Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul - Craig Werner (2004)
Chapter 5. “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”
A HARSH WIND WHIPPED ACROSS Stevie Wonder’s face as he stood before the crowd huddled on the National Mall on January 15, 1982. It had been a terrible week in Washington, D.C. Earlier in the day a subway car had smashed through a wall, killing two and injuring dozens; two days before, an airliner had crashed into the Fourteenth Street Bridge. The freezing weather simply confirmed the feeling of the city. Even so, nearly fifty thousand people had braved the icy streets to help Wonder and a cast of civil rights icons celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday and support the campaign to make it a national holiday. Diana Ross, Gil Scott-Heron, and Gladys Knight sang; Coretta Scott King, Michigan congressman John Conyers, Washington, D.C., congressman Walter Fauntroy, and Jesse Jackson extolled King’s virtues. But the crowning moment came when Wonder moved to the microphone. “I know you’ve been standing in the cold for a long time, but I hope your spirits are warm,” he called out. With Jackson nodding in encouragement, Wonder continued, “Many times in life things happen and we question God as to why. These are not easy times, yet they are not hopeless times. We must refresh our souls and uplift our spirits and harmonize with our brothers and sisters. Dr. King left an unfinished symphony which we must finish. We must harmonize our notes and chords and create love and life. We need a day to celebrate our work on an unfinished symphony, a day for a dress rehearsal for our solidarity. I hope your spirits are hotter than July! ”
The crowd burst into applause and joined Wonder in singing “Happy Birthday,” the jubilant song he’d written in honor of the fallen leader. As their voices battled the bitter wind blowing through the capital, Wonder served notice that despite King’s death his vision would not be forgotten. In October 1983 Wonder capped a concert at New York’s Radio City Music Hall with a sing-along version of “Happy Birthday” celebrating the signing of the bill establishing the King holiday. “Every time we did that song, it was a celebration of that day.” Wonder beamed. “I was living its reality every time we performed it.”
The successful campaign for the King holiday provided a symbolic victory at a time when those who held to the gospel vision had little else to celebrate. In a political climate increasingly predicated on raw self-interest, the communal call of the soul music that had grown up alongside the movement no longer resonated as it had for the past three decades. It was as if the larger forces expressed in and unleashed by Reaganism had reduced soul’s vision of suffering love and redemptive community to a quaint and outmoded dream. Stevie, Curtis, and Aretha all made new music that reasserted the need for spiritual connection, but it no longer shaped people’s day-by-day experience. As rap music gradually assumed a central place in the self-proclaimed hip-hop generation’s worldview, the changes went deeper than the shift from R&B to soul or from soul to funk. Created largely in communities cast adrift during the seventies and eighties, hip-hop emerged as a blues form fixated on the age-old problems of money and sex. Although it didn’t exactly abandon the gospel vision, hip-hop certainly had strong materialistic and individualistic tendencies, reinforced by MTV and overemphasized by the mass media. One of the primary challenges facing both the soul survivors and the hip-hop artists who shared their vision was finding a way to engage the post-civil rights generation in a meaningful call and response on the nature of the burden and the meaning of redemption.
Even at the height of the Reagan era, there was a lot of activity swirling around Stevie and Aretha, most of it connected with good causes. You could track the soul legends through the eighties with a montage of news clips and videos: Stevie campaigning on behalf of the King holiday; Aretha serenading Jesse Jackson with “Look to the Rainbow”; Stevie and Paul McCartney joining ebony and ivory in song; Aretha and Annie Lennox touting the sisters who could do it for themselves; Stevie accepting an Oscar in the name of Nelson Mandela; Aretha gliding down the freeway of love in a plush pink Caddy; Stevie trading verses with Bruce Springsteen on “We Are the World”; Aretha singing the national anthem as the Democratic National Convention prepared to nominate a successor to George Bush the First.
The press kit for the montage would come with a scrapbook full of invitations to fund-raisers and a trophy room or two. The pictures on the walls would show Stevie performing at benefits for the Give Kids the World foundation; the Hale House program for Harlem babies born with AIDS or addicted to drugs; Special Olympics Africa; the Los Angeles Inner City Foundation for Excellence in Education; the Welcome Home concert for Vietnam veterans; the Peace Sunday: We Have a Dream rally; and the Eiffel Tower Centenary. Wonder was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame; received the key to the city of Detroit; and won a list of honors including the Whitney Young award from the Los Angeles Urban League; the Nelson Mandela Courage award; and the National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement award. Aretha’s gallery could begin with pictures of her command performance for Queen Elizabeth and the street sign designating part of Washington Boulevard in Detroit “Aretha Franklin’s Freeway of Love” and lead up to the Aretha Franklin Appreciation Day ceremony at which the state of Michigan proclaimed her a “natural resource.” Framed photos would show her leading union workers in a birthday serenade for Jesse Jackson and greeting Mandela when he visited Detroit in 1990 after his release from prison. Presiding over it all would be the robes designating Wonder an Honorary Courtier of traditional Cameroonian ruler Fon Agwafor III and the wax statue of the Queen of Soul on loan from Madame Tussaud’s. (Pictures of Stevie and Aretha at the White House would have to wait for the election of baby boomer Bill Clinton.)
Meanwhile Curtis Mayfield drifted into unjustifiable obscurity. While politicians and celebrities cultivated Stevie and Aretha, Mayfield logged tens of thousands of miles hopping back and forth between his family retreat outside Atlanta and Europe and Japan, where fans clamored for him to play their old favorites from Super Fly and his days with the Impressions. While Mayfield genially obliged them, his introductions often linked the “oldies” to current problems, and he continued to write new songs in hopes that someone still cared. Only after a tragic 1990 accident suffered at an outdoor concert left him paralyzed did the music industry seem to realize he’d been gone.
For singers who’d grown up along with the freedom movement, the eighties posed personal as well as political problems. Reaganism and its collateral damage were only a part of it. The celebrity culture of the eighties and nineties was as congenial to the gospel vision as the surface of Neptune. The bursting of the disco bubble ushered in hard times for soul music commercially. The rise of MTV forced established artists to redefine their relationships with their audiences. Hip-hop created a major generational split in African American musical taste. While both Aretha and Stevie made hit records, including the biggest-selling album of Aretha’s career, Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, neither artist occupied a central position in the consciousness of the nation, black or white. It wasn’t that they’d abandoned their ideals. After Clinton’s election in 1992, both would receive official recognition as national treasures. Ironically enough, however, that was part of the problem. Where the gospel vision thrived on call and response between the elders and their community, celebrity culture threatened to reduce Stevie and Aretha to statues in a moral hall of mirrors.
It didn’t help that soul, which had emerged from R&B sometime in the sixties, had given birth to eighties R&B. As Nelson George observed in The Death of Rhythm and Blues, the eighties marked a watershed in African American music: for the first time the most popular forms of black music did not appeal to both young and old. The fragmentation of the African American community was clear in the unprecedented hostility directed against R&B by substantial numbers of hip-hop fans for whom the initials signified “Romance & Bullshit.” All too often the musical conflict played out in terms of class, gender, and cultural identity. Venting antiwoman and antigay bigotry that scandalized those who shared the movement’s commitment to universal human dignity, hip-hop impresarios claimed an authentic blackness (young, male, ghetto) while dismissing R&B as the feminized voice of middle-class wannabes. It didn’t help that more than a few of the R&B stars who inherited the gospel-soul tradition from Stevie, Curtis, and Aretha seemed content to wrap themselves in a cocoon of silky ballads and new jack beats without paying much attention to the world outside the bedroom walls. In short, the rappers had a point—and missed the point.
Outside those walls, the blues realities were all too clear. As the Reagan administration drained resources from social programs, a voting majority embraced a political rhetoric organized around baseless anecdotes of welfare queens riding in Cadillacs to purchase porterhouse steaks. Originating in the South Bronx and spreading rapidly to other cities in the Northeast and on the West Coast, early hip-hop provided a blues chronicle of a community ravaged by deindustrialization and white backlash. The blues heart of hip-hop beat clearly in “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, a cinema verité report from the urban jungle. Sounding a warning of the bitter day dawning in Reagan’s America, the song’s chorus, “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge,” elicited choruses of amens.
If hip-hop was, as rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy called it, “Black America’s CNN,” the news reports portrayed a community that had lost its political bearings. While Public Enemy called for a renewed black revolution, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and Louis Farrakhan’s increasingly self-assured Nation of Islam competed for the support of a community divided along lines of class, gender, and generation. The root of the tensions lay in the social paradox that created a black middle class of unprecedented size at the same time many inner-city residents were dropping off the edge of the economic world. Feelings of political betrayal and nihilistic rage spread through the ghettos. Afrocentric identity politics attracted thousands who had little interest in academic critiques of a movement that rarely bothered to distinguish between history and inspirational mythology. Afrocentrism was only the most popular flavor of identity politics; by the midpoint of the eighties the conservative counterrevolutionaries had succeeded in dividing their opposition into warring camps divided by ethnicity and sexual orientation as well as the ideological hair-splitting traditional on the left.
