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Aretha Franklin Tag

Soul Serenade - Fontella BassIt can’t have been easy to be a female soul or R&B singer in the ’60s. You were automatically compared to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Talk about throwing shade! That’s a challenge that was almost impossible to rise to in those days. Hell, it’s still impossible today.

So what if you were a woman trying to make a career in those days, and your one hit record became known as the greatest Aretha Franklin record that Aretha never made. On the one hand, you could take it as a compliment. On the other, if you were seeking to establish your own identity as a performer, it had to be frustrating. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Fontella Bass.

Soul Serenade - Aretha FranklinHappy New Year!

In 1967, Aretha Franklin released “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)” on Atlantic Records. The song was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, with some help from Jerry Wexler, who also produced the single. The backing musicians included members of the legendary Swampers from Muscle Shoals — Spooner Oldham on keys, Tommy Cogbill on bass, guitarist Jimmy Johnson — along with King Curtis on sax, and backing vocals by the Sweet Inspirations and Aretha’s sisters Carolyn and Erma.

Soul Serenade - Donny HathawayIt’s a sad old world, isn’t it? Everywhere you look there’s violence and hatred, war and famine. But every once in awhile you hear a story that demonstrates the basic goodness of people, and it makes your heart soar because it gives you hope, and hope is an elusive thing these days. Just when you think love is lost, you look around at your family and friends and realize that love is not lost at all. It’s right there in your heart.

Don Covay left us recently. He left behind a splendid resume that reflected his work as a singer and songwriter. Covay never allowed himself to be pigeonholed into one genre or another. His music reached out to fans of soul, R&B, and rock and roll alike. In fact, one of the musicians that Covay worked with early on eventually became the most iconic guitarist in the history of rock and roll.

I’m going to Philadelphia tomorrow. It’s exciting for me, so exciting that I’m writing the column a day early so that I can go. I haven’t been there since I moved to Rhode Island, which is closing in on four years ago now, but since I’m spending this month in southern New Jersey, only an hour away from Philadelphia, it’s a no-brainer for me.

My love for Philadelphia goes back to my childhood in this area. I got to know a lot of Philly kids because Atlantic City was where they would come for their summer weekends. As I’ve said in this column several times before, it was those Philly kids who instilled in me the love for soul music that remains with me to this day. While the rest of the world was celebrating the British Invasion, and the psychedelic ’60s, the Philly kids were waving the banner for soul.

It’s that time of year again. Beginning on Friday, some of the world’s greatest musicians will descend on Newport for two of the longest running and most prestigious festivals in the world. This weekend the Newport Folk Festival is in town, and next weekend is the 60th (!) annual Newport Jazz Festival. I’ll be covering both for Popdose, so be on the lookout for those stories.

There are several artists playing the Folk Festival this year who I am excited about seeing. Chief among those is Mavis Staples. I’ve seen Mavis many times, including several appearances at the Folk Festival, but this year she will be closing out the festival on Sunday night. It is an honored spot, one that was often given to giants like the late Pete Seeger or Levon Helm in the past. I can think of no one more deserving than Mavis of a place on that stage at that time on Sunday.

Soul Serenade

Bobby Womack - Lookin' For A Love

Bobby Womack knows something about emotion. He’s been through a lot in his life, and he’s going through a lot right now. Bobby’s musical career began in the early ’50s when he joined his brothers in a gospel group that was called, reasonably, the Womack Brothers. He made the acquaintance of Sam Cooke in 1953 when Cooke was on the road with the Soul Stirrers, one of the top gospel acts of the day. When Cooke founded SAR Records, he signed the Womack Brothers, hoping they could cross over to the R&B charts. That idea didn’t play very well with Bobby’s father, Friendly Womack.

The Womack Brothers made some gospel records for SAR in the early ’60s before Cooke convinced them to rename themselves the Valentinos, and take a shot at R&B. Cooke’s intuition paid off as the Valentino’s first record, “Lookin’ For A Love,” became a Top Ten hit on the R&B charts.

And just like that, another AM Gold year is in our rear-view mirrors. But before we speed ahead to ’64 — the year that Beatlemania hit America — let’s fire up the old transistor radio and check out the final group of tunes from 1963.

(For those with Spotify accounts, you can subscribe to our Best of AM Gold playlist, which is updated regularly.)


Bobby Vinton, "Blue Velvet" #17: Bobby Vinton, “Blue Velvet” – Vinton’s 4th Top 20 hit and second #1. Held that spot for 3 weeks.

David Lifton – Ugh. As much as we’ve seen in this series that there was enough going on to suggest that rock n’ roll didn’t necessarily need The Beatles to save it, this is one of those songs that helped make that argument. And even though the conventional wisdom states that they blew music like this off the charts, Vinton continued to hit the Top 20 pretty regularly until 1972.

Jack Feerick – Another one that I imagine has, for many people, been ruined by the movies. For me, though, it is ruined only by its own mawkishness. Vinton milks the swooping melody for all it’s worth, and his trembles and sobs are way, way over the top. There’s some potential interest in the ambiguity of the lyric — did the girl leave him, or is she dead? — but where a song like “Paint It, Black” takes the same situation and injects it with real sorrow and anger, Vinton just wallows in sentiment and gooey backing vocals.

The double-time feel and syncopation in the rhythm section just add to the cognitive dissonance. Here’s this weepy ballad, and the band is treating it like a Louis Jordan jump blues — or an early ska number. Just damned odd.

Dw. Dunphy – I don’t love this song, but I don’t quite get the “meh” about it either. It’s just Vinton being Vinton, not fitting into the times. We’ll revisit that theme when “My Melody Of Love” shows up.

Jon Cummings – Bobby Vinton’s voice is what I sound like when I’m trying to make my daughter laugh. I find it hard to believe Vinton was being sincere when he told Fred Bronson he didn’t think this song would be a hit — it veritably SCREAMS “early-’60s adult contemporary.” Our prism for imagining that era may forever be tainted by David Lynch and “Dirty Dancing,” but I can’t hear this or “Roses Are Red (My Love)” without imagining a Catskills resort on its last legs, with a Rat Pack wannabe like Vinton crooning in the ballroom while the moms and dads slow-dance and the daughters sneak out back for a snog with Swayze. All of that said, these songs are Teflon resistant to critical snark, largely because of their ubiquity and that undeniable last line of the melody here — “And I still can see blue velvet through my tears.”


Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs, "Sugar Shack"#18: Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs, “Sugar Shack” – U.S. #1 for 5 weeks, also the last #1 R&B single until 1965, as Billboard suspended that chart.

Lifton – It’s a well-known fact that the sign outside Jeff Giles’ mom’s bedroom reads “Sugar Shack.” That’s about all I want to say about this song. I’d rather listen to Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters.

FeerickIf you see a faded sign by the side of the road, saying fifteen miles to the… well, no.

So let’s see if I’ve got this straight. A dude’s in love with a beatnik waitress, woos her by pretending to be into the hepcat scene, then marries her and takes her away from the whole deal, straight back to Squaresville. Yeah, that’s some song-factory hack’s idea of the Beat subculture, right there.

Listen, pal, it’s never a good idea to marry a girl figuring she’ll grow out of her artsy phase. Oh, it starts out fun, hanging around the hip places, pretending to be a bohemian, but you learn too late that she’s not pretending, and while all you really want to do is live in your house in the suburbs and make a decent living, good-naturedly complaining about the crushing conformity while inwardly enjoying it, she’s well on her way to becoming Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, staring wistfully out the window in a bloody diaper. It won’t end well, is what I’m saying.

With backing music by Arnold Ziffel and the Hooterville Junction Porkerina Ensemble.

Dunphy – I always imagined this song was sung by a sleazy, toothless carny. Gilmer’s delivery is replete with smarm.

