Saturday, February 04, 2006

Aretha Franklin - "Young, Gifted and Black"

This is the review I was compelled to write yesterday.

I have to echo Tall Paul's comments above. I'm a dabbling soul fan, and a friend recently recommended "Rock Steady." When he asked me if I knew it I kept thinking of some other "Rock Steady." You know the mid 90's RNB-groove-one? It's by "The Whispers," Google just told me so. That's what came to mind when he said "Rock Steady." He gave me a funny look.

At the same time, it popped up in the great book Yes, Yes Y'all: Oral History of Hip Hop's First Decade. Aforementioned friend gave me a disc of mp3 music with "Rock Steady" on it. Now I understand that funny look. I fell immediately in love with it's funky soul, and it's quite possibly my favorite song at this moment.

So today I'm driving through town, and I see a funky red sign on the sidewalk reading "Estate Sale - Vintage Vinyl." (See last post - Estate Sale Booty) Lucky for me, it was my day off, and I resolved to stop in.

Inside a failed coffee shop stands its owner with some random "estate sale" detritus and 10 boxes of vinyl. You never know what you'll see in those kinds of boxes. Of course, there are the regulars: the apparently much loved and apparently much left such as Sergio Mendez and Brazil '66 (and/or '77), Sing Along with Mitch, the "Hooked on Swing" comps, and plenty of faceless instrument records with exclamatory titles like "Conga Brass!" or "Powerful Percussion!" But in between those, there's always something else, and if you're lucky, you find something great.

Today I was lucky. I found it: "Young, Gifted and Black," in "A" condition. Based on first listen and what the estate guy said, this record may never have been played before tonight. Apart from "Rock Steady," I hadn't heard it yet. Now I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have just heard this record for the first time.

Aretha is abolutely perfect. Thrilling. She soars on each song, hitting especially amazing heights on the title cut in particular. In terms of pure melodic precision, I can't think of a voice so, well, PURE, save maybe Ella Fitzgerald. I don't think the musicians and arrangements could be any better. Bernard Purdie on drums, Donny Hathaway on keys; these are good names to find. To top it off, this record (all but two tracks) have Tom Dowd at the controls. That means the recording sounds absolutely fantastic. I learned about Mr Dowd through a wonderful documentary I recently (still on the TIVO!) saw on IFC. In it are pictures of Tom and Aretha, probably from these very sessions!

For me today, upon the first listen of this record, it's as though the planets have aligned and this record is the result. That's just barely hyperbole. It truly delights me that there are still musical gems like this, 34 years old, that I can still experience with virgin ears. After the experience, I can say with total confidence that for any fan of black music (go ahead and get upset if you must, but you shouldn't), this album is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL.

(And Tall Paul is right, I think this record must be heard on vinyl for best results, and he eplained why well. So do yourself a favor and dust off the old turntable, your ears will thank you.)


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