.  Stevie demanded, and won, total control over his creative output, and established his own publishing company and a negotiated royalty rate that rewrote the book for artists in the decades to come.

His first efforts within his new freedom were, admittedly, a bit tentative and erratic.  “Where I’m Coming From” (1971) and “Music Of My Mind” (1972) were well intentioned but rather self-indulgent song cycles, as Wonder made clumsy attempts to address social issues in his lyrics as he broadened his horizons musically.  But he was showing a remarkable melodic sensibility, with sophisticated arrangements and exceptional performances, occasionally nailing it with tracks like “Superwoman,” one of his most joyous and wistful songs all wrapped up in one impressive track.

Ah, but as it turned out, he was just getting started.

talking-book-steve-wonderI don’t know who was responsible, but the decision for Wonder to tour as warm-up act for The Rolling Stones 1972 US tour was a stroke of genius, for it opened him up to a previously ambivalent white audience in a huge way.  At precisely that moment, Wonder released the LP “Talking Book,” a peerless collection of incredible R&B tunes that zoomed to #1 at the same time its first single, the irresistible “Superstition,” did the same thing. Gushed the Chicago Tribune, “A man whose only colors are in the spectrum of sounds has opened new eyes for all of us.”  Rolling Stone called it “the work of a now quite matured genius.”

While his lyrics still sometimes felt amateurish, he nevertheless struck resounding chords about governmental overreach (“Big Brother”) and paranoia and conspiracy (“Superstition”).  Wonder’s clavinet, the electric clavichord instrument made by Hohner that Wonder had been fiddling with since the late 1960s, was his favorite musical vehicle to bring forth the marvelous chord progressions and melodies dancing around in his ever-creative head.

For me, Wonder’s crowning achievement is the nearly perfect 1973 album “Innervisions,”  on which he wrote, produced, sang and played virtually every instrument.  “Too High,” stevie-wonder_innervisions“Living For The City,” “Golden Lady,” “Higher Ground,” “All in Love is Fair,” “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” — are you kidding me??  This is a greatest hits record all by itself.  The Grammys, which has so often gotten it wrong regarding what the year’s best music was, for once hit a home run by awarding “Innervisions” the Album of the Year honor.

He was now writing widely accessible songs that straddled the pop/R&B spectrum, songs that sounded like some wondrous combination of George Gershwin and Smokey Robinson.  Let’s not forget its closer, “He’s Misstra-Know-It-All,” a scathing indictment of Richard Nixon which, 45 years later, presages the same problems with indignant narcissism we face from the current White House occupant:  “Makes a deal with a smile, knowing all the time his lie’s a mile… Must be seen, there’s no doubt, he’s the coolest one with the biggest mouth…  If he shakes on a bet, he’s the kind of dude who won’t pay his debt, he’s Misstra Know-It-All…”

The next release, 1974’s “Fulfillingness’ First Finale,” was perhaps the most intellectually reaching and spiritually immersed work of his career.  He had been in a close-call auto accident in the fall of ’73, putting him in a coma for several days, from which he emerged with a heightened purpose and a focused spirituality that showed up in the songs on that album:  “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” another anti-Nixon diatribe and another #1; the funky and somewhat raunchy “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” which also went Top Five; and great album tracks like “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” a thought-provoking piece of inspirational, melodic humility.

Oh, by the way, it earned another Album of the Year Grammy.

flat,800x800,075,f.u1To many, Stevie Wonder’s apex was his ineffable double LP from 1976, “Songs in the Key of Life,” by all counts a monumental work, one of the most seismic releases in the history of American popular culture. It has inspired books, documentaries, cover albums, samples, even entire bands and their catalogs.  It has been called “the most ambitious work ever made by a pop star at the height of his or her powers… a ‘concept album’ whose concept is nothing less than life itself.”  The songs are all over the map, lyrically and musically, and yet they flow and coalesce beautifully, and the singles pulled from it stand out magnificently on their own.

Besides the hits “I Wish” and “Sir Duke,” there’s the hymn-like “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” the jazz-fusion of “Contusion,” the gorgeous “Summer Soft,” the minor classic “Isn’t She Lovely,” the stunning ballad “Isn’t It Magic” and the rollicking album closers “As” and “Another Star.”  Go ahead, I dare you to play the whole album.  You will be completely exhausted, and thoroughly satisfied.  It became his third Album of the Year Grammy winner in four years.

And at this point, he was still only 26 years old.

Wonder perhaps coasted on the high of this achievement for nearly three years before releasing the curiously uncommercial Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants,” ostensibly a collection of soundtrack material for a documentary film about botany (??) that has still never been released.  Was it an experimental departure?  Most assuredly.  Did it work?  Well… there were some pretty songs on there, especially the #4 hit “Send One Your Love” and the more conventional “Black Orchid,” but most of the LP was way out of his comfort zone, I’d say.  And yet, it reached #10, probably on the strength of his reputation more than what was found within.

stevie_wonder_hotter_than_julyHe no doubt saw the need to bounce back with something that came much closer to meeting his fans’ expectations, and 1980’s “Hotter Than July” certainly did that.  He had been touring with Jamaica reggae sensation Bob Marley, and his tribute, “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” reached #5, which put the LP at #3, thanks as well to the galloping “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” and the contagious “Rocket Love.”  The LP also contained “Happy Birthday,” a key part of Wonder’s blatant appeal to America to turn Martin Luther King’s birthday into a national holiday.  And it worked.

It was too long a time before we heard from Stevie again, and maybe it’s not fair to have expected him to keep up that frenetic pace for long.  He did come up with the marvelous “That Girl” as a new single from his first major career retrospective “The Original Musiquarium” in 1982, but the next Stevie sighting was the incredibly lame “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” from the “The Woman in Red” soundtrack.  It went through the roof commercially, but true fans and critics loathed it.  Some say he never truly recovered artistically.

images-20In 1985, Wonder finally completed “In Square Circle,” the album he’d been working on for nearly five years, and thanks to the hit “Part Time Lover,” his last solo hit, the album sold plenty of copies.  But even he knew his days as the chart-topping wizard were now behind him.  He seemed to accept his new role as an elder statesman of sorts, willing to collaborate on major charity projects like “We Are the World” and with newer figures like Babyface and Coolio as the ’80s became the ’90s, and beyond.

Stevie Wonder is still out there, touring to adoring masses, maybe even tonight.  He hasn’t released anything new in a long time, but I certainly don’t care, and neither should you.  Just consider the weight and impact of his recorded output, and you’ll soon realize:  What he has already accomplished is truly an inhuman achievement.  A wonder, you might say.