This was Aretha's fourth album for Atlantic and was top five in both UK and US, despite a playing time of under half-an-hour. When the grooves are as funky as these, who cares? Two great tracks had already been hit singles when the album came out - Think, which had been recorded on 15 April 1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated; and her fantastic re-interpretation of Burt Bacharach's I Say A Little Prayer, which she and the Sweet Inspirations had apparently worked up while on tour, just for fun. In America I Say A Little Prayer was buried as a flipside before discerning deejays turned it over, but it had been the bona-fide A-side the month before in the UK where it reached number 4.
Her revival of Don Covay's See Saw was the first single lifted from the album, with I Can't See Myself Leaving You being extracted the following year while she was taking time off to avoid burn out.
Sam Cooke had apparently come to the Franklin household while he was still in the Soul Stirrers and considering turning secular with an acetate of You Send Me. After its success she said, "I'd sure like to sing that, too" and here turns in a smoldering version which is not only secular but intensely sexualized to boot.
The Muscle Shoals crew were flown in to New York for all sessions and were augmented by the Sweet Inspirations and, in April 1968, the Memphis Horns. Most of the album was recorded that April, but three tracks held over from the Lady Soul sessions of December 1967 make up the remainder and feature Bobby Womack on guitar, an 8-piece brass section and Carolyn Franklin on additional background vocals. Two of these were written by Ronnie Shannon who had written I Never Loved A Man and Baby, I Love You.
Aretha had found her voice and was on a roll, complemented by Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin's arrangements and sure-footed production by Jerry Wexler. The album went gold.
Now overdue for a remaster, let's hope it comes with the full complement of bonus tracks from the period, singles and unreleased material that are bound to be gold dust
"Aretha Now" is a high-quality reissue of one of the multi-talented American jazz//pop/rock singer Aretha Franklin's greatest records, dating from 1968, the midst of the most hit-filled period of her career. (She had ten Top Ten hits in eighteen months of 1967-68). Franklin is the daughter of an influential Detroit preacher and her talent was recognized early; she cut her first record at 14. She was later signed to Columbia, a find of their legendary talent scout John Hammond, but the label didn't seem to know what to do with her. However, Atlantic waited in the wings. Once signed by their chief Ahmet Ertegun, producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin, and engineer Tom Dowd put her together with a repertory better suited to her soulful talents, and backed her explosive song stylings with the equally explosive Muscle Shoals studio players (though they were then feuding with that studio's management, and had to bring the musicians to New York to record). And they all made music history. Franklin almost immediately burst onto the Rhythm and Blues charts with Otis Redding's "Respect," still her biggest hit, though she was to have 20 R&B #1 singles. "Aretha Now" was one of the big three albums that followed closely after her first classic Atlantic hit, " I Never Loved a Man (The Way That I Loved You").
This album opens with Franklin's own "Think;" it was another juicy hit for her. It also gives us Burt Bacharach's "I Say A Little Prayer," as Franklin reimagined it; an emotionally satisfying version of Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." A sizzling version of "Night Time is the Right Time." A tight-swinging "See Saw," by Steve Cropper and Don Covay, two of the stalwarts of Stax's famed studio band, Booker T and the M.G's. Two female-oriented songs by Ronnie Shannon, a song co-written by Isaac Hayes; another co-written by King Curtis.
But Franklin, honored as the Queen of Soul, or Lady Soul, is a triple-threat singer-songwriter-pianist, and she isn't limited to soul and R&B; she can also do gospel, for sure, jazz, and even, memorably, opera. There was the night she stepped in for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti at the live Grammy Awards, and, without rehearsal time, nor even time to get the aria transposed to her key, she delivered a version of the opera singer's signature aria, "Nessun Dorma," from "Turandot," that brought the jaded music crowd to its feet. She's won awards and honors too numerous to mention, including an unprecedented eight consecutive Grammies for Best Female R&B vocal performance from 1967-1974-- there were people jokingly referring to it, finally, as Grammy's Aretha Award. She does sometimes remind of something a choir master supposedly once said to a little girl: you don't have to sing so loud, God can always hear you. But this woman deserves all our R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and this album dates from her never quite equaled early burst of creativity. It belongs on the shelf of her serious fans.