ARETHA FRANKLIN (1942-2018): PART 2 — MY TOP 12 FAVORITES

Now, let me share my Top 12 favorite Aretha Franklin songs.

12.  “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” (1986).  These days the 1980s production sheen and slightly leaden pace (compared to the sprightly Rolling Stones‘ original) make this number sound dated, but at the time when I first heard this song, I was enthralled.  It was used for a forgettable Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name and I was hoping for this to be another big Top Ten hit for Aretha, but well, it only went as far as number 21 in the Billboard Hot 100.  The music video was the first time I saw Aretha’s piano-playing prowess–most articles I read wax rhapsodic about her vocal skills that I didn’t know she also has that skill in her arsenal, too.

11.  “I Say A Little Prayer” (1968).  This is the flip side to “The House That Jack Built” that also became a hit in its own right.  Yes, it’s a cover of Dionne Warwick‘s original*1 but Aretha’s slowed down soul treatment does make indelible impact.  I have a feeling these days more people are playing this version than Dionne’s.

*1 Composer Burt Bacharach complained that the tempo on Dionne’s recording was too brisk and was reluctant to have her version released, but the record company overruled him.  At the time, people did love the brisk version, but most versions recorded after that featured a slower pace, closer to Aretha’s tempo than Dionne’s.

10.  “Spanish Harlem” (1971).  The vocal intro I first heard it on En Vogue‘s 1992 Funky Divas track “Hip Hop Lover“so I was pleasantly shocked that this is where that vocal riff came from, a cover of Ben E. King‘s 1960 original.  It also caused me to internally debate which version was better, En Vogue’s well-produced and slick version (where they turned the “la las” to “na nas”, or the slightly raw harmonies delivered on this recording.  I continue to vacillate up to this day.  Another En Vogue note–on the same album they also covered two Aretha songs from the soundtrack album to the 1976 film, Sparkle, “Something He Can Feel” (which they retitled by adding “Giving Him...” to the original title) and “Hooked on Your Love“.The former even became a Top 10 hit for the group, with a music video that evoke the scene from the film.

Now speaking of Ben E. King’s original:  to these ears it sounded milquetoast and lounge-y–though Phil Spector‘s lauded production featured marimba percussion that will still evoke the image of a señorita, albeit a señorita standing demurely hidden by a fan.  Aretha’s version gave me visions of a señorita flouncing her voluminous skirt around with that breathier rhythm, and for me that evokes more authentically Latin than the original.  But then again, I suppose we have to understand the morals and ethos of the eras those versions were recorded.

9. I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me) (1987) [with George Michael].  Two of the best vocalists in popular music of all time together in one song?  That alone is worth the price of admission, even if the song itself (and its production) didn’t quite age well to become an unqualified classic.  Still, there is a lot to enjoy listening to this epic duet.

8. Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves (1985) [with Eurythmics].  Feminist empowerment anthems don’t get as epic as this one, with Aretha and Annie Lennox at the top of their games.  And it still sounds powerful and relevant today as it did over 30 years ago.  And I highly recommend everyone listen to the extended album version found on Aretha’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who and Eurythmics’ Be Yourself Tonight as the closing extended vamp and ad libs they deliver are a treat.

7. Spirit in the Dark (1970).  This gospel tune was the big revelation for me when I purchased that 30 Greatest Hits double cassette.  The way the song transitions from a slow jam then going funky and then ends into a full-gospel rave-up.  With lines like “I saw Sally Walker…”, it also slyly reveals the “human” side of spiritual gatherings, as I know church gatherings could sometimes be places where you gossip.  For that this song has remained embedded in my head.

I also unearthed a video from her epic 1971 Filmore West concert where she turned the song into a 15-minute extended jam (actually it’s more of repeating the song so she can have Ray Charles duet with her after she performed it first).  Check out the epic moment.

6.  Think (1968).  This is your quintessentially sassy R&B number, brimming with attitude and power.  The rhythmic groove and Aretha bellowing “Freedom!  Freedom! Freedom!  Oh, Freedom!” are indelible.  Aretha has a deep fondness for this number as this is probably the most successful single that she actually wrote (with her first husband), hence earning hose crucial songwriting royalties.  And the rhythmic hook was prominently sampled/interpolated in C+C Music Factory’s 1991 gem “Things that Make You Go Hmmm…” (along with a homage to “Respect” at the breakdown portion), and George Michael might have had this song in mind when he crafted that chorus on his now-classic hit “Freedom ’90“.

