“Ms. Franklin has been singing freedom songs in support of my father and others in the struggle for civil rights. As a daughter of the movement, she not only used her voice to entertain but to uplift and inspire generations through songs that have become anthems such as “Respect” and “Bridge over Troubled Water”.– The Reverend Bernice King
More so than any other popular entertainer of the 20th century, Aretha Franklin became synonymous with the civil rights movement. Her music, which found that sweet spot that intersected the sacred with the secular, was inspirational to activists. “Her music led so many people to tolerate, accept, and love,” Dr. Felicia A. Bell, Senior Advisor, Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, said at the time of Franklin’s death. Songs like “Respect” and a stirring cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” became anthems to the soundtrack of 1960s protest.
Franklin’s association with the civil rights movement wasn’t just artistic but familial, too, because her father—the Reverend C.L. Franklin—was an important figure in the campaign. He organized, led, and worked with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to fight for racial equality in Detroit. As a child, Franklin saw significant figures of the cause and gospel visit her home to see her father (whose preaching style was acclaimed).
Though her musical output was largely apolitical, her background and intimate relationship with the civil rights movement informed her work as well as her public persona. She would be a significant supporter of it and protest, leading to her feelings of social justice captured on vinyl for 1972’s Young, Gifted and Black LP. She recorded it for Atlantic Records, the home of some of her most essential and greatest musical triumphs (starting with 1967’s classic I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You).
It’s a legendary and definitive record that contains some of her most passionate and fervent performances. Though the collection as a whole isn’t a protest album—it’s primarily a soul record—its centerpiece is the title track, a miraculous tribute to one of its songwriters: Nina Simone. The singles that accompanied the sequence—including the classic soul hits “Day Dreaming”, “Rock Steady”, and “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)”—emphasized Franklin’s ability to transcend pop music by infusing it with a gospel-hued ardor.
Franklin worked on the album from the summer of 1970 to February 1971, eventually releasing it on 24 January 1972. By this time, the civil rights movement was entering a new decade in the wake of the tumultuous yet triumphant 1960s. After all, there were many significant achievements, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and landmark court rulings like Loving v. Virginia in 1967.
The prior decade also saw great tragedy, including assassinations of Civil Rights leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner (who worked with the Congress of racial equality). During this time, Franklin supported the efforts of these activists by donating money and speaking out, adding her vast celebrity to the cause. She even went as far as publicly offering to pay for activist Angela Davis’ bail when she was jailed (to provide some context for Franklin’s bravery here, Davis was labeled a “terrorist” by then-President Richard Nixon).
Given Franklin’s commitment to social justice, it’s not surprising that she chose to use her art in a more explicit way to promote racial equality. Young, Gifted and Black would become an essential part of her legacy, as it offered an effortless blending of so many sounds and themes that defined Franklin’s music. In just 12 tracks, she crafts a narrative that celebrates Black excellence via both her content and her artistic collaborations. In fact, some of the most important figures of Black popular music join Franklin on the album to create the quintessential soul record.
Young, Gifted and Black is Aretha Franklin’s eighth studio LP for Atlantic Records, the label for which she recorded her biggest hits: “Respect”, “Think”, “Chain of Fools”, and “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman”. The album is part of a series of remarkably consistent studio releases that superbly showcased her not just as a singer but also as an accomplished songwriter and pianist. Young, Gifted and Black has some revelatory moments capturing Franklin at her vocal and artistic peak (when she was working at her best). The album has moments of warmth and exuberance, yes, but also moments of urgency and churchy vibrancy.
What’s important to note is that Young, Gifted and Black is at once an artistic and commercial triumph. It is both radio-ready (some of Franklin’s biggest pop hits came from the set) and challenging. For instance, Franklin’s cover of the Nina Simone title track finds kinship with the original by going to the church. As a protest song, “Young, Gifted and Black” works as an affirmation, celebrating Blackness as a gift. Franklin taps legendary backup group the Sweet Inspirations to support her joyful voice. Together, they create an exciting and stirring atmosphere that more or less transports listeners back to the New Bethel Baptist Church.
Franklin accompanies herself on the piano—she truly was the most underrated pianist in pop music history—and is joined by soul great Billy Preston on the Hammond organ. Of course, the effect is superlative. There’s a fire in Franklin’s large and expressive voice as she sagely intones, “Oh, what a lovely precious dream / To be young, gifted, and black.” She also urges listeners (really, her fellow mentors) to “begin to tell our young / There’s a world waiting for you”, ultimately rejoicing that the “joy of today / Is that we can be proud to say / ‘To be young, gifted, and black / Is where it’s at’.”
The power of Simone’s poetry is that it looks to civil rights activism as a celebration and a source of pride. As Cylus Hill-Yastek points out, “The lyrics of this song further an empowering message which conveys that young African Americans have immense worth.” He elaborates by arguing that “this message should be further conveyed to young African Americans to combat America’s Eurocentric thought that has continued to paint people of color as unworthy and ‘other'”. The importance of the track’s joy and affirmation cannot be overstated. Its rhetorical power lies in the ebullience of the lyrics and delight in the vocals.
Writer Ben Williams zeroes in on how the song’s fundamental significance in its ability to challenge “the narrative that Black people are only defined by their struggle. Though that struggle has been an unavoidable part of our history, we must find moments to celebrate our resilience, pride, and endless potential.” Williams sums up the piece’s enduring relevance by saying: “If there was ever a question of why Black lives matter, this song answers it — simply, boldly and beautifully.”
The mighty majesty of “Young, Gifted and Black” could overwhelm and overshadow the rest of the album’s tracks, especially radio-friendly fare like “Rock Steady”. Yet, it’s a testament to Young, Gifted and Black’s artistic heft that its pop songs’ songwriting, production, and singing are equally brilliant. Franklin’s gift and genius involve drawing from her gospel background to add depth and intelligence to popular, secular music. As Williams surmises, “The beautiful thing about… Black music is that features a wealth of artists who made it a point to speak about the entire range of the experience of being Black in America. The hardships, the anger, the frustration, the pain, the beauty and the everlasting sense of hope — Black music covers it all”. Even the lightest pop lyrics find spirituality and urgency with Franklin’s gravitas.
A look at the record’s tracklist reveals Franklin’s ambitions, influences, and writing talents. For example, she looks to the Beatles with her cover of “The Long and Winding Road” and to Elton John for the churchy “Border Song (Holy Moses)”. She also pays homage to fellow pop-soul diva—and her avowed disciple and follower—Dusty Springfield on “Brand New Me”. Eventually, Franklin explores R&B/soul radio, too, with the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. Plus, two of the album’s most robust and enduring tracks—”Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady”—were penned by Franklin (so she proved herself to be an estimable tunesmith as well as legendary vocalist).
Franklin’s talents as a songwriter and instrumentalist are essential to highlight on a record that takes its name from a “Black is Beautiful” anthem. Her brilliance is what Simone celebrates in her writing. Brandon Ousley puts it perfectly when he suggests that “the element that makes Franklin’s cover of [‘Young, Gifted and Black’] irresistible is how she stunningly bridged its aim toward both the commitment of the civil rights movement and the spirit of Black power era.” When Simone declares, “Yeah, there’s a great truth that you should know / When you’re young, gifted, and black / Your soul’s intact,” she could certainly be singing about Franklin.
Hill-Yastek notes that Simone’s celebration of Black brilliance is “not a gift that is entirely related to talent. Rather than this, I would like to say that it is more so related to blackness itself and that if one is black, they are gifted.” He continues by saying that “the gift of blackness can be honed into more than artistic talent, but activism and actively suppressing White-Supremacy’s prevalence in the American hegemony”.
More than anything, assessing Aretha Franklin as a fully realized artist—even an auteur—who writes, sings, and plays is vital when looking back fondly on Young, Gifted and Black. Her original compositions stand deservedly aside songs penned by revered pop songwriters like Burt Bacharach, John Lennon, Carole King, Elton John, and Ellie Greenwich. In particular, “Day Dreaming” is a wonderful bit of jazzy soul that features some great piano work by Donny Hathaway and thrilling additions by trilling flute maestro Hubert Laws. In addition, Franklin makes the song a family affair by including some expressive background vocals by her singing sisters, Carolyn and Erma.
“Rock Steady” is a funky, uptempo tune that boasts iconic bass guitar by Chuck Rainey and instantly recognizable riffs by the Memphis Horns. Of course, there are the Sweethearts of Soul’s catchy chorus and chants (“What it is, what it is, what it is”), too. Franklin paints an affectionately lovely, empathetic, and simple tale on her lilting story song, “The First Snow in Kokomo”. In it, she tools around on the piano while crooning about the denizens of the small titular Indiana town. And “All the King’s Horses” is a rueful and sad song with bruised lyrics about regret and heartache.
Given the excellence of Aretha Franklin’s output, Young, Gifted and Black is the first among equals. It would become a brilliant capper to a dizzying five years that produced perhaps the most remarkable run of studio LPs in any artist’s discography. It’s a crucial record because it shows what’s so fabulous about ’70s soul music. Expansive, generous, and tuneful, the album contains some of the finest singing captured on vinyl. True, 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You saw Franklin become the undisputed Queen of Soul, yet Young, Gifted and Black is undeniably another glittery jewel in her crown.
Franklin, Aretha. Young, Gifted and Black. Atlantic Records. 24 January 1972.
Hill-Yastek, Cylus. “Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black”: Activism Through Song.” The Black Arts Movement. 4 December 2018.
Ousley, Brandon. “Aretha Franklin’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ Turns 45 | Anniversary Retrospective.” Albumism. 24 January 2017.
Simone, Nina and Weldon Irvine. “Young, Gifted, and Black.” Stroud Productions.
WDHN. “Aretha Franklin Civil Rights.” WDHN. 17 August 2018 (Available on YouTube).
Williams, Ben. “Songs of Protest & Healing: Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”: A celebration of brilliance, resilience and endless potential.” Tidal. 14 June 2020.
WSB-TV 2 Atlanta. “Atlanta civil rights icons Rep. John Lewis and Dr. Bernice King praise Aretha Franklin” WSBTV.com. 16 August 2018.