My Playlist: Aretha Franklin

Earlier this year, I got very close to seeing Aretha Franklin live at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J. I had already purchased two tickets and was thrilled to finally experience who I felt was one of the greatest vocalists of our time. Another cool thing was that the March 25th show would have coincided with her 76th birthday. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

On very short notice, the concert was cancelled due to an unidentified illness. When media reported shortly thereafter that Franklin’s doctor had ordered three months of absolute rest, I didn’t have a good feeling. After all, this wasn’t the first time she had dealt with health issues. Yesterday, the Queen of Soul passed away from advanced pancreatic cancer, barely five months after her birthday and what I’m sure would have been an unforgettable performance.

FRANKLIN
Aretha Franklin performing at the VH1 Divas 2001

Given the vast number of obituaries that have been published since news about her untimely death broke yesterday morning, I’m not going to develop yet another one. Instead, I’d like to focus on what will remain – an amazing amount of music by an amazing performer, released over a 60-year-plus professional career.

Based on Wikipedia, Franklin’s enormous catalog includes 42 studio albums, six live albums, 131 singles and numerous compilations. While it’s obviously impossible to capture all of that music in one playlist while keeping it to no more than 10 tracks, I tried to come up with tunes that span her entire recording period.

Where to start the undertaking? Well, how about Franklin’s studio debut Songs Of Faith from 1956, which was recorded live at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, the church of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Here’s While The Blood Runs Warm. Franklin was only 14 years old at the time, but you can already hear her powerful voice. This is giving me goosebumps!

Franklin’s fourth studio album The Tender, The Moving, The Swinging Aretha Franklin from August 1962 became her first charting record, reaching no. 69 on the Billboard pop albums chart. Here’s Try A Little Tenderness, a tune I dig, written by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly and Harry M. Woods, and first recorded by the Ray Nobel Orchestra in December 1932. It has since been covered by many other artists, who in addition to Franklin most notably included Otis Redding in 1966.

Respect is perhaps the best-known Aretha Franklin song. The signature tune, which was written and first released by Otis Redding in 1965, appeared on her 11th studio album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You from March 1967. The song was Franklin’s first no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts, as well as the Cash Box chart. The record became her highest charting to date, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard album chart and topping the magazine’s R&B chart.

Another Franklin signature song undoubtedly is Think, co-written by her and her manager and first husband Ted White. The feminism anthem appeared on her 15th studio album Aretha Now in June 1968 and was also released separately as a single in May of the same year. White’s involvement in the song’s writing looks ironical, given Franklin divorced him in 1969, following reports of domestic abuse.

This Girl’s In Love With You was Franklin’s first ’70s album appearing in January that year, and her 18th studio album overall. Intriguingly, it includes the first commercial release of Let It Be, preceding The Beatles’ version by two months, and the following take of The Weight written by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. Oh, and if the guy on the slide guitar somehow seems to sound familiar, it was Duane Allman. I think not only is this soulful cover smoking hot, but it’s also a great illustration of Franklin’s great ability to take songs written by others and make them her own.

In February 1974, Franklin released her 22nd studio album Let Me Be In Your Life.  The second single from that record was Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do), co-written by Clarence Paul, Stevie Wonder and Morris Broadnax. It was first recorded by Wonder in 1967, though he didn’t release his version until 1977. The tune became a million-seller for Franklin, topping the Billboard R&B chart and peaking at no. 2 on the Hot 100. It was her last major ’70s hit.

Jumping to the ’80s, Franklin collaborated on a number of songs with various other artists during that decade, such as George Benson, Elton John, George Michael and Eurhythmics. The tune I’d like to highlight in this context is Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, another feminist anthem that Franklin recorded with Eurhythmics. Apart from appearing as a single in October 1985, the tune was included on Franklin’s Who’s Zoomin’ Who? and the British pop duo’s Be Yourself Tonight studio albums. Co-written by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, the song reached no. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no. 9 in the U.K. on the Official Singles Chart. The track proves that Franklin could even make an ’80s commercial pop tune sound pretty hot.