At the end of the 1970s, Aretha was dropped by Atlantic Records after her streak of hits dried out.  It took her cameo appearance in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers reprising the aforementioned song to claw her way back and secure a recording contract with Arista.  Both the original and the Blues Brothers versions I would highly recommend.  What about her 1989 re-recording?  For me that version does not age well and would rather stick to the older versions.

5. Chain of Fools (1967).  I forgot to mention that a key factor that make “Think” a classic was that it also has a political resonance beyond the song’s purported subject matter–during the Vietnam War, that song expresses the pleas of the American public towards politicians about deploying soldiers to Vietnam, and may also evoke significance in today’s political milieu with the choices of politicians that are currently running that country (and other countries for that matter). That political resonance is actually even more pronounced in this song, as this is deemed one of the anthems for Vietnam War veterans expressing what they felt being on the battleground, or what they felt about the politicians who sent them there.  And again, this song is relevant today because of the state of politics in the US (and yes, in other countries, too).

4. Until You Come Back To me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do) (1973).  I actually first heard of this song via the dance version delivered by Basia in 1990, which despite its obvious 1990s beats still sounds great to my ears.  The “rap on your door, tap on your windowpane” line also reminded me of a catchy commercial jingle for Electrolux (then Euroclean, but modified when the entity became Electrolux), which was one of my indelible memories of childhood.  I wondered if that catchy jingle was inspired by this song.  As it turns out, no–the jingle was directly lifting from an earlier song called “I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door“, originally recorded by the Isley Brothers in 1959 but made popular by then adolescent star Eddie Hodges two years later.  It made me then ponder:  perhaps songwriter Stevie Wonder had either the Isley Brothers or Eddie Hodges song in mind when he came up with this lovelorn masterpiece.

Let me tell a personal note related to this song–Basia happens to be one of the favorite artists of my aforementioned dearest friend and we had an acrimonious falling out (my fault) 23 years ago.  I don’t regret having to let this guy go, as it was more important that I be truthful to who I am instead of conforming to what society (and my dearest friend’s conservative faith) dictates.  Still, I missed him dearly and when I hear this song (which I was surprised is more of a slower pace as I was more accustomed to Basia’s danceable version), it made me wistful at his memory.  There is somewhat of a happy coda to this story–one of Facebook’s functions is that it sometimes nudge you to add some people in your friend list, and a few years ago, this guy popped up.  I didn’t dare add him, but I was surprised when last year, I had a friend request from him.  I know “Facebook Friends” doesn’t really have that much value or meaning as real-life friends, but this seems to be a good start–maybe he forgot about our falling out and this is reflective of his very forgiving nature.  I also have a feeling he doesn’t read my blog and would probably be not aware that I’m writing this piece about him.  If that’s the case, let this be a little secret between you, the reader, and me.

3.  (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (1967).  Reviewing the chart history of this Carole King–written song and how this has become  Aretha’s biggest signature song behind “Respect”, I was surprised that in its regular chart run it only peaked at No. 8 and stayed in the entire Hot 100 for a short 8 weeks.  Goes to show chart performance is not a good indicator of what makes a song a classic.

Like many of the songs, I did not first encounter this song directly from Aretha Franklin’s recording.  Instead, I first heard this classic via the sitcom Murphy Brown starring Candice Bergen.  In my younger days, we get many quality US TV shows tapping on UHF from the US Armed Forces Network (as in those days, the US maintained military bases in Clark and Subic and their TV signals reach Metro Manila).  The pilot episode was a classic partly because of that famous scene where Murphy let her hair down at home and sang along to this song.  That scene resonates as Murphy is like everyone of us who would like to sing out our favorite songs, even if we don’t have the ability to sing.  This song is also prominently featured in this searies at least twice later on–one, as a lullaby after Murphy famously gave birth to her son, and the other that has a guest appearance from the Queen of Soul herself, which I also featured below.

2.  Respect (1967).  Just like “Think” and “Chain of Fools”, this song has a resonance beyond its domestic theme–in this case, it also became somewhat of a feminist anthem, a message of empowerment for women to demand they be treated with more respect by the society at large.  It still resonates to this day as injustice and inequality against women still exist to this day.  I would also like to also use this moment to also note the way Aretha has a knack for covering songs and making it her own–this song is actually a cover version of Otis Redding‘s 1966 original, a minor Top 40 hit then.  Aretha’s twist on this song is to add an instrumental sax solo bridge lifted from the chords of Sam & Dave‘s “When Something is Wrong with My Baby“, and adding the spelling out of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and those “Ree-ree-ree” and “Sock-it-to-me” lines from her backup vocalists.  With this and other covers like “Spanish Harlem” and “I Say a Little Prayer” Aretha is proven a master of inventively covering a song and making it her own, way before we were treated to the awesome song reinventions made by American Idol Season 7 winner David Cook, Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox and a capella superstars Pentatonix.  In some ways, these greats need to bow in homage to the Queen.

