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.