The Queen may be dead, but in Aretha Franklin’s case, the Queen also lives forever more. This would be, of course, on account of the recordings history’s most important female singer has left behind. After the events of her life have been picked through—which always seems to be our first focus these days—time will be spent examining a discography that will resound as one that might not be equaled again.
Celebrations of that discography tend to break down into a few ready-made categories. There are, of course, the 1960s singles, like “Respect,” which, along with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” shares top billing as the most important 45 of its decade.
Otis Redding, who wrote the tune, heard it and remarked that “this girl”—and he meant the term with as much awe for another person as is possible—up and took it away from him. That was Franklin’s musical style: She owned things, in the emotional sense. Which is what aided her in her cause to then bring those things home to you, the listener.
Then there are the LP-length wonderments, like 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, which kicked off with “Respect” and closed with a cover of the Cooke song, as Franklin knew exactly what she was doing, and what this album’s import would be. She was the great confluence artist, the point through which gospel and jazz and blues fed into each other, passing into popular art, folk Modernism crossed with euphony for the masses.
The gospel work gets its plaudits, and if you have not heard 1972’s double disc live set, Amazing Grace, recorded at LA’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, get thee to a nunnery, go; by which we mean, download that bad boy from somewhere, and have at one of the most richly spiritual listening sessions you can ever have, even if you think God is no more a workable construct than the proverbial pigs coming out your hindquarters. You hear that performance, and you are still going somewhere, even as you sit there.
This is the most celebrated live Franklin album, but the Queen of Soul was also the Queen of Flat Out Bringing It on Stage. Fifty years ago in 1968, Franklin cut her first live LP, Aretha in Paris. It’s a necessary stop in her discography, the album that is rarely discussed, which should be more often, a tilter of the historic paradigm.
Live albums were starting to become the rage in popular music at the end of the 1960s, but they were usually made by white bands. White bands and, sometimes, black male soul singers. James Brown famously lit up the Apollo on a couple occasions, a recording unit in tow. Otis Redding knew his way around an in-concert album. Sam Cooke did as well, but his live masterpiece—Live at the Harlem Square Club—got shelved until 1985, with the anodyne Live at the Copa foisted on the public instead, record execs thinking hardcore soul was too black for the white masses.
Franklin had more clout than Cooke, though. Her best studio performances felt like live recordings, with their controlled fervor. There were no bum notes, which is sometimes what you get when an artist foregrounds energy. That’s what made her finest sessions so exciting. Not many artists could be this way. The Beatles were at times, on a record like “She Loves You,” and the Who were always fighting to catch the spirit of their live shows within the studio walls. But what Franklin did in Paris was to take her note-perfect studio vocal virtuosity and take it on a field trip outside, so to speak.
Some music feels more physical than other music, as if it’s bodying up against you as you listen to it. We all feel this with the music we elect, say, to work out to; it’s why we pick it. Aretha in Paris is a full-on body blow, in a good way. It’s a massive embrace, from the standpoint of friendship; it’s a passionate, hip-melding ride, from the standpoint of lovers; it’s a full-throated shout that quickens the heart’s pace, from the standpoint of its ability to pull us ever closer into its dancing joy of blue notes and scatted melismas.
A cover of a daunting song is something like a throw down. A friendly throw down. It’s either indicative of an artist who knows they are out of their league and OK with simply paying homage, or it’s an artist saying, “Hey, great job you did on that song, but I’m going to drill you with my performance of it, all in good sport, no harm, no foul.” Franklin was this way, which is why she has no problem starting this record with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which was rock’s greatest anthem at the time, more so than anything by the Beatles or Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”
Her voice is a blend of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, with some of the classic girl group swagger of the mighty Shirelles’ front line vocal attack. Her breath control is insane. Where on earth does this kind of lung capacity come from? A cover of the Young Rascals’ “Groovin’” is a paragon of pliability; Franklin dips into sectors of low, earthy notes and then, just as easy as you please, hits the notes that festoon the top of her personal mountain range. You could strip back the instruments and listen to nothing but the voice, a completely solo singing performance, and again and again you’d return, a minimalist presentation, a maximalist outpouring of emotion and technique.
The last two songs on the record are the bell cows. The studio version of “Chain of Fools” begins with this total aplomb, assuring that Aretha is as much in charge as a person can be. The voice commands all. Here, in Paris, it has even more swagger, but it’s that make of swagger that knows no ego. It’s nearly intimidating, even, this level of confidence, because it’s of a variety that we almost all recognize as one that we’re not likely to possess anywhere, at any time in our lives.
So what do we do? We listen in, and we delight in it. It’s easy to think, “Ha, that’s not going to be topped,” but you also know, simultaneously, that there’s more in the can, which comes in the form of a version of “Respect” unlike any other. It’s still a gamboling, joyous, rocketing, ricocheting barrage of personal belief, as well as the most clarion of calls for equity and just treatment, but there’s balm in the voice now.
This “Respect” is less confrontational than the famous studio version, as if the singer has realized that her cause is sufficiently worthy that a little extended diplomacy can both grant desires, and foster them. You want to have your moment, naturally, but you also want to set up some good stuff for the future. It’s the ultimate soul tango. There’s no resisting, there’s only wanting, getting, and wanting some more.
The Queen may be dead, you may hear this song saying to you now, but long live the Queen, the begetter of art like this, which will probably find a way to live on past the end of days.