45 years ago Aretha Franklin was at her peak. 3 major events mark this era: First, her show stopping 1971 performances at the Fillmore West in San Francisco helped expose her to a brand new audience. Second, her game-changing 1972 gospel album Amazing Grace redefined the gospel genre, and helped bring gospel to the mainstream audience. And finally, her twentieth album, Young, Gifted & Black showcased her continued ability to secure hit after hit. Despite the majority of the album being covers, there are 4 Aretha-penned originals that cement her status as an extraordinary songwriter.
In today’s music industry, it’s hard to imagine a new album that relies more on covers than originals (save for a covers album). However, when you factor Aretha Franklin into that, the rules go out the window. Aretha is the Queen of cover songs. Her biggest hit “Respect” is a cover. Her last #1 was a cover of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” mashed up with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. The woman knows how to take a song, rearrange it, and sing it well. Not only that, but in most cases, she sings a song better than the original artist. Let us take you back.
Attempting to narrow down the best covers on Young, Gifted & Black is a tall order. These 8 songs are all incredible choices and arrangements to suit the musical climate of the early 70’s. The songs also flawlessly suit Aretha’s seemingly-limitless vocal range at the time. Song after song, she effortlessly soars to the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows.
Aretha is a masterful interpreter and arranger of songs. With each cover, and she abandons the arrangement to make it something she can cut into and tear up. To narrow things down, the top 3 covers on the album are “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)”, “Young, Gifted, and Black”, and “A Brand New Me”. Each song is unique: One a soaring ballad, one a charged declaration of black pride, and finally, a gleeful perspective of optimism.
Originally performed by Lulu, this song was meant to mature the singer’s sound but instead failed to ignite the charts. Lulu’s version is similar in tempo, but vocally straight to the point (read: not soulful). Interestingly, both the Lulu and Aretha versions were produced by the inimitable trio of Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd, who are responsible for many of Aretha’s most successful years at Atlantic Records.
Despite the same production team, the versions couldn’t be different, a nod to Aretha’s genius for arranging a record. Aretha takes the song to new highs. The tempo slowed down, the phrasing more drawn out, and the instrumental focus shifts to the piano, something not present in Lulu’s version. Aretha’s vocals induce goosebumps every time, especially as the song climaxes.
It would be fair to argue that had the scales tipped just a bit differently, we could hold Nina Simone and Aretha in the same vein. Nina however, was different, and this song is a prime example. Written by Nina as “To Be Young, Gifted & Black”, the original version is short, straightforward, and beautiful. Leave it to Aretha to take it to church.
Aretha’s version is, again, drawn out. She takes Nina’s Civil Rights anthem and delivers it to a chunk of it’s target audience, black churchgoers. This starts out as a freestyle testimonial, and Aretha goes as far as wailing “when you’re youngggggggg thank you Jesus! gifted, and black.” Church is now in session.
While Dusty’s original version has some good rhythm, once again Aretha knows how to jazz it up without overdoing it. The addition of Aretha’s piano surely adds that extra feeling. Combine that with the unmatched vocal delivery, and it’s a gem that deserves more attention. Even Aretha knows it. She’s called the song a favorite, and to this day still adds it to her setlist in concert.
Aretha is a gifted songwriter to say the least, and these compositions only further solidify and extend that statement. These 4 songs are not only diverse in tempo, but also in subject matter and instrumentation.
A legendary Aretha song. This is Aretha at her funkiest, and not feeling the urge to move when this song comes on means that you don’t have a pulse. The percussion is unique, the bass is pulsing, and the cleverly placed horn breaks all create a flawless experience. Don’t forget Aretha’s holy wailing over the hook. And most importantly, Billy Preston’s organ skills make this not just a funky experience, but a holy one too.
The most important song on this album, and one of the most important in Aretha’s repertoire. As David Ritz points out in his biography Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, “(i)t is is the only Aretha song written out of rhythm. There’s no groove whatsoever. (Ritz, 231)” It’s true. The only percussion found on this song is a triangle, which hits the occasional one.
More notably, the uniqueness of the song’s subject matter. This is no love song, at least not in the typical Aretha-style. Here Aretha sings as an observer to life in Kokomo, Indiana. The mother of Ken Cunningham, Aretha’s significant other during this time, lived in Kokomo. Aretha visited there with Ken once, and suddenly inspiration struck in the most organic way. “For a few blissful days, Aretha found a way to get off the grid. No touring, no recording, no career demands (Ritz, 231).” The result is jarringly serene and wonderful.
For years, mystery surrounded who was the subject of “Day Dreaming”. In recent years, Aretha revealed that, as suspected, the inspiration for the song was The Temptations’ Dennis Edwards. “Day Dreaming” lives up to it’s name, with a dreamy introduction marked by lush strings and electric piano. Aretha describes the perfection of this man, how he may whisk her away at a moment’s notice. She shares her desire to be “what he wants, when he wants it and whenever he needs it.” The song is a staple of Aretha’s catalog, peaking at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart & #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Artists including Natalie Cole, Tamia, and Mary J. Blige have all covered the song, while rappers T.I. and Cam’Ron interpolated it into their own original songs.
On the flip side is “All The King’s Horses”, about the demise of the same man. Aretha notably flexes her prodigal piano skills on the celeste, giving the song it’s sadder tone. The structure is interesting. Aretha calmly delivers the verses, and then crescendos into a grandiose battle of booming sounds. It’s melancholy, with just a touch of pissed off.
As the years passed, Young, Gifted & Black became regarded as a milestone in Aretha’s career. Despite being smashed between her unparalleled triumph at the Fillmore West (which we also covered), and her game-changing display on the Amazing Grace album, this body of work holds strong. Notoriously tough critic Robert Christgau called the album “the first successful black pop record.” Rolling Stone magazine said in their March 16, 1972 issue that the album is an “extremely personal, beautiful record.” “Young, Gifted & Black” the song won a Grammy award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Aretha won said award 8 years in a row. Two years prior to this win, she beat Nina Simone’s album Black Gold, which contained… “To Be Young, Gifted & Black”.
The songs Aretha wrote except (criminally) for “First Snow In Kokomo”, were covered numerous times over the years and solidified their place in pop culture. Aretha continues to incorporate songs from Young, Gifted & Black songs into her live shows, but these days sticks to either “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)” and “A Brand New Me” (and also, “My Cup Runneth Over”, an outtake). In 1993 though, Aretha joined forces with Elton John and performed “Border Song”, which packed serious punch.
Though we didn’t get a chance to cover every single song on Young, Gifted & Black, dig in! Her covers of “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and “The Long and Winding Road” follow this pattern of re-imaging each song, with fantastic results.
Listen to Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted & Black: