If you were ask anyone who loves soul music to name some of the greatest female vocalists, the name Aretha Franklin wouldn’t be far from their lips. Over a recording career that has spanned fifty-five years, starting back in 1956, when aged fourteen, she released her debut album Songs of Faith, a gospel album, until her most recent album, 2011‘s Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love, Aretha has been one of the biggest names in soul music. During her career, she has won eighteen Grammy Awards, had twenty R&B number one singles, with ten of her albums topping the R&B Charts. During her career, she has recorded many memorable and important albums, with the albums she recorded for Atlantic Records between 1967 and 1972, among her best work. This includes I Never Loved A Man Like I Loved You, Aretha Now, Soul ’69, Young Gifted and Black and the album this article is about, Lady Soul. These album feature some of the best music Aretha ever recorded, and each of these albums were produced by Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer. Wexler also produced Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Dusty Springfield during his long and illustrious career. 

However, when Aretha entered the Atlantic recording studios in New York, in January 1967, Jerry Wexler had assembled a band that featured some of the most talented musicians in America. On Lady Soul, Spooner Oldham played organ, Bobby Womack guitar and King Curtis tenor saxophone while the Sweet Inspirations sang backing vocals. It truly was an all-star line up, and as if that wasn’t enough, songs by Ray Charles, Don Covay, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown all can be found on the album. One of the best known and hugely successful songs, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, was written by Gerry Goffin, Carol King and Jerry Wexler and gave Aretha a huge hit, reaching number eight in the Pop charts. When the album was released in January 1968, it reached number one in the Black Albums Charts, number two in the Pop Charts and number three in the Jazz Albums’ Charts. Since the album was released, it has been recognized as one of the most important albums in the history of popular music. Rolling Stone magazine put Lady Soul at number eighty-four in their list of the 500 most important albums of all time. Why I hear you ask, is this such an important album? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Lady Soul opens with Chain of Fools, which was released as a single, reaching number two in the pop charts. Since this track was recorded, it’s been a track that’s been synonymous with Aretha, becoming one of her best known, and best loved tracks. It has that familiar opening with a brief burst of guitar, before Aretha, accompanied by The Sweet Inspirations sings. Her voice is hugely powerful, laden in emotion, as she sings about a woman who has been mistreated by her partner. As Aretha sings the vocal, the backing vocalists sweetly and soulfully accompany her. Meanwhile, her band produce an equally memorable arrangement, with the rhythm section and guitars driving the song along. Drums sit at the front of the mix, and along with Tommy Cogbill on bass provide the track’s heartbeat, while guitars chime. However, it’s Aretha her outstanding and emotion ridden and soulful vocal that steals the show. Little did she know when she recorded this track, that it would become one of her most famous tracks, a true timeless classic.

James Brown and Nat Jones cowrote Money Won’t Change You, a track which opens dramatically with guitars and drums combining before Aretha’s vocal bursts powerfully into life. Like on Chain of Fools, her vocal is a mixture of controlled power and emotion.The tempo is quick, and the arrangement grows to include the rhythm and brass sections and guitars who together, create a relentless driving sound. Horns blaze, drums pound while guitars soar and chime. Backing vocalists accompany Aretha, their soulful interjections a contrast to Aretha’s powerful, emotive, soaring vocal. Here, she demonstrates how dynamic a vocalist she is, one with a good vocal range and great control over her voice. A combination of a powerful, driving arrangement and a passionate vocal, full of sincerity and emotion as she sings that money won’t change her, make this another great track from Aretha.

