Happy 40th Anniversary to Aretha Franklin’s Sparkle, originally released May 27, 1976.
“So much love for us to feel. So much hope for material things. Are they only in my dreams?”
There were startling similarities between Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield from the very beginning, decades before their collaboration Sparkle was even envisioned. Both hailed from the Midwestern region, with Mayfield’s roots deriving from his birthplace in Chicago and Franklin growing up in Detroit.
Two preeminent cities with undeniably rich and varied musical traditions, Chicago and Detroit made immeasurable contributions to the American musical fabric. This key factor made both figures such a vital pairing as Franklin and Mayfield primarily based their respective styles at the core of the Black gospel vision. They were inarguably two of the definitive practitioners from the Black church that spoke to the harsh realities, hopes, and possibilities of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power era, during some of the most turbulent periods in America. It’s no coincidence that Franklin stirringly covered the Impressions’ anthemic 1965 classic “People Get Ready” for her third Atlantic release, 1968’s Lady Soul.
Throughout the 1960s, Mayfield was one-third of the revered soul vocal trio The Impressions, penning some of the era’s most relevant and transparent sentiments. Meaningful, transcendent, and socially aware, Mayfield’s sweet and creamy falsetto responded to the advancement of Black people, with an all-too deep lyrical insight and on-time humanistic sensibility. His groundbreaking strides as the founder of Curtom Records, with the willpower to own his master recordings and publishing, was confirmation of how immensely passionate the man was. Next to James Brown, Mayfield was certainly the ”Renaissance Man” in Black music, standing firm and strong with his large musical repertoire and business endeavors, amid the changing trends that lay ahead.
Franklin’s humble musical quests began at Columbia Records during the early 1960s, where she managed to churn out modest successes with early singles such as “Won’t Be Long” and “Skylark.” It was during this severely-overlooked period that she masterfully tackled a wide array of musical styles, with her versatile and commanding instrument: her voice.
As wonderfully diverse and passionate as these early recordings were, executives and producers at Columbia had a difficult task in determining how to market her. She hadn’t quite arrived.
It would be her sudden move to Atlantic Records in 1966 that would lay the foundation for her reigning and definitive era, as one of the most gifted and transformative musicians in music history. Her storied thirteen-year tenure with Atlantic certainly needs no specific superlatives, as she redefined the standard of the female soul singer in the span of two decades. Not to mention her mighty string of singles and albums—from 1967’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You to 1974’s Let Me in Your Life—found her at the top of the charts and the tip of everyone’s tongues.
As the Impressions’ lead vocalist, Mayfield’s artistic clout surely wasn’t tattered when he departed from the group in 1970. In fact, he was just getting started. On top of working with several up-and-coming artists for his Curtom label, he managed to score a solo career.
Expanding on the sociopolitical bite, philosophical audacity, and romantic virtues that defined his work with the Impressions, while bridging the gap between funk, rock, and soul, Mayfield laid out a massively pioneering canvas of album-length suites. Beginning with his incredibly ambitious debut Curtis and capping with 1977’s quiet storm-laden Never Say You Can’t Survive, Mayfield became an influential musician in the pantheon of 1970s Black music, fearless and unlimited in every sense.
In between his much-lauded solo output and production work, he took a huge interest in scoring soundtracks for motion pictures, particularly at the height of the blaxploitation era. By 1976, he had already experienced perhaps the greatest commercial success and critical acclaim of his career with his own ubiquitous soundtrack for the gritty 1972 crime drama Super Fly, which told the story of a Harlem drug kingpin trying to ”get out of the life.“ He also managed to work with Gladys Knight and the Pips for the 1974 Claudine soundtrack and the Staple Singers for the 1975 Let’s Do It Again soundtrack. Both soundtracks were recognized as fully-realized portraits of gospel-fueled female soul, serving as major milestones for the respective acts in their own right, and not solely as musical counterparts for cult films.
When it came time for the next film score endeavor, Mayfield had his sights on taking the reins as the music force for Sparkle, a musical rags-to-riches vehicle that focused on the fortunes and hardships of a 1960s black girl group comprised of sisters from Harlem, trying to break into the music business. Initially, he planned on utilizing the vocal talents of the film’s cast as the focal counterpart for the film score. While their versions were recorded and used throughout the musical segues of the film, Mayfield was dissatisfied with them, feeling that they couldn’t carry the full capacity and strength of his musical vision.
