Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The rose is still a rose: In praise of Aretha Franklin

She's still alive, and may she remain that way for years to come.

For weeks, the media had been buzzing with reports that Aretha Franklin was suffering from pancreatic cancer (in late December several outlets even erroneously ran obituaries!), but several days ago, the Queen of Soul publicly denied that she has cancer. I hope that whatever forced her to undergo surgery on December 2 and cancel all of her concert appearances through May is not life threatening and that a full recovery is underway.

Perhaps new music will be forthcoming, too, as it's been nearly eight years since Aretha's last studio album, 2003's So Damn Happy. Until the next one comes along, or the inevitable Aretha biopic (she's said she wants Halle Berry, 44, to play her, but I'd prefer that a more age-appropriate actress like Kerry Washington, 34, got the gig), there's a massive back catalog of Aretha songs to satisfy our cravings for classic soul. Among them, here are my five favorite singles.

"Call Me"
As hard as it might be for anyone under the age of 30 to believe, there was a time when singles as timeless and unformulaic as this one regularly sailed into the Top 20 on Billboard's Hot 100. A true triumph of naked emotion over cluttered production.

"Spanish Harlem"
My all-time favorite Aretha song. Listen to the fantastic 1960 original by Ben E. King, then Aretha's 1971 cover, and recognize how deep runs her gift for masterful musical reinvention. Years ago, I was at a listening party for the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, and Babyface, who produced all of the female artist-sung tracks on the album and had a hand in writing all but one of them, had the nerve to declare the movie and soundtrack's star Whitney Houston the greatest singer ever. Had Houston been present, I'm sure that she, too, would have objected to Babyface's overblown praise in deference to Aretha.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water"
Speaking of masterful reinvention (blasphemy alert!), I've always preferred Aretha's 1971 gospel take on the Simon & Garfunkel classic over the original. When I think of the song, this the version that plays in my head.

Lest we forget that Aretha is also a gifted songwriter, there's the aforementioned "Call Me," "Think" and this 1972 hit, each of which she wrote. Every Aretha fan has heard her version, so to shake things up a bit, here is Dionne Warwick (whose "I Say A Little Prayer" belongs as much to Aretha as it does to Dionne, or My Best Friend's Wedding) covering it on The Flip Wilson Show in 1972. Doesn't she more than do it justice?

"Jump to It"
I grew up in a house where for many years we listened to only gospel and country music. So my earliest Aretha memory is from when I was about 13 years old, and it wasn't "Respect" but rather this Luther Vandross-produced 1982 comeback hit (No. 1 R&B, No. 24 pop), which provided DJ Tom Novy's 2005 UK dance hit "Your Body" with its unforgettable loop.

With the exception of "Jump to It," Aretha recorded all of the above hits before she turned 30. Is there a female artist under 30 today who is capable of such greatness?
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