Photo: Public Domain / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Aretha Franklin and Black Music Power

Aretha Franklin’s superior soul albums, ‘Spirit in the Dark’ and Young, Gifted and Black’, see her stepping up to the ’70s Black Power movement.

Spirit in the Dark
Aretha Franklin
24 August 1970
Young, Gifted and Black
Aretha Franklin
24 January 1972

Aretha and Black Power

In August 1968, producer Jerry Wexler flew to Miami for a convention of Black disk jockeys to accept an award for his contributions to the genre he had named. During the festivities, a white R&B executive was pistol-whipped in his hotel bathroom. Phil Walden, Otis Redding’s manager and best friend, received death threats. During the banquet where Wexler was to receive his award, King Curtis, the great saxophonist and Aretha’s soon-to-be bandleader, appeared at Wexler’s table, said, “We’re getting you out of here. You’ve been marked,” and ushered Wexler onto a plane as he was being hanged in effigy. 

Walden left R&B for rock ‘n’ roll. Dan Penn, the songwriter who wrote so many R&B hits, including Aretha’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”, started listening to the Beatles, for whom he previously had little use.

The violence and threats at the Miami convention represented Black Power’s toxic fringe; the movement as a whole had a progressive impact on America of the late 1960s and early ’70s, across the board. The Black Arts movement arose in the mid-’70s among writers, musicians, theatre people, and visual artists, including the poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, once Leroi Jones, the poet Nikki Giovanni, the drummer and bandleader Max Roach, and the proto-rappers the Last Poets

John Coltrane‘s jazz avant-gardism added a political and Pan-African contingent: saxophonists Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders, and Albert Ayler, and the singer Leon Thomas. Motown, once scrupulously apolitical, experimented with a funky sound and angry lyrics: the Temptations‘ “Ball of Confusion”, Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Goin’ On”, and even the Supremes, with “Love Child”. An offshoot of Coltrane’s jazz avant-gardism took on a political and Pan-African cast: Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders, the singer Leon Thomas. From expanding Afros to Black capitalism, Black self-awareness was in the air.

Aretha was alive to all of these currents, especially after finally showing her longtime, abusive husband and manager Ted White the door and meeting Ken Cunningham, an entrepreneur with broad cultural interests who had approached Aretha as a potential investor in his men’s wear line, the New Breeders; “a handsome guy in a dashiki and a big freedom ‘fro,” Areth’s brother Cecil Franklin called him. Aretha was changing with the times. “Wolf [her nickname for Cunningham] and I embodied black pride. I stopped shaving my eyebrows and using pencils and went back to a natural look. I lost weight and wore my hair in an Afro; I began to appreciate myself as a beautiful black woman.”

Which is how she appears, striking and all but unrecognizable, on the grainy blue-black cover of Spirit in the Dark, her seventh Atlantic album, recorded between May 1969 and March 1970. Except occasionally, at funerals and civil-rights rallies, Aretha had not explicitly embraced her point of origin, gospel music, since she was a child. Still, her gospel self was more and more out in the open. Gospel, moreover, was embraced by the Black Arts movement as one of Black America’s greatest cultural expressions, as C.L. Franklin had been saying all along. Nurtured and still practiced, in exclusion, it was a quintessential, undiluted Black Art.

So here was Aretha, on her most beautifully art-directed album cover, light-years away from the architectural hairdos of two years before, a trend-setter, in fact; Afros were not yet widely adopted by female Black entertainers. The face in Steven Paley’sphotograph is half-hidden in shadow, one side in darkness, one in light, Aretha’s eyes deeply recessed, zero makeup, the face no longer soft and chubby but starkly rectilinear.

And here we were, in the post-civil-rights summer of 1970: Aretha’s millions of fans, not just poring over the album jacket for hours, as one did in those days, at this Black Arts avatar, but ready to follow her in her return to the music of her childhood. With Spirit in the Dark, Aretha signed on with a movement that embraced gospel as a means of wrenching Black America out of the bad old days that had produced it. 

Spirit In the Dark is one of Aretha’s three greatest albums, on the same level as 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You and her 1972 triumph Young Gifted and Black. When the critic Matt Dobkin asked Wexler, towards the end of Wexler’s life, to name his favorite Aretha Franklin record, Wexler, after giving the question a proper pause, answered, “Spirit In the Dark is a motherfucker.” 

Although most of the musicians on Spirit, Aretha’s first album recorded in the South in more than two years, were white— the Swampers, on their sixth Aretha album, the Dixie Flyers, a topflight studio band that Wexler had recently put together, and the legendary slide guitarist Duane Allman—the mood was a marked step blackwards. Cornell Dupree, African-American and perhaps the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time, was on hand, laying down his buoyant groove. Dupree the rhythm master shines especially on Spirit in the Dark’s follow-up album, Young, Gifted and Black, on “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” (its first line “I gave my heart and soul to you boy”). I have loved Cornell Dupree’s guitar playing on “Oh No, Not My Baby”, another Aretha take on a Carole King/Gerry Goffin song, since I was a kid. Dupree could do something few guitarists can: play rhythm and lead at the same time, as he does on “Oh No”, accomplishing the near, if not completely, impossible: he steals the show from Aretha.

Wexler remembered Aretha as “radiant” when she arrived at Criteria Studios in Miami. Jim Dickinson, on the other hand, the Dixie Flyers’ piano player, once told me that the sessions were “nightmarish”, Aretha a late-era, temperamentally over-the-top, Elizabeth Taylor. She was carrying a bag of pigs’ feet through the Hotel Fontainebleau’s lobby when it burst, spilling pigs’ feet all over the expensive carpet. Without breaking stride, she headed straight for the elevator and up to her Presidential Suite.  

To Dickinson, the Spirit in the Dark sessions were “truly bizarre. The level of her whole operation was pitched so high. When she came in, it was the jivest thing. She had an entourage of must have been thirty the whole two weeks she was there. They didn’t turn the motor of her limo off, just parked it on the grass and left the doors open. It was her way of jackin’ herself up to record.” As Dickinson saw things, if White’s absence from the scene was a blessing, it was also problematic: “Ted White, though he was obviously a very abusive man, was necessary to her.” 

Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin are listed as Wexler’s co-producers, which amounted to a real injustice; the album might as well have been titled “This Is a Man’s World”. 

“Aretha should not only have been credited as one of the producers, but as the main producer, Cecil Franklin, who had taken over as Aretha’s manager, told the writer David Ritz. “I spoke to Wexler, but he wasn’t willing to budge. His point was she got credit as the artist. Besides, he said, no one really cares about the producer anyway. Maybe so, but fair is fair, and I felt strongly that her role was being hidden from the public. Aretha felt this way as well, but she was unwilling to make waves.”

One of the valuable finds in the Jerry Wexler Papers is Aretha’s detailed session notes from Spirit In the Dark, the instructions and suggestions of an uncredited to a credited producer. 

Although they address only eight of the album’s 12 songs (three more went unreleased), Aretha’s jottings amply support her brother’s complaint. One of nine songs recorded at the 10 March 1970 session (nine songs in a day!) and shelved until 2007 was Frank Sinatra‘s anthem. When Wexler, who had no recollection of recording “My Way”, heard it years later, he was astounded, calling it “a discovery of enormous value. It’s a masterpiece.”

Aretha was unimpressed. “Would like to recut vocal,” she wrote in a half-cursive, half-printed hand. If her “My Way” is a masterpiece, Aretha’s perfectionism surely played a role. “The Thrill Is Gone” and “You and Me” needed strings, if you please; “Why I Sing the Blues”, “When This Battle Is Over (Who Will Wear the Crown),” and “Honest I Do”, horns. The title song and “One Way Ticket” are “Done”. Cornell Dupree’s guitar on “Why I Sing the Blues” was fine as it is (“Wow!”). On “One Way Ticket,” Aretha conceded that Wexler knew what he was doing: “Be sure of 3 blend’s [sic] in voices like I know you will (smile).” Here was a diva with a sense of humor, asking  Wexler to boost the rhythm guitar’s volume on “When This Battle Is Over”, “at your discression [sic] and refined taste (smile).”     

At the end of the day, was Aretha likely to get her way?

“I would think that she was,” the post-Swamper bassist Chuck Rainey told me. “I’ve heard Aretha tell Jerry, ‘I’m not gonna do it again.’ He’d say, ‘But it sounds like you made a mistake there.’ She’d say, ‘It may be a mistake to you, but it’s the way I want it.'”

“I remember one situation,” Rainey says, “I don’t remember the song, but Jerry had to go somewhere. He said, ‘Aretha, I have to leave for a few minutes, can you handle it?’ She let him have it. ‘What do you mean can I handle it?’ Like you would get to a point where she would just stop the bullshit. Because Jerry had a tendency to look at all black artists the same.” (Nor does Rainey stop there. “Jerry Wexler was not the producer that he is thought to be. Jerry Wexler didn’t know sic ’em from c’mere about music.”)  

Indispensable or not, the discarded Ted White is clearly the target of Spirit in the Dark’s second song, a typically radical Aretha revision, this time of B.B. King’s 1969 hit and first Top 40 single, “The Thrill Is Gone”. Aretha’s version carefully threads two strands. Having finally rid herself of White, she uses King’s lyric “I’m free now/ I’m free from your spell” to express her tremendous, pent-up relief. And, with that magpie genius for taking from everywhere, has her backup vocalists overlay B.B.’s lyric with “thank God Almighty I’m free at last”, the words, of course, to one of the best-known slave spirituals. It’s entirely fitting that it’s in Spirit In the Dark, her first step towards the new Afrocentrism, the adult Aretha gives her first explicit nod to her roots in the gospel church. 

“Thank God Almighty, free at last” are, of course,  the words with which Martin Luther King closed his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. Aretha’s “The Thrill Is Gone” is a family affair, strictly African-American royalty; two Kings and a Queen.

The album’s strongest, if most cryptic, song, is the title track, Aretha’s composition. When a writer from Ebony asked her what on earth “Spirit in the Dark” was about, Aretha said, “That’s one I’d rather not talk about. It’s very, very personal and I don’t want to get into it right now.”

A word about Aretha’s songwriting: “Aretha liked to call me the songwriter of the family,” baby sister Carolyn once said, “but just as she had the big talent as a singer, she had that same big talent as a composer. The difference is that she pursued the singing with all she had, but slacked off on the writing.” You can’t really call it slacking off—Aretha wrote or co-wrote 17 of her songs during her peak years, and had a hot hand in Spirit in the Dark and Young, Gifted and Black, writing eight of their songs by herself and co-writing one.

Spirit in the Dark‘s line “I can’t see the Lord but I can feel him” is an old Sanctified saying. Has Aretha been touched by the Holy Spirit? Or just coming from a really good dance party (“Do you feel like dancing/Get up and let’s start dancing!”) Aretha was always ready to synthesize sexual and spiritual ardor (“put your hands on your hips and cover your eyes”), striking a sexy pose while shutting out the physical world to speak to the Lord. 

Musically, the song could not be less ambiguous, a look homewards. Starting out adagio (slow), then adagietto (not that slow), then a languorous hip-swaying andante stroll as she asks the congregation, “I wonder are you gettin’ the spirit/Are you gettin’ it in the dark,” to an up-tempo rocker, Roger Hawkins sitting on that backbeat, when Aretha stops cold (2:48), hits a two-fisted lick, the Sweet Inspirations snap to attention (“I THINK I GOT IT!”), and “Spirit In the Dark” is off and running at full-tilt, hand-clapping, tambourines-to-glory presto, Aretha hollering “Thank you Jeeeesus!”, briefly going secular (“Right on!”), and taking the song out, strong in her religion.

And as recessive as ever out in the world. At the 1970 Antibes Jazz Festival in Juan-les-Pins, France, Aretha levitated the stage with an 11-minute “Spirit in the Dark”, shouting (holy dancing), in heels, yet, for the last five minutes, the audience in an uproar. The tenor saxophonist Stan Getz was at Antibes that year, and was, he said, “deeply moved and artistically inspired. But I felt afraid for her. She was channeling more emotion than one human being could bear.” When he approached her in congratulation, Aretha said, “Oh, yes, Mr. Getz, I enjoy your recordings,’ and then looked away. She was too troubled to deal with me, a stranger eager to offer words of comfort and encouragement.”