Aretha Franklin is a stunningly flexible singer who defies any attempts to link her to a single musical style. Her famous hits from the late ’60s are no-nonsense soul stompers and aching ballads. But around the same time, she also excelled as a big band singer of jazzy blues (check out “So Long” or almost any cut from the album Soul ‘69) and as a gospel singer (listen to her take on Amazing Grace ). She was fearsomely gritty trading lines with Duane Allman’s guitar on 1970’s “It Ain’t Fair”, funky on “Rock Steady” in 1971, and impeccably smooth riding the bass of “That’s The Way I Feel About Cha” from 1972. The only constant across these recordings is her voice: capable of expressing the tiniest nuance, letting rip with the biggest shout, or the effortless combination of the two. On Knew You Were Waiting: The Best of Aretha Franklin 1980 – 1998, Aretha’s instrument remains in excellent form. However, for some reason an inordinately large number of her ’80s hits were duets, which serve mainly to replace Aretha’s vocals with those of lesser singers. In addition, this compilation shows much less stylistic variation than her earlier period — it sticks to slinky disco funk and slower songs that lean schmaltzy.
On tracks where Aretha doesn’t have to cede lines to others, she is her usual self — going lower than low, higher than high, cooing, begging, strutting. “United Together” could stand to lose its strings and over the top backing vocals (courtesy of long time Aretha backup singers the Sweet Inspirations), but Aretha’s voice is so convincing that it carries an overly sappy tune close to respectability. Most of the songs that feature only Aretha are a lot more up-tempo. When singing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, she howls and grunts with pizazz, but her most notable moment occurs at the beginning of “Jump To I”, when she has an unpredictable outburst of scatting, “oohs,” “ahs,” and “shooby-doowoops,” flying up and down the scale, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.
Aretha attracted a wide variety of superstar singing partners in the ’80s, more proof of her vocal greatness (almost all the songs on the album are from her ’80s records). Knew You Were Waiting includes verses from George Michael, Elton John, George Benson, Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston. But it’s hard to see why anyone would ask Aretha to sit out a verse, except of course to make a song with two big names in it. George Michael and Elton John engage in a lot of vocal pyrotechnics in an attempt to show they’re not intimidated — both songs involve some “oohing” and “aahing” where the boys try to show range. Generally, Aretha makes them sound forced and leathery. Benson is her best duet partner — sweet, easy, capable of affecting high harmonies. Annie Lennox (of the Eurythmics) has power, while Whitney Houston is smooth and level, but both come off somewhat lifeless next to Franklin. (To see a duet partner truly worth of Aretha, watch her short duet with Smokey Robinson orchestrated by the recently deceased Don Cornelius on Soul Train). However, the larger problem with most of these duets is that they are terrifically dated in sound and lyrically uninteresting — “Through the storm, through the tears/ You and I, I know we can survive / To the day, through the night/ If we try, we can keep it alive” is a typically cringe-worthy example.
Just as singers gravitated towards her voice, the ’80s and ’90s brought Aretha the attention of all sorts of highly successful producers — Luther Vandross, Lauryn Hill — and backing musicians –Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Santana’s rhythm section, Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band, Keith Richards. However, pop and R&B had become increasingly fused during this decade, so the variety of different producers and players don’t yield much difference in her sound. The producers work almost entirely with the sounds of ’80s pop and R&B: fat synths and big bass; guitars that run toward big and fuzzy or soft and elastic; hollow cymbals and flat percussion that flits or gallops, sounding like it could be either live or programmed. Vandross is the most successful when it comes to crafting an appealing groove for Aretha — he strips down the sound a bit and lets the components work their magic without impinging on each other. Like several of the producers, neither the Heartbreakers nor Santana’s rhythm section make much of an impression, and although Richards’ signature riff on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is still present, it’s less lean and hungry. Aretha’s work with Clemons is notable because the sax solo stands out as one of the few prominent uses of horns on her late-career output.
In the liner notes of the album, the author points out that “When Aretha signed to Arista Records … she had nothing left to prove.” But she never sounded like she was proving something, which is part of her charm, and her easy grace stuck with her through the ’80s and ’90s. Knew You Were Waiting contains a lot of corniness, but it’s still Aretha, and there is nothing outdated or dull about her voice, no matter its surroundings.