A Rose Is Still A Rose, released in March 1998, was Franklin’s last studio album that reached Gold certification and became her best-selling record of the ’90s. Following is the title track, which was written by Lauryn Hill and is yet another feminist-based tune. It also appeared as a single one month ahead of the album, reaching no. 1, 5 and 26 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop/Rap Songs and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

Jumping to the current century, in September 2003, Franklin’s 38th studio record So Damn Happy appeared. It included Wonderful, a song co-written by Aleese Simmons and Ron “Amen-Ra” Lawrence, which won Franklin the 2003 Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance.

Franklin’s 42nd and final studio album A Brand New Me was released in November 2017. It featured archival vocal recordings from her years with Atlantic Records combined with new arrangements by London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and newly recorded backing vocals. Here’s I Say A Little Prayer, which Burt Bacharach and Hal David co-wrote for Dionne Warwick who released it in 1967 as as single. It was also included on her eighth studio release The Windows Of The World. Franklin originally recorded the tune for the above noted Aretha Now album and released it as a single in July 1968, scoring a no. 3 and 10 on the Billboard R&B and Hot 100 charts, respectively.

As previously noted, the goal of the above playlist was to be career-spanning. As such, not all of the songs are among my favorite tunes. But at the same time, I feel that because of her powerful voice and soulful delivery, Franklin simply never sang a bad song in the first place – at least I haven’t heard one yet. Two other artists who come to my mind in this context are Tina Turner and Joe Cocker. It’s a rare quality that is going to be part of Franklin’s legacy.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

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Cordovas Release New Album That Santa Fe Channel

Harmony vocals and warm guitar-driven sound feel like trip back to late ’60s and early ’70s

Until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t heard of Cordovas. Then I saw the Americana rock band from East Nashville, Tenn. in a free summer concert in the park in Woodbridge, N.J. and immediately liked what I heard. Frankly, I’m still a bit in disbelief they played there in the first place but, hey, that’s how they got on my radar screen, so I’m not complaining! Today, they released what I understand is their second studio album, That Santa Fe Channel, and it’s a real beauty.

Listening to Cordovas feels a bit like taking a journey back in time to the late ’60s and early ’70s, a period in music I love. Sometimes, my dear wife tells me I grew up during the wrong decade – she may be right about it!:-) Anyway, Cordovas’ beautiful triple-stacked harmony vocals and guitar-driven sound remind me of bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Band, Grateful Dead, Eagles and Little Feat.

Billboard called Cordovas’ music a blend of Southern and California Americana. Rolling Stone, in a June 2017 feature titled 10 New Country Artists You Need To Know, described their sound as “decidedly American” and “caught halfway between Duane Allman’s Telecaster twang, the Dead’s hazy harmonies and the stoned swoon of California’s folk-rock heyday.”

I could never come up with such clever attributes, which is why I probably wouldn’t get far as a music journalist. But while I may be challenged to find the right buzz words, given my former band days as a bassist (admittedly many moons ago!) and close to four decades of listening experience, I feel confident enough to say that This Santa Fe Channel is great music, since I know it when I hear it! Of course, ultimately, it comes down to individual taste.

Cordovas
Cordovas (left to right): (left to right) Toby Weaver, Graham Spillman, Lucca Soria, Sevans Henderson and Joe Firstman

Led by bassist Joe Firstman, Cordovas have been around for some time. According to Billboard, the first album released under their name appeared in 2011 and essentially was a solo effort by Firstman. Firstman has a long history predating the band, which includes a 2002 solo debut album, War Of Women, and a stint as music director on Last Call with Carson Daly. “For this one [the new album] we had the idea to make it a band and go forward to do it,” he told Billboard. “I saw the weaknesses in that first (solo) process and I recognized that I felt like I was much stronger in the band, with guys that I really trust and are like-minded individuals. I wanted to build something that would last.”

The band’s current line-up, which also includes Toby Weaver (guitar, vocals), Lucca Soria (guitar, vocals), Sevans Henderson (keyboards) and Graham Spillman (drums), has been together for five years. Cordovas are exceptionally tight-knit. Not only are they band mates who tour prolifically, but they also live together in the same compound in East Nashville. “The Cordovas are a 24-hour, 7-days-a-week job,” explains Firstman on the band’s Facebook page. “We’re eating dinner together, hanging out together, and making art. We don’t have rehearsal times, because rehearsal is always. You have to honor the art first, and everything else comes second.” I think it’s fair to say these conditions wouldn’t work for most bands, so kudos to Cordovas for their extraordinary commitment. Time to let some music do the talking, or perhaps I should better say the writing!