By the mid-1970s, Franklin was faced with many changes across the soul landscape, as well as tough competitors. There were other ladies, like Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Deniece Williams, Betty Wright, and Roberta Flack, dominating the airwaves and marking their own legacies. Naturally, when there is more than one household name “grabbing the baton,“ so to speak, reality sets in. Disco started to take its shape in the heart of the soul and pop marketplace, causing immediate ripples in popular music. While she never recaptured her peak commercial and critical glory at Atlantic Records during the mid-to-late 1970s, there was certainly artistic merit during this era. The lady of soul persevered, survived, and triumphed, amid the personal and commercial strains that lay ahead.
With two artistically rewarding, yet commercially disappointing albums under her belt—1974’s With Everything I Feel in Me and 1975’s You—she was in dire need of a commercial rebound and Atlantic demanded that she deliver a hit. Although her long-time musical collaborator and producer Jerry Wexler lost the desire to continue working with her after 1975, Ahmet Ertegun, then co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, stood in her corner. Ertegun provided her with a wide-array of producers to choose from, to assist her with the follow-up to 1975’s You. Franklin chose Mayfield as the man to guide her next artistic move. When Ertegun finally approached Mayfield about Franklin taking an interest in him cutting a new album for her, Mayfield enthusiastically jumped at the chance to work with the Queen herself.
Hastily recorded over a five-day stretch at Mayfield’s own Curtom Studio in Chicago, Sparkle became the perfectly-realized portrait of what Detroit’s leading lady of soul and Chicago’s mighty genius of soul and funk helped usher into the American consciousness for two decades before. The admittedly nostalgic album cover shows an elegant Franklin, wearing a tightly-coordinated, silk head wrap, smiling brightly, inviting you to uncover the warmth and bliss of the platter contained therein. When putting the needle on the first groove of the album and lending your ear to the soaring beds of heavenly orchestral arrangements for the album’s title track, you immediately come to the conclusion that this was a complete labor of love: a project that could only be created by two people deeply in love, amidst a world that was undergoing utter disarray and changes.
Over the course of the album’s eight songs are lean Philadelphia soul-styled funk compositions that reflect the elegance, brilliance, and depth of deep gospel-based soul. There is a uniform mixture of sweetness and grit that resides in the musical approach Mayfield takes throughout the entire outing, supplanted over Aretha’s fiery vocal treasures, which allow the songs to burst with a certain flair and immediacy. This could be the adequate balance Mayfield wanted from the very start of orchestrating the score for the film, however, with deeper listens, there’s more to this thought.
This isn’t merely an “Aretha Franklin Sings Music from the Motion Picture ’Sparkle‘ by Curtis Mayfield” affair, as indicated on the album cover. Historically, though, the recording sessions for Sparkle were anything but smooth, as Franklin and Mayfield reportedly got into several rifts over Mayfield’s vocal guides for several of the soundtrack’s compositions. In a 1978 Blues & Soul interview, Franklin asserted that Mayfield’s production approach could be both demanding and stifling for how she wanted to sing his compositions. The circumstances and tension that occurred behind the scenes culminated in a resounding fest of love when the album finally arrived in the spring of 1976.
For all of the compositions featured on Sparkle, Mayfield wrote about several subjects relating to the pursuits of love, solely from the viewpoint of a woman. In the opening lines of the album’s title track, Franklin confidently declares, “I Sparkle / loving the way that I do / it is true / I feel so good, just having you.” These lines flow with so much serenity, as if she has awoken during the brightest and most opulent of mornings, singing them gently in her lover’s ear. This gorgeous ballad, flowered with sweeping string arrangements and meticulous rhythms, sets up the entire album. If the title song plays as a soft invitation and sweet tribute to the joy of a woman in romantic delight, then the album’s defining song, “Something He Can Feel,” encapsulates a down-and-dirty testimony on how she feels about her man.
