(Just to get the preliminaries out of the way: Aretha Franklin is the greatest female vocalist in the history of rock and roll.)
Last weekend, we were listening to the Pandora station I created for my wife, and the Blues Brothers popped up singing “Soul Man”. I don’t doubt Belushi and Aykroyd’s love of the music, but there is something sterile about their presentation, which is most evident when Belushi shouts out “Play it, Steve!” to Steve Cropper at the exact point where Sam Moore does the same thing to the same guitarist on the original recording. The Blues Brothers had such respect for the original that they invited Cropper into their band, but that respect crippled any chance at something original of their own.
The Blues Brothers’ movie featured some fine performances by other musicians idolized by Belushi and Aykroyd. Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and James Brown turned up in the movie, as did Aretha Franklin, who performed an inspired version of “Think”, her hit from 1968. A year earlier, in 1967, Aretha had her signature tune, Otis Redding’s “Respect”, and her cataclysmic attack on that song topped even the great Otis. Not only did she make “Respect” her own, she made the song into something that inspired an entire generation of women (and men, for that matter). “Think” was written by Franklin and her then-husband, Ted White. It’s hard to know how much difference it makes that Franklin co-wrote “Think” while she covered Redding for “Respect”. In truth, her performances of the two songs are so overwhelming that she might as well have written them both. “Respect” remains the great feminist anthem, but “Think” isn’t far behind:
I ain't no psychiatrist
I ain't no doctor with degrees
But it don't take too much I.Q.
To see what you're doin' to me
You better think (think!)
Think about what you're tryin' to do to me
Yeah think (think! think!)
Let your mind go let yourself be free
Oh freedom (freedom!)
Aretha’s voice soars … it is freedom itself.
Here’s the original:
In The Blues Brothers, Aretha plays a woman who co-owns a restaurant with her husband. The husband wants to hit the road with the Brothers, and Franklin sings “Think” as a warning:
Of course, she then lets her husband follow his dream, which is useful for the movie’s plot, but reduces the power of the lyric at least a little bit.
I’ve often wondered why I’m willing to let Aretha get away with vocal excess (hell, “get away with” barely describes it … I love when she gets excessive), but I hate it when more recent vocal divas perform similarly. It’s always possible I’m just being an Old Fart Who Doesn’t Appreciate the New Stuff, but I think it’s more than that. When Aretha goes over the top, it comes from her emotional connection to the song, and her gospel roots are obvious. She could resort to glossolalia and I’d buy into it. When I hear her musical children, I hear singers showing off. And they often have plenty to show off … there are some great voices out there. But, for my taste, Aretha always managed to turn showing off into something fully integrated into the deeper meaning of her vocals.
Having said that, I admit that one of my all-time favorite Aretha Franklin performances come when she sings “Dr. Feelgood” live. Even I admit the excess might be more than the song can handle. There are plenty of examples on YouTube (along with a great one on her album Live at Fillmore West) … here’s one of the best: