Thursday, August 16, 2018

RIP Aretha Franklin, some brief thoughts on Franklin's legendary cover of an Otis Redding song

I'll admit to loving the music of Mahalia Jackson and maybe even Judy Mowatt a bit more than Franklin but I still admired a lot about her music and she was deservedly known as the queen of soul. 

It may be that in raw sales numbers that Madonna and Mariah Carey have sold more than Franklin has.

You can go your whole life and not hear about something as simple as that "Respect" was an Otis Redding song.

What Franklin did with the song ... it's not too big a leap to suggest that many of us never even heard Redding's version

There are any number of things that could be said about the arrangements.  What sets the Franklin performance apart is not just her agile and volcanic vocal performance.  The bass line (which is a fantastic bass line) is more prominent. There's also those backing vocals.  It goes a long way to evoking a chorus that can respond to Franklin's lead and for the chorus the harmonies the backup singers intone outline a dominant seventh chord on the tonic that resolves down to a subdominant harmony.  If the tonic is "home" this gives us a chorus where any time the music lands on the tonic chord the secondary dominant element of the chord pushes away into the subdominant.  There's a steady harmonic/rhythmic push and pull with the dominant seven tonic resolving by way of linear compression into the subdominant and yet the subdominant relentlessly creates an expectation in a traditional tonal idiom for some kind of return to the tonic.  This kind of relentless, assertive I7(V7/IV) to IV(7) oscillation is one of the more powerful groove-establishing tools in R&B influenced music. 

Another unique element in Redding's song is the harmonic regressions that it's founded on.  We get a V to IV oscillation, famously, when the vocals begin.  We don't get a "by the rules" harmonic progression of I going to IV going to V.  We get V dropping to IV and going back to V and dropping to IV.  The vocals open up assertively at the kind of chords with rhythm section that in other R&B and soul songs would have been the chorus.  There's a transposition of conventions in harmonic/melodic terms in Reddings' song.  The "chorus" material is the verse in terms of dominant pedal activity because we can hear the entire V-IV-V-IV-V-IV oscillation before the "respect" chorus as one big episode of what in Hepokoski & Darcy's Elements of Sonata Theory could be called "standing on the dominant", a great big dominant pedal point.   That harmonic momentum has to get resolved somewhere and it's delayed just long enough that when the I, the tonic chord, is finally reached it's the word "respect".  This is the "home" chord for the key and, of course, what Redding's text says he wants when he gets home.  And, of course, even more famously, it's what Franklin wants. 

You can hear how Franklin understood how all these elements worked in the song.  There's no mistaking it when you hear her sing she knows how this song works in harmonic and melodic and rhythmic terms and knows exactly what she wants to do with this song.  It's one of the most justifiably legendary recordings in the entirety of the 20th century. 

And you certainly won't here "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" in the Redding version.  Franklin was steeped in the Gospel traditions enough to bring out something from the Gospel traditions that included greats like Marion Williams or Mahalia Jackson but also in a preaching tradition where the preacher stops and ruminates on the meaning of a word that is crucial to the message--if you miss what this word means or misunderstand its application you miss everything else, so don't miss it. 

It's a commonplace that a lot of rock was taken from blues and jazz but sometimes I remember that Mahalia Jackson was said to have complained that jazz and blues and rock just took music from black churches and secularized them.  Depending on how we comb through the history the nature of that allegation is that it's not that the devil has all the good music, as the axiomatic complaint has gone, the complaint Jackson registered was that the devil took music dedicated to God and made that music about anything but God. 

So for some older generations of black musicians people like Franklin bringing the sounds of church music into a secular popular musical scene could feel like a betrayal but I wasn't planning on even mentioning that.

In an age where a whole lot of people use auto-tune and not always to what I find a compelling effect I feel obliged to remember that Aretha had a fantastic voice.  And unlike a few singers I don't really want to name in commemorating her Aretha also had something else other possibly finer technicians may not have always had, a clear knowledge of what she could do and what she wanted to do with her voice.  Aretha's performance in "Respect" was spectacular but the whole ensemble performance is what made her cover of the Otis Redding song legendary.  Let's celebrate the great music she made and do so in a way that lets us remember how many people played crucial roles accompanying her in the creation of epoch-defining popular song.

Like I've been blogging here off and on in the last few years, advocates of the symphony are not wrong to want people to appreciate all the beautiful and compelling music in that tradition but in the history of Western music the song, whether solo or ensemble, was so often the acme of artistic achievement in the West.  When so many singers and songwriters have emerged in the last century to write songs so many can sing from memory even without musical literacy there's something to be said in defense of the beauty of that.  It is beautiful.  We don't have to belittle one to appreciate the other or to denigrate the one to admire the other.  That may continue to be one of the challenges musicians and advocates of musicians will continue to face. 

So, RIP Aretha Franklin.  You gave us a lot of amazing recordings of beautifully made songs. 

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