With its swampy, slow-burning groove, “Something He Can Feel” instantly grabs you, sits you down, and draws you into a period when the essence of black love poured relentlessly into the lives and communities of the post-Civil Rights era in Black America. The song serves as a stunning reminder of how potent black emotionality was in a time when America was certainly undergoing a multitude of changes, both politically and socially. Mayfield didn’t necessarily write this classic ballad in the erotically-charged mode that several of his competitors were benefiting from during this period in soul music. In contrast, Mayfield conjured up pure aesthetics of the appreciation, desires and adoration a woman has for her man, through all of his triumphs and imperfections.
In her eyes, her lover is irreplaceable, despite what any doubter may claim. This fact is captivatingly evoked in the song’s most notable lines, when Franklin wails, “Living in a world of ghetto life / Everyone is so uptight / but nothing’s wrong / it’s alright / my man.” Franklin struts with her gusty, gospel-fueled conviction, accompanied by the Kitty Haywood Singers, throughout this sensual romp of unapologetic truth and emotion. “Something He Can Feel” became Franklin’s first chart-topper in two years, peaking at number one on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart and number twenty-eight on Billboard’s Hot 100 in the summer of 1976. Forty years after it resonated on the airwaves, it remains a Quiet Storm staple and one of the key cornerstones of Aretha’s oeuvre.
With the album’s next two songs, the bouncy funk of “Hooked on Your Love” and sentimental “Look into Your Heart,” Franklin and Mayfield echoed the sentiments of the climatic “Something He Can Feel” to spectacular effect. “I Get High” remains the album’s most understated composition as well as an obvious deviation from the album’s central theme of unabashed intimacy and commitment. A true highlight, Mayfield wrote about a distressed woman who romanticized dangerous love—the kind that will ultimately push one into the plight of substance abuse—and then, lost everything she truly loved. With its low-key blues sensibility, Franklin rides the ballad’s moody groove with deep intensity and raw edge. She conveys the words of Mayfield’s precautionary tale, as if she lived it herself. In fact, the argument can be made that “I Get High” is the only song on the album that complements the narrative of the film’s tragic character, Sister (portrayed by actress and singer Lonette McKee). In the accompanying 1976 film, Sister is the ambitious and worldly of the three ladies that comprise Sister and the Sisters. With all of her bubbly passion and glowing feistiness, Sister has dreams of being a huge superstar. As time goes by, she descends into a seedy world of unruly vices, including men that violate and disrespect her. The pain becomes too much for her to bear, and she eventually succumbs to the ills of drug addiction. Taking all of this into account, “I Get High” represents the lowdown of what love can do.
The album flows straight into the sultry, clubby funk of “Jump,” in which Franklin excitedly wails about wooing her partner to accompany her doing a new dance that is conquering the nation. Mayfield’s interesting blend of saucy conga work, chicken-scratch guitars, and infectious basslines bursts with full exuberance and joy. Sparkle concludes with its two final compositions “Loving You Baby” and “Rock with Me,” which reinforce the album’s overall exploration of love, both well-performed with rousing conviction by Franklin.
Certainly the public clamored with praise toward the knockout beauty of this classic pairing between Franklin and Mayfield, as Sparkle charted on the Billboard Soul Albums chart at number one and number eighteen on Billboard’s main album chart in 1976. It eventually sold upwards of 500,000 copies, going gold the same year. The critical reception for the album was overwhelmingly positive as well. Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer wrote in an August 1976 review, “Sparkle, which consists of Mayfield’s tunes from the motion picture of the same name and a few extra originals, could easily have been a cheap shot, a momentary deviation from the mainstream in Aretha Franklin’s career. Instead, it is her most consistently exciting album in some time.”
The fruitful success of Sparkle gave Franklin the rebound hit she yearned for, however, its commercial viability tells only part of the album’s greater story. I’d personally like to think that Sparkle succeeded most profoundly on the basis of its rich musical and cultural value. Mayfield and Franklin relied on the authenticity of the black gospel vision to create an indispensable masterpiece of deep gospel-rooted soul for generations to come. Even though they would team up again for 1978’s Almighty Fire, to even greater artistic heights, Sparkle still shines brightly forty years later.