Thursday, July 22, 2004

Talking with Paul th'other night, he expressed surprise at my admiration - nay, obsession? - for/with Aretha's '70s work.

"I thought the '60s were her decade," he said.

"No, no!" I heatedly countered. "Just the timbre of her voice alone was better in the '70s. And the songs!"

And it's true: by the turn of the '70s, Aretha had a much firmer grasp of her immense instrument than she did in the '60s. Now this is not, of course, to say that she didn't know what she was doing in the '60s - cf. "Respect," obviously - but she didn't have the same level of control and nuance over her voice, I think, that she showed on her '70s recordings. [It should be noted here that I'm exempting her late-decade work, such as the disco stinker La Diva, and am exclusively discussing Aretha up until 1977's monumental "Break It To Me Gently."]

Even though the Queen's very earliest recordings were along jazz(ish) lines, the stuff she cut circa '60 for Columbia, it wasn't until records such as 1974's "Day Dreaming" when a true jazziness started showing up in her singing. Listen to the way she bobs and weaves with the music, playing off of and around her backing trio (the magnificent Dixie Flyers, including Cissy Houston, mother of you-know-who). The vamping we so often associate with Aretha truly blossomed in the '70s; she seemingly did it over every track she cut, and 9 times out of 10 (okay, 9.5), they were better for it - and so were/are we, as listeners.

Aretha soars on these recordings in ways I've never heard anyone else do, and I do mean anyone; not even the likes of Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, or even the inimitable Chaka Khan have the package quite the way the Queen does (which is, of course, why she's the Queen of Soul and they're not). Her gift for fitting her voice so perfectly with the song and arrangement, too, is another marvel. Whereas on "Break It To Me Gently" she's so heavy, she's everyone's sistah, on a more cotton-candy confection such as "Until You Come Back To Me" (listen to the arrangement, all swirly splashes of sun-dappled colors, especially due to the lovely flute riffing), Aretha's voice takes on an airy, summer-day quality.

I find it achingly difficult to write about Aretha, to explore her genius (and it's a genius of soul, folks); how do you write about perfection? Which is exactly why I attempt to do so. Won't get better otherwise, eh? [And if anyone would like a copy of Aretha: The #1s: 1970-1985, a disc I made of her R&B charttoppers during those years (there were 15), do let me know, won't you?]

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