Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul - Craig Werner (2004)
Chapter 3. “Spirit in the Dark”
Music and the
Powers of Blackness
ARETHA FRANKLIN’S BAND LEADER King Curtis, a saxophonist who created some of the most memorable riffs in soul music history, glanced toward his crackerjack band, the Kingpins, and nodded to guest organist Billy Preston. Decked out in a black leather jacket with an embroidered horseshoe and a white leather horse’s head on the back, King Curtis caressed his horn and looked out over San Francisco’s Fillmore West Auditorium. It was the eve of the epic Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight, and the multiracial crowd packing the West Coast counterculture’s musical Mecca buzzed with excitement. Tie-dyed Fillmore regulars accustomed to hallucinatory light shows and the psychedelic blues of the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane now found themselves side by side with Black Power radicals who’d donned sharply creased slacks, African gowns, and glistening leather jackets for their foray into unknown territory. King Curtis signaled Preston, the grizzled soul veterans in the Memphis Horns, and the angelic vocalists in the Sweethearts of Soul—and delivered the invocation.
As the band punched out the opening riff of “Respect” and applause thundered through the cavernous hall, the spotlight danced across the rainbow crowd and settled on the woman who’d called the congregation together on that early spring Sunday in 1971. Dressed in a floor-length white gown with gold accents, Aretha Franklin looked her very best. Poised and radiant with her hair in a tight Afro, she affirmed what the crowd already knew: “What you want, baby, I got it.” Brimming with confidence for the last show in her three-night stand, Aretha swept the crowd up in a wave of love, and it responded with long-stemmed red roses and Black Power salutes. Joints and bottles of wine passed freely between black and white hands as Aretha invited her listeners to join her in a gospel world where the counterculture and the Black Power movement could glorify creation together. First Aretha reached out to the hippies with the rock side of her repertoire—“Eleanor Rigby,” “Satisfaction,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and two songs she’d prepared specially for the occasion, Stephen Stills’s “Love the One You’re With” and Bread’s “Make It with You.” Following a sultry version of her number-one R&B hit “Don’t Play That Song,” she took the Fillmore to church with “Dr. Feelgood,” building up to a fervent call-and-response exchange of “Oh yeah”s. “Every now and then you gotta sit down, cross your legs, cross your arms, and say, ‘Yes, Lord,’ ” Aretha shouted out, as Preston eased into the organ chord announcing the gospel-soul rave-up “Spirit in the Dark.” Lifting the crowd to heights familiar only to those who’d grown up in gospel churches, Aretha brought the song to its familiar climax and, while the Kingpins continued to lay down the groove, walked off the stage.
A moment later she was back, Ray Charles by her side. As Aretha guided him to the piano, Brother Ray bobbed his graying head toward the audience and flashed his signature crooked smile. While the band kept on vamping, Aretha took a few more choruses of “Spirit” while Charles tested the groove. Before long the two legends were warming the counterculture with their sanctified fire. Declaring the duet “a moment of perfect beauty, brief, and impossible to re-create,” rock critic Michael Lydon was swept up in the frenzied response: “We danced, clapped, hugged, kissed, and finally wept.” Reflecting on the album that preserved the magic, Aretha Live at Fillmore West,Franklin agreed that the duet was something special. “Between the two of us, soul oozed out of every pore of the Fillmore. All the planets were aligned right that night, because when the music came down, it was as real and righteous as any recording I’d ever made.”
The Fillmore concert represented a high-water mark for the gospel vision as it reached out beyond black America, and Aretha’s duet with Charles provided a fitting climax. Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler, who’d guided Aretha out of the wilderness of her Columbia years, observed that “Aretha was continuing what Ray Charles had begun, the secularization of gospel, turning church rhythms, church patterns, and especially church feelings into personalized love songs. Like Ray, Aretha was a hands-on performer, a two-fisted pianist plugged into the main circuit of Holy Ghost power.”
The Fillmore gig almost hadn’t happened. Even at a time when “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” and “Natural Woman” had made Aretha a real crossover star, Wexler admitted that he “considered the musical tastes of the Flower Children infantile and retarded.” Although Aretha liked the hippies’ “colorful garb and their love-the-world philosophy,” she shared Wexler’s apprehensions. The audience’s response surpassed her wildest hopes. “What overwhelmed her—and surprised me—was the musical intelligence of the hippies. They picked up on her every shading and nuance; they were attentive, appreciative, and hip to exactly what was happening, technically and emotionally. The response,” he concluded, “was as evolved and as well defined as though it had been an entirely black audience.”
At the time it was reasonable to hope that Aretha’s triumph at the Fillmore would help usher in a truly desegregated era in American music. There was plenty of supporting evidence for the theory that the generation of white Americans who’d grown up on Fats Domino, Elvis, and Motown was ready for something new. Otis Redding’s straight-out-of-Georgia set at the Monterey Pop Festival whipped the flower children into a frenzy of call and response they definitely hadn’t learned in Haight-Ashbury. Sly and the Family Stone had taken the torch to Woodstock, where their soaring “I Want to Take You Higher” left no doubt that Sly remembered his origins in the family gospel group that cut “On the Battlefield for My Lord” when he was four years old. The cultural call and response went both ways. Inspired by both Bob Dylan and the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield cast off their pop masks and began preaching straight soul sermons on Vietnam, the inner cities, and the path to redemption. Judging by the sounds, and the charts, Sam Cooke’s dream of bringing “real gospel” to the Top Ten seemed to be coming true. But even as a new cultural era blossomed, there were disquieting signs—in the White House and on the streets—that the political battle was being lost.
WHEN ARETHA FRANKLIN SAT DOWN at the piano at the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on January 27, 1967, her first notes heralded that new era. Spooner Oldham, who’d been hired to play piano for the session, called it a “magic chord,” and amens echoed from every corner of black America. When Atlantic released “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” in early March, crowds gathered outside record stores in black neighborhoods demanding to hear Aretha’s gospel love song again and again. When Aretha followed “I Never Loved a Man” with “Respect,” Ebony magazine declared 1967 the summer of “ ’Retha, Rap and Revolt.”
Aretha’s transformation from frustrated chanteuse to the voice of black pride happened nearly overnight. The key was her decision to sign with Atlantic Records. “I took her to church, sat her down at the piano, and let her be herself,” Jerry Wexler explained. “To say we took her back to church, that merely means we were trying the same recording context we were already using with Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker. Atlantic Records was like the West Point for rhythm and blues. We just applied what we knew about rhythm and blues to a rhythm-and-blues artist instead of trying to make her a pop artist like Judy Garland or Peggy Lee.” For her part, Aretha appreciated Wexler’s desire “to base the music around me, not only my feeling for the song but my piano playing and basic rhythm arrangement, my overall concept.” The result was “raw and real and so much more myself.”
Wexler had contacted Aretha at the urging of Louise Bishop, a Philadelphia DJ familiar with Aretha’s gospel background and her frustrations with Columbia. Bishop’s call reached Wexler in the Fame Studios, where he’d just finished breaking up a fistfight between Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett. After brief negotiations Aretha agreed to what Wexler called a “handshake contract”—“no lawyers, managers, or agents in sight. It was beautiful,” he beamed—variously reported at between $25,000 and $35,000.
John Hammond immediately offered Wexler his congratulations and predicted they’d make good records, but he warned that Aretha could be “enigmatic and withdrawn.” In his autobiography Hammond wrote, “I was not unhappy to see her go to Atlantic. I knew Jerry Wexler, who would produce her records there, and was sure he would return her to the gospel-rooted material she should be recording. Her career since leaving Columbia has fulfilled every confidence I had in her. She had every musicianly quality I thought she had. All she needed was to hold to her roots in the church.” Bob Althuser, who’d become Columbia’s PR director after working for Atlantic, pinpointed the differences between Aretha’s new and old homes: “At the end of the day, when people were listening to music at Atlantic Records, they were listening to Otis Redding or Rufus Thomas or Ray Charles. At the end of the day, when people listened to music at Columbia, they would be listening to Doris Day and Ray Conniff and Percy Faith.” It was a long way from Percy Faith to Percy Sledge.
Wexler’s first instinct was to assign Aretha to the Stax Studio in Memphis, which by 1967 was firmly established as the capital of southern soul. Unconcerned with the crossover strategies pioneered by Motown and Sam Cooke, Stax churned out a mesmerizing mix of gospel vocals and funky R&B that guitarist Steve Cropper called a “below-the-Bible-Belt sound. It was righteous and nasty. Which to our way of thinking was pretty close to life itself.” Aware of the great tracks Booker T. and the MGs, the Stax house band, had laid down behind Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding, Wexler considered Aretha and Stax a perfect match. So he offered her contract to Stax president Jim Stewart. “Stax was steaming and no one figured to produce her better than those good folks in Memphis,” Wexler wrote. “I told Jim that if he went for the $25,000 advance, Aretha could be a Stax artist with Atlantic promotion and distribution, the same arrangement we had with Sam and Dave. Stewart passed.” Looking back with the knowledge of what followed, Wexler concluded, “Thank you, Jesus.” Stewart, who may be forgiven for not joining in on the hosannas, made the decision for straightforward financial reasons: “Twenty-five thousand dollars cash, that was nonrecoupable to a man who was just starting to sell records and thought five thousand dollars was a lot of money.”
When Stax stumbled, Wexler looked down the highway to Muscle Shoals and Rick Hall’s Fame Studios. Like Booker T. and the MGs, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section enjoyed universal respect in the soul world for the solid sound it laid down for soul singers like Wilson Pickett. No one who made the call with their ears would have guessed the band was all white: keyboard player Spooner Oldham, guitarists Jimmy Johnson and Chips Moman, bass player Tommy Cogbill, and drummer Roger Hawkins. And once they’d hooked up with Aretha, no one who loved music cared. As Jerry Butler observed, “Nobody knew those were white guys playing behind her. They just knew it sounded good. They didn’t care if it was white or black. That was sanctified and holy. It didn’t have anything to do with color. It just had to do with the groove.” Obviously, that didn’t mean that color didn’t matter in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. But it did highlight the enduring paradox of American music: despite a history shaped by an unabashed commitment to white supremacy, the South had always provided a laboratory for black-white cultural miscegenation. Witness Beale Street in Memphis, where “black” and “white” clubs stood next to one another and where more than a few folks wandered back and forth across the line. Anyone who mistook Beale Street for the promised land was headed for serious trouble. But being white in Memphis meant something different from being white in Chicago or New York. As the music out of Muscle Shoals demonstrated, Elvis wasn’t some kind of freak of nature. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard were working different sides of the same street. Growing up in a region where R&B and country mingled with the sounds coming out of black and white churches, Elvis simply listened hard and understood what he heard.
When Rick Hall told the Muscle Shoals players they’d been booked for the January 27 session, no one took special note. Songwriter Dan Penn, however, had heard Aretha’s Columbia records, and he warned the musicians they were in for something special. “I knew about Aretha way before she got there. Rick contacted me about the session, but he didn’t know who in hell was coming in,” Penn told southern soul historian Peter Guralnick. When Hall identified the vocalist as Aretha, Penn warned the band, “ ‘Boys, you better get your damn shoes on. You getting someone who can sing.’ Even the Memphis guys didn’t really know who in the hell she was. I said, ‘Man, this woman gonna knock you out.’ They’re all going, ‘Big deal!’ When she come in there and sit down at the piano and hit that first chord, everybody was just like little bees just buzzing around the queen. It was beautiful, better than any session I’ve ever seen, and I seen a bunch of them.” Spooner Oldham shared Penn’s awe: “She hit that magic chord when Wexler was going up the little steps to the control room, and I just stopped. I said, ‘Now, look, I’m not trying to cop or nothing. I know I was hired to play piano, but I wish you’d let her play that thing, and I could get on organ and electric… . It was a good, honest move, and one of the best things I ever done—and I didn’t do nothing.”
Two hours later “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” was complete, and Aretha was on the path to immortality. “It was a killer, no doubt about it,” Penn recalled. “The musicians started singing and dancing with each other, giddy on the pure joy of having something to do with this amazing record. That morning we knew a star had been born.” Roger Hawkins said simply, “I’ve never experienced so much feeling coming out of a human being.” Despite two decades in the music business that included classic sessions with Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, and Big Joe Turner, Wexler didn’t trust his ears: “I couldn’t believe it was that good. I said, ‘That’s my first record with her, and it can’t be this good. I’ll cool out in the morning. It will sound different in daylight.’ I had to get used to that kind of greatness.” Exhilarated by what they’d achieved on the first day of the scheduled week of sessions, Aretha and the band sketched out a second song—Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s “Do Right Woman—Do Right Man”—and called it a day.
At which point the shit hit the fan. Within a few hours the joy over “I Never Loved a Man” collapsed into what Wexler described as “Walpurgisnacht, a Wagnerian shitstorm, things flying to pieces, everything going nuts. Back at the motel it was footsteps up and down the hall, doors slamming, and wild cries in the night.” The next morning Aretha and Ted White were on a plane back to New York.
The problem began with what Jimmy Johnson called “the most fucked-up horn section you ever heard.” Aware of White’s reputation for creating difficulties, Wexler had attempted to forestall the problem of racial tension in advance. “A little anxious” at the prospect of “presenting Aretha and Ted with a wall-to-wall white band,” Wexler asked Hall “to hire a black horn section— either the Memphis Horns or a section led by Bowlegs Miller. Hall goofed and hired an all-white section. Aretha’s response was no response. I never should have worried—about her. She just sat down and played the music.” While Aretha, Wexler, and the rhythm section were putting the finishing touches on “I Never Loved a Man,” however, White and a white trumpet player sat down to share a celebratory bottle. Apparently the trumpeter used a casual racial slur, setting off a free and frank exchange concerning each of their heritage and character. Wexler observed sadly, “A redneck patronizing a black man is dangerous camaraderie.”
What happened next isn’t exactly clear. Hall remembered firing the trumpet player on the spot; other (probably apocryphal) versions feature gunshots fired by parties unknown and/or White beating the trumpet player up and dangling him over the balcony back at the motel. Rick Hall, who admitted to being “a lot drunker than I thought, evidently,” provided what seems a reasonably likely report on the events precipitating Aretha’s departure. Hall went to Aretha’s motel room, where “Ted began to point his finger at me, and I guess I pointed my finger back at him. We went from ‘redneck’ to ‘bluegum’ to ‘whitey’ to ‘nigger’ and back again.” The situation developed into a “real slugfest.” Hall went to the lobby, where a wedding reception was in progress. “I get on the house phone and yell, ‘You motherfucking son of a bitch, you better get your ass out of this fucking town.’ And I just made a complete ass of myself.”
The whole chain of events spoke to the paradox of race in the South. It was the real-life evidence of the story the music told: when you started messing around with the truth, you could go from heaven to hell overnight. One moment, you were listening to the sweetest sounds gospel had to offer; the next you were hoping to live till dawn. Aretha had been born in Memphis, and she’d traveled the black South on the gospel highway. But the Muscle Shoals debacle shook her to her shoes.
Back in New York, Aretha secluded herself from the men, black and white, who had appointed themselves guardians of her interests. Rumors swirled that she’d broken up with White and gone into hiding, maybe in New York, maybe in Detroit. Meanwhile Wexler had a gospel soul classic but no flip side. He released a demo version of “I Never Loved a Man” to his network of black DJs, who immediately began clamoring for its release. After two weeks of growing anxiety, Aretha and her sisters finally showed up at Atlantic’s Broadway studio. Returning to the song she’d whipped up near the end of the ill-starred Alabama session, Aretha overdubbed the piano and organ parts that make “Do Right Woman—Do Right Man” a worthy companion for “I Never Loved a Man.” Erma and Carolyn contributed the finishing touches with their haunting background vocals. Wexler, who’d already released acetates of “I Never Loved a Man” to the DJs, could finally exhale.
