Happy 45th Anniversary to Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black, originally released January 24, 1972.
“You’re young and you’re black. You’ve got your souls intact. You got the future; don’t you know it’s a fact?”
At the dawn of the 1970s, Aretha Franklin was on the ropes. The trying demands that came with being the reigning “Lady Soul” during her glorious mid-to-late Sixties streak at Atlantic Records began to take a toll on her professional and personal life. Amidst the dissolution of her tumultuous marriage to former husband and manager Ted White in 1969, she temporarily withdrew from performing and recording.
In 1970, she released two extraordinary albums (This Girl’s in Love with You and Spirit in the Dark) that reflected the internal strife and heartbreak that consumed her life by that point—based loosely on the discontent of her marriage to White. While they didn’t exactly match the commercial success of her preceding recordings, both albums were artistic milestones that delved into her earthy bag of gospel-tinged soul and Southern blues. During the interim of 1971, she released her inspired reinterpretations of Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem,” Simon & Garfunkel’s transcendent hit, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By.” These three covers stood as solid affirmations of Franklin’s mastery of reworking pop and R&B standards into her own approach, in which she often delivered the definitive version of certain staples.
When she hit San Francisco’s famed rock venue, the Fillmore West, across a span of three sweat-drenched nights in March 1971, she brought the white counterculture movement to the forefront of her secularized gospel vision. The resulting live recording, 1971’s Aretha Live at Fillmore West, solidified the sanctified reach of Franklin’s vitality as a live performer. Both commercially and critically, it was a resounding success. It also marked something of a personal rebound for Franklin, especially after her difficult transition when she entered the Seventies.
It would be easy to assert that Franklin’s rejuvenated strength and spirit during her Fillmore West run set the groundwork for her next endeavor, when she and a cohort of gifted musicians entered Atlantic Recording Studios in New York and Criteria Studios in Miami to record what would become 1972’s Young, Gifted and Black. Certainly, Franklin was in the midst of cultural and personal shifts that defined her newfound pride, confidence, and vigor. America was in a fury of rage and tension, with countless citizens struggling to come to terms with Vietnam, the election of Richard Nixon, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and John and Robert Kennedy.
The Civil Rights struggle reached a defining transition that rocked it to its core. During much of the late 1960s through the early-to-mid 1970s, the Black Power movement moved at the center of the black political and social base, underscoring a period of determination and pride for blacks in America. It was a crucial period where politically active blacks realized that they needed more than legal equality to gain their own independence in a country that thrived from a racist capitalist system. They resisted the white gaze that dictated black possibility and fueled racial antagonism. As a result, blacks stood to fight for their own freedom as well as demand full acceptance and respect in society. This movement initiated not only a shift in political ideology, but in style and art too.
Many blacks withdrew the processed hair and conservative attire, in favor of embracing their natural selves. Their Afrocentric fashion stood as a statement, reinforcing their uninhibited pride and sociopolitical position. Black art voiced the political frustrations and complexities of the changing times through poetry, literature, music, stage, and dance. In Franklin’s world, she responded to the new era as a time of self-preservation and reinvention for blacks, specifically black women.
As remarkably illustrated on the album cover for Young, Gifted and Black, Franklin is dressed in West African garb (complete with a towering head wrap) in front of a glass-stained window of a chapel. She looks upward with grace, poise, and resilience burning for the Black Power generation. The powerful image is replicated and arranged in four parts, forming something of a steeple in the center. It was a total contrast from her trademark hairdos and stylish outfits of the Sixties. Even before unveiling the record, its message was loud and clear: a change had finally come. A new Queen emerged.
Franklin’s twentieth album, Young, Gifted and Black, can be viewed from two specific perspectives—first, as a personal statement that reflects the emotional and metaphysical struggles of the feminist experience; and secondly, a striking emblem of social justice right at the height of the Black Power era. Mind you, Young is not a political record, but Franklin’s emotionally-heightened intensity throughout the record directly responds to the politics of the era as well as her commitment to the gospel vision that ignited the promise of the Civil Rights Movement.
Franklin, along with producers Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, and Arif Mardin, wrapped righteous tapestries of gospel-infused soul, streetwise funk, gusty blues, and sophisticated jazz around Franklin’s commanding vocal dexterity. There is an undeniable polish and immediacy in the twelve compositions that underscored Franklin’s commercial revitalization by that time. Nonetheless, the all-star cast of musicians and collaborators that cook the glorious grooves on Young made the record one of the definitive touchstones of 1970s soul. Young essentially capped a trilogy that consisted of her dual 1970 landmarks, This Girl’s in Love with You and Spirit in the Dark, which stood as Franklin’s defining contribution to the burgeoning female singer-songwriter explosion of the early 1970s. Similarly to Spirit in the Dark, Franklin penned four original songs for Young, solidifying her prowess as not only a dynamic musician and vocalist, but a compelling songwriter in her own right.
The majestic ballad “Day Dreaming” was once rumored to be written about Temptations member Dennis Edwards, whom Franklin had an on-and-off relationship with at one time. With Donny Hathaway’s electric piano and Hubert Laws’ flute aiding the song’s dreamy jazz groove, Franklin fantasizes about the true affection and passion she has for the man of her dreams. The song became a million-selling hit, landing at number one on the soul charts for two weeks and peaking at number five on the pop charts in the spring of 1972. The delicate “First Snow of Kokomo” showcased Franklin’s ability to incorporate an idiosyncratic, free-flowing edge to her songwriting approach, detailing the characteristics and struggles of a working-class family from Indiana during the winter.
