Listen to this track by irreplaceable Queen of soul Aretha Franklin. It’s “Respect”, a huge hit for her as taken from her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. This song, actually a cover version, helped to solidify her status as a giant of modern song.
When people think of this song today, it’s Aretha’s version that immediately leaps to mind, with the signature push-pull between her lead voice and those of her sisters backing her up. That’s a musical dynamic familiar to even the most casual listener by now. Even its writer Otis Redding, who was and is also a giant of popular song, agreed that Aretha Franklin took this song to another place. At his historic appearance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, he affectionately described it as “a song a girl took away from me”. It certainly captures the vernacular of the time with it’s “sock it to me!” and “take care of TCB!” exclamations being a real high point that helped to make this song what it is. Since, it’s become interwoven into pop culture with references to it being too many to count.
Culturally speaking, Franklin’s take on this song goes even further still even by virtue of the fact that she’s the one singing it. This is not only down to her identity as a woman, but specifically as a black woman. In an era full of conflict and in a society that was coming to a head where all kinds of social structures were concerned, this song is more than just a catchy hit single. It was, and still is, culturally resonant and downright important.
Here’s a clip of Austin Texas-born Ruthie Foster with her take on “Woke Up This Morning”, a civil rights anthem if ever there was one. The song was originally done by Odetta, a giant of the folk-singing, civil rights era. Odetta seems to be one of many influences on Foster, who pulls in nearly every branch of American folk music into her performances, including jazz, blues, gospel, and soul. Foster has been on the scene for over ten years, with her debut album Full Circlecoming out in 1997.
Ruthie Foster is something of a link to the past, not just because of her connection with folk songs from another era, but in her rootsy and honest approach to the material whether original or not. I got word of her through MOJO magazine (a tried and true method for me in finding new artists in any genre), where she was compared to Aretha Franklin. And you can certainly hear the gospel intonations here, and a few of Aretha’s textures too.
Usually when an artist is compared to the giants in the field, it spells disappointment. Yet, with this cover version, you can feel that Foster is really connected, really passionate, about what she’s singing about. I don’t get the feeling that she’s self-conscious in terms of the influences attributed to her. And this may be her saving grace, besides her obviously powerful voice.
She is currently on tour, booked well into 2009 and appearing with established artists such as Eric Bibb, Robben Ford, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Her most recent album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Fosteris out now.
Little Milton was a huge talent, working equally well within the blues and soul idioms by often mixing the two, and having recorded on Sun Records, Chess Records, and on Stax – the big three! – at various points in his career. In addition to a recording career, he also served as an A&R man on a small label called Bobbin, introducing Albert King, who also recorded on the Stax by the 60s, known for his signature hit ‘Born Under A Bad Sign‘. He also developed the early career of Fontella Bass who was eventually immortalized through her hit ‘Rescue Me’. The label found a distribution channel with legendary blues and R&B label Chess Records, switching over to Chess subsidiary label Checker in the early 60s. While on the Checker label, he scored an R&B hit with this song, his breakthrough as a solo artist in 1965.
Milton had the best of all worlds, particularly here, with a voice that is both a smooth as Sam Cooke’s, and as gutsy as B.B King’s. The song itself could be about a single relationship going through a hard time. But it was recognized as something of a civil rights anthem, staring adversity in the face, acknowledging the reality that a community was facing systemic oppression, but with a firm belief that things would change for the better anyway. The song has such an emotional impact, the first time I heard it I choked up. Optimism in song is often an exercise in self-delusion, or of trying to delude an audience. But, listen to Milton’s delivery here. This is defiant optimism, pure belief in love and in all that is moral and right, even when the odds are stacked against it. It’s cliche to use the word ‘inspiring’, only because it’s a term that’s used too much. But it applies here; it really does.
By the end of the decade, Little Milton would sign with Stax records, a little late for its heyday, and at the beginning of its financial troubles. Yet, Milton continued to expand on his brand of blues-soul, with sumptuous arrangements to bolster his powerhouse voice, although with less chart action than in the 60s. By ’75, Stax was history. Milton continued on the Malaco label by the 80s where he stayed, issuing 13 albums, and winning the coveted W.C Handy Award for Blues Entertainer of the year in 1988. Little Milton died in 2005 at the age of 70.
I consider Little Milton to be something of an unsung hero. The guy had it all – great instincts for arrangments, impressive chops as a guitarist, a fantastic feel for delivering a song in a multitude of styles . And this is my favourite of his, a tune just brimming with strength and the power of belief in oneself, and in one’s fellow human being too.
Read this article from Clash Magazine with legendary soul singer Mavis Staples. It was written by a guy I know from my music geek community. And note: the question about her finding her own identity while in a group with her family was my contribution!
The article talks mostly about her early days in the Staple Singers, and growing up during the civil rights movement. Apart from the history of the music, it’s an interesting window into an era that ushered in what we now have come to accept as a more civilized society where racial relations are concerned.
Mavis’ voice has always been an instrument which has affected me on an emotional level. From the film the Last Waltz, her verse in “The Weight” when she sings “HEY CARMEN” always lays me low. And when I saw her perform in person, with sister and fellow Staple Singer Cleotha singing back-up, I got equally choked up when she hit that very same note in the same song. It’s like hearing the voice of God to me. She had a cold that night, with the deep rumble beneath her soulful, alto voice even more resonant than usual. She was quoted as saying “I was once Beyoncé!”, and proceeded to knock us all out.
The person introducing Mavis that night revealed that Bob Dylan (“Bobby” to Mavis) had romanced her in the early days of the civil rights era, with her dad Pops Staples giving his blessing. What might have resulted from such a union, I wonder?