The response to “I Never Loved a Man” surpassed anyone’s hopes. From the first line—“You’re no good, heart-breaker, you’re a liar, and you’re a cheat”—Aretha bears witness to the dark nights of the soul where you can’t tell the difference between your agonies and the love that can redeem you. Mingling the aching reality of the deepest love she could imagine with a haunting knowledge that in this world at least nothing is sure to last, Aretha’s voice explodes with an emotional complexity more like William Faulkner than Diana Ross. Taking her cue from Mahalia Jackson and Marion Williams, Aretha blows away the standard verse-verse-chorus structure of most pop hits, including those that had previously come out of Motown and Chicago. Spooner Oldham’s organ and Jimmy Johnson’s guitar punctuate Aretha’s piano runs with responses even more sensitive than she would have heard back home at New Bethel Baptist. Hawkins and Cogbill nail every delayed beat. Nothing like it had ever graced American popular culture. Ray Charles had laid the track; Aretha rolled into the station. The record shot into the pop Top Ten and to the top of the R&B charts, where it remained for seven weeks. It was a firecracker start, but the follow-up was pure dynamite.
“Respect” burst like a howitzer shell over a nation braced for another round of summertime riots. Angry over the failure of the movement’s southern victories to translate into meaningful change in their own communities, rioters had taken to the streets in dozens of cities in the North and West the previous two years. The defeat of Martin Luther King’s Chicago campaign transmitted an unambiguous message to the residents of Newark, Watts, and Paradise Valley as well as those manning the front lines on the south shore of Lake Michigan. Many turned their backs on the civil rights movement’s nonviolent and interracial ideals in favor of the emerging Black Power movement. But even many who weren’t impressed with Black Power’s ideology responded powerfully to the emotional punch of slogans like “Black Is Beautiful” and “Power to the People.” “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” spelled the same thing to them, without the ideological baggage and with a gospel call to freedom on the backbeat.
That was part of the reason black journalist Phyl Garland declared “Respect” a “new national anthem,” and the fledgling women’s movement adapted the song as the battle hymn of their decidedly new republic. Aretha’s definitive take on Otis Redding’s song spoke to anyone who, as Mahalia sang, had ever been “ ’buked and scorned.” “I don’t make it a practice to put my politics into my music,” Aretha demurred. But she understood clearly that she had touched “the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance. It became the ‘Respect’ women expected from men and men expected from women, the inherent right of all human beings.” When Redding himself heard the record, he could only shake his head in admiration. “I just lost my song,” he told Wexler. “That girl took it away from me.”
Its success guaranteed by the two singles, Aretha’s first Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, marked her acclamation as the “Queen of Soul,” a nickname bestowed upon her by politically active Chicago DJ Purvis Spann. Loath to return to Alabama to record the album, Wexler did the next best thing—he flew the Muscle Shoals band to New York, where he supplemented them with King Curtis’s horn section and a trio of backup singers consisting of Aretha’s sisters and Cissy Houston. Over two amazing days in mid-February 1967, they cut nine more tracks, including the hit singles “Baby, Baby, Baby” and “Dr. Feelgood (Love Is a Serious Business).” Staking Aretha’s claim to greatness, the first album side distills the elements of the gospel vision perfectly. Following the clarion call of “Respect,” Aretha plumbs the depths of her burdens in Ray Charles’s “Drown in My Own Tears” and bitterness in “I Never Loved a Man.” In her remake of King Curtis’s 1964 hit “Soul Serenade,” she pulls the sweetness out of the ache with one of her most lyrical piano lines. Echoing Dr. King’s most famous speech, “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream” completes the stunning sequence by knitting personal love into a larger redemptive vision. The heartfelt sequence that closes the second side, the bluesy “Save Me” and Aretha’s paean to her old sweetheart Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” retraces the path from burden and bearing witness to redemption. Like the voices in the choir, the songs mean more together than they do alone, combining to provide a soul-deep chronicle of the story Aretha shared with the countless others who left their southern homes only to find themselves knocked to their knees on the streets of the promised land.
Ironically, Aretha’s new sound, which critics repeatedly identified as “unmistakably black,” attracted the white audience that Columbia had failed to reach with its self-conscious crossover strategy. She would remain a constant presence on the charts for the next decade. By 1975, when she won her eighth consecutive Grammy in the Best Female R&B Song category, the award had been informally rechristened “the Aretha.”
White critics frequently underestimated Aretha’s brains and diligence, reverting to stereotypes of “instinctive genius” and “natural ability” to explain her success. Even Jerry Wexler fell into the trap when he described her talent as emerging “like Minerva, full-formed from Jupiter’s head.” When he turned his attention to the details, he came closer to the truth, underlining Aretha’s combination of “head, heart and throat… . The head is the intelligence, the phrasing. The heart is the emotionality that feeds the flames. The throat is the chops, the voice,” he mused. “Aretha, like Sam Cooke, has all three qualities.”
So while her voice might have sounded like it came straight from the soul, Aretha and Wexler worked hard to make sure it came through on wax. Aretha was never passive in the process. “She remained the central orchestrator of her own sound,” Wexler observed, “the essential contributor and final arbiter of what fit or did not fit her musical persona.” Aretha knew that that persona was based on study and preparation. “When it comes to the ABCs of music, I am no dummy,” she announced. “I always worked on my sound, my arrangements, before I went into the studio with a producer.” Wexler agreed: “Nobody bothered us in the control room. In general, the sessions went like cream. She’d take the song—she found most of them— or she’d write it. And she would work out a layout, working at home with her little electric piano and the girls. So you had three major ingredients: First of all, you had the arrangement implicit in the piano bars, you had her lead vocals and you had the vocal background leads. She brings all this into the session. She’d sit at the piano and start to line it out, and the girls might not be there. So she might sing their parts, too. Then all we did was start to shade in drums, bass, guitar. We might make small changes, but it would always be by agreement with her… . Those records were so damn good because she took care of business at home.”
Aretha’s head, heart, and throat coalesced to make her second and third Atlantic albums, Aretha Arrives and Lady Soul, worthy successors to I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. Backed by a King Curtis-led horn section and a rotating roster of all-star guitarists including Joe South, Eric Clapton, and Bobby Womack, the Muscle Shoals stalwarts execute their licks flawlessly. There’s no letdown from the hits—the sublime “Baby, I Love You,” “Since You’ve Been Gone (Sweet Sweet Baby),” and Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—and a typically eclectic set of covers that draw on the blues (Howlin’ Wolf ’s “Going Down Slow”), R&B ( James Brown’s “Money Won’t Change You,” Ray Charles’s “Come Back Baby”), Vegas fare (Sinatra’s “That’s Life”), country (Willie Nelson’s “Night Life”), blue-eyed soul (P.J. Proby’s “Niki Hoeky,” the Rascals’ “Groovin’ ”), and rock from the garage to the arena (? and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears,” the Stones’ “Satisfaction”). The high points include two songs written by Aretha’s sister Carolyn, “Ain’t No Way” and “Ain’t Nobody (Gonna Turn Me Around),” with its clear echoes of the movement standard “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round.” Set against an angelic choir singing “I believe, you know I believe,” Aretha’s “People Get Ready” takes the song that Curtis Mayfield wrote all the way back to church.
Even in that gallery of marvels, “Chain of Fools” stands out. Between Joe South’s opening guitar riff, consciously modeled on gospel great Pops Staples’s vibrato-heavy style, and the sanctified shout that lingers as the song fades to silence, “Chain of Fools” unfolds a two-minute-and-forty-five-second epic of love, betrayal, and determination. It was a black women’s anthem, a reminder that Aretha meant what she said in “Respect.” But the response wasn’t limited to scorned women determined to survive. From South Vietnam to south Georgia, “Chain of Fools” reverberated with resolve. For the foot soldiers of the movement, it issued a challenge to cast off the chains of mental slavery and move on ahead.
And even though songwriter Don Covay said he’d been thinking of field hands when he wrote “Chain of Fools,” Vietnam vets claimed it as their own. The song resonated especially deeply with black veterans aware that through the early years of the war they’d suffered a sharply disproportionate number of casualties. One black vet broke down what the song meant to his brothers slogging through the elephant grass and rice paddies of Southeast Asia for a cause no one could explain: “We had been fucked over and we knew it, right off. This woman, Miss Ree, saved some of us, I swear. My CO had Aretha on his tape cassette. And after one of those suicide missions—you know, defusing booby traps with your own ass—after we fitted as many pieces as we could find into the body bags, we put on that tape. ‘Chain of Fools,’ I remember. And this may seem weird, but we danced. Like the fuckin’ fools we were. We danced until we puked our guts out and laughed and cried. And I tell you, if we hadn’t have done it, I might have lost my mind. I might have gone and died.” In Vietnam as in Detroit, Aretha’s music sounded the blues-gospel pulse of the unfolding history.
The intensity of the black response to Aretha can’t be overstated. She dominated Jet magazine’s weekly “Soul Brothers Top 20 Tunes” poll. When she performed at the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival in the summer of 1967, she drew a bigger ovation than Ray Charles. Phyl Garland described the “frenzied hand-clapping and foot-tapping” that erupted when Aretha, resplendent in a pink brocade gown, arrived in a chauffeur-driven black Cadillac limousine: “It was a resounding ‘amen’ to all the words and emotions she had projected in her later records.” In October 1967 Aretha sang at Lincoln Center, offering a mix of her Columbia and Atlantic material, listed in order on a elegantly printed program. In December she made her national TV debut on The Kraft Music Hall. The next month on The Jonathan Winters Show she appeared in a silver-spangled miniskirt surrounded by the go-go-dancing Sweet Inspirations decked out in neon pink minis and dazzling white shoes. A surprisingly tepid album shaped largely by Ted White’s lingering desire to position Aretha for the Vegas circuit, Aretha in Paris documented her 1968 European tour. It was the only misstep of her early years with Atlantic.
For Aretha, the greatest honor came when the city of Detroit declared February 16, 1968, “Aretha Franklin Day.” At a Cobo Hall ceremony Martin Luther King presented her with an SCLC Leadership Award. Although he was suffering from laryngitis and couldn’t speak, the crowd responded in a way that put ideological frictions between King and proponents of Black Power in their proper perspective. The Black Panthers, the Republic of New Afrika, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, and the Shrine of the Black Madonna might be gathering strength in Detroit, but even their staunchest backers understood that King had helped create the world that made Black Power possible. A writer for the African American newspaper the Michigan Chronicle described the scene: “This was a ‘love wave.’ Everyone just stood on their feet. He never said a word, because he couldn’t. But you could just feel the impact his presence had—just him being there… . At the time, people were said to be wishy-washy about King, that he wasn’t militant enough. Well, all twelve thousand people in that room cared for him— you could feel it.”
Two months later, on April 4, 1968, King was gunned down as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers. While Aretha grappled with the sudden loss of her friend, riots erupted in dozens of cities. Less than two weeks after a mule-driven cart carried King to his martyr’s grave, Aretha recorded “Think.” Although she had written the song before the assassination, it rang out as a desperate plea to a nation that seemed to have surrendered to the violence and hatred that King had given his life to overcome. “You better think, think about what you’re trying to do to me,” she pleaded. Aretha clearly understood the anger expressed by black Vietnam vet Don Browne when he heard of the assassination at the U.S. base in Tuy Hoa. “My first inclination was to run out and punch the first white guy I saw,” he admitted. With King’s voice silenced, the prospect of race war wasn’t a paranoid fantasy. In the days after the assassination troops huddled in the basement of the White House, and machine-gun nests ringed the Capitol. Against that, “Think” clings desperately to the gospel vision. Pouring her soul into her cries of “Freedom,” Aretha demands that the nation and her people consider the future they’re creating for each other. “You need me and I need you,” she shouts, “without each other, there ain’t nothin’ we can do.”
AS USUAL, CURTIS MAYFIELD WAS thinking hard. As always, he had his mind set on freedom. While Black Power moved to the center of the African American political stage, Mayfield probed the problems and potential of a movement fueled equally by revolutionary vision and undirected rage. The series of songs he released between 1968 and 1971—“We’re a Winner,” “We’re Rolling On,” “This Is My Country,” “Choice of Colors,” and “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go”— charts the confused and sometimes contradictory constellation of thoughts and feelings he shared with countless citizens, black and white, struggling with Vietnam, the King assassination, and the election of Richard Nixon, who rode a “southern strategy” rooted in racial antagonism into the White House.
Profoundly political but never dogmatic, Mayfield’s music responded to the call of the movement. “When you’re talking about songs such as ‘We’re a Winner,’ that’s locked in with Martin Luther King. It took something from his inspiring message. I was listening to all my preachers and the different leaders of the time. You had your Rap Browns and your Stokely Carmichaels and Martin Luther Kings, all of those people right within that same era.” Mayfield’s embrace of leaders who often differed sharply reflects a basic truth about African American political life: uncompromising commitment to freedom matters more than ideological purity. Few responding to Aretha’s thundering demand for “Freedom!” quibbled about whether she preferred the revolutionary transformation of a racist capitalist system to a bigger slice of the capitalist pie.
Mayfield understood the point perfectly. When the Impressions released “We’re a Winner” in January 1968, they weren’t taking sides in the sometimes-heated arguments that threatened to fragment the freedom movement. Mayfield saw no intrinsic contradiction between supporting Malcolm X and supporting Martin Luther King. He dismissed militant criticism of King as an “Uncle Tom” with a pitying smile at the same time that he savored the memory of Malcolm rapping and flashing his extraordinary smile to the ordinary brothers on the block. As tensions between civil rights and Black Power dominated media coverage of racial politics, Mayfield was content to pay tribute to the local people he called the “invisible heroes of the movement.” Like “I’m So Proud,” “We’re a Winner” reaffirmed the gospel vision and anticipated James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” which wouldn’t be released for another eight months.
Unlike “People Get Ready” and “Keep On Pushing,” “We’re a Winner” didn’t mask the message, which is probably why, despite its distinctly upbeat feel, it was banned on several Chicago radio stations, including top-rated WLS. Mayfield attributed the ban to the song’s “social conscience; it was about a mass of people during the time of struggle, and when it broke, it was so much out of the ordinary. It had a little gospel feeling, and it sort of locked in with the movement of equality. It wouldn’t be what you could call a crossover record during those times, but the demand of the people kept it struggling and happening.” The song opens with the sound of voices, like those that would introduce Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On a few years later. An opening trumpet flourish in the classic Johnny Pate style gives way to a funky groove that points the way to Mayfield’s musical future. Accompanied by background cries of “All right now” and syncopated hand claps, the song lays down a message that’s pure Curtis. Urging his listeners to wipe away their tears, pay heed to their leaders, and “keep on pushing,” he ushers in the “blessed day” when he and his people will move on up to the higher ground. “Our purpose is to educate as well as to entertain. Painless preaching is as good a term as any for what we do,” he told an interviewer at the time. “If you’re going to come away from a party singing the lyrics of a song, it is better that you sing of self-pride like ‘We’re a winner’ instead of ‘Do the boogaloo!’ ”
Though plenty of people danced to Mayfield’s music, “We’re a Winner” and the follow-up “We’re Rolling On” entered a heated debate on the meaning of Black Power that would rage on through the seventies. Whether Black Power was a slogan, a program, an impulse, or even a disaster wasn’t always clear. You could read about it in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, The Prison Letters of George Jackson, and the fiery poems of Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight, Haki Madhubuti, and spiritual elder Gwendolyn Brooks. In the early seventies Black Power advocates generally subscribed to a set of precepts including “Power to the People,” “Self-determination,” and “Black Is Beautiful.” The problem, as Mayfield knew, was trying to figure out exactly what the slogans meant. For the Nation of Islam, Black Power demanded an Islamic theocracy; for Coleman Young, it meant control of Detroit’s Democratic Party; for some black Vietnam veterans, it meant applying the lessons they’d learned in the Mekong Delta to the Mississippi Delta; for the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, it meant equal access to supervisory positions on the assembly line; for the Republic of New Afrika, it meant a communal society founded on allegedly African principles; for the Black Panthers, it meant an international revolution against capitalism. A lot of black men and women just demanded what Aretha spelled out: respect.