She funks things up with the sensual “Rock Steady,” which inexplicably features one of her funkiest grooves ever laid to wax. Franklin once praised the late great Donny Hathaway with making “Rock Steady” into one of her greatest hits, as he added glorious piano padding that gave the song its distinctive charm. In addition to Hathaway, the driving backbeat was done by legendary session drummer Bernard Purdie, along with Chuck Rainey’s stirring basslines and the Memphis Horns’ boisterous horn charts. If someone has never at least bopped their heads to the groove, they can’t be classified as a human.
She then strolls down heartbreak lane with the lovelorn ballad, “All the King’s Horses,” which was inspired by her turbulent marriage to manager Ted White. In the tradition of her artistry, Franklin remained a master interpreter of pop classics and counterculture staples. On Young, she furthered her genius of not only reworking a standard into her own approach, but impressively reimagining a song in a different context from how it was originally sought out.
She once again takes on an Otis Redding original for “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and retraces Redding’s devoted plea for his woman’s love with a wry feminist revelation. Near the end of her solid interpretation, Franklin painfully pleads for her man not to leave her for someone else because he’s not aesthetically or physically attracted to her anymore. Whenever her definitive cover of Lulu’s “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool for You Baby)” comes on, it’s like hearing it for the first time. From its lone piano-based opening to its climatic build-up, Franklin delves into the soul-stirring ballad with a certain earnest and confidence that outstrips the confectioned pop of its original version.
She takes the Burt Bacharach and Hal David evergreen “April Fools” and the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” to her soul kitchen and injects peppy, funk-pop sensibilities to their once symphonic melodies. Her inspiring take of “A Brand New Me” took on an entirely new entity that reads as both a personal anthem for Franklin as well as a feminist statement. During the song, Franklin eagerly sings with the insight of a once broken woman who mended her broken spirit and love, thanks to her newfound lover. Given Franklin’s own life, she certainly took every word of “A Brand New Me” to heart, as her embattled days with White had long ended and she’d soon pursue a new love interest with her then-flame, Ken “Wolf” Cunningham.
Reaching into the songbooks of Paul McCartney and John Lennon (for the third time) as well as Bernie Tupin must have been a daunting task for Franklin, but in true fashion, she willingly took on the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” and Elton John’s “Border Song (Holy Moses).” For many years, rock critics have coldly dismissed Franklin’s choice of cover material, while wrongly accusing her of not focusing more on her original material during her peak. However, what they overlook is her singular approach in actually reinterpreting a song. She baptizes the schmaltzy melancholy of “The Long and Winding Road” and the counterculture mysticism of “Border Song” in the deep waters of the Mississippi Delta and rebuilds them as throaty freedom songs. She completely overshadows their original counterparts. Her version of “The Long and Winding Road,” in particular, feels like a Baptist hymn that came straight from New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, with Franklin’s gospel-esteemed testifying, reaffirming the struggle that defined the Civil Rights Movement.
Weldon Irvine’s “(To Be) Young, Gifted and Black” has been redone and reworked in several ways over the years, but the most transcendent element that makes Franklin’s cover of the anthem irresistible is how she stunningly bridged its aim toward both the commitment of the Civil Rights Movement and the spirit of Black Power era. Her cover is rooted in the beauty of African culture and the fiery of the Black Church, which immediately connects the song to what the album’s cover art suggested. The song’s redemptive spirit and empowering message is never weighed down by Franklin’s commanding vocal approach. In fact, her ease and melodic approach actually reinforce its overall message of black pride and empowerment. While many will unnecessarily argue over whether Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, or Franklin truly gave the powerful anthem its proper due, Franklin’s cover gave it a broader context that is still riveting years later.
It certainly doesn’t require too much to appreciate a classic that is as soul-affirming and visionary as Young, Gifted and Black. I can’t think of too many albums that transport you right to the helm of the era it was recorded in. As for Franklin’s remarkable Atlantic output, I find it awfully difficult to rank the body of work she recorded during this period, as most, if not, all of it is grand. If you are in a room with fellow Aretha-ologists (like myself) and ask them what their favorite Aretha album is, you’ll probably be in the room all day. However, I must declare that Young is undoubtedly one of Franklin’s most accomplished and magnificent jewels in a long string of jewels.
Frankly, I may consider it to be the summit of her entire career. It captures Franklin in a nakedly introspective and intimate mode, breaking free from the brutal pain of a failed relationship, while experiencing the bliss of a new one. Her newfound confidence as a proud black woman and musician spoke volumes to everyone. Her insight was never clearer and her love was never bolder. Young, Gifted and Black is an immortal masterwork that speaks to our souls as well as our hearts. In the embattled political and social climate we reside in now, its love and spirit still reflect our own and demand us to keep growing beyond our swaying perceptions. Just as Franklin envisioned in 1972, this is truth music at its finest, and it sounds as rewarding now as it did forty-five years ago.