When you mention the song People Get Ready to most people, they associate Curtis Mayfield with the song, either as a solo artist or with The Impressions. Over the years, it has been covered by many artists, with some great covers, while other are merely good or indifferent. However, when Aretha recorded the track for her album Lady Soul, she recorded one of the best versions you’ll ever hear. Her version is soulful with a capital S. It’s a track ridden with emotion, thoughtfully and beautifully delivered by her. As the track opens, Aretha accompanied by The Sweet Inspirations, brass section and piano delivers those familiar, beautiful lyrics. When the rhythm section and guitars enter, the track gets even better, with Aretha giving the track a gorgeous gospel sound and feel. Her delivery of the track is just stunning, made all the better by the backing vocalists accompanying her. Here, Jerry Wexler’s crack band of musicians produce one of their best performances on the album. They play brilliantly, bringing the song to life, and in the process, bringing out the meaning in the almost spiritual lyrics. By the end of the track, you feel privileged to have heard such a beautiful song, such with such emotion and feeling. Truly, this is one of the best versions of the song I’ve heard, stunning.

After such a beautiful, almost spiritual song as People Get Ready, Niki Hoeky is a very different track. It opens with horns blazing, a fast accurate bass , pounding drums and soaring, chiming guitars. The track is driven along by the rhythm section before Aretha sings, giving an atmospheric and dramatic rendition of the lyrics, accompanied by The Sweet Inspirations. Their short, soulful interjections provide a contrast to Aretha’s vocal, which is high, and quick. Her voice soars heavenwards as she brings life into the lyrics about a woman whose partner is in prison. This is a very different track the previous ones. Although the tempo is really quick, the arrangement fulsome and as usual, Aretha’s vocal dramatic and emotive, the lyrics aren’t quite as good as the previous tracks. They’re good but not great. However, given that they’re having to follow truly great songs like Chain of Fools and People Get Ready, maybe that’s understandable. 

Probably the most famous track from Lady Soul is (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, another track that Aretha made her own. Regardless of whoever else has covered this track, the definitive version of the song was recorded by Aretha. This to me, is one of her finest ever recordings. As the track opens, Spooner Oldham plays piano, before Aretha starts to sing what was, a career defining song. Her voice is strong, laden in emotion and feeling, as she delivers the lyrics. The Sweet Inspirations, short soulful interjections, punctuate the track, while strings sweep grandly, and a strong, slow bass line plays. Throughout the track, the piano accompanies Aretha, who seems to be giving the performance of a lifetime. It’s a delivery that’s a mixture of passion and emotion that results in one of the most heart-achingly beautiful songs in the history of soul music. Whether she or Jerry Wexler realized the importance of the song in 1967, when it was recorded, we’ll never know. What we do know, is it’s a timeless, classic.

Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby) was the first track on side two of the original album. This was the first of two songs Aretha cowrote with Ted White, the other being the next track, Good To Me As I Am To You. What I’ve always thought strange about Lady Soul, is that side one had three of the best songs on the album. To me, it seemed side one was almost front loaded with top quality songs. Having said that, side two features some great music too. This track opens quickly, drums crashing and guitars soaring, before Aretha’s vocal enters, with bass, piano and horns accompanying her. Quickly, an arrangement that has a fulsome, sometimes joyous sound unfolds. Aretha gives a performance that’s powerful, her vocal soaring emotively, while The Sweet Inspirations backing vocals are gospel influenced. This adds a joyousness to the arrangement, albeit the lyrics are sad, a woman singing about her man leaving her. Meanwhile, the band give a performance that’s the equal of Aretha’s, a sterling combination of raw power combined with emotion and passion. 

The previous track, Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby) demonstrated that Aretha, as well as being a talented singer and pianist, was also a talented songwriter. Along with Ted White, she cowrote Good To Me As I Am To You, a track that has a much subtler and quiet opening than the previous track. It’s just piano and guitar that combine before Aretha sings. This subtle backdrop suits the song, with Aretha’s voice taking centre-stage. Quickly, the arrangement grows, with the rhythm and brass sections joining, as Aretha’s vocal increases in drama, power and emotion. Likewise, the horns, drums and piano add drama to the track, attempting to match a hugely powerful, yet controlled vocal from Aretha. As she sings, he voice is passionate, but she’s almost warning her man, you’d better be good to me. By now, she’s almost bawling the lyrics, accompanied by soaring, screaming guitars and throwing in the odd whoop and holler for good measure. As the track ends, you can only admire Aretha’s controlled power, and almost aggressive vocal. She can bring a song to life, inject meaning and feeling, that other vocalists fail to do. During the track, her vocal, like the arrangement, is laden in drama, as she sings some excellent lyrics. Like I said earlier, side two has some great music on it, including this track.