Here’s the album’s opener This Town’s A Drag. This tune nicely sets the tone for the record: Great harmony singing and a warm sound blending electric and pedal steel guitar.

Selfish Loner is the longest track on the album, clocking in at just over four and a half minutes. Most tunes are only around three minutes or less. In fact, the nine songs on the album only total about 29 minutes altogether.

Here’s Frozen Rose, one of two tunes Cordovas had released as a single ahead of the album.

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Standin’ On The Porch, which in addition to country rock throws in some blues. I also dig the tune’s groove.

That Santa Fe Channel was produced by Kenneth Pattengale, a singer and guitarist in American indie folk duo The Milk Carton Kids. The album appears on ATO Records, an independent New York-based label founded in 2000 by Dave Matthews and manager Coran Capshaw. Among others, their roster includes Alabama Shakes.

Cordovas are currently where they appear to be most of the time – on the road. Their present U.S. schedule posted on their website goes until early October. Upcoming gigs include Chicago (Aug 16), Washington, D.C. (Aug 23), Fort Worth (Aug 30) and Cleveland (Sep 5). Earlier this year, the band toured in Europe.

Sources: Billboard, Rolling Stones, Cordovas Facebook page and website, ATO Records website, YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: July 28

Recently after a longer break, I decided to do a new installment of this recurring feature. Perhaps I got bitten by the rock & roll history bug, so here’s another one.

1957: Rock & roll pioneer and honky-tonk piano wizard Jerry Lee Lewis made his national TV appearance on the Steve Allen Show, a variety program that at the time aired on Sunday nights at 8:00 PM on NBC, directly competing with the mighty Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. Lewis’ performance of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On took sales of the tune from 30,000 to six million copies. He returned to the program twice, but I doubt he was able to repeat that kind of sales shake-up.

1964: The Beatles topped the Official Singles Chart with A Hard Day’s Night, scoring their fifth no. 1 single in the U.K. The title track of the band’s third studio album and soundtrack to their first feature film also became a chart topper in many countries elsewhere in Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia. Credited as usually to John Lennon and Paul Cartney, the song was mostly written by Lennon. It’s one of those magic tunes that’s instantly recognizable by its signature opening chord. According to The Beatles Bible, there have been multiple suggestions how to describe the chord, which was played by George Harrison on his Rickenbacker 360/12. For all the guitarists out there who’ve played this sucker but never knew what the heck it is, Harrison confirmed in February 2001 that it’s called an Fadd9. If anything, I thought it was some G chord – I suppose it depends on how high you tune your guitar!

1966: Chris Farlowe hit no. 1 on the U.K. Official Singles Chart with Out Of Time. Not only was the track a cover of a Rolling Stones tune, but it was also produced by Mick Jagger. Additionally, the song appeared on Farlowe’s third studio album The Art Of Chris Farlowe. Released in November that year, the record was solely credited to him, even though he was backed by his band The Thunderbirds. The album also featured covers of three other Stones songs: Paint It Black, I’m Free and Ride On, Baby. When the Stones had initially released Out Of Time as a single in April 1966, it hadn’t charted. It would take more than nine years until September 1975 to finally do so, with a two-week run that saw the song peak at no. 45.

1969: According to police reports from Moscow, thousands of public phone booths had been vandalized in the Russian capital when people were taking parts from phones to convert their acoustic to electric guitars. Apparently, a feature in a Russian youth magazine had described how to do it. This must have slipped the censorship by the Russian authorities. One wonders what happened to the editor of this publication, as well as the censors who had missed the article. While I don’t condone vandalism, admittedly, I had to smile when I learned about this story. Rock & roll scored a rare if short victory in a totalitarian state that suppressed it. Of course, censorship continues in Russia to this day and seems to be worse than ever. Meanwhile, the leader of the free world and his supporters have come up with the concepts of alternate facts and fake news if they don’t like media coverage.