Cummings – All the grousing here about the song’s themes and Gilmer’s smarminess is utterly moot, because if somebody was creating an aural dictionary and needed a definition for “instrumental hook,” he could simply plug in the organ riffs from “Sugar Shack” (created on a Hammond Solovox) and be done with it. Those riffs are so irresistible that they took this track to the top of the R&B chart, despite what a lily-white goober Gilmer was.

This morning were the preliminaries for the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee, with the semifinals and finals tomorrow. In honor of this occasion, we’re presenting a mixtape featuring songs that spell out the song title (or other words) in the lyrics. When I suggested this idea to my fellow Popdose compadres, I found out two things. Firstly, there are a lot more songs that work for this than I thought, and secondly, some of these songs are pretty filthy. (I’m looking at you, Wu Tang Clan!) I was originally going for spelled out song titles, but too many artists cheated on this. (Hall and Oates refusing to spell the word “modern,” the Ames Brothers spelling “Rag Mop” with two g’s and two p’s, even though Rag Mop isn’t that difficult to spell.) Note: this mixtape should be mostly safe for work, except for XTC’s “Your Dictionary,” which does have a couple of bad words. However, they get a free ride because, in the spirit of the mixtape, the bad words are spelled. Enjoy, and best of luck to all the spellers!


One year. It can seem like a long time, or it can fly by almost unnoticed. In the grand scheme of things, it’s barely a speck in time. The last year has included a bit of all these things for me.

When I began writing the Soul Serenade column for Popdose, exactly one year ago, I was still living in NJ. Though New England was certainly exerting its pull on me, the thought of leaving the state where I had spent my entire life was not yet a part of the overall equation.

Soul Serenade

Dusty Springfield - Just A Little Lovin'Before I begin, for any of you that are using rdio, I have started putting together a fairly extensive playlist that will serve as something of a companion to this column. Some of the songs have appeared here, others will appear in the future, and some are just songs that I like. If you’re interested, you can check it out at Soul Serenade on rdio.

By 1968, Dusty Springfield was dissatisfied with her career. Though she’d had a number of hits, she found herself relegated to the British touring circuit, which meant playing a lot of hotels and cabarets. In an effort to kickstart her career she signed with Atlantic Records, largely because it was the label of Aretha Franklin.

A dream team was assembled, material was chosen, and American Studios in Memphis was booked. Among the cast were producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, and engineer Tom Dowd. Material for the album came from a who’s who of songwriters. In the case of “Just A Little Lovin’ (Early In the Mornin’)”, the songwriters were Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who had hits with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” among many, many others. The musicians were the Memphis Cats, led by Reggie Young and Tommy Cogbill, who knew a thing or two about hit making themselves. Clearly failure was not an option on this project.

Aretha Franklin - Until You Come Back To Me (That's What I'm Gonna Do)On December 8, a day that was already sad enough by virtue of being the 30th anniversary of the death of John Lennon, we got the terrible news that the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, is suffering from cancer. The news was closely followed by commentary from the Perfect People. Those are the people who felt it necessary to express their sadness while at the same time commenting that it was not unexpected given that Aretha is overweight. Fuck them. In these hard times, when we are all feeling the pressure of nearly overwhelming problems in this world, Aretha Franklin remains a brilliant light in the darkness. Please keep her in your thoughts and prayers.

Soul Serenade

Al WilsonLaura NyroThe DelfonicsThe Four Tops

When I began writing the weekly Soul Serenade column for Popdose six months ago, my aim was to share some of my favorite soul records with you. Writing this column about the music I love has brought me more joy than any other writing that I do. The other benefit for me is that I’ve learned an awful lot about the music while researching each record. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this as much as I have, and I look forward to continuing to provide the best in soul music to you each week. There are a lot more records to go.

To celebrate the half-year anniversary of Soul Serenade, I have created an Anniversary MegaMix for you. It’s a 155 mb zip file that contains all 31 songs that have been featured during the first six months of the column. There are 31 songs because several columns featured more than one song. Here’s a complete list: