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Forever Aretha

Aretha Lee F

Most of what I feel about the Queen of Soul went into the obituary I wrote for the Guardian. Here’s a little extra thing about the record of hers that I’d choose if I could only keep one.

Aretha Franklin made three passes at Van McCoy’s “Sweet Bitter Love”. It’s my guess that this means it was a song with a special significance for her, one she sang not just to her audience but to herself.

The first version came in 1965, during her unhappy time with Columbia Records. The producer was Clyde Otis, the song was given an off-the-peg string arrangement, and the outcome was mundane, even though her singing is lovely. The third was made in 1985, during her time with the Arista label. She produced that one herself, directing an ace band including Nat Adderley Jnr on keys, Steve Khan on guitar, Louis Johnson on bass and Yogi Horton on drums, adding Paul Riser’s arrangement for strings, brass and woodwind. Beneath the sumptuous surface, it dug a lot deeper. It would even serve as her definitive version of a fine song, but for . . .

. . . her second go, which stands for me as the most mesmerising and revelatory recording of her entire career. She taped it at the end of 1966, as part of a demo session immediately after signing with Atlantic Records, which explains the rough sound quality. Among other songs recorded that day, with Aretha at the piano supported by an anonymous double bassist and drummer, were try-outs of “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)” and “Dr Feelgood”, which became two of her classics. For me, however, “Sweet Bitter Love” is the one that seems to have cut deepest into her soul.

Sweet bitter love / The taste still lingers / Though through my helpless fingers / You slipped away / Sweet bitter love / What joy you taught me / What pain you brought me . . . 

Listen to it and then try telling me she isn’t singing to and about herself, drawing on everything she had already lived in her 25 years.

Oh my sweet bitter love / Why have you awakened /And then forsaken / A trusting heart like mine . . .

It’s also the perfect example of how her best work always came when she was sitting at the piano, providing her own accompaniment, establishing the groove and the flow. With that security she could explore her full range of phrasing and intonation: some of the single words here are enunciated and flighted with astonishing creativity, every scrap of decoration seeming absolutely essential. Over the whole piece, voice and keyboard ebb and flow together in great deep, dark surges of powerful emotion which she brings to an ending that is both elegant and brusque, as if everything has been said.

I love so many of her records. But if I had to keep just one, I’d tell myself that none of the others encapsulates the intimacy, the intensity, the superlative control, the sheer shattering open-hearted and heart-breaking Aretha-ness of her quite as rivetingly as this, which was never intended for public consumption but brings us as close to her as we could ever want to get.

* The photographs of Aretha were taken by the great Lee Friedlander, during the time he was working on album covers for Atlantic Records in the 1960s. They’re in his book American Musicians, published in 1998 by D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers, Inc. You’ll find links to the other two versions of the song on YouTube. I didn’t include them because I wanted to make sure that you listen to this one.

31 Comments Post a comment
  1. Superb obit, Richard, but I would have expected no less. I’m just pleased I too got to see her at Hammersmith Odeon. A golden evening

    August 17, 2018
    • Thanks, David. Wish I’d been at Hammersmith.

      August 17, 2018
      • As I think that was the only time she played in the UK, I just, and I know we never should, assumed!

        August 17, 2018
  2. Dennis Muirhead #

    You’re back!
    But were you at Sun Ra’s concert last night at Union Chapel? I’ve never seen such a happy audience before. Smiles all round. Real joy!. And Marshall Allen is 94. Let’s live on.

    August 17, 2018
    • Dennis Muirhead #

      The Sun Ra Arkestra said Goodbye to Aretha at the end of the concert and then she sang.

      August 17, 2018
  3. Chris Cox #

    I was never a fan but all the same I agree with your sentiments Richard….

    August 17, 2018
  4. Shivers up the spine, tears in the eyes… Thanks for this, I hadn’t heard it before. Great obit too.

    August 17, 2018
  5. Mjazzg #

    The Guardian obit is a beautiful piece, thank you. And, who needs to even follow the links to the other versions of ‘Sweet Bitter Love’, just this one version on repeat.

    She really was the best

    August 17, 2018
    • Mjazzg #

      just to add, when I heard the news yesterday I was hoping that thebluemoment might be temporarily reinstated. Thank you

      August 17, 2018
  6. Richard Harris #

    Extraordinary, I’ve never heard that. And it’s the “superlative control” you refer to that exemplifies her classic work. There is a great subtlety and power, but even more power somehow always held in reserve. Even if she doesn’t use it, you always sense it’s just there, latent. She was REALLY something. And that was a great and fitting Guardian obituary by you. Thank you.

    August 17, 2018
  7. Bren Pointer #

    So eloquently expressed Richard….Aretha-ness indeed,beautifully captures her uniqueness, and thanks for coming out of your sabbatical to remark on her brilliance…

    August 17, 2018
  8. Jess Roden #

    Thanks for sharing Richard.
    Just awesome – both hearing that and reading The Blue Moment.

    August 17, 2018
  9. Wonderfully touching and a fascinating Coda to your heartfelt Guardian obituary, thanks Richard. So glad to see you are reviving the Blue Moment when circumstances merit. Long live your pen !

    August 17, 2018
  10. Superb obit, especially loved the final sentence . . . ‘The bejewelled grey hat she wore to sing at Obama’s first inauguration is now in the Smithsonian Institution; her music is in the hearts of millions, on permanent loan.’

