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 the Alien Hippies

After Spirit In the Dark, Aretha hired almost exclusively Black musicians. As good as the Swampers were, their loose lope was out of synch with her increasingly tight new sound. After much negotiation (King Curtis did not come cheap), Curtis signed on as music director and promptly hired three of his own musicians: Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass, and the great funk drummer Bernard Purdie: three of R&B’s—of pop’s, period—best players, at the top of their games. 

The new band overlapped variously. Rainey and Purdie were both raised Sanctified, Rainey in Youngstown, Ohio, Purdie in Elkton, Maryland. And Curtis and Dupree were products of the I.M. Terrell High School music department in Fort Worth, Texas. (Ornette Coleman joined Curtis in the saxophone section.) 

Purdie, Rainey and Dupree had played in Curtis’s Kingpins for three years. Rainey and Purdie went still further back. “In almost every club I played at when I got to New York, Bernard was the drummer,” Rainey says. “Loved him. Whatever Bernard plays, it’s gonna fit what I play. A lot of people try to play like Bernard,” Rainey says, “but it doesn’t come off.” Almost 60 years later, they remain close friends. 

Rainey and Purdie had recorded together hundreds of times; Dupree was a less frequent partner. “You couldn’t count on him to be on time, which of course is a no-no for a session player. But usually you’d just wait on him, because Cornell was special.”

As was Rainey, whose playing had—that’s “has”—Chuck still kicks butt at 80—a striking feature. We’ll call it the Rainey Slide; it’s special enough to capitalize. When so inspired, Rainey lets a low note ring out as he slides way up on one of the top strings. Hearing the Rainey Slide is like getting goosed. The Slide is outlandish. It sounds like an elephant trumpeting in the bush. 

The Swampers had taken hours to put a song together, piece by agonizing piece. “We were out of New York,” says Rainey. “We didn’t want to sit there all day working on one song. In the industry, you cannot take too long in creating things. It has to be like you’re reading music—you play it one time to make sure the notes are right. Next time you record it.” 

Aretha’s first album with Curtis and the ‘Pins had to be pried out of her. Wexler was willing to bet that an album of Aretha electrifying a roomful of hippies would break her white market open, and booked her for three nights in March 1971 at rock’s high temple, San Francisco’s Fillmore West. 

Aretha was petrified. “She saw hippies as somewhat alien,” Wexler recalled. “I saw no reason why she wouldn’t be sensational in that setting.” Anxious to please the aliens, Aretha gave them a liberal dose of hits by White artists: Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With”, a beautiful “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, and one embarrassing choice, Bread’s “Make It With You”, which every self-respecting hippie scorned as easy-listening, that indicated Aretha’s tone-deafness to countercultural tastes.  

But Wexler was right. “I’ve played a million gigs,” Billy Preston, the organist for the date, told David Ritz. “I’ve played a million churches, a million buckets of blood, a million nightclubs, and a million concert halls. But never, ever have I experienced anything like playing for Aretha at the Fillmore. It wasn’t that the hippies just liked her. The hippies flipped the fuck out.” 

Waving goodbye after the final show, for whose encore, “Spirit in the Dark”, Aretha pulled a protesting Ray Charles out of the audience (he’d never heard the song, let alone sung it), she put her arm around King Curtis and shouted, “Look for King and I to do our thing together for years to come!” 

Five months later, on 14 August 1971, Curtis was dead, stabbed to death outside of his apartment in Central Park West. Coming up the front stoop, Curtis found his path blocked by two derelicts. Words were exchanged, and one of the men pulled a knife and stabbed Curtis. He died in the ambulance. 

“When I got the call,” Wexler said, “I couldn’t speak. Couldn’t move. Didn’t know how to process it because it came from out of nowhere.” Purdie had gotten off the phone with Curtis five minutes before the stabbing but didn’t hear about it until the next morning. Driving back from Pennsylvania with the radio on, he heard the DJ put on a song by “the late, great King Curtis”, and ran off the road. It took Purdie 20 minutes to pull himself together. 

Atlantic closed its offices on the day of the funeral, C.L. Franklin and Jesse Jackson flew in to eulogize Curtis, and when Aretha sang the gospel song “Never Grow Old”, everybody lost it. 

“And the strange part,” said Purdie, “is that Aretha never even wanted his name mentioned. If someone happened to say something about Curtis, she went into her shell. It was better to act like it never happened.”