1. Rock Steady (1971).  As terrific and iconic as “Respect” and “Natural Woman” are, my all-time favorite Aretha song is neither of them but this utterly funky 1971 jam.  I love funk music, and the groove of this song delivers the funk in spades.  The instrumental breakdowns, I realized just lately, are speeded up versions of the groove used on “The House that Jack Built”–perhaps that subliminally played a part on why I adore this song.  And finally Aretha going gale force tornado on her vocals–an added feather to her reputation as a force-of-nature vocalist.  If there is any song hat would guarantee me to hit the dancefloor (mind you, this is not actually that difficult), this song is one of your guarantees that I shall be compelled to dance.  I just enjoyed this slice of funk every time I hear it and it never fails to hook me to this day.  So what if like “Natural Woman” it peaked at a lowly No. 9 and also had a very abbreviated chart life?

I just have to share this footage of Aretha at Flip Wilson‘s variety show.  First, though I sense Aretha was intending to project Afro-realness in her gold outfit, for me it evoked a Thai princess vibe.  But what made an indelible vision was one of the backup singers–check out the girl with the Afro-puff hairdo–doesn’t the look evoke Star Wars’ Princess Leia?  I wonder if somebody working for George Lucas was watching this and was inspired to dress the late Carrie Fisher up that way based on the look of that backup singer.

It turns out I’m not the only one who has a fondness for this song.  Japanese pop idol and icon Namie Amuro released a three-track-single packaged as “60s 70s 80s” where she recorded Japanese versions of iconic songs from that era.  For the 1960s, she covered the Supremes‘ “Baby Love, retitling it as “New Look“.  For the 1980s, she took on Irene Cara‘s “Flashdance (What A Feeling)“, dropping the Flashdance (and the verses) and leaving only the chorus and the subtitle as the main title.  For the 1970s, guess what she chose?  No way Namie’s vocal ability could approach Aretha’s ability, but still it’s an enjoyable effort..

It’s a nice trip down memory lane for me to pay homage to the Queen of Soul.  Her music will live on forever.

JUST ME!

JOSEPH

 

ARETHA FRANKLIN (1942-2016): PART 1 — PERSONAL REMINISCES

Last 16th of August, a big music legend departed from this realm as Aretha Franklin finally succumbed to a lingering illness that her family finally disclosed as pancreatic cancer.  Like many people around the world, Aretha did loom large in my life, but how I got to encounter and relish her music was a journey in itself.  Let me explain…

As I’ve become awakened in my second year of high school and became obsessed with popular music, I learned about the legend of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.  I’ve read in various music magazines like Jingle chordbook magazine and Rolling Stone waxing rhapsodic about her vocal prowess and her legendary catalogue of songs.  But I personally have not listened to any of them in full, as she was not played on radio at the time and at most I saw a snipped of her smash hit “Respect” on TV.  The first full song I’ve ever heard from her was her 1985 comeback hit “Freeway of Love“, her first Top Ten hit in 11 years.  Admittedly it took a bit for me to enjoy her voice, but the song has an engaging groove that is also contemporary for its time.  She followed this up with a slew of mainstream hits, including duets with the likes of Eurythmics, Elton John, Whitney Houston, and most especially her international number one smash with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)“.

Still, I haven’t been able to listen to Aretha’s classic oeuvre, as they were not readily available in any of our local record stores at the time.  The first time I directly heard a 1960’s era Aretha song (unlike hearing it blasting incidentally on a TV show–more on that later) was during a stormy day in college when I was stranded and had to sleep over at the house of my dearest friend–who is the unrequited love of my life.  He lived in a house that was across the Ateneo campus so I knocked on his gate and explained that I was stranded and couldn’t go home so he took me in.  Before we turned in for the night, I checked on my friend’s 45 RPM vinyl singles rack and saw he has Aretha’s “The House that Jack Built“.  Since I still want to learn what all the fuss about Aretha was all about, I begged him to play the record and he obliged.   I liked what I heard then, but my friend was not that impressed, as his taste tends to lean more towards smooth jazz, jazz-pop, and oddly enough, Rick Springfield.  We only heard the A-side, without realizing the more popular hit (especially in these shores) was actually the B-side.  Wonder if he’ll be dismissiveof the other song, too.  Anyway, I like this song more and more in the subsequent years I listened to it, not merely because of the memories this song evokes, but because it recently dawned on me that the groove of this recording formed the basis of my all-time favorite Aretha song–more on that on the next part of my essay.