    August 17, 2018
  11. Ross Allen #

    I love your postings Richard. It was sad when you said you were taking a break. I’m glad you came back to shine your light on the passing of a true legend. I’m off to check out all three versions. Thanks x

    August 17, 2018
  12. Duncan Kerr #

    Your review of this gem when the Double CD of Rare Recordings came out in 2007 made me buy it and led me back again through the Columbia stuff and then Amazing Grace, a fantastic recording.

    August 17, 2018
  13. Jon Derricott #

    I had to listen to some Aretha yesterday (something that happens periodically in normal times, but yesterday was a deeper need) and was similarly struck by this very rough demo on the brilliant ‘Rare & Unreleased’. You’re right about her piano playing too, she sang at her exquisite best at the keyboard & was a truly great accompanist to herself.

    August 17, 2018
  14. If I may respectfully disagree: With her stunted tonal vocabulary Franklin ran roughshod over her material; she simply didn’t listen to the songs she sung. Franklin seemed to think she could solve all her musical problems with a spatter of blue notes, irrespective of a song’s harmonic sense – but she didn’t.

    August 17, 2018
    • SJC #

      I feel you have grasped, wholeheartedly, the sheer esprit of her talent. Where others have praised, you have maintained a stringent detachment. You poor, arrogant, thoughtless bastard.

      August 20, 2018
  15. Bill Clifford #

    We saw her in the late 60’s at I think the old Astoria Finsbury Park,an electric show we will always remember

    August 17, 2018
    • Definitely Hammersmith Odeon, Bill. I think that was her only UK concert

      August 17, 2018
  16. Thank you for this blog post. I am going to listen to “Sweet Bitter Love” on YouTube (as many versions as i can find). I learned from a FB group that the same person who helped her write her autobiography has also written (and maybe recently released?) a biography about her. Sounds like she had plenty of life experiences to feel sweet and bitter about… And she left us an extraordinary body of work “on permanent loan.”

    August 17, 2018
  17. David Ward #

    Entirely agree Richard – her greatest performance, one of the most intensely emotional recordings I’ve ever heard.. I can never listen to it without being reduced to a sobbing mess.

    August 17, 2018
  18. Ashley Biles #

    Richard, a very well measured obituary of Aretha in the Guardian. Thank you.

    August 17, 2018
  19. That was a model obituary of one of the greats in today’s Guardian, Richard, like your Lou Reed one a few years ago. You explain the subject’s significance very well to a lay reader, explaining what was unique about what they did and how they did it, while giving those readers who think that they already know the work and the life a thoughtful and original perspective to reconsider and appreciate. Thank you.

    August 17, 2018

    I had heard on Thursday afternoon that Aretha Franklin was very ill, but it was not until early on Friday evening, when I wandered into Ray’s Jazz Record Shop in Foyles, where one of her CDs was being played, that my worst fears were confirmed. The CD being played was the ‘Rare and Unreleased Recordings’ collection on which the demo of ‘Sweet Bitter Love’ appears. As you might expect, there seemed to be nothing more appropriate for me to do than remain in the shop until the CD on the shop system had finished, and then return home to play it again. Such a sad day.

    August 18, 2018
  21. Peter F #

    Thanks so much for this, Richard, and particularly for the whole obituary. It must have been daunting, marshalling such a wealth of information into such a fine, readable piece.

    August 18, 2018
  22. Paul Tickell #

    I’ve been away so it’s taken me a few days after the event to catch up in detail with all the Aretha tributes and also with the stuff which has been on TV. There’s been a lot of guff including Dead White Males on the BBC self-referencing themselves as old Soul Boys but there has been good stuff too. However, Richard, your Guardian obituary sparkles – if that verb can be used of an obituary – amongst it all. What a brilliant summation – and how the hell did you pull off the feat of being both incredibly evocative, and terse and economical at the same time? I was reminded of the poetic compression in a Brian Case review of a Chuck Berry gig in the Melody Maker years ago: the complete Berry in a couple of paragraphs. Anyway, bravo and thank you…

    August 21, 2018
  23. With one dissenting voice on the quality of Aretha’s singing, the comments on your piece are rightfully overwhelmingly and emotionally supportive. I believe she was a phonomomen. Here’s a link to a piece in Uncut about the recording of ‘I Never…’ . It’s been a well aired story over the years but nevertheless this is worth a read. The obituary was terrific, by the way. Many thanks.

    August 23, 2018
  24. GuitarSlinger #

    Thanks for the wonderful tribute to one of our great American icons . Perhaps my fondest memory of Aretha was hearing for the first time the original demos she recorded at Muscle Shoals . Damn that woman could sing and damn those guys could play .

    For those unaware of the history … it was those Muscle Shoals sessions that changed Aretha’s focus almost entirely ( you’d be shocked to hear what she was doing before then ) with the keyboard player and the producer setting the tone for what would become the legend we now know and love so well

    But beyond any shadow of a doubt the single most embarrassing moment in regards to Aretha’s passing was our FoxNews ( owned by your Rupert Murdoch ) tribute to Aretha last week … showing …. err … cough … stutter …. photos of Patty La Belle thru out . Sigh … so much for R-E-S-P-E-C-T .. which by the way our POTUS was unable to spell correctly .

    PS ; Off topic . I know you’re in the midsts of book writing but I’m missing your weekly posts .. especially in light of the fact you’ve added at least another ten new artists / cd’s to my listening collection since I first became aware of your blog .

    August 23, 2018
    • GuitarSlinger #

      As an addendum / follow up . The Memorial Service . Never have so many pink Cadillacs come together in one place at one time . Not even a Mary Kay convention can make claim to that many pink Cadillacs . Suffice it to say it was quite the event from the guests – to the music to -the testimonials – to all those very pink the Cadillacs

      September 6, 2018

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