For reasons both commendable and dubious, Black Power emphasized the recovery of black manhood. But many black women cautioned against confusing that with the whole story. Ann Peebles’s “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” and Laura Lee’s “Women’s Love Rights” were keynotes of a collective sermon on the theme of black women’s liberation. Freda Payne’s debut single, “The Unhooked Generation,” was a celebration of life as a single woman; the Honey Cone assured straying husbands and boyfriends that “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”; Jean Knight issued a hilarious putdown of “Mr. Big Stuff ”; and Lyn Collins, aptly nicknamed the “Female Preacher,” ripped through “Think (About It)” over an infectious groove set down by James Brown’s band. And no one could conclude that Chaka Khan, who had adopted her African name while working for a Black Panther breakfast program, would be satisfied washing the dashikis or stirring the grits.
While a growing number of blacks, male and female, agreed with Black Power’s assertive stance, there was no general consensus concerning the notion of racial separatism. Building on undeniable historical facts—the white man may not be the devil, but his track record could lead to confusion on that point—groups like the Republic of New Afrika spun out a compelling, if flawed, chain of logic. For too long blacks had been denied any voice in public deliberations over their legal condition. Even the fifties and sixties movement leaders had compromised their words and actions to appease their white liberal allies. The time had come for real self-determination. White people could no longer define black possibility.
Mayfield understood Black Power as a change in style rather than a movement away from the underlying values of the gospel vision. A dedicated follower of Black Power fashion, he eagerly embraced the chance to put away the suits and ties that the Impressions had adopted during their ABC years. “It was a great opening,” he recalled. “The style, the clothes, the wide pants, and the long German coats. Everything sort of fell in, and it hit a real nice fashion. To be fly was to be.” In her book Black Feeling, Black Talk/Black Judgement, poet Nikki Giovanni celebrated the new Impressions as part of the musical mix that defined Black Power more clearly than any manifesto. Entranced by the “beautiful beautiful beautiful outasight black men,” Giovanni placed Mayfield in the company of Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett, the Temptations, and Sly Stone. Decked out in hues of fire red, lime green, burnt orange, and royal blue, Giovanni wrote, the soul princes walked the street in “the same ol danger” while embodying a “brand new pleasure.”
More concretely, the Black Power movement’s emphasis on economic autonomy resonated with Mayfield’s determination to control his music. His decision to join Eddie Thomas in founding Curtom Records helped fulfill that desire. As early as 1966 Mayfield had begun exploring the possibility of establishing an independent label. His first two attempts—the “Windy C” and “Mayfield” labels—went under as a result of distribution problems. Nonetheless, the partners obtained invaluable experience with the business and production aspects of the music industry. By 1968, when the Impressions’ contract with ABC-Paramount was about to expire, they were ready to devote themselves wholly to Curtom. Mayfield again ventured into the front office because “I wasn’t a quitter. Sometimes these things are like marriages. You don’t give up wanting to be in love and having the best you can expect, just because your marriage fails.”
For more than a decade Curtom provided an emblem of the real potential of Black Power, financially and artistically. “The only power of blackness we thought of was being equal,” Thomas explained, “being able to do what others do, being able to stay where others stay, being able to have our records played on the pop stations if they had the sales force behind it. We were trying to equalize things, not take over, just equalize it. That was our whole policy cause we were not equal, we were stuck down at the bottom, and no matter what happened, we stayed there. That’s why we were fighting to get up.” As far as politics was concerned, Thomas said he and Mayfield were aware of how “Jesse Jackson was putting his stamp on Chicago with Operation PUSH and Operation Breadbasket,” but the Impressions’ main contribution to the movement came in the form of music. “We did a couple of things for PUSH,” Thomas reported, “but basically it was just that people appreciated what we were saying. It was an inspiration to them, to buckle their shoes up, and they thought, ‘Hey we can do something.’ As Curtis said, the black boy’s drying his eyes and movin’ on up, lord have mercy, movin’ on up.”
Musically, Mayfield accepted the Black Power movement’s commitment to black pride, while insisting that it remain grounded in the gospel vision. The covers of the first two Impressions albums released on Curtom reflect the changing social currents. Their ABC-Paramount covers show the group dressed in suit jackets and ties; on their 1968 album, This Is My Country, they wear turtlenecks and stand in the rubble outside a ghetto tenement. On The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story, released the following year, they pose in stylish leather jackets and sailors’ caps favored by the Black Power set. More important, Mayfield agreed with Black Power’s demand for uncompromising confrontation with the history of racism and oppression. In “This Is My Country” Mayfield points to a “hundred years of slave driving, sweat and welts on my back” as evidence of his unquestionable right to claim America as his own. Riding Johnny Pate’s soaring horn charts and the Impressions’ harmonies, Mayfield issues an uncompromising repudiation of anyone— Elijah Muhammad as well as Mayor Daley or George Wallace—who would deny blacks full participation in American society: “Some people think we don’t have the right to say it’s my country.” His response is a simple pledge that the deaths of Malcolm, Dr. King, and the many thousands gone before them will not be in vain. “Too many have died,” he testifies, “for me to go second class.” Stripping away the lush arrangement that might distract from the point, he frames the question as clearly as it can be framed: “Will we perish unjust or live equal as a nation?” Similarly, the first cut on This Is My Country calls on the “invisible heroes of the movement” to fill the vacuum created by the assassinations. Backed by an arrangement that combines blues guitar and bass with gospel tambourine and organ, “They Don’t Know” reassures those who feel despair over having “lost another leader” that they aren’t alone. Holding on to his belief that “our love is going to help the world be free,” Mayfield counsels his people that when they feel alone, wondering how much more they can endure, the answer is in themselves: “Every brother is a leader.” Ella Baker, though she would have been careful to add “and sister,” meant the same thing.
Keeping the faith, Mayfield knew, wouldn’t be easy. The cuts that frame The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story—the title track, “Choice of Colors,” and “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)”—deal with the practical complications of holding to the gospel vision in the face of increasing racial tensions. “The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story” promises to tell it like it is in a world where the blind battle the blind. “Mighty Mighty” details the problems in a country that’s killing off its leaders and envisions a world where “black and white power” unite to do what’s right. But the keynote comes in “Choice of Colors.” Playing off one of Pate’s finest string arrangements, the song shimmers like a dream slipping ever so slowly away. Mayfield calls his brothers to account, observing wryly that some would rather make a fuss than work for a better world. It doesn’t make sense to hate white teachers, he says, and turn a blind eye to the backbiting within black communities. Riding a slow, almost somber, drumbeat, Mayfield asks his listeners to step back from the heat of the moment and think about how they really feel. True love of black people flows from self-acceptance, not from rage against the oppressor. “We shall overcome someday,” he sings, “if you’ll only listen to what I say.”
As the sixties came to an end, Mayfield knew it wasn’t quite that simple. One of his almost-forgotten classics, the title cut of the last Impressions album on which he sang, Check Out Your Mind (1970), pleads with his listeners to take responsibility for resisting the divisive forces. The songs that Mayfield wrote for that album and for the first post-Curtis Impressions album, Times Have Changed, range from vintage ballads (“Can’t You See,” “Only You”) and funky love songs (“(Baby) Turn On to Me”) to uncompromising social commentary (“Stop the War,” “Times Have Changed”). Repeatedly, Mayfield urges the community to hang on to the hope within the chaos. But, whatever the call of his music and whatever the promise of Black Power, conditions in the poor black communities of the North continued to disintegrate. As the implications of life in the world of high-rise projects became clear, a mood of desperation settled over Curtis’s old stomping ground, Cabrini-Green. Although he was no longer living in the projects where he was raised, he was fully aware that the community that had provided him with his foundation was no longer a decent place for a black child to grow up.
Focused on the immediate demands of trying to hold their families and neighborhood together, many female residents of Cabrini-Green identified the riots that followed King’s assassination as the point of no return. Chicago had known riots before; in 1919 white mobs had raged through the streets, leaving dozens dead and hundreds homeless. And the summer before the assassination a three-day series of guerrilla skirmishes on the West Side had killed two people. But until King’s death, Chicago had avoided the full-scale conflagrations that in the sixties had shaken Watts, Detroit, Newark, and numerous other cities. When news of the slaying broke, Chicago passed an uneasy night with the police on high alert. The next day the situation escalated when black students poured out of their schools and gathered in Garfield Park, where speakers turned their rage against local landlords and business owners. As snipers fired from rooftops and arsonists set new fires faster than they could be put out, troops patrolled the streets in jeeps. By the time the riot was contained, eleven were dead and more than three hundred arrests had been made. Business districts near the projects had been reduced to rubble; on West Madison most of a twenty-eight-block stretch had been burned to the ground. Cabrini resident Rochelle Satchell said sadly that “after the riots there was a lot of things just burned down. It didn’t affect [the residents] physically, but mentally they were affected. It affected everybody here. Not only was it the prices going up, it was the fear now. We were surrounded by whites, and now you had to shop outside the community and didn’t know what was going to happen. You could see the transition, and the riots were the icing on the cake.” For Zora Washington, King’s death sapped the will of the community and ushered in a future that couldn’t have differed more starkly from the Black Power movement’s Afrotopian dreams: “It made you want to cry. It did because you knew a neighborhood that you lived in, and that black people had torn it up and the powers that be were not going to fix it up… . It was a scary time, it gave you a scary feeling… . It was like we lost hope. The person that could do it for us was gone. It was a terrible time. Those stores never came back… . You felt isolated because you had nowhere to go.”
The ominous rolling bass at the start of Mayfield’s first solo single, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go,” introduced a new side of his sensibility. The bass rumbles on beneath a montage of fragmented voices and a doom-laden reflection on the Book of Revelation, then explodes into a reverb-laced jeremiad directed at everyone from the “niggers and the crackers” to the “police and their backers.” Coming from a man who fully deserved his title the “Gentle Genius,” “If There’s a Hell Below” stunned almost everyone who heard it when it was released at the end of 1970. Calling out to the “sisters,” “niggers,” “whiteys,” “Jews,” and “crackers,” Mayfield cast an angry eye on a world run by “educated fools from uneducated schools,” where everyone’s “fussin’ and cussin’,” running away from their worries into stoned-out dream worlds. The vision harkened back to the apocalyptic warnings that had always sounded alongside the gospel vision’s redemptive dream. As Dorothy Love Coates thundered, there was no hiding place down here. Or as Martha and the Vandellas put it, there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. As “(Don’t Worry)” faded into an aural tapestry of swirling strings and an unrepentant growling bass, Mayfield’s warning was clear: together, and increasingly alone, we were descending into a uniquely American abyss.
NINETEEN SIXTY-SEVEN WAS A LONG, HOT SUMMER of discontent in black America, but for Stevie Wonder it was also the “Summer of Love.” Straining against the Motown formula, he felt as much affinity with white contemporaries like Bob Dylan and the Beatles as he did with black elders like Ray Charles. Splitting the difference between Paradise Valley and Haight-Ashbury, Wonder steadfastly resisted little boxes of whatever hue. “People ask me what soul is,” he explained, “but all people have soul. Soul is what you feel. So anybody can have soul, and you can call it whatever you want. Psychedelic music has got soul because the people have got soul.” Wonder spoke with particular vehemence concerning the impact of racial categories on musicians. “Categorization can be the death of an artist. It’s that whole thing—the concept of a black artist. All that ‘Oh Stevie—he’s a soul man.’ That kind of thing. It can kill an artist.”
When Wonder cited his influences, he listed an eclectic group: Dinah Washington, Johnny Ace, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Simon and Garfunkel, the Coasters, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Jimmy Reed, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Staple Singers, B.B. King, Dylan, the Byrds, and Jesse Belvin, the silky-smooth West Coast balladeer Wonder named his favorite singer because of “a certain magic about his voice.” He singled out Burt Bacharach, in whose music he heard a strong African American influence. “I’ve really followed him for a long time—since Chuck Jackson’s record of ‘I Wake Up Crying,’ ” Wonder said. “I’ve always wondered was his life influenced by a black person, because his tunes—they caught on more with black people because they could associate the mood of his chords.”
As he began to map his musical future, however, Wonder increasingly embraced iconoclastic musicians who strained against pop conventions. He praised Cream, for example, in the breathless tones of the predominantly white hippie counterculture: “Some of that psychedelic music is really fantastic. It shows the creativeness of young people. I believe that music is bringing younger people closer together. Young people are expressing themselves through music, and that’s bringing countries closer together.” A high point in Wonder’s exploration of the new sonic world occurred in October 1967, when he was in London to tape an episode of Top Gear, a BBC equivalent of American Bandstand. Arriving at the studio a bit early, he happened across Jimi Hendrix, who was scheduled for a session in an adjacent studio. BBC engineer Peter Ritzema described the duo’s brief jam on “I Was Made to Love Her” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”: “Stevie wanted to play the drums, to calm down before his interview. Jimi and [Experience bass player] Noel [Redding] played along with a bit of ‘I Was Made to Love Her’ for about a minute and a half, and then about another seven minutes of mucking about. It’s not that wonderful, but it’s one of those legendary things. Stevie Wonder did join with Jimi Hendrix, and it’s there on tape.”
But the strongest rock influence on Wonder’s developing sound came from the Beatles. “When I think of the sixties,” he would reflect later, “I think of two things: I think of Motown and I think of the Beatles. Those are the major influences. The Beatles made me feel that I could do some of the ideas that I had. Every time one of their records came out, I wanted to have it, particularly after ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ But we all really influence each other. That’s really what it’s all about.” Like black musicians from Otis Redding to George Clinton, Wonder was especially fascinated by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “I just dug the effects they got, like echoes and the voice things, the writing, like ‘For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.’ I just said, ‘Why can’t I?’ I wanted to do something else, go other places.” One thing Wonder learned from the Beatles was the importance of the studio as a musical instrument. Especially after he began working with the brilliant engineers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil in 1971, Wonder crafted aural tapestries that appealed to audiences that mellowed out yellowly on Donovan or wandered the dark side of Pink Floyd’s moon.
For the moment, however, Motown insisted that Stevie churn out hit singles. However much the label’s reluctance to take albums seriously as a form of self-expression grated on Wonder, his apprenticeship had put him in an ideal position to enter the musical dialogues of the late sixties on his own terms. At age seventeen he was on the verge of pop superstardom. From the time “Uptight” hit number three in 1965 until Wonder assumed full control of his career in 1971, he remained a constant presence near the top of the charts. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Place in the Sun,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “For Once in My Life,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” and “Heaven Help Us All” all hit the pop Top Ten in those years.
Wonder’s hits demonstrated his ability both as a ballad singer and as an R&B shouter. Although the ballads exemplified by “My Cherie Amour” were generally more successful with the pop audience, the real highlights were the funky up-tempo showpieces best represented by “I Was Made to Love Her.” One of several hits cowritten with Moy and producer Henry Cosby (“I’m Wondering,” “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” “For Once in My Life”), “I Was Made to Love Her” features a stunning James Jamerson bass line, and a lyric line that slyly ties the love song to the freedom movement. In the first line Wonder proclaims that he was born in Little Rock, which, especially for black listeners, wasn’t just another American city. It doesn’t even rhyme with sweetheart. But the real triumph of the song was Wonder’s intense gospel-tinged vocal that the producers worked hard to achieve. Cosby remembered taking Wonder to a Baptist church in Detroit and asking him to imitate the preacher’s vocal attack. Back in the studio, Wonder had trouble finding that gospel intensity. “Stevie wanted people in the studio,” Cosby remembered. “He had to feel the presence of people. If there were none around, his vocal was just dead. I had to go outside and just stop people who were passing to bring them in, so Stevie could feel their presence. Once we got that, he could fire into that feeling.”
