Even pop’s most exalted voices cannot maintain that status on blinding talent alone: They need hits. Or at the very least, songs that sound like hits, and an audience who agrees that they sound like hits.
By the beginning of the ‘70s, Aretha Franklin had essentially become the unified champion of gospel, pop and R&B, a status that became increasingly difficult to maintain as the decade advanced. Collaborations that seemed dynamite on paper — star soul peer Curtis Mayfield on Sparkle and Almighty Fire, gold-spinning writer-producer Lamont Dozier on Sweet Passion, industry legend Quincy Jones on Hey Now Hey — failed to generate the level of excitement to which Franklin was accustomed. Even her work with longtime producer Jerry Wexler experienced diminished returns. It was Wexler with whom Franklin first worked when she signed with Atlantic, the label that diverted her from Columbia’s repertoire of jazz and heavily orchestrated pop to world-shaking soul. As the ’80s approached, Franklin knew another move was needed.
One evening in 1980, she invited Arista founder Clive Davis for dinner at her Los Angeles home, where they discussed the possibility of her joining his label. The conversation was good and the ideas were intriguing, so she made the jump. Though an album was planned for the fall, the public’s first glimpse of post-Atlantic Aretha came in the summer, courtesy of her showcase in cult comedy The Blues Brothers. The studio’s concerns about the bankability of the featured performers proved unfounded, and Franklin got to boost her profile in advance of the Aretha album.
The record didn’t light up the charts, but in eschewing revivalism, she set the tone for efforts to follow. (The one major exception is a disco version of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” the unofficial Blues Brothers theme.) “United Together” is a massive quiet stormer in the vein of songwriter/producer Chuck Jackson’s work with Natalie Cole, and though she didn’t quite wrest “What a Fool Believes” from original singer Michael McDonald, it was a decent harbinger of bouncy hits to come.
Aretha’s co-producer Arif Mardin took sole responsibility for 1981’s Love All the Hurt Away, which repeated a trick (slotting a Stax cover second) to better effect: Franklin’s five-minute boogie turn on Sam & Dave’s “Hold On I’m Comin’” won a Grammy for best R&B vocal performance, female. But the singles stiffed: not even the lush title track, a duet with white-hot singer/guitarist George Benson, could crack the Hot 100’s top 40.
The next year, though, she made some headway with a newer star: Luther Vandross. The in-demand singer and producer fancied himself an “Arethacologist,” and though Jump to It retains his sonic trademarks — that popping bass, those untroubled, still-water arrangements — they’re present to serve Franklin. At Vandross’ suggestion, she explored the alto portion of her vast range, digging deep into the material on offer. Reviews were good, sales were brisk, and the Vandross/Marcus Miller-penned title cut (delightfully framed as a call between girlfriends) provided her first top 30 hit since 1976’s “Something He Can Feel”.
So they ran it back. 1983’s Get It Right once again framed Franklin in supportive, stately grooves: the otherworldly backing vocals of “Pretender” during Aretha’s rap (in an earlier sense of the term) is a highlight, and Aretha inhabits the wistful “Better Friends Than Lovers” with a lifetime’s worth of experience. The synth-funk boogie of “Get It Right” earned her a No. 1 R&B hit, but the album as a whole underperformed. Though 1984 was the first year since 1971 without a new Aretha studio set, she was busy both professionally and personally. Her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, died in June after five years in a coma. Along with tending to the Reverend, Aretha had spent the first half of year deep in preparation for her next artistic challenge: playing gospel luminary Mahalia Jackson on Broadway.
Sing, Mahalia, Sing was set to open in July, but Aretha, afraid to fly, could not attend the New York rehearsals, and the production came to a halt. (A court would find her liable for pre-production costs.) Meanwhile, Franklin was listening to the radio and dreaming about a record that everyone would hear. It’s possible that she happened upon a minor synth-pop hit by Scritti Politti: It was produced by her old collaborator Mardin, and it was titled “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).”
In a sense, what Aretha did on Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (named for a bit of New York slang she picked up years before) was a precursor to the blueprint Clive Davis used for Santana’s global smash Supernatural. To reach newer generations, Franklin tabbed a number of contemporary rock and pop performers: Eurythmics popped up on the anthemic “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” and J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf appeared on “Push”. On the former, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench provided organ; on the latter, the guitar solo was played by… Carlos Santana. And on lead single “Freeway of Love,” E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons goosed the proceedings.
“Freeway” was her biggest hit in a decade, topping the R&B Songs chart for five weeks and reaching No. 3 on the Hot 100. When the midtempo vocal treasure chest “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” reached No. 9 in November, it marked the first time Aretha had two Top 10 singles from the same album since 1972’s Young, Gifted & Black. (A personal favorite, the synth-spangled soul ballad “Until You Say You Love Me,” was not released as a single.)
Who’s Zoomin’ Who? went platinum before 1985 ended; the next year, Franklin won another best R&B vocal performance Grammy for “Freeway of Love”. It was a triumph for both her and producer Narada Michael Walden, and the two quickly reconvened for a follow-up. Like her second LP with Luther Vandross, 1986’s Aretha hewed to the preceding album’s formula. Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood assisted on her “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” cover (the title track to the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle); on the synthway of “Jimmy Lee,” the part of Clarence Clemons was played by Kenny G. The big get, though, was George Michael, who had suggested the idea of a duet to Davis. Aretha didn’t know who Michael was initially, but they meshed: “I Knew You Were Were Waiting (For Me)” was a No. 1 hit across the globe. It was also, remarkably, just Franklin’s second Hot 100 chart-topper, after “Respect”.
Her pop credentials renewed, Franklin moved to eternal concerns. In the summer of ‘87, she recorded a series of performances at Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist, the church her father led for over three decades. Produced by Franklin and released at the end of 1987, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism is a fantastic document — not the scorcher that, say, Amazing Grace was, but what is? Here, she’s joined by her sisters Carolyn and Erma, as well as Mavis Staples: the interplay between Aretha and Mavis on “Oh Happy Day” is itself practically worth the sticker price. Though the double album represented a sales dip, it was a fine capper to a year that began with Franklin’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the first woman to be so honored. (She skipped the ceremony.)
Aretha’s last pop record of the decade, 1989’s Through the Storm, is one of those albums that sounds bigger than it was. Walden returned to the boards, and so did the formula: fully half of the album’s eight tracks are duets. The songwriting team of Albert Hammond and Diane Warren penned the biggest hits, both duets. The menacing pop-funk of “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” — featuring Whitney Houston, one of the only singers capable of going toe-to-toe with Franklin — is a sharper take on “Sisters,” and the Elton John feature “Through the Storm” is a rollicking slice of adult contemporary. The main selling point of “If Ever a Love There Was” is the chance to hear the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs in fine form, while leadoff cut “Gimme Your Love” is mostly an excuse for Aretha and James Brown to goof around on brittle Prince-style synthfunk. (The Artist himself contributed a remix for the single.) For all the star power, only the title track hit the Hot 100’s top 20, and Through the Storm stalled at No. 55 on the album chart.
With the obvious concession that her ‘80s output didn’t consistently reach the heights of her imperial phase, it was still a successful era for Franklin. Though Aretha began the decade inhabiting past triumphs, she revisited old glories sparingly. (There would be no collection from the Great American Songbook — she had already done that at Columbia.) Instead, she enlisted top young producers and songwriters to match contemporary sounds with her vocal power and facility. The reward for this was renewed chart success, but also a renewal of respect for one of America’s brightest musical lights. The Queen had extended her reign.