Long Live Rock 'N Roll

1973: The Summer Jam at Watkins Glen was held at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Raceway near Watkins Glen, N.Y. The outdoor music festival drew an estimated 600,000 rock fans to see The Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead and The Band – what a line-up! The one-day event ended up in the Guinness Book Of Word Records for “largest audience at a pop festival.” While in some regards Watkins Glen was comparable to Woodstock (upstate New York location, terrible traffic, bad weather), the latter “only” attracted more than 400,000 people. Here’s a clip of Come And Go Blues by the Allman Brothers, which apparently was recorded at the festival.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Rock, This Day In Music.com, U.K. Official Singles Chart, The Beatles Bible, YouTube

Clips & Pix: Bob Dylan & The Band/I Shall Be Released

Yesterday (April 7) was the 40th anniversary of the release of The Last Waltz, the triple LP album by The Band and soundtrack to the 1978 concert film directed by Martin Scorsese. The album and picture document the group’s official farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day in 1976.

The Bob Dylan tune I Shall Be Released was the closing number of the official show. In addition to Dylan and The Band, it featured other high caliber guests, who had performed earlier during the show, including Van Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Ronnie Hawkins and Neil Diamond.

Many critics have called the film one of the best rock concert movies; however, not everybody agreed. Notably, The Band’s Levon Helm charged the film portrays The Band as sidemen of Robbie Robertson. He also called it “the biggest fuckin’ rip-off that ever happened to the Band,” adding he and the other group members Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel didn’t earn a dime from the film and the soundtrack album.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: July 1

It’s hard to believe today is July 1st and here we are in the thicket of summer – a good occasion to pause and take a look back at what happened on that day in rock & roll history.

1956: Elvis Presley appeared on NBC’s Steven Allen Show to perform Hound Dog, one of the countless great classic rock & roll tunes written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Initially recorded by Willie Mea “Big Mama” Thornton and released in 1953, Presley came out with his version in 1956, turning it into his best-selling song. But what’s memorable about his above show appearance isn’t the tune but the fact that he sang it to a visibly excited dog. While no animals were harmed during the infamous performance, Elvis’ appearance drew mixed reactions. I recall reading somewhere that he himself thought the whole thing was pretty stupid – I couldn’t agree more! Well, I suppose the good ole’ days weren’t always as good after all, whether in TV or elsewhere!

1963: Of course, no look-back on rock history would be complete without The Beatles! On that day in 1963, John, Paul, George and Ringo were at Abbey Road’s studio 2 to record She Loves You and I’ll Get You, the two sides of their fourth UK single. As usually credited to Lennon-McCartney, She Loves You went on to become their best-selling single and is ranked no. 64 on Rolling Stone’s April 2011 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. According to The Beatles Bible, producer Sir George Martin recalled:

“I was sitting in my usual place on a high stool in studio two when John and Paul first ran through the song on their acoustic guitars, George joining in on the choruses. I thought it was great but was intrigued by the final chord, an odd sort of major sixth, with George doing the sixth and John and Paul the third and fifths, like a Glenn Miller arrangement. They were saying, ‘It’s a great chord! Nobody’s ever heard it before!’ Of course I knew that wasn’t quite true!”

The Beatles_She Loves You_Single

1968: The Band released their debut studio record Music From Big Pink. The album’s recording followed The Band’s backing of Bob Dylan on his 1966 tour as The Hawks. The album’s cover artwork is a painting by the maestro himself. Among others, the record includes The Weight, a gem written by Robbie Robertson, and Dylan’s I Shall Be Released. While the record didn’t sell well, initial reception from the music critics was positive, which doesn’t necessarily say much; oftentimes, I feel these guys don’t get it right, but they did in this case! The album is ranked no. 34 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time from 2012.

The Band_Music From Big Pink

1975: 10cc hit no. on the UK Singles Chart with I’m Not in Love, which is perhaps one of the most epic 70s ballads. Written by band members Eric Stewart (local vocals, electric piana) and Graham Gouldman (electic guitar, bass, backing vocals), the tune was the second single from the band’s third studio record The Original Soundtrack. It was the second of the band’s three no. 1 UK singles and their international breakthrough hit. I still do vaguely recall hearing it on the radio in Germany all the time, where it peaked at no. 8 on the charts. In the U.S., it climbed all the way to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.

 

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day in Music, The Beatles Bible, Rolling Stone, YouTube