But the record that revealed most tellingly the forces stirring in the young man’s soul was “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which had been a number-two hit for folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary in 1963. Like Dylan’s lesser-known “Masters of War,” “Oxford Town,” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Blowin’ in the Wind” crystallized the values of the early-sixties folk revival. Although Dylan never accepted the role of movement guru, thousands of potential activists heard his music as a call to action. More than a few of the earnest guitar-strumming students who joined black organizers to register black voters during the Freedom Summer of 1964 had been inspired by Dylan’s meditation on the eternal questions of suffering and endurance. The fact that Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and their folkie cohorts backed up their words by playing at benefits and rallies in support of SNCC earned them the respectful attention of black listeners (who often found themselves bemused by the folkies’ apparent lack of interest in minor musical details like rhythm and good singing).
Accompanied by Clarence Paul’s soulful vocal responses, Wonder transformed “Blowin’ in the Wind” into a call-and-response engagement with African American history. The question of how many roads they’d have to walk before they’d gain recognition as men wasn’t abstract to Wonder and his mentor. A riot ravaged Detroit the same month “Blowin’ in the Wind” topped the R&B charts, suggesting one answer to how many more years might have to pass before their people would be “allowed to be free.” A riot, Dr. King remarked, is “the language of the unheard.” The question, and the note of yearning in Wonder’s voice, recurred in the follow-up singles “A Place in the Sun” and “Travelin’ Man,” but his answers were still years down the road.
While Wonder had established himself as one of Motown’s most consistent hitmakers, he was not yet making memorable albums. Audiences attuned to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited justifiably viewed Up-Tight Everything’s Alright, Down to Earth, I Was Made to Love Her, For Once in My Life, and My Cherie Amour as showcases for Wonder’s singles. By the time Stevie reached twenty-one, he had had one number-one hit, two number-twos, and two number-threes. He’d placed an additional six in the Top Ten, and four more in the Top Thirty. On the R&B charts he’d done even better, with six chart-toppers, three runners-up, and four more Top Twenty hits. So it’s not all that surprising that many listeners went directly to the two volumes of Greatest Hits released in 1968 and 1971 rather than buying his albums.
That wasn’t entirely fair. Wonder released four albums between November 1966 and the end of the decade. A fifth album, the instrumental Eivets Rednow—read it backward—remains the weirdest moment in his career. Stevie had wanted to make an album with jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, who had broken into the pop market with a heavily orchestrated set of rock and pop standards, A Day in the Life. Fascinated, Wonder wrote several songs for Montgomery, but the guitarist died of a heart attack before they could be recorded. While not adventurous in jazz terms, “How Can You Believe,” “More than a Dream,” and “Which Way the Wind” provided a few interesting musical moments when Wonder recorded them on harmonica, backed by overblown orchestral arrangements. The album’s title, and the absence of Wonder’s name on the jacket, fooled at least a few fans. Stevie enjoyed telling the story of a fan who came up to him in an airport complaining, “Those whites takin’ over everything. Look, I heard a kid today, man, played ‘Alfie’ just like you.”
Each of the other four albums offers glimpses of Wonder’s rapidly maturing and many-faceted sensibility. Down to Earth (1967) combines soulful covers of folk-rock hits by the Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”) and Sonny and Cher (“Bang Bang”) with tastes of Ray Charles-style country and western (“That Lonesome Road”) and the topical R&B scorcher “Be Calm (And Keep Yourself Together),” a direct plea to the enraged brothers and sisters tearing up their own communities. I Was Made to Love Her (1967) showcases Stevie as a southern soulman who would have been at home in Memphis or Muscle Shoals. A fine if obscure Holland-Dozier-Holland song, “Baby Don’t Do It,” complements a strong set of covers including Sam Cooke’s “Send Me Some Lovin’,” Ray Charles’s “A Fool for You,” Bobby Bland’s “I Pity the Fool,” James Brown’s “Please Please Please,” Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness?”, the Temptations’ “My Girl,” and “Respect.” While both For Once in My Life (1968) and My Cherie Amour (1969) veer toward middle-of-the-road standards apparently directed toward Las Vegas promoters, the opening sequence of the former—“Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” “For Once in My Life,” and “You Met Your Match”—offers glimpses of the sonic flow of the great albums to come.
Despite the high points, the album situation was a source of frustration for Wonder. His musical interests were gravitating toward album-oriented musicians who enlisted popular styles in the service of creative and cultural exploration, among them Jimi Hendrix, Roland Kirk, and Sly Stone. And he was acutely aware that some Motown acts, most notably those produced by Norman Whitfield, were successfully challenging the Hitsville formula. “Have you heard the Temptations’ ‘Cloud Nine’?” he asked one interviewer. “It’s more or less what we call funkadelic. It’s a combination of R&B, psychedelic, and funky African-type beats. I’m experimenting. A lot of things I’ve done recently are funkadelic.” One of the songs Wonder had in mind was “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day.” He was particularly happy with the clavinet solo, one of his first experiments with the new technology that would define his seventies work. “I had the confidence something good was gonna happen,” he said, “but I didn’t know when. And then it began to happen.”
Increasingly, Wonder perceived himself as a Beatles-style artist rather than simply as an entertainer. He immersed himself in songwriting and record production. In 1971 he reflected on the process that would characterize his great work of the seventies: “Writing is my thing. Writing is me — letting my inner thoughts out. I think this all comes from meeting certain people, experiencing certain things, going to certain places. I believe a song has to have a strong melody. When you want to get into the beat, you gotta get that thing going. In writing I’ll put the melody on tape, do the background voices or whatever I want. Then I get it together—like, go into the studio and do this and do that, and it’s like I want it.”
Hints of Wonder’s future could be seen on Signed, Sealed, and Delivered, which featured “Never Had a Dream Come True,” the gorgeous gospel lament “Heaven Help Us All,” and a funky cover of “We Can Work It Out” that paid tribute both to the Beatles and to Motown’s rivals in Memphis: “I had the desire to move out of the one little thing that Motown was in. If Stax did something I liked, I did it myself.” The album’s title cut featured an electric sitar, reflecting Wonder’s increasing contact with rock musicians, like onetime Yardbirds guitarist Jeff Beck, who had begun experimenting with new instruments and Eastern sounds. The two met when Beck rented the Motown studio to lay down some tracks. Beck’s willingness to pursue musical ideas and experiment with song form appealed to Wonder, who continued to strain against the limits of the hit-single format. Commenting on the difference between Beck’s sessions and the Motown dynamic, Wonder said, “This is the kind of freedom I didn’t want way back when. But becoming aware of different music, you need this freedom.”
Soon after Wonder graduated from the Michigan School for the Blind in January 1968 with his mother beaming at his side, his drive for creative freedom brought him into near open conflict with Motown. Live recordings from 1969 and 1970 cast the problem in stark relief. Performing with the Motown Revue, Stevie blazed through funky versions of “For Once in My Life,” “Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day,” and “Uptight.” But Motown continued to groom him for Las Vegas; his company-assigned music director, Gene Kees, envisioned him as a young Sammy Davis Jr.: “By the time he’s 21, he will have become Stevie Wonder, the entertainer, and not just Stevie Wonder, the maker of pop records.” The dreadful Stevie Wonder Live LP released in March 1970 showcases the entertainer crooning his softer hits— “My Cherie Amour,” “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday”—along with the standard lounge-act fare of “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” “Pretty World,” the “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
Aware that Wonder would soon turn twenty-one and be legally able to redefine his relationship with the label, Motown reluctantly allowed him to produce his next studio album. Although it included the hit single “If You Really Love Me” and the aching “Never Dreamed You’d Leave in Summer,” the first album produced under the new arrangement, Where I’m Coming From, was less consistent and focused than Signed, Sealed, and Delivered. Taking his cue from Dylan and the Beatles, Wonder tried his hand at socially explicit songs like “I Wanna Talk to You,” which addresses the racial and generation gaps; “Think of Me as Your Soldier,” a tribute to his contemporaries fighting in Vietnam; and “Sunshine in Their Eyes,” a slice of ghetto realism that concludes, “Most of the news is bad.” Admitting that the album was “kinda premature,” Wonder looked back on it as a rough draft for the vision he would soon begin to realize: “I had to find out what my direction and my destiny was. And there was no way that I could just go on from where I had stopped at Motown. It was a completely different thing that was in my head. This time it wasn’t so much a question of where I was coming from but where I was going to.”
IF STEVIE WONDERED WHERE he was heading, Curtis Mayfield knew where he’d been and had a clear idea of where he wanted to go. In the midst of the haunting version of “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)” that opens Curtis/Live!, Mayfield pauses to ask the crowd at the Bitter End Café, where the album was recorded, if he can “get a bit deeper.” With the crowd behind him, accompanied by pattering bongos and funky vamps, he meditates on the racist “stupidness we’ve been taught” and asserts that there “really ain’t no difference, if you’re cut you’re gonna bleed.” Responding to James Brown, who himself was calling back to “We’re a Winner,” which was echoing Mahalia Jackson and thousands of angry, brokenhearted protesters, Mayfield broke down what it meant to him that night in 1971: “I got to say it loud, gotta say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”
For Curtis, as for Stevie and Aretha, there was no contradiction, not even much tension, between Black Power and universal humanism. If the songs Mayfield wrote in the seventies sounded different, the shift reflected the new questions Mayfield was asking himself. “I was writing songs when I was maybe twelve,” he said. “Some of them were gospel, and even though the later ones were different, it really stayed the same. My songs always came from questions that I need answers for, even for myself. I was observing things, what happened politically, what was in the paper, what was on television. Asking what things were wrong that oughta be right. It was just straight from the heart, and I didn’t have answers all the time.”
Increasingly, Mayfield’s songs challenged his audience to think about the escalating problems of racial polarization and inner-city black neighborhoods. His solo albums confronted the blues realities of drug addiction (“Stone Junkie”), racial paranoia (“Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey)”), and the continuing theft of land from American Indians (“I Plan to Stay a Believer”). Mayfield’s balancing of black self-assertion and racial openness reaches deep into the gospel tradition, which recognizes that the ability to accept others, to live out the democratic vision, requires self-acceptance. The same array of perceptions recurs in the two singles from the Roots album, “We Got to Have Peace” and “Beautiful Brother of Mine.” A masterful combination of Mayfield’s gospel and funk styles, “Beautiful Brother” holds out a vision of a community coming to terms with the real meaning of the slogan “Black Is Beautiful”: “Together we’re truly Black Power, learning to love by the hour.”
The complexity of Mayfield’s political vision comes through most powerfully in a triad of songs from his debut album, Curtis, perhaps the best album he ever made. Together “The Other Side of Town,” “We the People Who Are Darker than Blue,” and “Move On Up” explore the origins, problems, and promises of Black Power. A report from the urban war zone, “The Other Side of Town” paints a generation deprived of education, hope, and guidance. Mayfield’s mournful cry wasn’t what white America wanted to hear, but he refused to turn away from the spiritual despair of poor black communities waking up to find themselves even more isolated than they had been nearly two decades earlier, when the Brown vs. Board decision promised an end to segregation. The isolation had its roots in political decisions and economic forces that were already in place in the fifties. Seen from the outside, the high-rise projects in Chicago and the abandoned factories in Detroit served as emblems of the dreams deferred. Lived from the inside, the situation was even worse. Black-on-black violence, spiraling drug use, and the breakdown of community organizations mocked the vision he’d learned in his grandmother’s church. Mayfield didn’t disagree with the militants who confronted white hostility and hammered black pride as a necessary response to white supremacy. But as “We the People Who Are Darker than Blue” suggests, something more needed to be said. “Pardon me brother as you stand in your glory,” he sang softly, “I know you won’t mind if I tell the whole story.” Zeroing in on the growing nihilism in ghetto life, he insisted that black people take responsibility for stopping the violence that was part genocide, part suicide. The blues didn’t get any darker or deeper. And, Mayfield reminded his people, the blues didn’t negate the possibility of redemption that yoked “Move On Up” to “People Get Ready” and “We’re a Winner.”
The changing sound and less conciliatory messages on Curtis, Curtis/ Live! and Roots reflect the rapidly changing political and social landscape. But they also speak to the creative independence Mayfield enjoyed at the Curtom label. For Mayfield and partner Eddie Thomas, Curtom marked a fulfillment of a dream. “We’d been thinking about it for a long time,” Thomas reflected. “We went in together. That’s why on the label you’ll see a Gemini in the yellow and a Scorpion, Curtis and I. I’m the Scorpio in the yellow hot sun. We had June Conquest, we had Donny Hathaway on the label, we had the Impressions.” And for the first half of the seventies they had one of the most successful black independent labels this side of Detroit. Curtom’s financial success resulted from a series of astute decisions Mayfield had made first in collaboration with Thomas and then with Marv Stuart, a young white promoter who’d previously concentrated on rock acts.
One of the best decisions they made involved Curtis’s career. Although the Impressions’ first three Curtom albums made the charts, none rose into the Top One Hundred. Stuart recalled the crucial moment: “I told Curtis, ‘Everyone makin’ it is a singer-songwriter. You’re an artist, you should go out on your own.’ ” Looking back, Thomas has no regrets about the choice: “All of your outstanding vocalists, performers, singers, players generally go solo, it’s like a trend. Groups can last for so long, the Miracles, then it’s Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, then just Smokey Robinson. Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, Frankie Lymon, Michael Jackson. They all take off on solo flight. I heard Smokey say on the radio, ‘I love the group, but I find it easier to make a decision, and it’s final, easier to travel, I can just get on the plane. All of the things that had to be four or five other decisions made, I only make one. It gets easier for me. That was the way to go at a certain point.” Chicago-soul historian Johnny Meadows believed that Mayfield’s departure from the Impressions allowed him to write “more for himself than for the group. He usually wrote with an artist in mind, he didn’t just write a song to write a song. He was writing with Gene Chandler in mind on ‘What Now?’ and ‘Just Be True,’ the same thing with Jerry Butler, the same thing with the Impressions. When he went solo, he wanted to showcase himself where he’d been showcasing the Impressions. He didn’t want to be Curtis Mayfield without the Impressions, he wanted to be Curtis Mayfield.”
The decision paid off immediately. Mayfield’s solo debut, Curtis, made the Top Twenty. Each of his first five solo efforts made the Top Forty, capped by the Superfly soundtrack, which reached number one. Mayfield recalled his initial surprise at the success of his solo projects. He’d struck out on his own, he recalled, because he was “just spreading myself too thin, trying to do everything at Curtom and still going out on gigs with the Impressions. I never really intended to leave permanently. But when the Curtis album came out, we all of a sudden discovered we had two hit acts.”
In fact, it took the reconstituted Impressions several years to reestablish themselves as a hit act. Leroy Hutson, Donny Hathaway’s college room-mate, replaced Mayfield as lead singer. Hutson never really clicked with the group, though he later had two Top Forty Curtom hits with “All Because of You” and “Feel the Spirit.” When Hutson left the group late in 1973, he was replaced by two new tenor leads, Ralph Johnson, who had a strong gospel voice, and Reggie Torian, whose forte was soft ballads and who could handle Mayfield’s parts on the Impressions’ sixties classics. After two more unsuccessful albums, the new Impressions finally broke through with the number-one R&B hit “Finally Got Myself Together” and follow-ups “Sooner or Later” and “Same Thing It Took,” both of which peaked at number three.
