Sitting among hundreds gathered at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, California on the night of January 13, 1972, the world renowned minister C.L. Franklin struggled to contain himself as his talented daughter Aretha delivered one of the most amazing performances of her career. Singing with deep conviction and supreme intelligence on such gospel classics as “Precious Memories”, “Amazing Grace”, and “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep”, Franklin showcased not only her artistic genius, but her deep spiritual roots. Testifying profusely to the transformative power of God, the talented songstress gloriously wed the prophetic vision of the black church, the optimistic spirit of the Civil Rights era, and a philosophical perspective born of personal struggles and triumphs. If there were any doubts regarding Franklin’s religiosity and existential intactness, her powerful testimonials, soaring notes, triumphant shouts, and guttural moans erased them all in dramatic fashion.
Five months after Franklin touched the hearts of those gathered at New Temple, Atlantic Records released her live performance, appropriately titled, Amazing Grace. Critics and fans alike hailed the recording as Franklin’s return to her church roots, but the singer’s father railed against the idea that Aretha had abandoned her religious past. “Truth is”, C.L. Franklin thundered, “Aretha hasn’t ever left the church!” To a large extent, Reverend Franklin was correct, for the “church” had informed not only his daughter’s musicianship but the gospel impulse that pervaded many of her biggest secular hits. Not simply an entertainer, Franklin was the caretaker of her nation’s soul.
Maybe no cultural artifact proves this fact more than her 1968 classic, Lady Soul.
If her Atlantic Records debut, I Never Loved a Man , stands out for its affirmation of Franklin’s talent and commercial viability, Lady Soul’s cultural significance flows from its confirmation of her genius as a skilled alchemist capable of bringing fragmented worlds together. Not long after its arrival in record stores on January 22, 1968, Lady Soul dashed up the pop and soul charts, largely due to the popularity of four smash hits, “Chain of Fools”, “Natural Woman”, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, and “Ain’t No Way”. Cultural and political differences fragmented the nation, but everyone seemed to arrive at the same conclusion when it came to Franklin’s genius. Time and Ebony celebrated 1968 as the year of Aretha, probably the only thing these radically different magazines could agree upon. All at once, Negroes, blacks, white hippies, and bra-burning second wave feminists worshiped at the altar of Lady Soul.
Aretha Franklin - Chain of Fools [Lady Soul TV special from 1968]
One surmises that this had a great deal to do with Franklin’s role as the carrier of the gospel impulse. Sustaining faith in the possibility of a brighter day had been made exceedingly difficult by the tensions and divisions magnified by war in Southeast Asia, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, race riots, the most vitriolic forms of white backlash, and mounting levels of poverty. Yet something about Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul created a spiritual space in which the many personalities who comprised our variegated nation could expand their imagination of the politically and spiritually possible.
Out of the chaos of 1968, Franklin gave us hope with substance, along with a musical masterpiece that has withstood the test of time. Fresh yet rooted in the same blues impulse that inspired Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Lady Soul was a musical gumbo spiced with the right amounts of hard knock country blues, good news gospel, captivating pop, and rock ‘n’ soul. Freely asserting her individuality, Franklin put her own unique spin on James Brown’s “Money Won’t Change You” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”, reached deep into the ethos of the blues with “Good to Me As I Am to You”, breezed through a killer rendition of “Niki Hoeky”, and transformed “Chain of Fools” into a prophetic declaration of deliverance that would be heard from the riot-torn streets of Newark, New Jersey, to the battlefields of Vietnam.
So expansive was Lady Soul’s message that the album belonged to no one in particular, but it did have a special place in the hearts of black women. Undoubtedly, Franklin narrated deeply personal stories, but there was something profoundly familiar about her tales of love and heartache. Listening to “Ain’t No Way”, “Natural Woman”, or “Good to Me As I Am to You” conjures up images of women, young and old, who inhabit our communal spaces, exchange stories on our front porches, and find solace in our loving arms. One couldn’t escape the realness embodied in Franklin’s songs. “You couldn’t jive,” wrote poet Nikki Giovanni, “when Aretha said, ‘Woman’s only human.’” Nor could you jive when she demanded her propers on “Good to Me As I Am to You”, a self-penned song that drips with the kind of flesh and blood reality found on Aretha Arrives’ “Prove It”. Accompanied beautifully by the soulful guitar licks of Cream’s Eric Clapton, Franklin updates the Delta Blues for her sisters and brethren living in the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and Atlanta.
Not just a great musical portrait of one individual living, loving, and growing during one of the most chaotic periods in American history, Lady Soul was a work of synthesis that introduced and reintroduced of all the black women who’ve crossed the American cultural landscape, from Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie to Nina Simone’s “Peaches” to Bob Dylan’s “Hattie Carroll”.
So prodigious was Aretha Franklin’s output during the 1960s and early ‘70s that a general consensus on her best work will probably never be reached, but I strongly suspect that we can all conclude that the cultural twists and turns of 1968 cannot be fully understood without reckoning with the genius that is Lady Soul.
Aretha Franklin - (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman [Lady Soul TV special from 1968]