NOTE:  I wanted to post the Aretha recording from YouTube, but it seems there is a copyright claim by “Kayo Corporation: (whoever that is) that it cannot be shared or posted there–at least it seems Vimeo still allows it and so this amateur dance video set to the song would have to do…

As the early 1990s rolled in and I began to go to work, Aretha’s hitmaking streak trickled down.  I still collect casette tapes and CDs in earnest at the time and one day I landed upon Greenhills and discovered a bootleg double-casette tape of Aretha Franklin’s 30 Greatest Hits.  It was sold at a slight premium from regular casettes at the time (even if it was a bootleg) but I didn’t hesitate since I want to finally listen to all those legendary hits she had, and that purchase was worth it.  I finally got to hear her signature songs in all their glory, along with other gems like “I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You“, “Baby I Love You“, “Sweet Sweet Baby (Since You’ve Been Gone)“, “Call Me“, “Don’t Play That Song“, “Angel“, and the collection closer “I’m In Love” along with her staggering reinterpretations of the Beatles‘ “Eleanor Rigby” and Simon & Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water“.  Needless to say, when I was able to afford a CD player I also bought the double CD later on and it was one of my favorites in my music collection.

Even if her peak hitmaking days were way behind her, you can almost always count on Aretha to deliver headline-worthy moments in her special appearances.  For instance, there was the 1998 Grammys when she subbed for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti and performed the aria “Nessun Dorma” from the opera Turandot

… and when she performed at Barack Obama‘s first inauguration with the patriotic hymn “America, My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and generating headlines for that elaborate hat she wore.

Like most of the greatest artists, as a person Aretha has character flaws, like her clashes with rivals like Dionne Warwick and Patti Labelle, amongst others, her occasional temperamental bouts, and lurid tales revealed by David Ritz in his unauthorized biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin but those tales seemed to enrich her legend instead of diminish it.  In her latter years she has had some health issues–though when alive Aretha preferred to keep it hidden, you do catch a hint that her weight loss is not a “healthy” weight loss but may indicate something serious.  Hearing stories in her final days that she dropped to a gaunt 86 pounds, it does make a lot of sense when it’s finally disclosed it was caused by pancreatic cancer, as we witnessed the late Patrick Swayze undergoing the same thing.  Anyway, I would like to believe she is finally free of her sufferings and is now enjoying an eternal reward in heaven, and her legend will live on forever.

COMING UP:  MY TOP 12 FAVORITES

ANTHONY BOURDAIN (1956 – 2018)

Early last June, two days after the 4th anniversary of my brother’s death, the world was rocked with the news of the death of Anthony Bourdain, renowned chef, writer, and TV travel and food personality.  Being an avid viewer of food shows, including food-oriented travel shows as of late, I was affected by this news.

I first learned of this guy via reading on my favorite magazine, Entertainment Weekly the news of a new sitcom, Kitchen Confidential being launched based on the memoirs of this guy, starring a then up-and-coming actor named Bradley Cooper.  Even then and up to now, sitcoms set in a professional kitchen flop–the only hit shows featuring chefs or cooks that I know of that worked were The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Muppet ShowThree’s Company, and Friends but none of those sitcoms centered around a restaurant kitchen but outside of it.

Then, a few years later, around 2007-2008, my cable subscription started offering the Asian Food Channel or AFC and one of its key shows then was A Cook’s Tour, which originally aired in the US between 2002-2003 at the Food Network*.  I was hooked at the way Anthony was such a great story teller integrating the story of the places he visits with the cuisines they offer.  If I had the time and resources, I would probably want to travel around the world and enjoy the cuisines of the world like him, though I won’t really rough it out at the rustic place like he does, though I’m aware to experience anything authentic about a place, that’s what you need to do.

*In our shores, we only receiving Food Network as a channel about 2010–before we only get to see Food Network programs at the then-Lifestyle Channel, which has recently been rebranded as Metro Channel.