Alongside its two showcase acts, the Curtom roster boasted a number of solid artists, many of whom had been discovered and developed by Mayfield. The songs he wrote during the late sixties and early seventies uphold the high standards he established in writing for Butler, Chandler, and the Impressions. Mayfield devoted a great deal of attention to the Five Stairsteps, a pre-Jackson 5 family group whose hits included Curtis’s compositions “Don’t Waste Your Time,” “Don’t Change Your Love,” and “Stay Close to Me.” The most promising of the label’s acts, however, was without question Donny Hathaway. Before he left Curtom for Atlantic, Hathaway recorded his first two minor hits, the Mayfield Singers’ “I’ve Been Trying” and “I Thank You,” a duet between Donny and June Conquest.
Mayfield first met Hathaway, whom he considered “a young genius,” when the Impressions were performing at Washington’s Howard University: “Donny was originally out of St. Louis, and he was at Howard studying music. He’d come out of the church too, but his family got him into the university. So he went back to the long-haired classical music and learned to play that piano any way you could imagine. So I was playing at Howard, and he came to the theater with a couple of his singers. They were all majoring in music.” Hathaway impressed Mayfield with both the breadth and depth of his musical knowledge. “He had a lot of learning in him, but he was instilled with a lot of depth of the religious feeling of black music. This fella, you could just talk to him over the phone and play him a piece of music, and he could call out every chord and every movement and where the fifth was and the augmented and tell you what key it was in. He really baffled me. I always admired people that could do that because I never had that kind of learning. It was just amazing.”
Flattered by Hathaway’s request for permission to name his group the Mayfield Singers, Curtis attended a campus performance and immediately signed them to a contract: “They were singing like the Fifth Dimension before there ever was one. So of course I signed them up, and we got a chance to make a couple of recordings. That’s how I came to know Donny. Of course he was an arranger, and he just wiped the studio musicians out. He was so intellectual with the music. We got some of our people for the records out of the Chicago Symphony, and oh, he had them kicking. All those little new ideas he’d learned in his writing. It was just a delight for the old-timers to come in and hear this new kind of music and to see this youngster just making his way. He was destined to be somebody big.”
For a short time Hathaway worked alongside Mayfield as a Curtom arranger, songwriter, and staff producer. But the collaboration never really clicked. Eddie Thomas attributed the problems to the clash of two strong personalities: “Donny Hathaway is a genius by himself, and it’s so difficult when two geniuses are together. A great great great musician, and I’m so sorry his life was so short. We tried to do something with him as an artist, but there was a little friction. I think what happened is Donny and Curtis just clashed. Donny proved later on how good he was. It’s hard to tell a guy, ‘Hey, this guy’s great too.’ There wasn’t enough room for two of them. We only put out one Donny Hathaway single [the duet with June Conquest], and it just hit the bottom of the R&B charts.”
Curtom released Hathaway from his contract, enabling him to sign with Atlantic. The music he created during the first four years of the seventies fully justifies Mayfield’s “genius” assessment. Like Stevie Wonder, Hathaway could slide smoothly between penetrating social commentary (“Little Ghetto Boy”), delicate soul balladry (“Je Vous Aime (I Love You)”), driving funk (“The Ghetto” with its memorable interpolation of “We Shall Overcome” two minutes and thirty-seven seconds into the groove), deep blues (“Giving Up”), and pure gospel aspiration (“Someday We’ll All Be Free”). His duets with Roberta Flack on “Where Is the Love?” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” reverberate with the sensation that somehow the once-bright beacons of reconciliation were dimming, in the world and in our hearts. Soul music may never suffer a greater loss than it did the day in 1979 when Hathaway, disoriented and depressed, plunged to his death from the fifteenth-floor ledge of New York’s Essex Hotel.
Despite the problems with Hathaway, collaboration played a much larger part in Mayfield’s music during the early years at Curtom. One of his favorite albums, Curtis/Live!, provides a tantalizing glimpse of what might have happened if the Impressions had developed a rapport with a regular rhythm section. Drummer Tyrone McCullen and bass player Joseph “Lucky” Scott lay down sinewy rhythmic patterns while Mayfield and second guitarist Craig McMullen frame Curtis’s vocals with tasty guitar licks. The center of the sound, however, comes from master percussionist Henry Gibson, who alternates between bongos and congas to add a polyrhythmic West African feel to new versions of Impressions classics like “Gypsy Woman” and “People Get Ready” as well as more recent funk compositions “We People Who Are Darker than Blue” and “(Don’t Worry).”
Curtis/Live! spent thirty-eight weeks in the Top One Hundred, by far Mayfield’s most successful album to date. Part of the success resulted from Mayfield’s increasing appeal to an audience attuned to the psychedelic rock coming out of San Francisco. On both Curtis and Curtis/Live!, Mayfield’s guitar playing took on a more aggressive edge, reflecting both his influence on and his response to Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix credited Mayfield with having a significant impact on his guitar playing, a connection that comes through clearly in the delicate phrasing and distinctive harmonies on “Little Wing” and “Electric Ladyland.” Mayfield, who experimented with feedback and distortion on his early-seventies solos, saw Hendrix’s explorations as part of a shared attempt to free music’s connecting energies. “Jimi’s approach to music transcends racial barriers,” he said. “His imagination spoke to people on a deeper level than that. With the psychedelics and what have you, he was almost like a scientist, studying the effects.”
Mayfield felt a special affection for the music Hendrix made with the all-black Band of Gypsies: “Every once in a while I have a need to hear that, Jimi and Buddy Miles and Billy Cox, just those three musicians lock in so well. I love ‘Machine Gun.’ ” Elaborating on Hendrix’s appeal, Mayfield emphasized his technical virtuosity. “Jimi of course could break out into lead and do tremendously creative things with his wah-wah,” he said. “However, there were movements sometimes that he brought to his music that would make you immediately think of Curtis, where he actually does a little falsetto with his voice and makes a few Curtis Mayfield chord structures.” Funkmaster George Clinton agreed: “You can hear a lot of Curtis in Jimi Hendrix. In the sixties every guitar player wanted to play like Curtis.” Hendrix reciprocated Mayfield’s admiration: “I like the Impressions. I like that touch; I like that flavor; that type of music. It’s like an enchanted thing.”
Mayfield’s growing interest in the funky explorations being carried out by Hendrix and Clinton’s recently formed Funkadelic gave his music a more distinctive sound. “I just had another way of coming off with my music, and it did appear to be just a little bit different,” he said. “I’d never taken any music lesson, so I didn’t really know the forms, eight bars, sixteen bars, this, that. So I played and wrote as I felt it.” Less conventionally structured than the songs Mayfield wrote for the Impressions, the new sound challenged his musicians. “I did get slack from the musicians, but even they would make comments that ‘gosh this is a terribly strange key to play in, what did he do?’ They just had to follow as I wrote it, and I wouldn’t dare let them change it. Always at the end it would turn out, and everybody would say, ‘Wow, that’s happening.’ ”
At the beginning of 1973 Mayfield and Eddie Thomas parted ways. The decision involved Mayfield’s increasing reliance on Marv Stuart. Mayfield credited Stuart with helping fulfill Curtom’s economic potential. “As green as he was, he was very ambitious,” Mayfield said. “I taught him the record business and how to relate to people. Through his own know-how and his own go-gettingness, he learned. He was able to find weak spots in Curtom, and he turned them around.” Thomas maintained a deep love for Mayfield and blamed the racial climate in the record industry for separating them. Despite Mayfield’s Black Power philosophy, commercial realities led him to jettison his black partner. “After so long, I’d been doing a lot of promotion. Curtis felt that Marv could help him more in his career because he was white,” Thomas reflected. “I admit my limitations being a black executive even to go that far. So we shook hands on it, and I said, ‘I’ll start my own studio. I’ll stay South and start my own thing, Thomas Associates.’ It was like two giants, one giant and a half.” Thomas laughed. “Decided hey you gotta go this way and I’ll go that way. Curtis set up a studio on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago, and that’s where he did ‘Superfly’ and all the gutbucket stuff.”
Even though Mayfield continued to advance his vision of love and acceptance, his emphasis on Black Power and social problems may have contributed to the difficulty he had crossing over to white audiences as a live performer. His solo albums sold well to white listeners. Surprisingly, attempts to book Mayfield into rock venues elicited little response from audiences who eagerly embraced other artists experimenting with combinations of rock, funk, and soul. In 1969 Mayfield played the Fillmore West on a bill with Santana and Ike and Tina Turner. In 1972 he was booked into Chicago’s version of the Fillmore, the Aragon Ballroom. Neither crossover attempt worked. Chicago promoter Jerry Mickelson offered an explanation that rings hollow in light of the success of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix with similar crowds: “You learn the market. Take Curtis Mayfield. He was hotter than a pistol, and he died in the Aragon. So we learned that you can’t do a black act up there.”
Mayfield’s failure to cross over as a live performer seems particularly baffling in light of the massive success of his movie soundtracks, beginning with Super Fly, which stayed at the top of the album charts for four weeks during 1972. Mayfield jumped at the chance when producer Sig Shore asked him to write the soundtrack for what would become one of the definitive films of the blaxploitation genre. “I can recall having received the Super Fly script from Sig Shore and [screenwriter] Philip Fenty at the Lincoln Center in New York,” Mayfield recalled. “I was performing there and they brought this script in between shows and wow, was I so excited. I’d written a song just flying back home from New York. It took me hardly no time to prepare the songs and that’s how it began. It was different, it was wearing a new hat. I was just elated to have a chance to do something of that manner. I began writing immediately upon reading the script. I was making notes and coming up with the songs already. That was just a fantastic adventure for me.”
The songs Mayfield wrote in that burst of creative activity, especially the title cut, “Pusherman,” and “Freddie’s Dead,” earn Super Fly a place alongside Isaac Hayes’s Shaft, which defined the blaxploitation-soundtrack market when it was released in 1971. For Mayfield, Super Fly represented a chance to communicate the realities of urban life to a large audience. “Of course I could relate with a lot of it, because I knew what a ‘Priest’ and what a ‘Superfly’ was,” he said, referring to the movie’s leading characters. “It allowed me to get past the glitter of the drug scene and go to the depth of it—allowing a little bit of the sparkle and the highlights lyrically, but always with a moral.”
From almost the moment the movie was released, however, audiences recognized a dissonance between the film’s celebration of drugs and sex and the message of Mayfield’s soundtrack, which clearly identifies the “Pusherman” as community enemy number one. Mayfield remembered his surprise at the way director Gordon Parks Jr.’s treatment transformed the meaning of Fenty’s script. “For me when I first was reading it, it read very well. Here’s this guy that may have been a nice guy and could have been totally positive, but he got caught up in the wrong group of people. I didn’t put Priest down. He was just trying to get out. His deeds weren’t noble ones, but he was making money and he had intelligence. And he did survive. I mean all this was reality.” The script was one thing; the movie was something else. “Reading the script didn’t tell you ‘and then he took another hit of cocaine’ and then about a minute later ‘he took another hit,’ ” Mayfield lamented. “So when I saw it visually, I thought ‘This is a cocaine infomercial.’ ”
Some would argue that Mayfield should have bolted. But rather than backing out of the project, he set about creating what amounts to a masked statement undercutting the surface message. “I made the commitment, and of course I wasn’t going to let go of my chance to do a movie. Yet I didn’t want to be part of that infomercial. So it was important to me that I left the glitter and all the social stuff and tried to go straight in the lyrics. I tried to tell the stories of the people in depth and not insult the intelligence of those who were spending their money. That was an actual effort on my part.” In addition, Mayfield countered the infomercial by releasing a vocal version of “Freddie’s Dead” in advance of the movie. The song leaves no doubt about the message: “Remember what I said, ’cause Freddie’s Dead.” “I released it three months prior to the movie coming out so when the kids got in there they knew the music.” The strategy meant that even though the film includes only an instrumental version of “Freddie’s Dead,” audience members familiar with the single could juxtapose the film’s images with Mayfield’s sober reminder that it all leads to meaningless violence and community destruction. Mayfield emphasized the point by concluding the title song with a moment that could be described as gospel funk. While Pate’s orchestration fades out over one of the decade’s catchiest rhythmic grooves, Mayfield repeats the line “trying to get over” again and again, bringing “Superfly” into dialogue with the gospel classic “How I Got Over.”
Mayfield may not have succeeded in resolving the contradictions at the heart of Super Fly, but he’d put his finger on the malaise that was rapidly changing the tone of life in black America. On his next album he turned his attention to the most obvious manifestation and source of the malaise: Vietnam. One of Mayfield’s most consistent albums, Back to the World (1973) reworks the basic concept of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic What’s Going On. Like Gaye, Mayfield tells the story of a black veteran returning home from Vietnam to a community on the verge of collapse. The inspiration came from a set of performances at military bases. “I wrote Back to the World because we’d played some bases in France, England, Germany and that was a very popular common saying. ‘I’ll be glad when I get back to the world,’ which meant to them coming back home to America. And so I wrote that song as my own interpretation of what the war was all about.” Ruminating on the song’s picture of soldiers crawling through the mud wondering why the Lord had abandoned them, Mayfield reflected on what the vets found when they returned home: “Then you get back to the world and you wonder what it’s all for. You can’t get a job. You’re being robbed. Your woman that was there two or three years, your woman’s long been gone. And of course, all these different things were part of the times. So all you could do was deal with the questions and answers of how you might try to reasonably work it out so you could live with it.”
The concern with finding a way to live with it—to reconnect with your woman, your community, your spirit—differentiates Back to the World from What’s Going On. Injecting gospel intensities into the dense orchestral textures and funk rhythms, Mayfield focuses on the vets’ changing psychological responses. In contrast, part of what makes What’s Going On an unquestioned masterpiece is Gaye’s concentration on the social cross-currents sweeping through the inner cities and the country as a whole. Mayfield acknowledges the social forces in “Back to the World” and “Future Shock” but concentrates on the vet’s personal struggles with despair (“Right On for the Darkness”) and the renewal of hope he finds when he turns to his “heavenly father” in “Future Song (Love a Good Woman, Love a Good Man).” Where Gaye concludes What’s Going On with the near-desperation of “Inner City Blues”— “makes me wanna holler”—Mayfield resolves Back to the World with the upbeat “Keep On Trippin’.” As always in Mayfield’s music, what black intellectual Cornel West calls the “audacious hope” of the gospel vision shines through the darkness.
THAT HOPEFUL AUDACITY COMFORTED Stevie Wonder on his twenty-first birthday as he moved to make his vision of creative independence a reality. Taking advantage of his client’s legal right to disavow agreements signed as a minor, Wonder’s lawyer informed Berry Gordy that Stevie was no longer under contract to Motown. Wonder explained the decision primarily in creative terms: “My contract was made when I was very young. And I didn’t know the significance of having my own publishing. But I basically wanted to do more. I felt I didn’t want to slide into one bag. Music changes, and if you’re in the line of change and don’t move, you get trampled.”
The news shocked Gordy, who had hosted Wonder for an early birthday dinner the night before. When Gordy asked him why he hadn’t provided advance warning, Stevie indicated that his lawyer had acted without his permission, and dismissed him. His replacement, a scruffy-looking hardball player named Johanan Vigoda, was, Gordy sighed, “ten times tougher.” First Vigoda hired accountants to examine Motown’s previous financial dealings with Wonder. Finding the accounts in order, Vigoda conducted a grueling round of negotiations with Motown, Atlantic, and Columbia that culminated in Wonder’s decision to re-sign with his old label. The key to the agreement was Motown’s somewhat reluctant willingness to surrender most of its accustomed control over its acts. “It was a very important contract for Motown and a very important contract for Stevie, representing the artists of Motown,” Vigoda reflected. “He opened up the future for Motown. That’s what they understood. They never had an artist in 13 years. They had single records, they managed to create a name in certain areas, but they never came through with a major, major artist.”
Motown president Ewart Abner had been aware of Wonder’s creative dissatisfaction and was less surprised by his move. “He was about 19 then,” he recalled. “He used to remind me that his day was coming, that when he turned 21 he was going to do what he wanted to do. I used to ask him—or tell him—to do things, and he’d say, ‘Okay, but when I’m 21 I’m going to have things my own way. I don’t think you know where I’m coming from. I don’t think you can understand it.’ ” Still, Abner reported, when Stevie “came to me and said, ‘I’m 21 now. I’m not gonna do what you say anymore. Void my contract,’ I freaked.” After Gordy recovered from his initial shock, he reconciled himself to Wonder’s unprecedented deal. The package included a greatly increased share of revenues for the artist, and it established Taurus Productions and Black Bull publishing, both staffed by employees under Wonder’s direct control. In his autobiography, To Be Loved, Gordy described Wonder’s creative emancipation with a mixture of regret and admiration. “I had some misgivings when he asked for total creative control,” Gordy acknowledged. “I thought of the progression he had made from an eleven-year-old high-pitched singer banging on bongos to a full-voiced vocalist, writer, and now producer. So I agreed to the creative control. Stevie was ready to fly.”
While the negotiations took place, Wonder was already testing his wings. Collecting the million dollars he’d earned under the terms of his original contract, he checked into a room at a West Side Manhattan hotel and went to work at the Electric Lady Studio, which Jimi Hendrix had assembled on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. For Wonder, the move marked his emancipation from Motown’s production-line creative process, as well as from his own past. “I knew I couldn’t forever jump up and down and do ‘Fingertips,’ ” he told The New York Times Magazine. “I basically wanted to stay with Motown. I’ve been with them since the beginning, and I felt that I would like to be one of the pioneers of seeing it change, get into a new direction. I knew the company, and I knew the people, and all I had to do was somehow convince Gordy, and part of my convincing had been done when I split. I knew that a lot of the emotions that existed were because of the fact that I was young, as opposed to looking at me as being a man. They were looking at the past, when I was Little Stevie Wonder running up and down the street. So they had another kind of attachment, and it was sort of an insult or hurt to them when I did split, because they could only relate back to the beginning.” Looking back at his period of transition, Wonder said that while Motown had been upset at first, “they began to understand—later. Whatever peak I had reached doing that kind of music, I had reached. It was important for them to understand we were going nowhere. I wasn’t growing. I just kept repeating the Stevie Wonder sound, and it didn’t express how I felt about what was happening out there. I decided to go for something besides a winning formula. I wanted to see what would happen if I changed.”
The changes involved Wonder’s personal life as well as his music and finances. Eight months before his twenty-first birthday he married Syreeta Wright, a Motown secretary and talented singer who would record two fine albums bearing her husband’s unmistakable musical imprint. Syreeta taught transcendental meditation, and the couple’s relationship sparked Stevie’s interest in Asian philosophy and mysticism. From the start, however, the marriage ran into problems, including Syreeta’s lack of interest in behaving in accord with Stevie’s belief—recall he was barely out of his teens—that “a woman’s supposed to take care of a man domestically and spiritually.” When the marriage came to an end the following year, Stevie first attributed the split to the stars. “She’s a Leo, and I’m a Taurus,” he told several interviewers. “They’re both fixed signs, and they both want to lead.” Later, he would reflect that “I just wasn’t ready to get married. I think the beauty of going together and being close is so beautiful that sometimes when you get married you feel that you blow it. There were hassles and other things that involved me finding myself.”
The real problem was Stevie’s total immersion in his music. According to Jim Giltrap, a backup singer who worked with Wonder throughout the period, “He’d be in the studio most of the time, and then when he comes home, first thing he does is sit at the piano. And his woman, she wants to be with her man. Not just listen to his tapes and him playing music all the time. How can a woman cope with that, day after day? And also when he finishes work, he’s tired and out. Steve only sleeps a few hours per day, and when he’s awake, he makes music. A woman needs more attention than that.” Whatever forces led to its dissolution, the marriage inspired at least two first-rate songs: Syreeta’s beautiful rendition of “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers” and Wonder’s heartfelt eulogy for a sweet love lost, “Superwoman.”
A seductive ballad built around the constantly shifting rhythms and sound textures that would become a signature of Wonder’s mature work, “Superwoman” emerged from a series of marathon sessions at Electric Lady. Reveling in his newfound sonic wonderland, he opened his creative floodgates. “I recorded 40 tunes in about two weeks,” he said. “They weren’t totally finished, I just did piano basics or whatever. I would just lay down what came to mind, on the piano or on the clavinet, usually one of the two instruments. Depending on the instruments the songs do come out differently, ’cause an instrument is like a color, it puts you in a certain mood.” The synthesizer brought out Wonder’s mystical side. Often he described his experience of sound in visual terms: “When I hear music, I can see it, each instrument has its own color. The piano for instance is brown, and I can see each instrument playing its own part. It’s like a puzzle, and when I fit all the pieces together, that’s my high.”
His interest in sound colors coalesced around his newly purchased state-of-the-art Moog synthesizer, an elaborate sound processor that had been assembled to his specifications. He’d liked Walter Carlos’s use of the instrument on Switched-on Bach and was entranced by its possibilities. “It really isn’t so much to imitate a particular instrument as to make the horizon for an instrument even wider,” he said. “The sound has to be created because it’s just another electrical impulse. With it you have the ability to shape the melody into any form you desire, attack, sustain, delay, release, or the combination of those can be done any way you want, to create the sound.”
Wonder owed much of his success with synthesized sound to Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil, who helped him realize his ideas from Music of My Mind through Fulfillingness’ First Finale. Margouleff and Cecil had attracted Wonder’s attention with the album Zero Time, an electronic extravaganza they’d released under the name of Tonto’s Expanding Headband. African American troubadour Richie Havens introduced Wonder to the duo, which soon joined him at Electric Lady. Cecil told Motown chronicler Nelson George, “Stevie showed up with the Tonto LP under his arm. He said, ‘I don’t believe all this was done on one instrument. Show me the instrument.’ He was always talking about seeing. So we dragged his hands all over the instrument, and he thought he’d never be able to play it. But we told him we’d get it together for him.”
The trio went to work immediately, exploring the possibilities of numerous Manhattan studios, including Mediasound and Electric Lady. Margouleff remembered that they entered the studio at the start of the Memorial Day weekend. “By the end of that Monday—it must have been two or three in the morning—we had seventeen songs in the can,” Margouleff said. “We never stopped working from that moment, night and day. He’d do the playing, we’d do the programming, and we started to accumulate a huge library of songs. Sometimes he’d just go into the studio and work on a groove, and four weeks later, it was a song.”
The result was Wonder’s first fully realized album, Music of My Mind. As the title indicates, Wonder was engaged in a period of introspection. The album jacket suggests the cavalcade of thoughts coursing through Wonder’s mind as he prepares to create his greatest work to date. The front and back covers present a serious-looking Stevie wearing sunglasses that reflect a panoply of counterculture icons: the face of an American Indian, Buddha, the Earth as seen from outer space, the silhouette of Taurus, strange geological formations, a rainbow. If the montage situates Stevie in a fairly conventional hippie matrix, the music on the album was directed equally to his core R&B audience and to listeners who had grown up on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A shimmering sequence of beautiful textures spiced with funky R&B, the album’s highlights include “Love Having You Around,” “Happier than the Morning Sun,” and “Keep On Running.” The album’s best cut, which curiously failed to crack the Top Thirty when released as a single, “Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You),” charts the changing emotions surrounding a collapsing love affair, shifting from self-justifying dismissal of the woman who “wants to boss the bull around” to wistful lament. While the album attracted positive critical comment, it wasn’t a major hit, partly because it lacked a big hit single and partly because fans of progressive rock still had Wonder conveniently filed away in the parts of their brain labeled “Top Forty” or “soul.”
A desire to break out of these categories lay behind Wonder’s decision to accept the Rolling Stones’ invitation to open for them on their 1972 North American tour. For Wonder, the tour proved aggravating. The press and promoters paid almost no attention to the Stones’ “opening act,” and especially during the early parts of the tour, the overwhelmingly white audiences greeted Wonder with indifference and inattention. The Stones, who had opened for Little Stevie Wonder on their first American tour back in 1964, had a good track record supporting black artists; their previous opening acts included Howlin’ Wolf, Tina Turner, Billy Preston, and B.B. King. In 1972, however, they were in the midst of their most decadent period, as richly documented in the cult documentary Cocksucker Blues. From the start of the tour Wonder had trouble finding a place in the Stones’ bacchanalian circus. Keith Richards broke from the drugs and debauchery just long enough to issue disparaging remarks about Wonder to the press. Stevie responded with sharpness. “I thought at the very beginning it was going to be good vibes,” he told Rolling Stone.“But, you know, I could see that we were on two different levels. I never went and got high with them because I don’t get high. So maybe that had something to do with it. I don’t know. I went a few times to get a drink, some beer or something, but I never really hung out with them.”
It didn’t help that Wonder was just learning how to handle the demands of directing his own band, Wonderlove. One of the positive aspects of Motown’s paternalism was that it spared the singers some of the responsibilities that accompanied personnel management. Amid the tensions between Wonder and the Stones, the first incarnation of Wonderlove never coalesced into a real band. Tensions boiled over midway through the tour when Wonder canceled a set in Houston after his drummer walked out. It was a classic rock ’n’ roll moment. “My drummer had a nervous breakdown,” Wonder recollected. “I told him he rushed the tempo and the tempo was messed up, and he said, ‘I didn’t rush it too much,’ and I said, ‘Yes, you did.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You play the goddamn drums,’ and he split. He said, ‘You play the drums, you’re a drummer, you play the drums and sing at the same time and play your harmonica too.’ He was very upset. I didn’t believe that he would, but he did leave.”
Nonetheless the tour generated some memorable musical moments. On most of the final stops, Wonder joined the Stones onstage for a medley of “Uptight” and “Satisfaction” that developed into a real showstopper. “It was spontaneous,” Wonder remembered. “We did it once, and it was so exciting that we decided to just keep it in. From then on we fit it to the show.” On the final stop of the tour at Madison Square Garden, which coincided with Jagger’s birthday, an impromptu pie-throwing contest broke out during the medley. Undeterred by his blindness, Wonder dove in. “I got me some of that,” he laughed. “Gimme that pie, baby. Somebody threw one at me, and I said, ‘Oh, wow,’ y’know. Poor Steve. Then I picked it up and did it. I was picking them up where I could find ’em and giving a fling. One of my singers picked up a piece, and we were smearing it all over each other’s face. All these people, horn players and everything just sliding around, stepping in pies and chucking them, stuff flying all over, and meanwhile everybody’s still playing.” Despite the problems Wonder understood that the exposure he received was crucial to his larger vision. “No matter how many hassles we had, the good vibes have more than offset the bad ones,” he admitted. “Music is like a religion to me, and the more sharing that takes place between the musicians and the audience, the more spiritual the music becomes. We’ve still managed to make a lot of people have soulful experiences.”
Wonder followed up on the tour by reaching out to the counterculture audience that had responded so strongly to Aretha at the Fillmore. Writing in Rolling Stone, Ben Fong-Torres provided a fascinating portrait of Wonder’s 1972 appearance in the Bay Area. After sold-out concerts at San Francisco’s Winterland and Berkeley’s Community Theater, Wonder traded in the African gown and shark-tooth necklace he’d performed in for a champagne gold suit complete with plaid bow tie and metallic copper platform shoes with four-inch heels. Fong-Torres described Wonder’s attractively quirky style: “He establishes rapport on the basis of astrological signs and otherwise talks in black hippie fashion, zigzagging, sometimes from Pollyannish to apocalyptic.” For all the countercultural trappings, Wonder insisted that he had no interest in drugs. “I smoked grass one time, and it scared me to death,” he told Fong-Torres. “Things just got larger. It was something new and different, but I found I’m so busy checking things out all the time anyway that I don’t really need it. If I were high it would destroy the character of my music because I would be tripping out so much on myself as opposed to the things around me.”
The flashy dress and philosophical musings coexisted with Wonder’s unflagging dedication to Martin Luther King’s vision of interracial harmony. Translating the “I Have a Dream” speech into the argot of Woodstock, Wonder said, “If you think of blacks and whites in separate terms, you’re feeding off something that’s dying every day.” Like Curtis Mayfield, he saw no contradiction between black pride and universalist humanism. “If I can do anything to help my people in respect of black pride, help the black people, then I’ll do it,” he emphasized. “Black people have a serious problem because we are not united. Everybody else is together. We must learn to appreciate ourselves. We have to learn to appreciate the accomplishments of our forefathers, like Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass.” At the same time, Wonder sounded an ominous note: “I hate to sound pessimistic, but it will take people many years to realize the true meaning of Malcolm X’s message. I may sound pessimistic, but we have serious problems that have to be dealt with. Nixon is cutting off all these programs and holding back funds. Who do you think it’s hurting? The black man. We have always been the last to get and the first to have it taken away.” As he would continue to do with increasing frequency, Wonder devoted himself to an eclectic array of progressive causes. Those that drew his attention included Kenneth Gibson’s campaign to become the first black mayor of Newark; the Freedom Rally for John Sinclair, the White Panther leader jailed for possession of two joints; and the “One-to-One” benefit for a New York hospital for the mentally retarded. While Wonder clearly believed in the causes, the benefit appearances established his approach to political activism—rhetorical support backed by financial contributions—that would continue throughout his career. Although the approach made sense as part of the broader movement of the sixties and seventies, the limitations of symbolic politics would become increasingly clear in the eighties and nineties.
For Joe Billingslea, who had accompanied Wonder on the early Motown Revue tours as a member of the Contours, Wonder’s political explorations grew directly out of tensions inherent in the Motown artists’ peculiar relationship with their white contemporaries. “Motown got caught in some funny crossfire,” Billingslea reflected. “Here’s a bunch of black kids going flat-out after the American dream, you dig? The nice house, the clothes, the car. Just what everybody else has always gone for. But with what was going on, the riots, the Vietnam mess, it was the down side of the dream. And so just when some cat gets enough to afford the Continental—bang— it’s not cool to drive it, disrespectful to the movement or whatever. Just when you’re making it in the company, maybe, like Diana Ross, you see your brother pack off to Vietnam, when all them kids you play to in the theaters, baby, you know they gonna have college exemptions from the draft. In your own home, you whipsawed. You get your mama out of the projects first. Then you buy the car. Still, somebody got somethin’ to say.”
Judging by the success of the 1972 album Talking Book, both Stevie’s new and old audiences liked what he was saying. The album’s hit singles, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstition,” certainly didn’t hurt, but as Wonder stated, the singles were “only one page in the book. An album is a book.” Combining to form a talking book in both the African and blind-culture senses, the chapters in the full volume came equally out of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Hitsville, U.S.A. As he would throughout the seventies, Wonder wrote and produced the songs and played most of the instruments himself. But he welcomed guest appearances such as Deniece Williams’s vocals on “Tuesday Heartbreak” and Jeff Beck’s guitar solo on “Looking for Another Pure Love.” Each track on the album— “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” “Maybe Your Baby,” “Blame It on the Sun,” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”—contributes to its status as Wonder’s first fully realized artistic statement.
The complementary facets of Wonder’s maturing genius come through most clearly in the triad of “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Big Brother,” and “Superstition.” Picking up from “My Cherie Amour” and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” fulfilled the expectations of those who shared Motown’s image of Stevie as the new Sammy Davis Jr. A number-one hit and million seller, the gentle lyrics perfectly complement a hook that only had to be heard once to be remembered. It didn’t take long for Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Engelbert Humperdinck, Liza Minnelli, Perry Como, and Johnny Mathis to scramble to the front of the ever-growing ranks of stylists and crooners who have made “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” a fixture in the supper-club repertoire. That does not change the fact that, like “My Cherie Amour,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” is a delightful song; nor should Wonder be blamed for any number of bad covers.
