Aretha Franklin is a hallelujah if there ever was one, the meeting of earth and cosmos. Atlantic Records co-owner and producer Jerry Wexler once described her voice like that “of an ecstatic hierophant”. Through her voice, the sacred mysteries are revealed. The hand reaches to heaven. The voice carries us there.
Putting out a single release that represents an artist’s best work is usually difficult, especially when there are many albums and decades to choose from as is the case with Franklin. While fans will always have their pet selections, favorite deep cuts, and obscure crushes, this collection captures much of the lioness’ share of Aretha’s top work from one of the peak stretches of her career. A greatest hits or essential collection might give a broader range and cover more of the absolute best, but there’s also something to be said for a deep sampling of a particular phase of an artist’s career.
It’s a balanced compromise between settling in and listening to the complete studio output of those years and skimming the surface through the brief touchdowns and quick takeoffs career-spanning single or double disc compilations must engage in out of necessity. The Atlantic Singles Collection 1967-1970 takes a deeper dive by condensing six studio records down to two discs and adding her cover of Elton John’s “Border Song”, which was released as a single in 1970 and appeared two years later on 1972’s Young, Gifted, and Black. Aretha released work on the Atlantic label from 1967 to 1979 (before this she was with Columbia, and later she joined Arista).
A lot has been said about this era of her work in the 40 or so years since its release. If you’ve been living anywhere in or near this solar system, you’ve already heard at least some of these 34 songs. Still, as familiar as they may be, here are a few titles —all nine of which were number one R&B hits: “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, “Respect”, “Baby I Love You”, “Chain of Fools”, “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone”, “Think”, “Share Your Love With Me”, “Call Me”, and “Don’t Play That Song”.
“I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” was her first single with Atlantic, and it reached number nine on the main Billboard chart. “Respect” was originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965. It tells the tale of a man wanting respect from his woman. Franklin added backup singers and made other changes including figuratively and literally spelling out respect, adding lyrics, switching the narrative viewpoint, and transforming “Respect” into a song sung by a confident woman demanding—not begging for—respect. Earning two Grammys, enthroned at number one on the main charts for two weeks and the R&B chart for eight weeks, Aretha’s version became one of her signature songs and an anthem for civil rights and feminism. She wrote it in her autobiography that her idea of respect includes “the inherent right of all human beings” to receive respect. Incidentally, “Respect” was released as a single on April 29th, the day after Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title for refusing to compromise his beliefs and accept being drafted into the Vietnam War.
“Baby I Love You” was her next single, and it climbed to number four. “Chain of Fools” climbed even higher to number two. “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone” found its way to number five. “Think” became her seventh top ten hit in the United States. Aretha performed a lip-synched version of the song in 1980’s The Blues Brothers. “Share Your Love With Me” reached 13 on the main chart and resided at number one on the R&B chart for five weeks. Inspired by the final words of a conversation between a young couple in New York, Aretha wrote “Call Me”, which rose to number 13. “Don’t Play That Song” hit number 11 on the main chart and occupied the number one spot on the R&B chart for five weeks.
Held at number two on the R&B chart and number eight on the main chart, 1967’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”) became another of Aretha’s signature songs. The song began with Atlantic Records co-owner and producer Jerry Wexler proclaiming that he wanted a “natural woman” song for Aretha’s next record.
Franklin had more hits from 1967 to 1970 than many artists do in an entire career. The lowest-charting song on this collection that was originally released as an A-side hit 37 on the main chart. Prior to her first single with Atlantic, her highest-charting single reached 37 on the main chart. Her move to Atlantic ushered in a time of great success and marked her transformation from moderate success to superstar. Most often we associate 1967 as the Summer of Love, but it was also the Summer of Soul with songs from Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Gladys Knight and the Pips—and it was a landmark year for Aretha. In 1967 she released six singles, all of which charted in some fashion.
The Atlantic Singles Collection 1967-1970 documents how the Queen of Soul earned her crown. Nonetheless, one might wonder if this is an essential release given the various compilations that already exist, the studio albums, the Atlantic records collections, and so forth, but individual listeners can sort that out for themselves. If there is any other concern one might raise with this collection, it is that it omits her cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” from 1967’s Aretha Arrives. Her version of the Rolling Stones classic caught the lower-end of the UK top 40 singles chart. It was not released as a single in America. I contacted Rhino, and they explained that this is a collection of American singles, so “Satisfaction” was left off.
None of that will matter when you press play, and these songs fill your head as the spirit fills the body, as air fills the lungs, as prayer fills the church, as light fills the sun.