All of which was anathema to Stevie Wonder. In 1980, as less than half of the eligible voters trudged to the polls to elect Reagan, Wonder’s Hotter than July trumpeted a resounding “no” to the nation’s abandonment of the gospel vision. Highlighted by the Bob Marley tribute “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” the album reached number three on the charts, getting Wonder’s decade off to a blazing start. Dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., Hotter than July mixed the gentle vibrations of “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me?” and “All I Do” (featuring backup vocals by the O’Jays, Michael Jackson, and Betty Wright) with uncompromising bulletins from the political battlefront. Calling Jah’s children from Zimbabwe to the corner park, “Master Blaster” envisions a renewed Pan-African liberation movement. If such a movement existed, “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” could have been its battle anthem. Focusing on housing discrimination, “Cash in Your Face” reminded anyone who still cared that the problems that had inspired and plagued the northern movement for thirty years hadn’t magically gone away. Linking the sixties movement with the sobering present, the photomontage on the album’s inner sleeve portrayed a burning city, police in riot gear, a black man lying in a pool of blood, and Dr. King leading an interracial march.
As the contours of Reagan’s America took shape, Wonder joined Jesse Jackson in attempting to make his vision of solidarity real. Wonder condemned America’s failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, rejected its hypocritical willingness to do business with South Africa, and attacked its growing militarism. “I’m concerned because I can see how Reagan can win lots of people over,” he told an interviewer. “If you breathe the spirit of ‘we’ve got to have more strength, we’ve got to have more missiles, we’ve got to have more sites, we’ve got to do this to be a strong America,’ it only breeds for the other side to say the same thing.” Meanwhile Jackson was doing his best to unify the Reagan opposition by focusing on the issues that should have united the frequently warring factions. “Mr. Reagan keeps asking us all to pray,” Jackson intoned. “Well, I believe in prayer; I have come this far by the power of prayer. But then Mr. Reagan cuts energy assistance to the poor, cuts job training, cuts breakfast and lunch programs for children—and then says to an empty table, ‘Let us pray.’ Apparently Mr. Reagan is not familiar with the structure of prayer. You thank the Lord for the food you are about to receive, not the food that has just left. I think we should pray, but not pray for the food that’s left. Pray for the man that took the food … to leave.” While Wonder shared Jackson’s feelings, he did his best to maintain a constructive emphasis. In October 1984 he introduced “Happy Birthday” in a New York performance by talking about the upcoming election. When he mentioned Jesse Helms, who’d been attacking King, the crowd booed. Stevie cautioned them, “Every minute you allow yourself to hate, you’ve wasted one minute God has given you to love.” Jackson himself made the point clearly when he proclaimed the gospel “the most revolutionary manifesto in history. Man, think about it. When you start dealing in terms like forgiveness and redemption and treating the least of these like they were you yourself, that’s saying something that goes way beyond left-wing or right-wing. Homeboy, that’s witnessing.”
Bearing witness to Wonder’s convictions about redemptive unity, “Ebony and Ivory” and “We Are the World” attempted to counter the growing divisions. For Wonder, recording with Paul McCartney fulfilled a longstanding dream. Over the years, he had developed a friendship with the former Beatle and his wife Linda, who had written “WE LOVE YOU STEVIE” in Braille across the back cover of Wings’ Red Rose Speedway album; in turn, Stevie wrote “What’s That You’re Doing” for Tug of War. Recorded at Montserrat in the Leeward Islands, “Ebony and Ivory” expressed a childlike belief in music as the path to “perfect harmony.” So-called “realists” dismissed the song as naïve. Still, as the eighties battle lines solidified, it was hard to complain about any reminder that a better way was possible. Judging by the sound of their voices, Wonder and McCartney had slightly different ideas of what constituted perfect harmony, but it worked out fine. “Lots of times when things are said very clearly it is almost like speaking in the mind of a child,” Wonder replied to the cynics. “I felt that for whatever significance we both have, both in multi-colored, multi-racial society, we’re all many different colors and cultures, it would be good for us to sing something like that.” His point came through clearly at Radio City Music Hall in October 1983. Before performing “Ebony and Ivory,” Wonder invited eight children, chosen at random, to join him onstage. Black and white together, they all knew the words.
If “Ebony and Ivory” provided a breath of fresh air in 1982, “We Are the World” unleashed a hurricane of hype when the song premiered simultaneously on five thousand radio stations on April 5, 1985. Organized by Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones on behalf of the famine relief efforts of “U.S.A. for Africa,” the high-profile project raised over $44 million. While no one could question the cause, the media coverage meshed all too easily with the mid-eighties obsession with the rich and famous. The massive satellite linkup enabled a giant sing-along involving Stevie, Aretha, Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Jackson’s date Liz Taylor. The televised images of the glitterati did nothing to lessen the disquieting sense that the event was really about the celebrities.
That’s a comment on the culture, not the individuals involved, most of whom were there for the right reasons. From the title on, the song tended toward elephantine melodrama, but Stevie’s duet with Bruce Springsteen added enough real fire to lift “We Are the World” far above the saccharine standard set by its British predecessor “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The all-night recording session spawned its fair share of amusing moments, topped by the vocal coaching that Wonder provided for Bob Dylan. Realizing that Dylan was having trouble with the phrasing on his lines, the onetime Berry Gordy-imitator stepped in and sang them in pitch-perfect Bob Dylan style. Dylan’s performance followed Stevie’s suggestions note for note. “I just basically was saying, ‘I have a lot of respect for you,’ ” Wonder explained good-naturedly. “It was just to loosen things up, which it did.”
Wonder’s most successful attempt to harness the mass media to constructive causes centered on Los Angeles radio station KJLH-FM, which he purchased in 1979. A devoted radio fan since his childhood hours listening to Larry Dixon’s Sundown show, Wonder had begun to conceive of radio as a political instrument in the early seventies. When Wonder bought KJLH from black funeral home director John Lamar Hill, who had built it into the top-ranked black FM station in the city, he modeled its approach on New York DJ Del Shields’s WLIB-FM show The Total Black Experience in Sound. At the time KJLH was broadcasting from a storefront studio in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. Station manager Edward Abner explained Wonder’s goal: “Stevie is a communicator, a fantastic communicator, and he understood that radio could be used to serve the community. He thought that it had a larger duty to the community than playing records. He thought that it owed the community something; it should be speaking to the issues, it should be informing and educating its listeners. So he thought that if he owned the station, in addition to the music that he would play, that he would be able to inform, communicate, enlighten, and participate with the community, and that’s what he’s done with KJLH.” As black radio historian William Barlow observes, Wonder largely succeeded, beginning by upgrading the “the news and public-affairs programming. They added new informational and call-in shows, hired a team of reporters to cover local news events and opened up their airwaves to black community groups.” Adding substance to the station’s motto, “We Are You,” an outreach program, Survival in the Eighties, helped poor community members pay electric and utility bills.
While Wonder remained in the public eye, the eighties as a whole disappointed him and his fans. Few musicians had ever been in a position to consider a decade during which they had four number-one pop singles and placed an additional four atop the R&B charts a letdown. It’s true that none of Wonder’s albums of the mid-eighties—In Square Circle (1985), Characters (1987), and the soundtrack to The Woman in Red (1984)—match the quality of Talking Book, Innervisions, or Songs in the Key of Life. But the same could be said of well over 99 percent of the albums released since Elvis Presley walked into the Sun Studios. Songs from Wonder’s newer albums—including “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Part-Time Lover” (featuring R&B star Luther Vandross on backing vocals), “You Will Know,” “Overjoyed,” “Go Home,” and his most powerful political song of the decade, “Skeletons”—added to a line of hits that by the end of the eighties had moved him into third place (behind Elvis and the Beatles) on the list of artists with the most Top Ten singles.
Throughout the decade Wonder’s music played a gospel counterpoint to the blues events dominating the news. The four new songs from the 1982 compilation album Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium would have been at home on any of his seventies masterpieces. “Front Line” confronts Reagan’s revisionist myth of Vietnam as a “noble cause” with the voice of a black veteran; “Do I Do,” featuring a guest appearance from Dizzy Gillespie, extends the jazz celebrations of “Sir Duke” and “Contusion”; and “That Girl” was a funky addition to his list of number-one R&B hits. But the song that gave the best indication of how Wonder would attempt to connect his past with his future was “Ribbon in the Sky.” Riding one of his richest piano lines and a moaning vocal interlude, the ballad reaches down for the “strength in each tear we cry.”
