“Think.” “Call Me.” “Respect.” “Day Dreaming.” “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.” Long before I witnessed a live performance and met her backstage in 2008, I’ve recognized and celebrated the magnificence of Aretha Franklin. Thanks to my Baby Boomer parents, those dusky, dulcet pipes filled our home on Sunday mornings, Saturday nights and practically every occasion in-between, gracing songs filled such fervor and charisma that Ms. Franklin was beloved like a relative (“Girl, Sister Ree-Ree brought it home on that one!”), yet always exalted as the royalty she had become.
Unfortunately, decades into their reign, even the loftiest of Queens can watch their popularity subside, and that’s what happened when trends changed in the late 70s and Ms. Franklin found her gospel-infused soul falling out of favor for another emerging genre---disco--- a fact that newer performers quickly capitalized on to their advantage (Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Natalie Cole, etc.). But instead of allowing herself to become a ‘Golden Oldies’ relic, the Grand Dame Diva capitalized on newly-heightened visibility (thanks her cameo in The Blues Brothers) and found a new label home with music mogul Clive Davis at Arista Records, where an exhilarating resurgence took place and resulted in Knew You Were Waiting, a collection featuring multiple influences and collaborators and immortalizing the period’s most vital and versatile recordings.
Not surprisingly, all of the genre-spanning singles made a splash on the sales/airplay charts: sequenced in order of release and starting with the melodramatic “United Together, ” it also includes the delicate 1980 George Benson duet, “Love All The Hurt Away,” and flashes of rock (her raspy, roaring vocal workout with Keith Richards’ jagged guitar chords on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), pop (an invigorating “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” with the Eurythymics and “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” featuring George Michael), adult contemporary (“Ever-Changing Times,” a duet with Michael McDonald, “Through The Storm” alongside Elton John), dance (“A Deeper Love”) and even urbanized hip-hop (“A Rose Is Still A Rose”), but the majority of the tracks are R&B-based.
Some may have been bigger successes than others, but all of the songs managed to unearth elements of the soulstress that few had thought she possessed: who can forget the enthusiasm and elasticity heard in her Luther Vandross-produced tracks, “Get It Right” and “Jump To It,”or the salty, sassy vocal barbs she exchanged with one-time upstart and label mate, Whitney Houston on “It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be”? “Freeway of Love” (featuring Clarence Clemons) is as retro and rambunctious as ever, and that scorned woman’s soliloquy, “Willing To Forgive,” is a perfect balance of anger and anxiety that many couldn’t help but tap into: “You’re such a liar / you took her and her children out for the afternoon / while I was sitting waiting on you / How could you do it? / You should’ve been here with me / you couldn’t do it / you had to be in the streets.”
When most artists move from one label to the next, they can find themselves mired in politics and desperate to find their footing again as they fight to retain their integrity and fan base. However, Ms. Franklin accomplished the unexpected, experimenting with a smorgasbord of styles, threading her uniqueness into every approach and as a result, taking her faithful followers along with the ride. Could there have been other inclusions? Sure, especially since it’s odd to pay homage to eighteen years and not include the same symbolic number of tracks to do so. But as it stands, ….Waiting is a perfect Valentine’s Day treat for Ree-Ree devotees and peels back all of the layers of regality to explore her softer and sultrier sides. Yes, she’s always been royalty, but more than fifty years after her choir debut, this collection exhibits all of the skills that keep Aretha Franklin relevant---and yes, revered---well into the new millennium. Enthusiastically Recommended.
By Melody Charles