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.
Listen to this track by supremely gifted American pop song artisan and singer-songwriter in her own right Carole King. It’s “It’s Too Late”, a smash single coupled with another song, “I Feel The Earth Move”, as a double A-side, and featured on her classic 1971 record Tapestry. The song was co-written with lyricist Toni Stern, who penned the words after a break-up with a mutual friend of King’s, fellow singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Carole King herself had written for many other artists from Bobby Vee, to The Chiffons, to The Monkees, a role that took up quite a bit of her time from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s after only a few solo singles under her own name by the beginning of that decade. By then, she’d evolved considerably as a writer and performer. “It’s Too Late” reflects a more mature perspective on the end of a relationship compared to many of the break-up songs she’d written in the previous decade. It adds a level of musical sophistication too, with jazz-inflected guitar and soprano sax adding additional voices to King’s resigned lead vocal and lush piano lines.
But very importantly, it’s also a key song that comes from a woman’s point of view during a time when certain social changes were only just beginning to make their way into the broader cultural conversation. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time Townes Van Zandt padawan turned gritty country-rock veteran Steve Earle. It’s “Hard-Core Troubadour”, a cut as taken from his 1996 album, I Feel Alright.
This song and the album off of which it comes emerged out of an era that was less than stellar for their creator personally speaking. By the early 1990s, Earle’s relationship with drugs landed him a prison sentence, of which he served 60 days plus a stint in rehab. He knew quite a lot about being under the thrall of substances, and of making some pretty bad decisions as a result. After four years passed, he realized how important it was to stick to his art as a means to keep him grounded. I think the title of the record is very meaningful in the light of that. This album, and yet another album that same year Train A-Comin’, was a sign that he was ready to be creative again, edging away from his more self-destructive impulses.
Maybe it’s this that gives this song such a gravitas, a story that concerns itself with an unreliable and intoxicated character and about the woman in his life who must make a choice about what she wants her life to be like. In a way, this song is also about Steve Earle himself. Read more
Listen to this track by first-tier neo-soul proponent Erykah Badu. It’s “Bag Lady”, a single as taken from her second album Mama’s Gun from 2000. The album scored critical praise across the map, continuing Badu’s synthesis of R&B with jazz overtones and all with a foot in hip hop sensibilities with the most minimal of brushstrokes. The most important fixture in place of course is her voice that evoked comparisons to Billie Holiday when her debut came out, which Badu somehow survived and went beyond.
A part of the effort to gain creative traction for this record was her close ties to her contemporaries, including D’Angelo and Questlove, both of whom joined her as members of the Soulquarians musical collective centering their activities around recordings made at Electric Lady studios in New York at the end of the nineties and into 2000. It was during this period that they were all intent on creating a contemporary sound fashioned from this same soul, jazz, and hip hop combination that would be featured on several releases by its members around this time. This song, which garnered two Grammy nominations in 2000, is a product of that creative outpouring and the last single to reach number one on the original Motown label before that label was sold to Universal music.
The song is multifaceted even if it seems to be pretty straightforward on every level at the same time. It certainly has something to say about relationships and the investments that women in particular put into them. But there is another aspect to this tune that goes even further beyond that still. Read more
Listen to this track by returning pop-punk chartbusters turned pop rock elders Blondie. It’s “Maria”, their comeback single as issued on their 1999 album No Exit. That record was their first together since 1982’s The Hunter. That’s a pretty long time between releases. But this song ensured their success as their sixth number one single in the UK where they’d always been championed since their early days. This new song’s chart placement corresponded to the day with another number one song of theirs in the UK, “Heart Of Glass” in 1979.
“Maria” was penned by Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, even borrowing the phrase “walking on imported air” from his own “Walk Like Me” from 1980’s Autoamerican. Also, the song shares a similar dynamic with their early song “Rip Her To Shreds” that has lead singer Debby Harry judgmentally (and with a heaping tablespoon of irony) commenting on an observed woman. “Maria” is kind of the twin sister to that song, more concerned with the woman as unobtainable object of love, or maybe lust, with a dash of the divine thrown in for good measure.
“Maria” demonstrates that classic power-pop perspective in this way, and is very connected to the band’s earlier oeuvre on these many fronts. It’s no wonder it did the business for them as a comeback single. Along with that I think it has something to say about women in general. Read more
Listen to this track by Los Angeles-based folk-rock trio featuring ingenue singer Linda Ronstadt. It’s “Different Drum”, a 1967 single as taken from their second album, Evergreen, Vol. 2, which would turn out to be their most successful release.
The song was penned by Michael Nesmith, a member of the Monkees of course, but written in 1965 before his profile was raised by the weekly TV show that made him famous. Even before Stone Poneys got a hold of it, it had been recorded by bluegrass outfit The Greenbriar Boys. Nesmith himself would record his own version of the song on his And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ album in 1972.
In the summer of 1967, this proved to be the first hit single (#13 on the Billboard Hot 100) that singer Linda Ronstadt would enjoy in a solo career that would yield several as the sixties turned into the seventies, and even beyond. Maybe the song’s subject matter inadvertently pointed to the fate of the group; that each member was ultimately headed in different directions to the others before the end of the decade.
Yet I think more interestingly, this take on Nesmith’s tune as re-interpreted by Ronstadt says a lot about its current era of the sixties and how things were changing especially when it came to the roles of men and women. Read more