For Wonder, the strength that made it possible to survive tragedy couldn’t be separated from spirit. The connection was reinforced in a haunting manner by a series of events connected with the death of Marvin Gaye, who was shot to death by his father in April 1984. The day before the murder Wonder had been visiting his mentor Clarence Paul in the hospital. He’d told Paul that he was worried about Gaye, and the two discussed their old friend’s problems with drugs and depression. “I felt something was happening,” Wonder reflected, “something was about to go wrong. I didn’t know what it was.” When Wonder returned home, he wrote a song, “Lighting Up the Candles,” which expressed his hopes and fears about Gaye. Although it didn’t appear on an album until the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever in 1991, the haunting ballad brought tears to the eyes of the mourners when Wonder sang it at Gaye’s funeral.
Despite their quality, the songs Wonder was writing in 1982 and 1983 weren’t coalescing into an album, even though a financially strapped Berry Gordy eagerly awaited Wonder’s new work. While delays in the announced release dates of Wonder’s albums had become commonplace, the five years between Hotter than July in 1980 and his next full studio album, In Square Circle, felt more like wandering in the wilderness than crafting a masterpiece. The music industry was changing rapidly, and Wonder seemed uncertain how to adjust. Contemplating the MTV-driven ascent of a new generation of megastars, Wonder mused on Prince’s ability to articulate social realities through seemingly personal lyrics. “Prince has really been unique with the way he uses words. He’s like the Bob Dylan of the eighties as far as what he’s saying. Incredible lyrics. And the song, the melody, the music, is good too. It’s kind of like Prince is an African storyteller, right? It seems like he’s passing on what is happening in this time and place that we’re living in right now. And he doesn’t say specifically, ‘Oh, this is horrible; this is wrong.’ Which you know is what he’s saying. He says, ‘Hey, let’s get married, have a baby, raise a family. Let’s do something.’ ”
Wonder experimented with a parallel approach first on The Woman in Red soundtrack (1984) and in a more focused manner on In Square Circle (1985). When Dionne Warwick contacted Wonder in behalf of Woman in Reddirector Gene Wilder, Wonder agreed to contribute one song to the soundtrack. Wilder was shocked when Wonder listened to the film’s dialogue on cassette. “Three days later he’d written two songs and played them over the phone to me,” the actor/director reported. “Then he wrote one more, and I thought that was it. I went to France to relax for a week. Then I got a call at two A.M. It was Dionne saying Stevie wanted to write more.” By the time he was finished, Wonder had written all but one of the songs on the soundtrack, singing four of them himself and two as duets with Dionne Warwick, who also sang one herself. Hoping as he was that Stevie would help rescue Motown from its mounting financial problems, Gordy was stunned that his star had agreed to a side project. Despite the fact that it wasn’t marketed as a Stevie Wonder album, The Woman in Red provided Motown with momentary financial relief. In addition to topping the U.S. charts for three weeks, the pop confection “I Just Called to Say I Love You” gave Wonder his first number-one hit in the United Kingdom and became one of the ten best-selling U.K. singles ever. With the exception of “Love Light in Flight,” a Prince-esque paean to spiritual sexuality, the rest of the album settles into a generic R&B groove complete with vocoder and the processed drums that marred much of Wonder’s most promising eighties work.
While not one of Wonder’s worst albums—we pause here to remember With a Song in My Heart and Stevie at the Beach—In Square Circle was probably the most disappointing album of his career. The cryptic title and the intriguing cover image of Wonder smiling out from a magenta and purple alien landscape suggested that the music would extend the experiments he’d begun on Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. The liner notes, written by Wonder and Theresa Cropper, meditated on the nature of love and spiritual politics via a dialogue between a philosopher known as “Songlife” and seven symbolic beings: the romantic, the insecure, the cynical, the optimistic, the curious, the bewildered, and the dreamer. “Their hearts were recalling cycles of love,” the essay propounds, “while their minds were exploring the square root of the universe.” Explaining the album to an interviewer in more prosaic terms, Wonder said, “The theme is that life and love are beautiful, but people have to work at making things happen all the time.”
Unfortunately, the songs didn’t differ all that much from typical mid-eighties R&B. “It’s Wrong (Apartheid)” reiterated Wonder’s political stance on South Africa. “Go Home” and “Overjoyed” withstood several listenings. But the most ambitious cuts, “Land of La La” and “Spiritual Walkers,” Wonder’s spirited defense of the Hare Krishnas and Jehovah’s Witnesses, fell well short of the standard established by first cousins “Village Ghetto Land” and “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away,” let alone “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground.” “Part-Time Lover” rode a catchy groove to the top of the pop, R&B, adult contemporary, and dance charts, the first record to have done so, and the album sold well, peaking at number five. But for the most part, In Square Circle sounded like a compilation of decent Stevie Wonder cuts that would have wound up in the recycling bin for Talking Book or Fulfillingness’ First Finale.
Released in 1987 after only two years, Characters was a much stronger collection of songs. If someone had shot the little metal box that stole the drummer’s job, it might have compared with Music of My Mind or Hotter thanJuly. The album focused on “many characters, no one particular character,” Wonder explained. “Characters in politics, the character of people in relationships … the different moods of people, bringing out their character.” “There’s a theme,” he continued, “and I think you’ll see part of it unfolding in the first single, ‘Skeletons.’ ” Despite the intrusive mechanical percussion track, “Skeletons” strikes at the core of Reaganism. Wonder rails against the lies permeating the nation’s political life, observing ironically that “a black one” can “turn into a white one.” Dropping down into the gritty vocal register he used on “As” and “Higher Ground,” he warns that the country’s “getting ready to blow.” With the Rodney King riots just a few years down the road, the song rings out with a prophetic power akin to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. The extended-play version of “Skeletons” pointedly splices in snippets of Oliver North’s testimony at the Iran-Contra hearings and samples Reagan denying the arms-for-hostages deal that had helped put his 1980 campaign over the top.
“Skeletons” sounded the keynote of the album, but at least half the cuts surpassed anything on The Woman in Red or In Square Circle. The opening track, “You Will Know,” promises resolutions to the problems that seemed to be worsening by the day; “Dark ’n Lovely” pays an indirect tribute to the South African people that communicates more deeply than the didactic “It’s Wrong”; and “Free” earns a place on the ideal Stevie Wonder Gospel Album.Surrounded by the spiritual energy and musical beauty of those cuts, ballads and rockers like “With Each Beat of My Heart,” “My Eyes Don’t Cry,” and “Get It”— an all-star collaboration with Michael Jackson, B.B. King, and Stevie Ray Vaughan—fill out an album that was easily Wonder’s best of the Reagan era. The strength of those songs suggested that the closer Wonder hewed to the vision from which he emerged, the freer he was to do his best work.
Wonder backed up his beliefs with a seemingly unending series of benefits that made him a significant political symbol. On March 25, 1985, he accepted the Oscar for “I Just Called to Say I Love You” in the name of Nelson Mandela. The next day South Africa banned his music. “If being banned means people will be free,” Wonder replied, “ban me mega-times.” Two months later the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid issued a special commendation for Wonder. Typically, he responded by emphasizing the connections among the various causes he espoused: “I’m very happy now that people are rallying around causes that are against things that have been sicknesses in the system of mankind. Look at AIDS. When people realize life is in jeopardy, all the prejudices go out the window. It’s the same with color prejudice, the greed for political power, the nuclear question—they’re all sicknesses. The only difference between a bomb and a disease is the time it takes to kill people.”
Wonder’s greatest symbolic triumph came with the signing of the King holiday bill in 1983. After the signing Wonder once again paid homage to his hero: “You can assassinate the man, but you cannot kill the values. I knew Reagan would sign the bill.” For the first observance of the holiday a year later, Wonder organized celebratory concerts in Washington, New York, and Atlanta and hosted a television special with Bill Cosby, Quincy Jones, Yoko Ono, Diana Ross, Joan Baez, Dick Gregory, and Liz Taylor. In an interview with Rolling Stone Wonder stressed the breadth of King’s importance: “As many whites as blacks have benefitted from having a man like Martin Luther King, Jr. I say this because there’s a kind of consciousness that he raised among all people.” He joined the boycott of Arizona, promising not to perform in the state until Governor Evan Meacham reinstated King’s birthday as a state holiday. When Arizona finally joined the rest of the nation in 1993, Wonder welcomed the gesture by playing a breakfast concert in Phoenix.