“Big Brother” was the political keynote of the album, suggesting that Wonder’s political awareness was deepening alongside his musical intelligence. Striking out angrily at the cynical politicians who came around the ghetto only at election time, the song, in historian Brian Ward’s words, “conjured up images of Orwellian state surveillance around the same time that the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation against the Black Panther Party and other radical black groups was at its wretched peak.” Wonder linked the song to his growing interest in history. “The most interesting thing to me was about civilizations before ours,” he reflected, “how advanced people really were, how high they had brought themselves, only to bring themselves down because of the missing links, the weak foundations. So the whole thing crumbled, and that’s kind of sad. And it relates to today and what could possibly happen here, very soon. That’s basically what ‘Big Brother’ is all about. I speak of the history, the heritage of the violence, or the negativeness of being able to see what’s going on with minority people. We don’t have to do anything to [the people in power] ’cause they’re gonna cause their own country to fall.”
Less explicit but more compelling, “Superstition” joined the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” in capturing the raging paranoia that settled over the nation during the Nixon years. The lyrics swirl with nightmare images out of Robert Johnson or Bob Dylan. The devil’s on his way and the writing’s on the wall, but no one can read it. If you can get out with seven years of bad luck, take the deal. “Superstition’s not the way,” Wonder growls to the accompaniment of a horn line that splits the difference between Memphis and Duke Ellington. But if he has a better idea, he ain’t letting on what it is. Wonder means every murky word, and the music backs him up; he said he’d built the song around the clavinet because “it’s a funky, dirty, stinky, nasty instrument.”
The song’s aura of bad vibrations extended into real life around Jeff Beck’s desire to record “Superstition.” Beck had wanted to record “Maybe Your Baby” on his upcoming Beck, Bogert & Appice album, but Wonder reserved the song for himself and offered to write a new song in its place. Beck’s version of what happened next seems to be substantively accurate. “I was sitting at the drum kit, which I love to play when nobody’s around, doing this beat,” Beck reported. “Stevie came kinda boogying into the studio. ‘Don’t stop.’ ‘Ah, c’mon, Stevie, I can’t play the drums.’ Then the lick came out: ‘Superstition.’ That was my song. I thought, he’s giving me the riff of the century.” Recognizing what he had, Wonder laid down his own version, originally intending to include it as a cut on Talking Book.
When Motown heard Stevie’s version, they rushed it onto the market as a single. Wonder recalled the sequence of events leading up to the trouble: “I told Motown, ‘Don’t release ‘Superstition.’ And they said, ‘Man, are you crazy?’ They have control of releasing the singles. I knew there would be trouble. If his single had come out before mine and mine had flopped, it would have been cool. Or if both of ours had flopped, it would have been cool.” The chances of which were zero. Realizing that competing with Stevie’s first number-one hit since “Fingertips, Part 2” was pointless, Beck issued a bitter statement to the rock press: “Bastard. What can we say? He wrote it, that’s the frustrating thing about it. He’s got an incredible ear for small combo material. It fitted us like a glove. Stevie, you screwed up.” Wonder would later atone by providing two songs, “Thelonious” and “Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers,” for Beck’s 1975 Blow by Blow album.
However difficult his interactions with the Stones and Beck might have been, Wonder was clearly following his own advice and connecting with every corner of the popular-music scene. He jammed with Edgar Winter and Elton John, with Sly Stone and Bob Marley, with Bob Dylan, Chaka Khan, and Jackson Browne; he sang duets with everyone from Prince to Frank Sinatra. And as Music of My Mind and Talking Book made clear, he wasn’t about to surrender his roots in black music. Yet another of Stevie’s collaborators, B.B. King, had one of his biggest hits in 1973 with “To Know You Is to Love You,” which was written by Stevie and Syreeta Wright. The great bluesman summed up the reason that, however far he extended his musical horizons, Wonder would always maintain the love and respect of the people back in Paradise Valley: “Stevie understands R&B. Stevie is R&B.”
AS THE MYTHIC SIXTIES—not to be confused with the ten years between 1960 and 1970—neared their belated end, Stevie and Aretha had become central symbols of Black Power. Funk trickster George Clinton echoed King when he anointed Stevie “Minister of Culture” for the “Chocolate Cities” where black people were beginning to claim the political power bequeathed them by white flight to the vanilla suburbs. Aretha Franklin was simply the “First Lady.” When Aretha herself reflected on the movement’s meaning, she concentrated on its effect on her self-image: “The black revolution certainly forced me and the majority of black people to begin taking a second look at ourselves,” she commented. “It wasn’t that we were all that ashamed of ourselves, we merely started appreciating our natural selves, falling in love with ourselves just as we are. So I suppose the revolution influenced me a great deal, but I must say that mine was a very personal evolution—an evolution of the me in myself.” For Aretha, “the whole meaning of the revolution” was tied up in self-acceptance. “I know I’ve improved my overall look and sound,” she reflected. “I’ve gained a great deal of confidence in myself.” Responding to a question about Amiri Baraka’s view of black music as a potentially revolutionary force, Aretha shifted the focus from the streets to the spirit: “Soul music is music coming out of the black spirit. A lot of it is based on suffering and sorrow, and I don’t know anyone in this country who has had more of those two devils than the Negro.”
By all accounts, Aretha knew the devils all too intimately. If she was known publicly as the “Queen of Soul,” those who knew her used other nicknames. Donald Walden, who played saxophone in her road band, called her “Mona Lisa,” while Jerry Wexler sympathetically referred to her as “Our Mysterious Lady of the Sorrows.” “Sometimes she’d call me at four in the morning and we would talk—long talks,” Wexler wrote in his autobiography. “If the call came then, it would usually be about her troubles.” Aretha’s troubles had many sources and symptoms: her ongoing battle to control her weight; her strained and deteriorating relationship with the mainstream press; charges of reckless driving and disorderly conduct against her in Detroit; erratic performances and canceled concerts, including an engagement at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas; her father’s problems involving the IRS and a gun battle between police and the Republic of New Afrika that left a policeman dead outside his church; and, most consuming of all, the collapse of her marriage with Ted White amid persistent, and widely believed, rumors of domestic abuse. The blues were, as Bessie Smith once sang, all around her bed and up inside her head.
In the midst of it all Aretha sought refuge in the havens black women had turned to for generations: music and the church. As she told her old friend Mahalia Jackson, “I’m gonna make a record and tell Jesus I cannot bear these burdens alone.” “I don’t think she’s happy,” Mahalia added. “Somebody else is making her sing the blues.” Mahalia’s remarks were quoted in a June 18, 1968, Time magazine cover story that Aretha vociferously condemned as a source of the “false and thoughtless lies” that her mother had abandoned the children. While she didn’t deny having referred to herself as “an old woman in disguise, 25 going on 65,” she complained that the article exaggerated her depression. “Things can never be that bad,” she responded. “For the blind man, there is always the fellow with no feet. I’ve been hurt. You can’t get over it all, but you can go on living and keep on looking. I’m not free yet, but I will be.” In the offending article she had outlined the basic blues approach to dealing with the brutal experiences of everyday life: “Everybody who’s living has problems and desires just as I do. When the fellow on the corner has something bothering him, he feels the same way I do. When we cry, we all gonna cry tears, and when we laugh, we all have to smile.”
The most sensational passages in the Time article concerned Aretha’s marriage. As Rolling Stone observed, “The story said her husband beat her up and that is the one sentence that anybody remembers.” Many of Aretha’s friends and associates confirmed that the marriage had been, at the least, tumultuous, but Aretha downplayed her suffering. “Oh, I’ve had my bad times,” she told an interviewer, “but they’re the same problems, aches and pains other people have; relationships that don’t work and relationships that begin not to work. Okay. That causes pain, but when I think back on my marriage, I only think of how beautiful it was … and then came the time when it wasn’t.” By the middle of 1969 Aretha and White had separated, and shortly thereafter they filed for divorce.
While it would be several years before Aretha made the gospel record she promised Mahalia, she released her pent-up emotions in her music. Donald Walden, who worked in her band throughout the most difficult period, advised, “String the titles together, and that’s the story of her life.” Jimmy Johnson of the Muscle Shoals band recalled that at the time of the final breakup Aretha had been “highly depressed” and failed to show up for several sessions. When she did appear, however, she turned her sorrows into overpowering art. Describing the session where she recorded “Call Me,” Johnson said, “I think she may have cried doing the lyrics of that song— because she definitely had us crying.”
Jerry Wexler took a more philosophical approach to Aretha’s art. “The songs she chose or wrote were loosely but significantly autobiographical,” he reflected, contemplating the cathartic power of her songs. “If she couldn’t feel it, forget it; if she didn’t live it, she couldn’t give it. And although I’m sure five-and-dime psychologists could write volumes on her reliance on unreliable men, she actually broke the chain of songs of self-pity, those poignant but somewhat masochistic lyrics sung by her mythic soul sisters like Bessie, Dinah, and Billie. Aretha would never play the part of the scorned woman: she wouldn’t beg her man to come back no matter what. Her middle name was Respect.” Aretha said matter-of-factly, “I sing to the realist. People who accept it like it is. I express problems. There are tears when it’s sad and smiles when it’s happy. It seems simple to me, but for some people, I guess feeling takes courage.”
Although Aretha Now and Soul ’69 mark a slight decline from her first three Atlantic albums, both are moving testaments to her courage. The titles of the songs she wrote and chose to cover—and even more the ache in her voice—refract the emotional complexity of her dying marriage: “Today I Sing the Blues,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “If You Gotta Make a Fool of Somebody,” “I Can’t See Myself Leaving You,” “Think,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “See Saw.” As Wexler said, there’s no point in reducing any of them to strict autobiography. What’s important is the way Aretha delves into the indigo moments when something that felt right goes wrong. Even as she promises to keep her love alive in Burt Bacharach’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” she can hear the whispering waters of blues poet Percy Mayfield’s “River’s Invitation” calling her away to death’s promised peace. Her remake of “Today I Sing the Blues,” the song that caught John Hammond’s attention and gave her her first R&B hit, shows how far she’d come since taking her first steps away from the gospel highway. And her majestic reading of old friend Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” is damn near enough to make a ghetto real estate vulture consider the state of his soul.
Soul ’69 lacks the collective impact of Aretha’s best albums, but it remains an underappreciated landmark in her career. The title is, as Wexler admitted, a misnomer forced on her by Atlantic’s overzealous marketing department. “It should have been called her jazz album,” he observed. In fact, the album beats her Columbia LPs at their own game, presenting a variety of jazz, blues, and pop standards in tasteful jazz settings. Supplementing the Muscle Shoals rhythm section with top-flight jazz musicians including guitarist Kenny Burrell, bass player Ron Carter, and pianist Joe Zawinul, Aretha flawlessly executes a set that seems designed for fans of Nancy Wilson or Sarah Vaughan. Along with old chestnuts “So Long,” “I’ll Never Be Free,” and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” Aretha insisted on covering two wistful folk-rock ballads, Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” and Bob Lind’s “Elusive Butterfly.” “Her taste could sometimes be very mainstream,” Wexler observed. “That’s part of her genius. When it went off a bit, it went off in its own way.”
As Aretha’s marriage disintegrated over the final years of the sixties, events in the outside world offered little relief. When she first returned to Detroit after the 1967 riot, she was “shocked and saddened to see the bullet-ridden house a few doors from my dad’s, the National Guard still set up at Central High School with tanks and guns.” Still stunned by King’s April 1968 assassination, she accepted an invitation to sing at the opening session of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August. For many of those battling Mayor Daley’s police in the bloody streets, it was a mistake for any black person, especially one who seemed to voice the aspirations of the revolution, to offer even indirect support to the establishment. But as Aretha prepared in a small dressing room with “just a curtain, chair, and mirror,” she had “no idea pandemonium had erupted outside.”
Aretha’s position just outside the political firefight raging between radicals and liberals as well as conservatives and anyone committed to racial equality was complicated by her father’s high visibility in black Detroit. In April 1969 Reverend C.L. Franklin found himself near the center of the storm. From the dawn of the Black Power movement, Detroit had been a hotbed of black nationalist sentiment. One of the more visible nationalist organizations was the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), which the year before had issued a statement calling for the establishment of an independent black nation located in the Deep South. Although Reverend Franklin would never even have considered membership in the RNA, and in fact would have disapproved of many of its policies, he understood its appeal to some of his parishioners. Viewing his church as an active part of the dialogues going on in the community, he granted the RNA’s request to hold a conference at New Bethel. Shortly after the conference ended, a confrontation between Detroit police and armed security guards escalated into a full-scale firefight. One officer was killed, and five people, including another policeman, were seriously wounded. Responding to the calls for backup, dozens of police converged on the neighborhood, arresting anyone unfortunate enough to be caught on the street.
When African American judge George Crockett, a friend of Reverend Franklin’s, received word of the mass arrests, he rushed to the precinct station and set up court. Challenging police to justify their actions, he set most of the detainees free, setting off a firestorm that would rage in the Detroit press for weeks. Meanwhile, the janitor at New Bethel had located C.L. and told him of the shootings. When he arrived at the church, he encountered police “gathering the bullets that had lodged in the benches.” Noting that “there wasn’t any physical sign of shots going out of the church,” he reached the obvious conclusion that “the policemen were doing the shooting.” Reentering New Bethel, Franklin found the church’s music director, Thomas Shelby, sitting with his head in his hands. Franklin did his best to reassure his colleague, saying, “We are in the throes of a revolution, a social revolution. Some people have lost their lives in this revolution, and we have lost a little glass. I think we got out cheap.”
Nonetheless, Reverend Franklin was far from a revolutionary. As a part of the city’s black political elite, he had friends in the Democratic Party who were making real advances in their quest for political power, especially after the riot kicked white flight into high gear. Deprived of their voting majority and forced to choose between fighting and running, the white supremacist opposition fled for the suburbs. If not exactly empty, the victory of the black politicians led by Coleman Young made infuriatingly little difference to those stranded in the inner city. The problem was simple if intractable. Finishing the process initiated by auto industry executives after World War II, the white exodus deprived Detroit of anything resembling a sufficient tax base. The economic deterioration accompanied the seismic shift in national politics reflected by the widespread support for George Wallace, who won the 1968 Michigan Democratic primary, and the election of Richard Nixon. Against the larger backdrop, it mattered little that a coalition of black Democrats and white liberals had routed the white supremacist opposition in Detroit proper. Deprived of the funding promised by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, they lacked the resources to deal with the festering problems in education, housing, and employment. Responding to claims that Detroit’s problems resulted from the new leadership’s incompetence, Young angrily replied, “The same people who left the city for racial reasons still want to control what they’ve left. It starts with economic pressure, and the first economic pressure was slavery. It reminds me of something Martin Luther King said. ‘How do you expect us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when we don’t even have boots?’ ” Young concluded bitterly, “The motherfuckers stole our boots.”
Even when things seemed bleakest, there was a flip side. For all its failings and foibles, Black Power had transformed American culture. At least when the motherfuckers stole their boots, now black folks could say so, plainly. There might be times when you put a smile on your face to cover your hurt, but it was no longer required. The change signaled a real triumph, one that presaged a truly desegregated democratic conversation that never quite materialized. Still, for the next few years American music would tell messy, complicated truths in a messy, complicated, and often transcendentally beautiful way. Even as the skies continued to darken, the airwaves carried the gospel vision in its soul incarnation to every corner of black America and to anyone else seeking shelter from the present and coming storm. Life might be hard, but the soundtrack was never better.
Which is why the early seventies really were the “Age of Aretha.”
