Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Yes, Yes, Aretha Franklin Is a Genius

A couple of months ago I had one of my wise ideas. I was going to explode the Aretha Franklin myth. Enough caution, enough kindness--the time was right. Aretha's career had survived a slump. Not only was she writing and touring energetically, she was also making her first Top 10 singles in three years, and they were terrible, her worst ever--phony humankindness ("Bridge Over Troubled Water"), phony black consciousness ("Spanish Harlem"), even phony rock and roll ("Rock Steady"). Her 12th LP for Atlantic, Young, Gifted and Black, played straight to the nouveau bourgeois black-album audience, with all the self-consciousness and excess instrumentation that implied. She had never entirely overcome me anyway, and this middlebrowism seemed a bit much.

Middlebrowism has almost ruined her once before. Aretha has not had an easy life, but she was never poor. Her father, C.L. Franklin is a big time Baptist preacher in Detroit and she got into professional gospel singing as a teenager. Then she signed with Columbia Records, where she wasted her early 20s singing half-blooded jazz. She was saved by rhythm-and-blues maven Jerry Wexler, who got her together with his favorite Atlantic studio musicians and let her rip. What they came up with was too idiosyncratic to classify except by its success--eight Top 10 singles in a row between early 1967 and late 1968. Not all of those were rock and roll or even big-beat ballads. But all were certainly soul music, incorporating gospel influences direct from Aretha's own past and secondhand from Ray Charles, with the sure funk of the best Memphis horns and electric bass always ready to go. Almost instantly, Aretha became Lady Soul.

Like most manifestations of popular genius, this was also a commercial formula. Inevitably, both began to run down. The audience demands novelty for good and bad reasons of its own, but the artist needs it in any case, or the spontaneity will disappear. Just because Aretha's first four Atlantic albums were so uniformly excellent, they diminished in excitement. The singles tailed off. Her personal life was more troubled than usual. Realizing the danger, Wexler conceived Soul '69, an album on which Aretha abandoned funky settings for jazzy big-band brass arrangements. But Aretha wasn't a jazz singer, and the album succeeded only when she triumphed over a concept that proceeded more from Wexler's experience than from her own.

Aretha's lack of credibility as a jazz singer and her talent for defeating oppressive limitations were both functions of her most salient vocal quality. Jazz singers improvise purposefully, commenting by implication on both written and improvised melody and hence on the lyric itself. Not Aretha. Although she almost defined her sound by soaring away from it, she never seemed to pick a destination--she just went there, effortlessly, singing, yes, like a bird. This freedom could transform the most banal material--as in "I Say a Little Prayer"--but it had its own limitations. Because she seemed to sing without the aid of intellect, it was hard to tell whether she had an intellect at all.

This didn't bother me as long as she kept it funky, though it did make her harder to identify with, but as soon as she moved toward sophistication it caused trouble. Her versions of white rock relevancies like "The Weight" and "Eleanor Rigby" sounded foolish, and her half-step toward her old jazz style on Spirit in the Dark was simply unconvincing. Bah humbug! I kept saying to myself, why doesn't she just sing rock and roll, and I searched among unjustly ignored black woman singers for invidious comparisons.

That was where my wise idea went awry. Denise LaSalle writes strong sensitive songs, Koko Taylor is the toughest female blues singer since Big Mama Thornton, and Ann Peebles has recorded two Memphis-funky albums. Anyone who cares about singing should try to hear them all, but don't make the mistake of comparing them with Aretha. They make Dionne Warwicke sound washed out, sure, but Aretha is in her own class. She may fail within it, but not on anybody else's terms.

That's right. I set out to explode the Aretha Franklin myth and I ended up believing it. Yes, yes, Aretha Franklin is a genius, and she has finally found her new direction. She is singing for a mass of upwardly mobile black people who are looking for their own stance instead of emulating the white man, and who are causing black music to undergo the same sort of growing pains that white rock did in the early '60s. The dependable charm of naivete gives way to some awkward self-consciousness, much baloney, and a few exhilarating triumphs. Young, Gifted and Black is one of those triumphs.

That isn't the first successful pop record by a black artist, but it is the first successful black pop record. It is genteel but never bloodless, and the secret is Aretha's free-flight improvisations, now revealed as the vehicles of a romanticism extreme and even unhinged enough to transcend the deep pain of black experience and lean into the blithe world of pop. In another context, Paul McCartney's meandering "Long and Winding Road" and Nina Simone's somewhat pompous "Young, Gifted and Black" would fail, but here even an Elton John song sounds not real, exactly, but alive. "Day Dreaming," a transparent fantasy that may just be about a real man in Aretha's real life, provides a metaphor for the whole album. The last time I heard it on the radio the sun was shining and I suddenly turned it up as if it were the Rolling Stones and tried to sing along. I couldn't keep up with her, but that didn't' stop me from trying.


Capsule Reviews

Denise LaSalle: Trapped by a Thing Called Love (Westbound) and Ann Peebles: Straight From the Heart (Hi). If Aretha transcends funk, where do we turn when we feel like something lowdown? To these albums, both produced by Willie Mitchell for women who have not yet touched the white audience, both superior to recent offerings from more familiar names (Martha Reeves, Betty Wright, Fontella Bass). Peebles manages to sound tough and perky at the same time; she's sexy and smart as a whip. LaSalle, who writes most of her own songs, sounds as if she has suffered longer; she's sensual, warm, wise. Mitchell's production isn't mind-boggling, but it's solid enough, a little sharper for Peebles, whose first LP, Part Time Love, is just as good. Both recommended, with a tiny preference for Peebles. B PLUS

N'day, Apr. 30, 1972