The problem was that the King holiday was fundamentally symbolic in an era when symbolism too often substituted for reality. It was a game Reagan had mastered. To be sure, symbolism had always played a part in the movement. Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks fully comprehended their symbolic importance. King directed the campaigns in Montgomery and Birmingham with a spin doctor’s awareness of how the televised images would be received in the living rooms of America and in the eyes of the world. By the eighties, however, symbolism too often seemed an end in itself.
AS ELLA BAKER RECOGNIZED, the problem was inherent in the leadership tradition that dominated most versions of movement history. Focusing on symbolic campaigns organized around charismatic leaders created a misleading notion of real political work. The eighties generation that had grown up with inspirational film footage of King at the head of an army of marchers understandably associated the movement with individual heroism and liberal romance. The “greatest hits” version of civil rights implied, with stunning inaccuracy, that the movement had enjoyed overwhelming public support. (It certainly didn’t help that the songs that had drawn on and contributed to the movement’s energy appeared as yuppie nostalgia in The Big Chill.) The myth of the movement, officially sanctioned by the King holiday, made it much harder to keep its fighting spirit alive.
The arc of Jesse Jackson’s career illuminates the problem. Jackson had first encountered the movement while attending North Carolina A&T on a football scholarship. As the sit-in movement swept the region, Jackson received an up-close education in the effectiveness of SNCC’s emphasis on community organizing. When Jackson moved to Chicago to attend seminary, he attracted the attention of the SCLC, which chose him to head Operation Breadbasket. Spearheading a series of effective “Buy Black” campaigns, Jackson combined the stylistic flair of the emerging Black Power movement with the grassroots focus he’d learned in the South. “We have a monopoly on rats in the ghetto, and we’re gonna have a monopoly on killing ’em,” Jackson warned Chicago. Proselytizing for black businesses, he enlisted his verbal brilliance in support of Mumbo barbecue sauce, Diamond Sparkle wax, and Joe Louis milk. “Now, Joe Louis milk does not come from a Negro cow,” Jackson boomed. “Only difference is, your husband can make twelve thousand a year driving a truck for this company. Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud, and I buy Grove Fresh orange juice. Say it loud: I use King Solomon spray deodorant and I’m proud I use Swift Out. Why, it’s so strong, if you pour it in your sink, it’ll open up the sewer down the block.” The companies Jackson endorsed thrived, helping raise deposits in two black-owned banks from $5 million to $20 million, thereby increasing the amount of investment capital available for black neighborhoods. Campaigns to force the High-Low and A&P grocery chains to hire more black workers were the centerpiece of a series of Operation Breadbasket employment campaigns that by 1971 had opened at least four thousand jobs to black Chicagoans.
Although Jackson would become much more famous in later years, Operation Breadbasket was a high-water mark in his career. The founding of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) represented a crucial shift in his approach. While he continued to address the problems facing poor people and residents of the inner cities, he increasingly focused on nationally visible issues. Concentrating on fund-raising and serving as a moral conscience for a nation that needed one, he laid the groundwork for his future. This left little time for organizing people to follow up on the energy generated by his personal appearances throughout the nation. Uncharitable critics murmured that Jackson’s political agenda had grown indistinguishable from his political ambition. “I’m a tree shaker, not a jelly-maker,” he explained unapologetically. His 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns became issues in and of themselves. If Jesse could make it, the logic seemed to go, his people could follow him into the promised land.
To be sure, no one spoke truth to power with greater passion. Jackson’s sardonic dismissal of George H. W. Bush’s promise of a “kinder, gentler America” sums up the legacy of Reagan’s two terms with laser precision. “A kinder, gentler nation, yeah. Kinder and gentler for the corporations and merger-maniacs and mega conglomerates swallowing up the family farmer and taking factory jobs overseas,” said the man biographer Marshall Frady dubbed the “High Sultan of Assonance and Alliteration.” “Urban America looks like it’s been bombed out, rural America abandoned like a plague’s hit. Family farms gone, jobs out, drugs in, profits up, wages down, workers abandoned. And yet they playing us off one against the other, trying to make us think we different kinds of people, playing those ole race games with us when we need each other. Always some kind of scheme by the economic aristocracy to try confounding democracy. But lemme tell you, if the family farmer and urban worker, black and white, the good-hearted common people all over this country, if we should ever—watch out!—get together, then we sure ’nough wouldsee a kinder, gentler nation; a fairer, freer, juster, stronger America all way round.”
LIKE STEVIE WONDER, ARETHA FRANKLIN supported Jesse Jackson wholeheartedly. When she slid her voice around the song “Look to the Rainbow,” it was both a tribute to her father and a musical response to Jackson’s brilliant keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. Graciously supporting the party’s candidate after a hard and sometimes bitter campaign, Jackson did his best to rally the gospel troops behind Walter Mondale. “America is not like a blanket—one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size,” Jackson called out. “America is more like a quilt—many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay, and the disabled make up the American quilt.” His biblical cadence summoning memories of Dr. King’s greatest speeches, Jackson thundered, “Our time has come! Our faith, hope, and dreams have prevailed. Our time has come. Weeping has endured for nights, but joy cometh in the morning. Our time has come. No grave can hold our body down. Our time has come. No lie can live forever. Our time has come. We must leave the racial battleground and come to the economic common ground and the moral higher ground. America, our time has come!”
If you could keep Jackson’s words and “Look to the Rainbow” alive in your mind, you could almost hear “Freeway of Love,” the hit that made Aretha an eighties megastar, as an update of “Rock Steady.” The world might have changed, but Sister Ree was still moving ahead in a pink Cadillac fueled by high-octane gospel. While the connection might have looked like a stretch, producer/percussionist Narada Michael Walden’s grooves challenged you to think again. But the sad fact remained that no individual voice—not Jesse Jackson’s, not Stevie Wonder’s, not Aretha’s— could speak the vision into reality. With Reagan calling the shots and the economy in disarray, at least for anyone who didn’t peddle arbitrage or ammunition, the gaps between black, brown, and white, rich and poor, men and women, suburbanites and city dwellers continued to grow.
Aretha experienced the fragmentation through its impact on musical styles. After signing with Arista in June 1980, it took her several albums to figure out how to navigate the R&B scene that was replacing sixties and seventies soul. Her contract with Atlantic had expired after the dismal La Diva album, and she was receptive when Clive Davis approached her about moving to Arista. Although their paths had crossed when they were at Columbia in the mid-sixties, Aretha was aware of Davis as the man who had “ushered the label into the era of hard rock and soul” with his signings of Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Davis had demonstrated his commercial acumen by signing Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, and later Ray Parker Jr., Patti Smith, Alan Parsons, Phyllis Hyman, and Angela Bofill. Aretha was even more impressed with how Davis had revived the careers of Melanie, Martha Reeves, Eddie Kendricks, Carly Simon, and especially Dionne Warwick, whose 1979 album, Dionne, became the biggest seller of her career. Davis had let Aretha know of his interest through mutual friends, including Stevie Wonder, whom he’d failed to woo away from Motown. “I’m certain she noted what happened with Dionne,” Davis said, adding that his recruitment efforts included assurances of his personal involvement: “We said that we would work as a partnership. That’s what she had missed since the Jerry Wexler days.”
Aretha’s first two Arista LPs, Aretha (1980) and Love All the Hurt Away (1981), reaffirmed her ability to make first-rate soul music but also made it clear that she was interested in making the transition to new-school R&B singer. Her debut album opens with an orchestrated soul ballad, “Come to Me,” and showcases her in a variety of settings, ranging from straight southern soul to Vegas-style torch songs. Setting the pattern that would continue throughout his association with Aretha, Davis recruited established producers including her old Atlantic friend Arif Mardin and Chuck Jackson, who had produced Natalie Cole’s seventies hits. Davis suggested songs, but Aretha wielded absolute veto power. The musical key to Aretha, however, was his decision to reunite her, on half the songs, with the Sweet Inspirations and the central figures in her great seventies band: guitarist Cornell Dupree, keyboardist Richard Tee, and drummer Bernard Purdie, supplemented by the king of bass players, Motown’s James Jamerson. The result was certainly her most satisfying studio album since Sparkle and perhaps since Young, Gifted and Black. The highlights included her covers of the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” and Otis Redding’s “Can’t Turn You Loose.”
Although Love All the Hurt Away included a nice touch of southern soul in Aretha’s impassioned Grammy-winning rendition of Sam and Dave’s “Hold On I’m Coming,” the album as a whole edged toward the eighties R&B mainstream. Backed by an all-star group of Los Angeles studio musicians led by bassist Marcus Miller and drummer Jeff Porcaro, Aretha assumed a central role in shaping the album’s sound. She played her best piano in years and shared production duties with Mardin. She wrote two new songs (“Whole Lot of Me” and “Kind of Man”) and cowrote the title cut. Along with her cover of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Love All the Hurt Away” defined the emotional core of the album. Even in the Stones’ original, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” cried out for the full gospel treatment provided by James Cleveland, who directed the choir on Aretha’s remake. In the Reagan years the song’s emphasis on a world of diminished expectations was closer to the center of eighties R&B than the sanctified spirit of “Hold On I’m Coming.” Aretha’s silky duet with George Benson on “Love All the Hurt Away” would have fit nicely on Soul ’69 or a compilation of the best jazz from her Columbia years.
