Aretha Franklin – Aretha Now
Released: June 14th, 1968
In August 1963, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded the crowd to embrace and understand the “fierce urgency of now.” He called for immediate and transformative action in the pursuit of racial justice, telling his audience to keep moving forward in the face of resistance and apathy. In April 1967, King returned to the image of the “fierce urgency of now” when declaring his opposition to the Vietnam War. “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history,” King said, “there is such a thing as being too late.” One year later, King was dead, the war had escalated, and those who believed in freedom wrestled with how to keep going in a moment that mixed triumphant breakthroughs with unspeakable tragedies.
Within this, one of the most important voices was King’s friend and collaborator Aretha Franklin. The “Queen of Soul” released three acclaimed hit albums in 1968 (including Lady Soul, which I discussed earlier this year), and she was honored in publications from Ebony to Time as a key voice in the assertive cultural politics of Civil Rights and Black Power. In June, two months after her friend’s murder, she released Aretha Now, an album that answers King’s call for honest reckoning and affirmed his commitment to the beloved community. Franklin refuses to reconcile the tension between desperation and determination – that “unfolding conundrum” that King talked about – and instead plumbs the paradox as she responds to a community in need of reassurance and committed to moving forward.
The fierce urgency of Aretha Now is announced from the very beginning, with the insistent Franklin piano chords that open “Think.” Recorded shortly after King’s murder, the thunderous track (written by Franklin and then-husband Ted White) pulses with the catastrophic impact of the killing and the heated energies of its aftermath. This is most explicit on the soaring, searing bridge, with Franklin’s ascending cries of “freedom,” but it more broadly imbues her demand for truer partnership. As Craig Werner writes, the song “rang out as a desperate plea to a nation” and “clings desperately to the gospel vision” that structured much of Franklin’s and King’s shared terrain. She still believes in that vision, but her voice signals that her faith may be reaching its limits. Earlier this year, she warned you that the chain would break one of these days. On “Think,” that day sounds even closer.
As she’s done throughout her career, Franklin locates a model for building and maintaining that community in the music itself. Aretha Now contains numerous songs made famous by other artists, and – while Franklin certainly confirms her reputation as a master interpreter or even song-slaying “copyright killer” – the covers here honor a soul continuum that stretches across regions and generations. She calls back to pioneers like Ray Charles (“Night Time Is the Right Time”) and Sam Cooke (“You Send Me”), and acknowledges contemporaries like Dionne Warwick (“Say A Little Prayer”), Don Covay (“See Saw”) and Sam & Dave (“I Take What I Want”). The Sam & Dave cover includes a clear and clever reference to “Sweet Inspiration,” the contemporaneous hit by the Sweet Inspirations, the vocalists who ably support Franklin throughout the album. (The group’s involvement tangles the family tree gets even further: the Sweet Inspirations included Warwick’s aunt Cissy Houston, whose young daughter Whitney was learning and listening at Franklin’s feet during these years.) Beyond song choices, the remarkable interplay between Franklin, the Sweet Inspirations and the expert crew of studio musicians helps demonstrate and deepen the dialogue. Here, the version of “See Saw” is particularly effective and illustrative. Franklin’s vocals stab alongside horns and guitars like the pain from raw nerves as she injects a steely resolve to Covay’s lyrics about a partner whose inconsistency makes them impossible to rely on.
Franklin turns the reckoning inward as well, particularly in the album’s compelling final songs. She returns to the theme and energy of “Think” on “A Change,” where she stands inside an instrumental whirlwind to insist that her lover stop playing games. Unlike Sam Cooke’s anthem, which she’d already recorded, Franklin isn’t so sure that a change is gonna come, but – particularly when emphasized on the chorus by the forceful accents of the Sweet Inspirations – she wants you to know that there will be consequences if it doesn’t. “If you don’t,” she promises, “this girl is gonna make you pay.” But the album’s closer, “I Can’t See Myself Leaving You,” complicates this assertive demand, as Franklin bluesily admits that she’ll stick by her flawed lover despite the fact that he isn’t changing, or thinking, and that her work will have to continue.
Like the album more generally, these songs suggest that this is less a decision to give up as a determination to get on. It’s a recognition of individual complicity and shared responsibility. It neither precludes the possibility of change nor assumes its inevitability. It foregrounds the importance of community while also insisting on the work it takes to make them meaningful. On Aretha Now, and in the fierce urgency of summer 1968, Aretha Franklin illustrates why all of these are necessary. Don’t be too late.
Check out my essay on Lady Soul, Franklin’s first masterpiece of 1968, released in January.