The phrase was coined by Aretha’s new beau, Ken “Wolf ” Cunningham, and Aretha held it to her heart: “I loved that phrase, by which he meant people were growing up to my music, getting married, having babies, defining their youth.” A dapper member of a group of independent black businessmen who marketed Afro styles and called themselves the “New Breeders,” Cunningham helped Aretha “appreciate myself as a beautiful black woman. Wolf was also interested in African poetry, art, and sculpture. He loved jazz and music of all kinds. And he had friends who, like Wolf, were intellectual and positive people.” Exhaling after her stormy relationship with Ted White, Aretha lost weight, took dancing lessons, and basked in the quiet joys of family life with her sons and Cunningham’s daughter Paige, who, Aretha said, “stole my heart.”
The positive vibrations—tempered by Aretha’s deep understanding that life’s burdens were never-ending—shone through on the five great albums she released between 1970 and 1972: the studio sets This Girl’s in Love with You, Spirit in the Dark, and Young, Gifted and Black, along with the fascinating pair of live LPs, Live at Fillmore West and Amazing Grace. Reaching out to the white counterculture and back to her gospel roots, Aretha charted the path that was leading the nation ever closer to a dangerous crossroads. There had to be a way to make it through with our spirits intact, Aretha seemed to say, and together we could find it.
That was the vision that shone through on Aretha’s version of “The Dark End of the Street,” her soul-deep testimony to the difficulty and the glory of holding on to each other and the dream. When she traveled to Miami to complete This Girl’s in Love with You in October 1969, she was emerging from a postdivorce hibernation of some six months. Backed by the Muscle Shoals regulars, the Sweet Inspirations, and white southern guitarists Duane Allman and Eddie Hinton, Aretha ripped through a phenomenal set: “Son of a Preacher Man,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “This Girl’s in Love with You,” her original composition and R&B chart-topper-to-be “Call Me,” and “Dark End of the Street,” which had already received two near-definitive treatments. The original, by star-crossed Memphis soulman James Carr, dropped listeners into an unrelenting blues hell. Huddling in the shadows at the end of a godforsaken city street, Carr’s lovers don’t even have each other. Choking back his sobs, Carr tells his lover to walk on by, and it’s easy to imagine him as the black half of an interracial liaison staring into an abyss of fire and rope. Clarence Carter’s remake-qua-response, “Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street),” couldn’t conceivably differ more. If the blues, to paraphrase Langston Hughes, is laughing to keep from crying, Carter transforms Carr’s tears into ribald chuckles. Assuming the persona of a Delta bluesman imitating a down-home preacher for the amusement of the patrons lounging in the parlor of a Memphis whorehouse, Carter delivers a wry sermon on the intricacies of procreation. Transfixed by the universal spectacle of cows, horses, human beings, and mo-ski-toes in earnest pursuit of sexual communion, Carter pinpoints the enchanting absurdity of sex and desire. Suddenly, however, the comedy metamorphoses into incisive, but still good-humored, social commentary. “Some of us ain’t ever had nothin’, we ain’t gonna get nothin’, and don’t ever expect to get a doggone thing,” Carter preaches, before wrapping the song up with a straight-from-the-soul chorus that reminds his listeners that Carr’s bleaker version tells a big part of the complicated truth.
Incredibly, Aretha found something absolutely original to add. At first her version of “Dark End of the Street” seems destined to retrace Carr’s tormented path. After Jimmy Johnson introduces the song with a sparse solo guitar line, Aretha’s piano and Barry Beckett’s organ take the sound to church. As the texture gradually thickens, Aretha fingers the jagged grain of her troubles. When she cries out that “time’s gonna take its toll” and that the lovers are bound to “pay for the love we stole,” the intensity builds in her voice. The images call upon countless midnight hours. As Carr had sung, it felt like too much to bear. But then Aretha and her soul sisters in the Sweet Inspirations find the strength to bend midnight toward morning. The musical crescendo relaxes and Aretha calls out the line that marked the end for Carr: “They’re gonna find us.” When Carr sang the line, it was the end. For Aretha, the same words signify a determination to stand together against the darkness. Where Carr heard only silence, the Sweet Inspirations refuse to let Aretha fall. As they respond to each repetition with cries of “together” and “you and me,” Aretha’s voice gathers strength. The street may be dark for now, but when Aretha sings, “Baby, hold me,” and the musical community around her promises it will, you can believe that the suffering may someday give way to a brighter day. The connection between gospel, blues, and pop genius may never be clearer.
During the early seventies Aretha recorded, by a very conservative count, at least a dozen songs as powerful as “Dark End of the Street.” The trilogy of albums that provide the foundation for her second great period — This Girl’s in Love with You, Spirit in the Dark, and Young, Gifted and Black— stands alongside I Never Loved a Man, Aretha Arrives, and Lady Soul as her lasting contribution to American secular music. The best way to experience all of those albums is to let them rain down on you, playing them over and over until they’ve soaked down into your soul. But for purposes of classification, you can break Aretha’s achievement into three sometimes overlapping categories: the hits; the covers; and the original compositions that should have earned her recognition as a crucial figure in the female singer-songwriter movement of the early seventies.
In retrospect, it seems curious that almost no one at the time seemed to recognize the quality of Aretha’s writing. Over the next two years she wrote enough songs to fill an album on their own, including four hits, “Day Dreaming,” “Call Me,” “Spirit in the Dark,” and “Rock Steady.” Complemented with album cuts like “All the King’s Horses,” “First Snow in Kokomo,” “Pullin’,” and “You and Me,” the hits qualify Aretha’s imaginary “personal” album as a formidable rival for Carole King’s Tapestry, Carly Simon’s Anticipation, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.
There were probably quite a few singers who secretly wished that Aretha had concentrated on her own songs. King Curtis stated the reason in his half-gleeful observation, “When Aretha records a tune, she kills copyright. Because once she’s worked out the way to do it, you’re never going to be able to come up with a better approach. And it’s damn sure you’re not going to be able to improve on how she’s done it her way.” Aretha chose an eclectic set of songs to cover. She felt equally comfortable with R&B hits, pop confections, counterculture standards, and Burt Bacharach-Hal David compositions like “This Girl’s in Love with You” and “April Fools” that would have fit in with her Columbia sets. She knocked her overlapping audiences out with B.B. King’s “Why I Sing the Blues,” Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” Lulu’s “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby),” and Delaney and Bonnie’s “When the Battle Is Over.” Twice Aretha set down covers of Dusty Springfield hits (“A Brand New Me,” “Son of a Preacher Man”) that even Dusty considered definitive. When she demolished and rebuilt “Border Song (Holy Moses),” Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s cryptic piece of hippie ennui sounded like it had grown up in the Mississippi Delta. Aretha often drew from the Beatles’ songbook, transforming “Eleanor Rigby” from a chamber piece into an R&B declaration of female independence and testifying that she too had traveled a “long and winding road.” Her soulful version of “Let It Be” lent credence to the unfounded rumors that the song had been written with her in mind. Paul Simon claimed that he had in fact been thinking of Aretha when he wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” When she sang the song on the Grammy telecast when Simon and Garfunkel’s version won Song of the Year, everyone involved recognized it as an instant classic. The single version, featuring Aretha trading piano licks with Donny Hathaway’s organ, went straight to the top of the R&B charts.
Quickly establishing himself as a prized collaborator, Hathaway played on a half-dozen songs on Aretha’s 1972 album, Young, Gifted and Black, recorded at the Criteria Studio in Miami. Like “Dark End of the Street,” the title cut had already been blessed with two stunning renditions: Nina Simone’s original and Hathaway’s thoughtful response on his marvelous Everything Is Everything album. Introduced with an extended call and response between her voice and Hathaway’s sustained organ lines, Aretha’s version would have fit perfectly in a Baptist service. Paying tribute to Hathaway as an “introverted musical genius, a friendly person with a deep musical personality,” Aretha credited him with making “Rock Steady” into “one of my greatest hits.” “It was Donny who added the high organ line that gives ‘Rock Steady’ such extra added flow,” she reflected. “Like Ray Charles and me, Donny came out of the sanctified church as a singer and pianist. His grandmother was a minister, and he had gospel written all over him. Also like Ray and me, he was multi-musical the way some folks are multilingual.” Like Aretha’s tribute to “blackand Spanish Harlem” on her R&B chart-topping remake of Ben E. King’s hit, “Rock Steady” affirmed the movement in a time of need.
More a unique creation than a remake of B.B. King’s blues hit, Aretha’s reconstruction of “The Thrill Is Gone (From Yesterday’s Kiss)” weaves together the personal and the political, the nightmare and the dream. Clearly addressing her recent divorce, the song issued into a parallel political universe where very little seemed to be working out right. As the song fades to silence, the backing vocalists echo the climactic words of Dr. King’s greatest speech: “Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, free at last.” But they’re singing in a minor key, testifying to how much things had changed in the few short years since King and Mahalia Jackson had electrified the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Where King’s words resounded with the assurance that, given faith and courage, the battle would go to the just, Aretha expressed the growing fear that, yet again, the dream would be deferred.
“Spirit in the Dark” evokes the sense of political community that seemed to be slipping away. The song opens with Aretha’s quiet gospel moan but rapidly settles into a steady rock beat as she asks her sisters and brothers how they’re feeling. When she invites them to get up and dance, it’s as much a call to political renewal as “People Get Ready” or “Respect.” The groove that carries the first half of the song explores the feel of the beloved community in unified motion. If the song had ended halfway through, it would still be a classic. But Aretha refuses to accept the rock and soul groove as the best of all possible worlds. Almost three minutes into the song, when most singles would be fading out, she inserts an emphatic gospel piano run. Joyously responding to their sister’s sanctified call, the Sweet Inspirations shout out, “I think y’all got it.” The rock groove explodes with a sanctified energy as powerful as Mahalia’s “Walk in Jerusalem” or the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi’s “Jesus Gave Me Water.” The Stones never rocked harder. For another minute and a half, Aretha and the Sweet Inspirations take the secular audience to church. The spirits they call down vibrate with a clearer sense of shared purpose than anything ideology had to offer.
The live albums recorded at San Francisco’s Fillmore West and the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles demonstrate Aretha’s newfound vitality as a performer. After she came to terms with her bitter divorce from Ted White, Aretha returned to the stage in September 1970 backed by a crack soul band consisting of King Curtis on sax, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Richard Tee on piano, Jerry Jemmott on bass, and Bernard Purdie on drums. It was the first time outside church that she’d had a band that could both inspire her and follow where she led. The audiences that greeted her let her know she’d been missed. As C. Gerald Fraser wrote in a New York Times review of her New York “homecoming”: “The thousands of black people who saw and heard Miss Franklin were more than an audience. They were part of a black interaction—they came not only to see and hear ‘Lady Soul,’ ‘Soul Sister Number One,’ ‘The Queen of Soul’ and all those other labels she bears, but also to participate with her in an exultation of blackness.”
Ray Charles had once said that Aretha sang “the way black folk sing when they leave themselves alone.” The overwhelming response to Aretha’s performances at the Fillmore West suggested that a growing number of whites were willing to listen to the real thing. As Live at Fillmore West rose into the Top Ten—her best album chart showing yet—Aretha began to fulfill her dream of making a gospel album that would speak both to those who remembered her from the gospel highway and to those who had come to the gospel vision by way of soul. Working with her musical mentor James Cleveland, now widely recognized as the greatest living gospel composer, she made plans to realize that dream with a set of recorded performances at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in the heart of Watts.
But before she could do so, she was saddened by the death of King Curtis, stabbed to death on the stoop of a New York City apartment building in August 1971. “King Curtis could make me laugh so hard,” Aretha wrote of the man whose saxophone could kick from driving funk to whispering ballads so effortlessly. “King Curtis was a soul superhero and I miss him still.” Aretha sang “Never Grow Old” at Curtis’s funeral, the first of three times she would perform such duties over the next two years. In February 1972 she sang “Precious Lord (Take My Hand)” at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral in Chicago, and less than a year later “The Day Is Past and Gone” when Clara Ward was laid to rest in Philadelphia.
If Aretha’s Fillmore duet with Charles on “Spirit in the Dark” had given the counterculture a taste of her uncut gospel soul, Amazing Grace delivered a sumptuous feast to anyone willing to join her at the welcome table. Aretha had long wanted to pay tribute to her musical elders and ancestors, but she refused to call Amazing Grace a “return” to gospel. “I never left the church,” she told numerous interviewers. “The church went with me. Church is as much a part of me as the air I breathe. I expanded, but I never abandoned.” When Aretha entered the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church on South Broadway in Watts in January 1972, James Cleveland and Reverend C.L. Franklin at her side, the congregation washed her in a wave of love befitting a prodigal daughter. From the first notes of Marvin Gaye’s half-secular spiritual “Wholly Holy,” she let them know she was with them all the way. Driven on by ecstatic shouts from the audience and by Cleveland’s swaying, hand-clapping Southern California Community Choir, Aretha soared and swooped through a program of songs that had been “the original source of my musical inspiration”: “Precious Lord,” “Old Landmark,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Give Yourself to Jesus,” and “How I Got Over,” the signature song of Clara Ward, who was there to share her musical daughter’s moment of glory. When Aretha wrapped her voice around Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” it was impossible to doubt that they’d been talking about Jesus all along.
Having long ago claimed his place in the pantheon of gospel arrangers, Cleveland urged his choir on to ever-greater heights. It helped that Atlantic sound engineer Ray Thompson performed wonders under difficult acoustic circumstances. And not even the church mothers and deacons regretted that Wexler had managed to sneak “the devil’s rhythm section” into the sanctuary. Guitarist Cornell Dupree, organist Ken Lupper, conga player Pancho Morales, bass player Chuck Rainey, and master drummer Bernard Purdie performed flawlessly, fueling the fire when Cleveland’s arrangements called for flames and banking down to the faintest of glows in the moments of quiet reflection. Collectively, they gave Sister Ree a fierce “amen.”
When Aretha, Wexler, and Arif Mardin sat down with the tapes from those two nights of spiritual communion, they extracted a two-LP set that remains the gold standard for popular gospel. Achieving the more than slightly unlikely feat of placing a gospel album in the Top Ten—it had never been done before and may never be done again—Amazing Grace quickly became the best-selling gospel album ever and continues to reward tens of thousands of new listeners every year. Aretha never sang with greater passion, conviction, or subtlety. Her ten-minute versions of “Never Grow Old” and “Amazing Grace” weave epic tapestries of sound and spirit. Retelling a story African Americans had made their own since their first encounter with the Christian Bible, “Mary Don’t You Weep” renews the call at the heart of the gospel vision. Immersed in a sea of hand claps, shouts, and pure spirit sound, Aretha wraps her voice around the tale of exile and bondage and triumph and makes it new. When she tells Mary not to weep and Martha not to moan, she echoes her father’s exhortations and renews the message of her very first recordings. As the song reaches its breathtaking climax, Aretha and the choir urge each other on toward the higher ground with chants of “Right on, right on” that yoke the age-old story to the one unfolding on the streets of the nation where Pharaoh still walks.
By the time Aretha reached the stage of the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, she had traveled many a weary mile. She had wandered the corporate wilderness of midtown Manhattan and initiated audiences from Paris to the Fillmore West into the mysteries of the gospel spirit. She had communed with the tormented spirits of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington and wept over the murders of Sam Cooke and Martin Luther King Jr. In times of torment and triumph, she continued to raise up her voice in the service of the movement and the Lord. And like the members of the congregation at New Temple that Friday evening, she knew that however far they might have come, many a mile stretched out ahead. The ache in her voice when she sang of Pharaoh’s demise to the syncopated responses of the Southern California Community Choir bore witness to the bitter reality that the battle had not yet been won, that Pharaoh and his modern-day minions, a few of them black, continued to live in a luxury squeezed from the poor and downtrodden. The devil had gotten more than his due. And somehow, despite it all, Aretha summoned the strength to renew the gospel vision. Threatening to blow down the walls of the church and take the battle to the streets, her song warned that the fight would be a long one. But with faith and strength, Aretha called out with assurance, it might yet be won.