As it was later revealed, he clashed with the executives at the Food Network and ended his show after two seasons.  A few years later in 2005, he launched essentially the same show but it’s now titled No Reservations, then aired on the Travel Channel in the US.  In our shores, this program is aired on TLC, a channel affiliated with the Discovery Networks.  I got to see this show about almost as simultaneously as his original show on AFC, but I do notice the episodes on this show was fresher and with better production values.  And of course, when news came that he is going to do a show on the Philippines, I got very excited, and needless to say, was very pleased with the resulting episode.  Repeat after me:  “Best… pig… ever.”

The company behind the Food Network, Scripps Networks, had steadily been encroaching and acquiring ownership of the Travel Channel, so at the end of 2012, Anthony decided to end No Reservations and struck a deal with CNN to produce his show, now known as Parts Unknown.  I think the key evolution  between No Reservations and this show is a heavier emphasis on the history and background of the place, and the cuisine about 10% less at the forefront.  Still his incisive, cantankerous wit and eloquence and his unvarnished, honest approach made each episode a delight to watch.

On top of these core travel/food adventure programs, he also did a couple of other shows that I also tuned in.  First, there is The Layover where Anthony talks about what to do and where to go when you have a 48-hour layover in a city.  Usually it’s about the best restaurants or eateries to go to, but sometimes it could be about trips to other establishments, like the strip club trip he took with Food Network personality Alton Brown in Atlanta, below:

With another TV cook I adore, Nigella Lawson, Anthony also served as executive producer and judge in a reality cooking competition show called The Taste.  Think a mix of Masterchef and Top Chef then combine that with the blind judging concept of the singing competition show The Vocie  and you get this show.  Both Anthony and Nigella were in the US version that aired on ABC and lasted three seasons, and a British version on Channel 4 tat lasted one series.  I was rooting for this show to succeed and it’s generally a good show, but sadly it didn’t really catch on and lasted longer.

There is one common hallmark that one viewer could observe watching any of Anthony’s flagship programs:  it’s never just about the food.  Every episode showcases the history and cultural aspects of the places Anthony visited, and Anthony’s knack for narrative integrated these strands to weave such a rich, compelling tapestry.  I do my best in my reviews to employ these elements in my pageant reviews, but admittedly I am nowhere near the way Anthony does it in his shows..

Anthony’s unapologetically outspoken and no-holds-barred approach has endeared him to many people (including myself) while some might find him cantankerous and pricklyfor the same reasons.  He made me recall a former officemate of mine who has the same no-holds-barred outspoken personality and was infamous for some clashes with some resolver groups in our office, but gets away with it because he’s often correct.  Main targets of Anthony’s ire are big personalities hosting shows on the Food Netwrk, like Paula Deen and Guy Fieri–he feels people like these make people settle for mediocrity instead of seeking the highest quality in food.

Targetgs of ire: Paula Deen and Guy Fieri.

He doesn’t hate everything on the Food Network, though… though he has some mean barbs about chef Emeril Lagasse‘s TV shows then, he has since expressed respect at the chef’s skills.  He also has begrudging respect for my favorite food show host, Barefoot Contessa’Ina Garten, noting that she knows how to cook everything correctly, but he sometimes find her world a tad “creepy”.

Begrudging respect: Emeril Lagasse and Ina Garten

Anthony has been married twice, but his last relationship was with Italian actress Asia Argento, and when Asia disclosed that she was raped by Harvey Weinstein, Anthony made the headlines for the last time when he was alive when he stood by his girlfriend’s testimony.  Asia is currently embroiled in a scandal involving an affair with an underaged 17-year-old boy after Anthony’s death, and for many people that damages her credibility as one of Harvey’s victims and her standing in the #MeToo Movement, but just because one committed a shenanigan doesn’t mean that you dismiss an offensive act committed against her.,

Standing by his girl: Asia Argento vs Harvey Weinsteain

Anthony’s death has triggered conversations about mental health and most especially depression.  I am very familiar with this, for many reasons:  My late brother who succumbed to it, I have family members who are currently in this state because of current circumstances, and I myself am dealing with this.  If you noticed how sometimes my full-fledged reviews are delayed or never materialized (along with this long-overdue writeup that I was planning to post two months ago), it is because I either am paralyzed by this, or my energy is sapped prioritizing other things in life that I couldn’t find the energy to attend to this even with my intention of doing this.  With pressures on the personal health front, the family front, the workplace front, and yes, even the political/society front, I have moments when I think when any of these situations take a bad turn I might take a drastic, dreaded action.  Right now I’m able to cope but everyday I wonder about how long I can hang on.  It’s now a daily, conscious choice for me to decide to carry on and get on with my life.

JUST ME!

JOSEPH