Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul

Aretha Franklin – Lady Soul

Released January 22nd, 1968

By 1968, Aretha Franklin’s ascendance was so complete that her album titles became declarations of dominance. Lady Soul, her third Atlantic Records release and first album of the year, acknowledges her primacy in the musical genre that wed the multifarious sounds of Black pop to the joyous assertions of the Civil Rights and Black Power era. The album became another blockbuster, an instant greatest-hits package that included three Top 10 hits and another that made the Top 20. On this brief and brilliant masterpiece, Franklin lays out the thematic and musical terrain that defined soul music and placed her at its center.

Throughout Lady Soul, Franklin explores soul music’s core demand for personal commitment in the face of temptation. From the first troubled tremolo of “Chain of Fools” through the last mournful fade of “Ain’t No Way,” she insists that her songs’ subjects “be as good to me as I am to you” and that listeners reckon with the consequences of absent or unequal partnerships. Even at her most heartbroken, Franklin never sounds defeated. Instead, in the best tradition of the blueswomen whose work infuses the album’s sound and spirit, she offers survival strategies for an unfair and unfriendly world. Sometimes it’s about getting by. Sometimes it’s about getting out.

And sometimes it’s about finding someone who’ll be as good to you as you are to them. Her blissful take on The Young Rascals’ “Groovin” celebrates equal partnership – a hopeful vision of “you and me, endlessly” – as an antidote to facing the world alone or (even worse) being trapped in a chain of fools. The album’s swooning centerpiece “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” written for Franklin by Gerry Goffin & Carole King, celebrates a partner who “makes me feel so alive” by offering her respect and satisfaction. She wants to please and praise her lover, but not at the expense of her body, mind and spirit.

The songs about personal fulfillment that fill Lady Soul were and are impossible to separate from their larger resonance in the rapidly-shifting political terrain of 1968. This is neither surprising nor accidental. Franklin understood the racial masking and gendered dissemblance employed by Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington and other Black pop stars. She practiced the gospel politics of Civil Rights activists (including her father Rev. C.L. Franklin) and musical mentors like Mahalia Jackson. And, of course, her 1967 breakthrough had been propelled by her galvanizing calls for “Respect.” Franklin thus recognized the utility, and perhaps necessity, of songs that spoke equally to private concerns and the public sphere at a moment when the interlocked swells of Black Feminism and Black Power led to the questioning of old alliances and the embrace of new identities. In the desperation of “Good As I Been To You,” the awakening of “Natural Woman,” or the well-earned cynicism of “Chain of Fools” (which, as Craig Werner describes, also became a soundtrack for soldiers in Vietnam), Lady Soul finds the fate of the community as uncertain as that of any romantic relationship. In this context, the album’s one obviously political and explicitly gospel song – her stately take on Curtis Mayfield’s anthem “People Get Ready” – is both thematic outlier and crucial parallel.

The presence of “People Get Ready” also signals the strength and joy that Franklin finds in musical call-and-response. Commanding a fearsome unit of musicians, Franklin centers her astonishing singing within a deep instrumental conversation – including lead guitar from Joe South and Bobby Womack, and Franklin’s own remarkable piano work – and sympathetic background vocals from The Sweet Inspirations and Franklin’s sisters Carolyn and Erma. This ensemble helps Franklin survey a diverse musical landscape that belies the narrowest conceptions of “soul music” and its artists. She stomps through Memphis grooves like the slam-bang “Sweet Sweet Baby (Since You’ve Been Gone),” but also calls back to the uptown jazz-pop she recorded during her oft-maligned tenure at Columbia Records. She covers fellow soul royalty Mayfield and James Brown, and signifies on esteemed predecessors like Sam Cooke. (His “You Send Me” gets a brief shout-out at the end of “Groovin’,” a sly and loving commentary on how The Young Rascals’ great “blue-eyed soul” records took inspiration from artists like Cooke.) Calling together musicians across space and time, Franklin musically enacts a powerful vision of communal strength and individual genius.

And she is a genius. This seems obvious, of course, but it’s worth mentioning as some narratives continue to diminish Franklin’s own role in her late-1960s emergence. This dynamic is deconstructed by Emily Lordi in a review of the 2013 documentary Muscle Shoals. Lordi notes that, although Franklin is “an expert musician” who “laid the instrumental foundation for her own recordings with Atlantic,” she is too often framed as a “a young ingénue just drifting, waiting for white men like [Atlantic] producer Jerry Wexler” to save her from the limitations of her Columbia work and turn her into the “Queen of Soul.” Wexler’s involvement was crucial, of course, but this still-common narrative is both inaccurate and a reflection of the kinds of historical horseshit that Franklin pushes against on Lady Soul. Like so many Black women in the music industry, or the whole wide world, Aretha Franklin here gets reduced to a conduit for white fantasies and patriarchal desires.

The music tells a different story. The songs on Lady Soul warn us against believing this lie, and they remind us of the consequences for those who do. On this remarkable album, Franklin assures us that – someday, someway – the chain’s gonna break.

Best tracks: “Chain of Fools,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

PS – Cited above, both Emily Lordi and Craig Werner have been crucial to my thinking about Aretha Franklin and soul music. Their words and inspiration will surely appear again in future entries. Go get their books.

Also be sure to check out my entry on Aretha Now, Franklin’s second masterpiece of the year, released in June.

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