Aretha Franklin is serious about her royalty. Billed on her newly-activated Twitter account as “the undisputed Queen of Soul” (take that, Tina Turner!), Franklin doesn’t take her title lightly. But for a brief period, the artist’s credentials as reigning Queen of Pop were just as unimpeachable. When Aretha joined Arista Records in 1980, it was after five disappointing albums at Atlantic, none of which have ever seen the light of day on compact disc. On those LPs, producers as diverse as Curtis Mayfield, Van McCoy, Lamont Dozier and Marvin Hamlisch all tried to reignite the spark that began the Queen’s ascendancy at Atlantic, and all fell short of the mark. How would Arista’s Clive Davis succeed? Aretha had watched her contemporary, Dionne Warwick, return to chart supremacy under Davis’ watchful eye with 1979’s Dionne. So she put her faith in Davis, the onetime head of her very first label, Columbia. The story picks up on Knew You Were Waiting: The Best of Aretha Franklin 1980-1998, the new 16-track anthology from Arista and Legacy Recordings (88697 99780 2, 2012).
The period that produced these songs will, inevitably, always be second best to the rock steady soul of 1967-1974. Some might even fairly place the era third, behind Franklin’s precociously mature jazz vocals at Columbia, beautifully boxed en toto by Legacy in 2011. But this compilation (of eighteen years boiled down to sixteen tracks) nonetheless represents a major period in the career of an eminent American artist, in which she greeted a new decade head-on, flying in unexpected directions with a variety of songwriters and producers.
Producer Leo Sacks has organized the collection in chronological order, allowing one to chart the singer’s stylistic journey. Her initial effort at Arista actually reteamed her with Atlantic’s “house arranger,” Arif Mardin, as well as with prominent background vocalists The Sweet Inspirations. The album, the first of two Arista sets titled Aretha, yielded the lush “United Together,” produced not by Mardin but by Chuck Jackson, and firmly in the Quiet Storm mold. (Producer/songwriter Jackson shouldn’t be confused with the “Any Day Now” singer of the same name!) The song, written by Jackson and Phil Perry, returned Aretha to the uppermost regions of the R&B chart (No. 3) while placing respectably (No. 56) on the pop survey, as well. Mardin returned for 1981’s Love All the Hurt Away, and its title song, a duet with George Benson, is reprised here. The big ballad is as far from Franklin’s soul roots as it is from Benson’s in jazz, and anticipated many future duets; a full seven tracks here are all-star collaborations.
We continue after the jump…so Jump to It, won’t you?
Luther Vandross, a soul disciple if there ever was one, decided that Aretha needed to dive into the deep end of the pool. He modernized her sound, only subtly referencing her greatest triumphs, with 1982’s Jump to It, scoring the artist her first gold album in six years. The No. 24 pop/No. 1 R&B title track appears here, as well as the similar-sounding title song from follow-up Get It Right (1983). Lightning didn’t strike twice on the pop chart, with “Get It Right” only hitting No. 61, but it repeated a stay at pole position on the R&B chart. (In 1983, Vandross also teamed with Dionne Warwick for the successful Arista LP How Many Times Can We Say Goodbye.) Both of Vandross’ songs here were collaborations with Marcus Miller, emphasizing dance overtones and glossy production.
But Franklin’s place in the eighties pop firmament was really secured by 1985’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who, from which four songs are extracted here. Narada Michael Walden’s songs offered big hooks and bigger productions. If the gravitas of Franklin’s groundbreaking sides of two decades earlier isn’t apparent, she brought the same commitment to Walden’s pop-flavored R&B, not to mention that impeccably controlled voice. Who’s Zoomin’ Who ‘s irresistible “Freeway of Love,” with a Clarence Clemons sax solo, is celebratory, while Walden’s title song, co-written with Franklin, is as slick as “Freeway” is raucous . Walden is the most represented producer on Knew You Were Waiting, with a total of seven tracks included. On “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” Franklin even crossed over to the rock sphere. A Eurythmics song in all but name, the pairing of Franklin and Annie Lennox turned out to be an inspired one. Franklin, Lennox and Dave Stewart were joined on the track by some moonlighting Heartbreakers: Benmont Tench, Stan Lynch, and Mike Campbell.
On “Who’s Zoomin’ Who,” Aretha boastfully affirms, “You will remember my name/I’m the one who beat you at your game!” And boy, did she ever! She teamed with erstwhile Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Ron Wood (plus a certain bassist by the name of Randy Jackson), and they beefed up a hit cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” recorded for the Whoopi Goldberg film of the same name. Richards also produced the recording, and appears a bit on the 45’s sleeve photo reproduced within the booklet!
In addition to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the 1986 Aretha included the chart-topping “I Knew You Were Waiting,” a duet with George Michael, and the first of four consecutive duets on this compilation that shares its name. Michael was on the cusp of his own phenomenal success, and his admiration for his duet partner is palpable. Yet despite being a songwriter of no small ability, Michael didn’t write his duet. Neither did Elton John write “Through the Storm,” the title track of Aretha’s 1989 album. The sequence on this anthology is one of diminishing returns, as a certain homogenized sound begins to creep in by the time of “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be,” the duet with Whitney Houston which also appeared on Through the Storm. Both “It Ain’t” and “Through the Storm” were written by the team of Albert (“It Never Rains in Southern California”) Hammond and the ubiquitous Diane Warren. Despite two force-of-nature voices, Whitney and Aretha are all but overpowered by the busy track. (Narada Michael Walden produced all three duets.)
Franklin took a more sophisticated path for the Michael McDonald duet “Ever Changing Times.” Written by Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Bill Conti for the 1987 film Baby Boom, it was introduced by Siedah Garrett. Producing with Carole Bayer Sager, Bacharach was in his familiar 1980s Adult Contemporary mode, and made a rather fitting partner for Franklin. Both artists had produced work of greater depth years earlier, but triumphed in creating music for a very different musical landscape that remains enjoyable on its own merits.
Most of Franklin’s cover versions from the Arista era, including a Grammy Award-winning rendition of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming,” are overlooked on Knew You Were Waiting in favor of original material. It’s too bad, though, that Arista labelmates Franklin and Warwick never committed their duet on “I Say a Little Prayer,” as performed on Solid Gold, to a studio recording!
“Ever Changing Times” appears in a mix that’s said to be new to CD, but the liner notes don’t indicate its exact origin. This proves frustrating, as many of the songs here are substantially shorter than their original album versions. Although the discographical annotation includes both album and single information, the provenance of each track isn’t clear. These songs do sound better than they have before, though, thanks to Maria Triana’s crisp remastering. The booklet includes fun reproductions of original single sleeves as well as a brief essay by Ernest Hardy.
In 1998, Lauryn Hill paid tribute to Aretha with the title song of the album A Rose is Still a Rose, the most recent track on this collection. (Oddly, 2003’s So Damn Happy is Franklin’s only secular album for Arista to be completely ignored here. It boasted collaborations with Bacharach and Mary J. Blige, not to mention the Grammy Award-winning song “Wonderful.”) Fourteen years later, though, Franklin proves that a rose is, indeed, still a rose, and Knew You Were Waiting proves that this period of the Queen’s career deserves serious re-evaluation. Maybe it’s time to bring on the complete Arista box set?