Blazing horns open Come Back Baby track that has a really quick tempo, driven along by a melange of rhythm section, guitars and organ. The Sweet Inspirations live up to their name, with their sweet and soulful interjections helping inspire Aretha to deliver another stupendous slice of Southern Soul. Her voice is quick, soulful, rising and falling, a combination of restrained power and joyous emotion. Likewise, the arrangement has a joyous sound, with horns blazing, chiming and soaring, guitars played by Jimmy Johnson and Bobby Womack and a powerful rhythm section, that drive the song along. They seem to take their lead from Aretha’s quick, emotive and joyful vocal, matching her every step of the way. Between them, they do Ray Charles, who wrote this song proud. He would’ve been proud of this fantastic interpretation of one of his best known songs.

Groovin’ is a song made by the Young Rascals, who for me, recorded the definitive version of this song. However, here Aretha gives her own interpretation of the track. It begins with the rhythm section, organ and guitars combining brightly and melodically as Aretha sings. The song is slowed down, given a Southern Soul sound, with Spooner Oldham atmospherically playing organ, and The Sweet Inspirations adding gentle, subtle backing vocals. Aretha gives a much more gentle, restrained, but still hugely soulful vocal. Behind her, a beautiful arrangement is unfolding, with Spooner Oldham playing a huge part, while chiming guitars and a more restrained contribution from the rhythm section combine masterfully. Together with Aretha’s thoughtful and soulful vocal, this is one of the best versions of this song I’ve ever heard. Although not quite as good as the Young Rascals version, it’s not far off it.

Lady Soul closes with Ain’t No Way, a song written by Carolyn Franklin. It opens with piano, slow sultry horns and drums playing, before Aretha’s vocal enters. It’s hugely emotional, thoughtful and drenched in horns, with Cissy Houston contributing vocal obbligato. The Sweet Inspirations gently sing backing vocals, while rasping horns punctuate the track, and strings sweep lushly. By now the arrangement has a grand but soulful sound, with Aretha’s voice soaring emotionally and powerfully heavenwards. Behind her, one of the best arrangements on the album unfolds, one that contributes elements of a big band sound with the best soul music has to offer. This is potent and beautiful mixture, made all the better by Aretha’s brilliant vocal and a stunning contribution from Cissy Houston. It’s the perfect way to end what has been one of the best albums Aretha Franklin ever recorded.

I’ve long been a fan of Aretha Franklin and her music, and nowadays, when people draw comparisons with the younger, modern singers of today, I find this quite simply ridiculous. Their music is neither a match for Aretha’s, nor that of Candi Staton, Ann Peebles, or the older jazz singers like Billie Holliday and Nina Simone. The nearest they come to the greats, is singing about them. During Aretha’s long and illustrious career she has recored many great albums. However, like many people, it’s the music that she recorded between 1967 and 1972, for Atlantic Records that I like the most. Lady Soul was one of these albums, and featured two songs that Aretha made her own, Chain of Fools and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Both songs are synonymous with Aretha, becoming two of her best known, and best loved tracks. She recorded the definitive version of both tracks, and on Lady Soul gave great interpretations of People Get Ready and Come Back Baby, tracks by Curtis Mayfield and Ray Charles. On Lady Soul, Aretha demonstrated her talents as a songwriter, co-writing two tracks with Ted White, Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby) and Good To Me As I Am To You, both of which are well written, and beautifully delivered by Aretha. If you’ve never heard Lady Soul, it’s an album that belongs in every record collection. It features Aretha Franklin at her very best. To me, it’s the perfect introduction to the career of one of the greatest female soul singers of all time. Standout Tracks: Chain of Fools, People Get Ready, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and Ain’t No Way.


Lady Soul

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