While longtime fans welcomed Aretha and Love All the Hurt Away, neither album reestablished her as a major commercial force. By the early eighties R&B had shifted from live bands to producers adept at crafting gospel-tinged slow jams for the burgeoning Quiet Storm radio format. Romantic balladry had always had a place in the R&B-soul mix; Aretha herself had grown up swooning over dreamboats Clyde McPhatter and Sam Cooke, and younger women rarely resisted when Marvin Gaye and Al Green offered to soothe their souls. The problem, from the perspective of those nurtured on old-school soul, was that the format excluded the more assertive rhythms that had played alongside Cooke, Marvin, and Reverend Green’s ballads. Drained of the political energy that had united personal desire with communal aspiration, eighties R&B settled for making it through the night. Those who responded to the thunderous anger of “The Message” or Run-DMC’s “It’s Like That” argued that it wasn’t easy to distinguish turning down the volume from surrendering. That was part of what made the artificial separation between R&B and rap all too real.
The least convincing part of the split was the association of hip-hop with ghetto authenticity and R&B with bourgeois sellout. In reality, eighties R&B had a huge “street” audience, and not all of it was female. More than a few hardcore rap lovers were willing to overlook the cultural ideology and chill to the mellow sounds of Frankie Beverly, Phyllis Hyman, and Luther Vandross. You needed Anita Baker and Afrika Bambaataa if you planned on staying sane.
That’s why Luther Vandross was an inspired choice to produce Jump to It, the album that returned Aretha to R&B stardom. Vandross had released his first solo album in 1976 but had really broken out with his 1981 Never Too Much. Splitting the difference between the sanctified church and the nightclub circuit, Luther’s voice placed him in the lineage of Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. The song that gives the best sense of Vandross’s affinity for Aretha is probably “Power of Love / Love Power,” which updates “People Get Ready” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” for the eighties. As Aretha and Clive Davis recognized, Vandross’s smooth production style was ideally suited to frame gospel vocals in the post-disco era. Aretha’s cousin Brenda had suggested that the two would work well together; already a fan of Never Too Much, Aretha listened with a possible collaboration in mind, and the “similarity in stylings” convinced her.
Declaring himself an “Arethacologist,” Vandross had already gone on record in Rolling Stone saying his dream was to produce Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, and above all the Queen of Soul. He’d been a fan as long as he could remember. “My brother would get a bicycle for Christmas,” he told an interviewer. “I would get records by Aretha Franklin. My mother knew instinctively that I would spend my life surrounded by music.” When Clive Davis approached him, Vandross didn’t make him ask twice.
Luther and Aretha hit it off at once. “When I first met Luther, he had me laughing like crazy,” Aretha recalled. Reflecting on the sessions for their first album, Jump to It, Vandross emphasized that he “dealt with her as one singer to another. I sang her everything the way I heard it, and she took most of my suggestions. The vocals were put down in one take. Aretha is the one-take queen.” Aretha reciprocated, saying, “Luther Vandross, a man of elegant taste. Big sense of humor. Serious musician, and someone capable of outrageous silliness.” The similarity in their styles went beyond music, extending to their shared love for soul cuisine. A production assistant who worked on Jump to Itdescribed a fried chicken feast that became a minor studio legend: “They brought in industrial-size buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. There were bones everywhere, and there were gigantic cans of Wild Bee Honey. In the middle of all this hot tea and honey and chicken bones were Aretha and Luther.”
Aretha’s first number-one record in seven years, “Jump to It” was a classic summertime hit. A breathless celebration of romantic infatuation, the single starts off with a virtuoso display of Aretha’s ability as a scat singer skittering on top of Vandross’s bouncing beat. Midway through the song Aretha interjects a spoken interlude intended to appeal to the teen audience. Breaking down the “411” on “who drop-kicked who,” Aretha ad-libbed the rap in the studio. Today show producer Barbara Shelley, who was filming a segment in the studio, reported that Aretha “had so much fun, it was like watching a little kid playing a game that she loved, for the first time.”
The title single’s exuberance and joy set the tone for the album as a whole. Prior to the sessions Cissy Houston, who sang backup on several cuts, reported that Aretha had recaptured her gospel spirit. “My good friend Miss Ree says she has some fine things ready to go. You can tell when she is ready,” Cissy told journalist Gerri Hirshey. “She’ll sit down at the piano and line it out for you—Reverend Cleveland taught Aretha to play a fine keyboard— and she’ll have all the parts ready, all the harmonies. You know you understand gospel when you get a feel for the wholeness of the sound.” Jump to It wasn’t going to make soul fans forget about Lady Soul or Young, Gifted and Black,but it was consistently satisfying, combining up-tempo numbers like Vandross’s “Love Me Right” and the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing” with quiet stormers including Luther’s “This Is for Real” and her own composition “I Wanna Make It Up to You.” Her romantic reading of Smokey Robinson’s “Just My Daydream” approaches the standard of pop balladry that Aretha had set for herself on “Call Me” and “A Brand New Me.”
While Jump to It seemed to presage a lasting musical partnership, tensions soon emerged between Aretha and Vandross. Their growing animosity threatened to derail the follow-up album, Get It Right. Aretha felt that Vandross had lost sight of the proper balance between singer and producer. “All of a sudden Luther wanted to tell me how to sing, when it was I from whom he had learned much about how to sing,” she said. “My point was simple: If he wanted to tell the artist how to sing, why didn’t he sing it himself ?” She was unimpressed with Vandross’s reminder of his role in revitalizing her career. “Well, Mr. Vandross wanted to know who had produced my recent number one, and I felt he should be reminded that I had enjoyed at least twenty gold records before I or the world knew his name,” Aretha reported. “I picked up my coat and walked out of the studio as he and I continued shouting at each other.” Clive Davis intervened, convincing Vandross to issue what Aretha called a “half-hearted apology.” She reciprocated in kind and they completed the album in an uneasy truce. A few of the songs, most notably the bouncy title cut and a slow, soulful version of the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain,” match the standard set by Jump to It, but the album disappointed everyone involved. After it was released, Aretha sued Arista, claiming Vandross had been hired without her consent. Nothing came of the suit, but it served as official notice that Aretha was seeking a new producer.
The ill will surrounding Get It Right contributed to a larger set of problems that made the early eighties a difficult period in Aretha’s life. After the end of her marriage to Glynn Turman and her move back to Detroit, friends and family members worried publicly over what they saw as her retreat from the world. In her autobiography Aretha strenuously denied her sister Erma’s depiction of her as an introvert who came alive only onstage. It was, Aretha wrote, “the biggest lie ever told about me. No one loves a party more than I; as I have said, I am a people person. When people are introverted, they may be unable to reach out and enjoy other people. They may suffer through their inhibitions and be deprived socially, which is the exact opposite of who I demonstrate myself to be on a daily basis.”
Nonetheless, a series of highly publicized events suggested that Aretha was painting an overly sunny picture. In January 1981 Arista arranged a post-Grammy party for her on the forty-eighth floor of the Time-Life Building. Never comfortable with heights, Aretha made it only as far as the top of the first bank of elevators before turning back toward solid ground. Of greater importance to her career, her fear of flying became debilitating. After missing a scheduled flight from Atlanta to Detroit, she accepted a seat on a two-engine prop plane, which, she admitted looking back, was a “big mistake.” Caught between lines of thunderstorms, the small plane bounced across the sky, subjecting Aretha to “drastic drops” and “dipsy doodles.” At one point, the traumatized passenger claimed, it turned completely upside down. Her subsequent decision to take a break from air travel was certainly understandable.
As it became clear that the fear of flying would not pass quickly, the travel issues proved more than an inconvenience. In 1984 Aretha agreed to play the title role in “Sing, Mahalia, Sing!,” a Broadway musical honoring her old friend and mentor. A better match couldn’t have been imagined. Fully intending to be in New York for the start of rehearsals in early May, Aretha immersed herself in the material, including “Move On Up a Little Higher” and “Didn’t It Rain.” “At that point,” she recalled, “even though my traumatic flight from Atlanta was still recent, I figured I’d be flying by play time.” When May arrived, however, Aretha found herself unable to even contemplate leaving the ground. Although she started to make the journey by bus, she couldn’t handle the thought of the lengthy trip and turned back to Detroit. Her failure to appear cost her nearly a quarter of a million dollars in a court-ordered payment to the producers for breach of contract. The next year, still unwilling to travel outside Detroit, Aretha turned down an offer to star in another Broadway musical, this one based on the life of Bessie Smith. Further underlining the depth of the problem, she backed out of scheduled concerts with Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, and Smokey Robinson that were intended to help offset Jesse Jackson’s campaign debts.
Life in Detroit offered some compensations. Aretha enjoyed frequent excursions to popular night spots like L’Esprit and Club Taboo, and she loved driving around town in her blue Rolls-Royce. Settling into her new house in suburban Bloomfield Hills, she indulged her passion for design, decorating the interior with birds in gold cages and glass cases proudly displaying the robe and crown she had been given as the Queen of Soul. She was involved in an on-again off-again romance with Dennis Edwards of the Temptations, who later told Vanity Fair, “I should have married Aretha. It was all in my court, and I think I’m the one that was so scared of marrying this superstar.” Meanwhile a new romance with Detroit fireman Willie Wilkerson was society-page news. As always, Aretha devoted some of her creative energy to designing gowns and evening dresses, although she once again failed to realize her dream of having her own fashion line.
Through it all, Reverend C.L. Franklin remained the emotional center of Aretha’s life. Until his death on July 27, 1984, after five years in a coma, Aretha returned to Detroit regularly to be with her father, and he was never far from her mind. Partly because of Reverend Franklin’s political and social prominence, funeral arrangements generated several heated arguments over content and seating. At one point Jesse Jackson had to intervene to cool simmering tensions. On the day of the funeral Aretha was near paralysis; her knees buckled as she entered the church, where Pops Staples and gospel-star-turned-soul-singer Johnnie Taylor were among those delivering eulogies. Franklin’s protégé Reverend Jaspar Williams delivered a stirring funeral sermon. “He was born in poverty, but poverty could not stop him. He was born in segregation, but segregation could not stop him,” Williams preached. “When God wants a flower to bloom, no drought can stop it. His flower did blossom. And so we say thank you for a petal, for an insight, for a sermon.” He concluded with an invocation of C.L. Franklin’s best-loved sermon: “When the eagle stirreth its nest, the flower blossomed.”
Those close to her worried that C.L.’s death would precipitate a total emotional collapse for Aretha. “We were all looking at her thinking she was going to fall apart,” admitted her sister Carolyn. “She’s had her own problems, so we thought she was going to go into a fit or go off, but she really handled it quite well.” Just as she had clung tightly to her memories of her mother, Aretha cherished her undying love for her father. Even before his death, visitors to her house commented on the numerous candles and pictures dedicated to him. Vanity Fair described the house as a “virtual shrine to his memory.” As with her mother’s death, Aretha rarely spoke of her father’s passing in public. Even after several years had passed, her sister Erma said, “You can’t say the word ‘death’ around her. You have to say ‘passed away’ or find some other expression. She and my dad were very, very, very close.”
In the shadow of her biggest loss, Aretha somehow transformed her personal and artistic struggles into the biggest-selling album of her career, Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Featuring six songs produced by Narada Michael Walden, the album let Aretha reassert her power as a woman and an artist. Walden initiated the project when he sent musical sketches for three songs to Clive Davis, who forwarded them to Aretha in Detroit. “She was delighted with what she heard—I sent her roughs on ‘Push,’ ‘Freeway of Love,’ and ‘Who’s Zoomin’ Who?’ ” Walden recalled, emphasizing Aretha’s role in their subsequent development. “I really came up with a lot of the ideas lyrically from talking with Aretha on the phone. I’d ask her about what she’d do at home, how did she spend her time. She told me one of the things she liked to do on occasion was go to a club and maybe she’d be checking out some guy who’d be checking her out too—that’s where I got a lot of the ideas for Who’s Zoomin’ Who? I discovered that Aretha had this great sense of humor, something I had no idea about before we started working together.”
Walden was perfectly situated to help Aretha transcend the musical boundaries that shoved most black artists of the mid-eighties into the resegregated world of R&B. After establishing himself as the drummer for John McLaughlin’s jazz fusion group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Walden had gone on to produce Whitney Houston, Stacy Lattisaw, Angela Bofill, and Phyllis Hyman, all of them R&B artists who attracted a sizable crossover audience. Walden appreciated Aretha’s gospel roots, but he came to her with a commercial vision that went beyond R&B. “It’s not like it’s all church to me,” he commented. “In the voice you feel a lot of gospel roots, it’s true. But her expression of the church is very streetwise.” Tuning in on Aretha’s “hip class”—he called her the “black Mae West”—Walden observed, “She can be very gritty and ladylike at the same time… . She takes her fur coat off and she’s got jeans and a sweatshirt underneath.”
Encouraging Aretha to make use of both her church and her street sides, Walden helped craft a mid-decade masterpiece that earned a place alongside Prince’s Purple Rain, Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which had ushered in the era of the megastars, each album on the list mingled a deep seriousness about life in the eighties with a glossy, “streetwise” surface. As MTV reshaped the relationship between music and image, the challenge was figuring out how to bend the rules enough to do something worthwhile. In some ways it was a throwback to the problem Sam Cooke and Berry Gordy had encountered at the height of the Cold War: once again black artists found themselves required to adjust their styles to the preconceptions of an industry bent on forgetting most of what it had previously learned about black music. Where the crossover soul singers had carefully toned down the sexual content of their personas, the new breed plunged into a post-disco funhouse that made for an uneasy fit with the gospel vision. It was difficult to assert the values of sacrifice and community in a format predicated on conspicuous consumption and individual image. The best of the megastars found ways to play with, rather than into, the game. Madonna and Tina Turner took the sexual stereotypes to the top and kept on rising; Prince and Michael elevated androgynous indeterminacy into its own art form. MTV transmitted an unending series of updates from the strange new erotic city, but it was hard to imagine its citizens confronting Pharaoh on behalf of their less fortunate sisters and brothers.
Oddly enough, Aretha’s closest affinities in the eighties wonderland were with Bruce Springsteen, an unreconstructed romantic at heart. Springsteen’s vocal style came to him from gospel shouter Marion Williams by way of Little Richard. His spiritual politics grew directly out of gospel soul. Released a year before Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. screamed what should have been an unmistakable “no” to most of what was happening in Reagan’s America. The fact that a whole lot of people somehow mistook his populist protest for jingoistic patriotism spoke to the perils of life among the megastars. Appropriately, “Freeway of Love,” the opening track on Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, opened with a guest appearance from Springsteen’s African American sidekick Clarence Clemons. Setting Aretha’s biggest-selling album in motion with a straight-out-of-Memphis saxophone wail, Clemons sounded like he was determined to keep blowin’ till the walls came tumblin’ down.
Part of the success of Who’s Zoomin’ Who? no doubt reflected the fact that you could enjoy it without doing much thinking. Particularly in comparison with the overproduced norm of eighties pop, the album just plain sounded good. Driven by a mix of live drums, tambourines, and synthesized beats, “Freeway of Love” announces Aretha and Walden’s intention of taking the eighties to church. Viewers fixated on the video images of Aretha in a glitzy Detroit club or the pink Cadillac that had originally been owned by Jayne Mansfield could shrug the song off as inoffensive fluff. But the polyrhythmic energy and the sequencing of songs on the album asked them to think again.
Following the gospel pop of “Freeway of Love,” “Another Night” injects a note of bluesy realism while repudiating rumors of Aretha’s psychological demise. One of Aretha’s best eighties love songs, “Another Night” half-hides its emotional complexity behind the type of story line favored by disco divas like Yvonne Ellman and Gloria Gaynor. As she had in the semi-autobiographical song sequence that tracked the collapse of her marriage to Ted White, Aretha tries out a series of explanations of why, yet again, she’s found herself alone. The past’s past, it doesn’t matter, she begins. A moment later she admits to wearing a mask, telling herself she’ll be fine even if she has to fake it. The most convincing moments come when, echoing Springsteen’s fierce refusal to give in to the forces out to destroy him, she pledges to stand her ground and shouts her defiance to the men who have tried to bring her down. The closing sequence of Walden’s “Push” and Aretha’s composition “Integrity,” which she said reminded her of Curtis Mayfield’s sixties work, restates the gospel-blues foundation. A duet between Aretha and J. Geils Band vocalist Peter Wolf, “Push” builds to a frantic call-and-response exchange on some of the most basic gospel vision phrases. “Break for the higher ground,” Wolf calls out, “just a little farther till we see the light.” “We got to keep on pushin’,” Aretha responds, and Wolf answers, “We can get over.” It wasn’t exactly Mahalia, but you had to have heard Mahalia to get the point.
Aretha’s duet with Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” ties the gospel vision to a feminist movement that, despite momentary setbacks and ideological disagreements, was no longer relegated to the margins of the political world. Lennox and partner Dave Stewart had originally conceived the song with Tina Turner in mind, but Tina decided that the feminist message clashed with her new punk-metal-sex-goddess image. Mindful of the freedom movement’s nonnegotiable commitment to equality, Aretha requested that the line “the inferior sex are still superior” be altered to “the inferior sex have got a new exterior.” But she had no real problem with the song’s politics. She saw it as a more explicit articulation of songs like “Respect” and “Think” that had made her into a half-willing feminist icon. “It was my first musical declaration of clear-cut women’s liberation,” Aretha reflected. “I’ve always considered myself a progressive woman. And more and more in the eighties I saw women competing for jobs reserved for men—not just doctors and lawyers, but construction workers, traffic cops, Federal Express workers. My attitude was, You go, girl, if you’ve got the heart to do it. And if you do it, you sure deserve the same money a man makes.” Lennox supported Aretha’s interpretation, saying, “I suppose the song’s feminist in the sense that it’s women singing about women, but it’s really just a song for people in a situation like mine, people who now do things through their own assertion, through their own power, that they would never have been able to do before.”
Although Aretha and Lennox dutifully praised each other in the press, their styles weren’t an ideal match. For many black women, the feminist movement appeared to be a “white feminist movement,” leading writer Alice Walker to declare herself a “womanist” committed to a more inclusive political vision. Part of the problem concerned sharply divergent attitudes toward the church. While many individual white feminists held strong religious convictions, some of the most prominent feminist advocates openly repudiated Christianity as a patriarchal imposition. As the powerful performances of “Take Me to the River” in her live concerts demonstrated, Lennox herself had a deep appreciation for gospel music. In terms of public persona and personal style, however, the two women came from different worlds. Their initial attempts to accommodate each other led to an amusing situation at the recording session for “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves.” “I think we had a role-reversal there,” Aretha said. “Because I showed up wearing the ‘punk’ look, and the Levi’s jacket and the rhinestones—that look. And she showed up very chic, with a black pantsuit, and spectator shoes. I thought it was kind of cute.” Lennox’s version was a bit more subdued. “I got along alright with her, but we didn’t have an immediate rapport,” she remembered. “Aretha struck me as rather shy, a bit sad, a bit lonely. She had an entourage which I thought was a bit eccentric.”
The video shoot raised more serious problems. According to director Jan Roseman, “Annie had just had a photo session, and the woman photographer was gay. Aretha has a thing about gays and assumed Annie was a lesbian. She more or less ignored her throughout the entire session. After the video Annie didn’t want to talk to Aretha. The atmosphere was strained between them.” Fortunately, the strain didn’t come through on the video. Montaging Aretha and Lennox’s spirited performances with images of women in roles ranging from nuns and swimmers to astronauts and martial artists, the video became a symbol of sororal unity that was proving elusive in real life.
The tension between the MTV hall of mirrors and the gospel values that grounded Aretha lifts “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” from a clever relationship song to metaphorical commentary on the tensions at the heart of the decade. Aretha sketches a scenario in which the man thinks he has the power, only to turn the tables with the announcement, “You will remember my name, I’m the one that beat you at your game.” Despite the confident assertion, however, the “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” metaphor resists certainty. True, Aretha demanded that the man—and for the politically inclined, the white males who dominated the Reagan-era political process—“take another look.” As she sang in “Integrity,” “Put your daddy’s ways behind you, things have changed.” But even as the song tapped into women’s power, which would soon be a political fact that not even the most unreconstructed Reaganite would be able to ignore, it wasn’t at all clear how that power would express itself, personally or politically. If women—or any of the other groups flirting with political approaches grounded in some aspect of one’s “identity”—really had the power, why did they still find themselves in situations where the roles needed reversing? If disagreements between groups kept them from joining their forces in something like Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, was it possible to imagine any real change in the policies that were killing children in the ghettos and feminizing poverty? Politically, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” was a damn good question.
Who’s Zoomin’Who? placed five singles in the Top Forty and sold well over a million copies, giving Aretha her first platinum album in a decade that wasn’t satisfied with gold. Over the next two years collaborations with George Michael and with Keith Richards and Ron Woods of the Rolling Stones would keep her in the public eye, but none of her other Reagan-Bush-era pop albums—Aretha (1986), Through the Storm (1989), and What You See Is What You Sweat (1991)—stood out. Her second self-titled Arista album of the decade, most of it produced by Walden, yielded two minor hits in “Jimmy Lee” and her collaboration with Woods and Richards on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the title track from Whoopi Goldberg’s movie of the same name. Marveling over the piano run Aretha used to ignite the latter, Richards said, “A lot of people forget that on top of an incredible voice, she’s an incredible piano player. She comes up with amazing musical ideas. You never have to worry about the tempo because she just sets it.”
The musical and conceptual highlight of Aretha, however, was Aretha’s duet with George Michael on “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me).” Like her earlier duets with Luther Vandross and Annie Lennox, the project with Michael helped both singers attract new listeners. As Clive Davis observed, Michael, who was seeking to shake the teen idol image he’d earned as front man for Wham!, “was looking to establish individual credibility, that he was not just a pop artist. And for her, she was able to reach a teenager audience.” Michael was thrilled to sing with Aretha, whom he praised as “the best, quite simply. Much as I love a lot of other female artists, there’s no one touches her.” Although many R&B fans expressed their doubts about pairing Aretha with the red-hot heartthrob, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” surprised them by recapturing the gospel fire of her Atlantic classics as well as any of her eighties hits. Supported by a tasteful video that suggests a call and response between Aretha as live singer and Michael as video image projected on a large screen behind her, the lyrics are pure gospel: “When the river was deep, I did not falter. When the mountain was high, I still believed.”
“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” was Aretha’s last truly memorable pop performance of the Reagan-Bush years. Although each contains a couple of good cuts, neither Through the Storm nor What You See Is What You Sweatfinds a center. On Through the Storm Walden’s rhythmic inventiveness seems to have atrophied into predictable electronic mush, while the featured duets with guest stars James Brown, Whitney Houston, Elton John, and Levi Stubbs lack the immediacy of “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves,” “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” or even “Push.” In the case of her duet with Brown on “Gimme Your Love,” that’s hardly surprising since the two were never actually in the studio at the same time. Assembled by a grab-bag of producers including Walden, Vandross, the team of Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, and Aretha herself, What You See Is What You Sweat is a slightly stronger album than Through the Storm. Walden recaptures some of his polyrhythmic inspiration on the remake of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People.” Aretha rightly called her duet with Michael McDonald on Bacharach and Bayer Sager’s “Ever Changing Times” a “gem.” But several of the collaborations, notably those with Houston and Vandross, devolved into personal animosity. Yet again she clashed with Vandross over production of their duet on “Doctor’s Orders.” “I sounded like one of the background singers,” Aretha complained. “He put the word out so strongly that other producers were reluctant to interfere.” Although they originally compromised on what Aretha called an “acceptable mix,” her relations with him remained strained.
As she had always done in times of trouble, Aretha again sought solace and support in the church. Thinking back on her childhood and her father’s legacy, she felt a strong pull “to go all the way back to my roots.” While she loved Amazing Grace, she formulated a plan for a gospel album to honor the world that had shaped her being. Carolyn recalled her sister’s excitement as plans took shape for the 1988 album One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism: “She said she wanted to re-create her childhood like in the church with the candlelight service.” Along with singing the Ward Singers’ songs that the sisters had performed as children, Aretha wanted to experience the moment “when the choir walks down the aisle of the dark church, only the flickering flames illuminating their way.”
Although Aretha never directly compared One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism with her pop albums of the period, her reflections on gospel music suggest her weariness with eighties gloss. “I am a traditionalist when it comes to gospel,” she said, “and it doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the modern forms. There are many ways to praise the Lord. Different generations hear different beats. I must say, though, when the bass lines are pure boogie and the beats are pure funk, I wouldn’t call it gospel. When the performer’s body language is funking so hard as to be religiously disrespectful, then I wouldn’t call it gospel. Gospel is a higher calling; gospel is about God. Gospel is about beautiful and glorious voices and spirit-filled performances, and people who are anointed.” During preparations for the album Aretha worked closely with Minister Thomas Whitfield, who supervised the choral arrangements. Aware that Aretha hoped to re-create the fire and feeling of the revival meetings and gospel shows of the fifties, Whitfield commented on the difficulties of recapturing the earlier era. “For singers today, it is hard to replicate how they sang back then, because they didn’t really sing structured at all,” he said. “The parts just kind of felt. You had to kind of catch on.”
The services where One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism was recorded took place at the relocated New Bethel Baptist Church on three sweltering Detroit nights in July 1987. The services themselves, attended by a crowd of nearly four thousand, fulfilled Aretha’s expectations. The receptive congregation welcomed the three Franklin sisters, their cousin Brenda, and their grandmother, who was confined to a wheelchair. Cecil Franklin addressed the crowd along with fellow ministers Jaspar Williams and Donald Parsons of Mount Cavalry Baptist Church in Chicago. Jesse Jackson served as master of ceremonies. Guest vocalists included Mavis and Yvonne Staples and Joe Ligon of the Mighty Clouds of Joy. The musical highlights included the Franklin sisters’ treatment of Clara Ward’s “Jesus Hears Every Prayer” and “Surely God Is Able,” Mavis and Aretha’s duet on “Oh Happy Day,” and above all “I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long,” on which Aretha and Ligon whipped the worshipers into a spiritual frenzy leading up to the altar call. The spiritual keynote of the album, however, comes on the church standard “Higher Ground.” Meditating on the central image of the gospel vision, Aretha and Reverend Williams communed with the spirit of C.L. Franklin. When Reverend Williams started shouting, “I’m pressing on!,” Aretha recalled warmly, “I sang between his words, just as I had done with my dad.” For those three nights she felt almost at peace. “We couldn’t see the tragedies around the bend,” she wrote looking back. “But for those three nights we were together as a family, singing and praying as we did as children. The spirits of our mom and dad were surely with us.”
Unfortunately, the One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism album failed to communicate the power of the actual services. Part of the problem was the quality of the sound recording, which fell well short of the standard set by Amazing Grace. In addition, Aretha’s decision to maintain the church service structure creates lengthy stretches when the listener has no way of sharing the responsive attentiveness of those wrapped up in the moment. Although the album won the Gospel Music Association’s Dove award for best traditional gospel album, its lasting importance is as a reminder of gospel’s centrality to everything Aretha did. “I need that old-fashioned, stick-to-your-ribs gospel, the kind that will carry you as far as you need to go,” she said. “As Dr. King used to say after a dynamite dinner, ‘I can go around the world on a meal like that.’ ”
Aretha needed more than Dr. King’s favorite soul food to deal with the health problems that struck her family in waves beginning in the late eighties. As she wrote in her autobiography, the title of her 1989 album, Through the Storm, “describes what my family was going through during that time. The storm was tougher than I could have expected; it took a tremendous toll.” Just as the family began to regain equilibrium after C.L. Franklin’s death, Carolyn was diagnosed with breast cancer. As her health failed, Aretha’s sister continued to work toward her degree from Marygrove College, which she received ten days before her death in April 1988. Less than two years later Aretha’s brother Cecil died, also as a result of cancer. In 1990 C.L. Franklin’s mother, Rachel, passed. Emotionally drained and heartbroken, Aretha paid homage to Big Mama’s faith as “the backbone of the family.” In 2002 cancer claimed her sister Erma, leaving Aretha as the only surviving Franklin sister at age sixty.
ARETHA WAS NOT THE only one visited by troubles in those years. On August 13, 1990, Curtis Mayfield was preparing to take the stage at an outdoor concert at Brooklyn’s Wingate High School. He’d taken a few months off and was playing the free concert as a tune-up for his upcoming European tour. The sky was cloudy and the forecast included rain, but there was no reason to expect a real storm. As Mayfield reached the top of the steps and moved toward the microphone, a freak gust of wind blew in without warning. A light tower at the edge of the stage toppled and fell, pinning Mayfield beneath it. “I knew what had happened right away,” Mayfield remembered. “The first thing I told myself was just to stay alive.” The tower had crushed several vertebrae. When the ambulance arrived, the emergency medical crew that rushed him to Kings County Hospital wasn’t sure he’d survive. Once his condition stabilized sufficiently, he was transferred to Atlanta’s world-class Shepherd Spinal Center, where he received extensive therapy. The gospel traveler would never walk another step.
When Mayfield returned home after long months in the hospital, he faced the difficult adjustment to life as a quadriplegic. While he would never be free of pain, Mayfield’s spiritual recovery provides an inspirational story that, if it weren’t true, would seem like a made-for-television fantasy. The mere existence of his 1996 album, New World Order, represents a triumph of gospel spirit over fallible flesh. Its wisdom and beauty make it truly magical.
The path that would lead Mayfield back to the recording studio was hard. “At first I thought since I was paralyzed, there wouldn’t be so much pain,” he reflected. “But I found that aches come and go. I have a lot of complications, the effect of low blood pressure, chronic pain, things no one really could see or would even know unless you were around people with spinal cord injuries. I’m trying to maintain the status quo, but the hardships are many as are the complications. Sometimes you don’t have answers.” Speaking openly and honestly about his physical condition and the accompanying spiritual challenges, Mayfield said he generally avoided depression. “I think my spirits are maybe even higher. It’s like I died and woke up to see this wave of love from so many people I knew and people I didn’t know. Of course it doesn’t mean you don’t every once in a while find a tear in your eye. Your body does not allow you to do many things that your mind says. Your mind always says, ‘I’m ready, let’s go.’ You have to deal with it; you have to learn patience. It’s tough being a person who totally has to rely on someone else when you’ve been independent all your life.”
The decade prior to the accident had accustomed Mayfield to disappointment. Although skillful handling of his own career had relieved him from the financial pressure to produce hit records, he’d certainly hoped for a stronger response to the four albums he released during the Reagan-Bush years: Love Is the Place (1981), Honesty (1982), We Come in Peace with a Message of Love (1985), and Take It to the Street (1990). Still, he responded philosophically. “Stars are made to burn,” he reflected. “Does it matter whether there is a time when you’re not number one? It only gave me time to put some of my main thoughts toward other important things, like being a father. It’s the media that always asks, ‘Why aren’t you still as big as you were?’ Well, why aren’t I still twenty-two? Why aren’t I just thirty-six?”
As the eighties began, Mayfield had been enjoying his release from the burdens of running Curtom. Free to concentrate on writing songs for himself, he had signed with Neil Bogart’s Boardwalk label, where his music recovered some of its vitality. “At that time, I wasn’t so hot so we were all looking for the right recipe to bring me back,” Mayfield observed. Although Love Is the Place and Honesty are markedly uneven—“they didn’t want to do an album that was a hundred percent Mayfield”—the Boardwalk albums reestablished Mayfield on the R&B charts with the gorgeous falsetto ballad “She Don’t Let Nobody But Me.” They also include Mayfield’s strongest social commentary since Back to the World in the Impressions-style “Come Free Your People” and “Dirty Laundry,” an incisive criticism of Reagan-era political corruption. A musical setting based on harmonica and steel guitar gives a deceptively soft, near-country feel to Mayfield’s uncompromising condemnation of greed and hypocrisy: “Dirty laundry in the country / can’t trust our Uncle Sam / broken link, future sinking, and no one gives a damn.”
After Bogart’s death in 1982, Boardwalk folded and Mayfield attempted to revive Curtom. Partially as a result of changes in radio formats, the climate for independent labels had changed drastically by the eighties. Chicago-soul-music guru Johnny Meadows analyzed the situation: “What happened was that fragmented radio came in where you got away from the Top Forty formats on pop stations and the black radio stations got very fragmented. You had some going to jazz, some going to gospel, the R&B format for some radio stations, you had some others doing disco. It was all cut up. You didn’t have the concentration and saturation that was able to push these things in the pop direction. It didn’t put the pressure on Top Forty radio.” Attempting to revive Curtom, Mayfield signed a distribution agreement with Ichiban Records. Despite the diffuse musical scene, both We Come in Peace with a Message of Love and Take It to the Street hold fast to the ideals of love and unity. Like his Curtom albums of the late seventies, each includes first-rate songs, including the lovely ballads “Baby, It’s You” and “Do Be Down.” Two effective message songs frame We Come in Peace with a Message of Love: the title cut and a quirky but effective updating of “We Got to Have Peace” from Vietnam to the Reagan era. “Homeless,” the first cut from Take It to the Street,issues a compassionate plea in behalf of the growing numbers who had fallen to the lower circles of the urban inferno. As the eighties drew to a close, Curtis immersed himself in several projects, including a return to film. He contributed music to the soundtrack of The Return of Superfly, which includes a collaboration with rapper Ice-T on a remake of Mayfield’s classic funk cut. In 1987 he collaborated with the English ska group the Blow Monkeys on “Celebrate (The Day After You),” a strong political statement criticizing the conservative policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Although none of the albums dented the American charts, Mayfield continued to enjoy great popularity with European and Japanese fans. “Curtis is an icon. You go over there to Europe, and that’s all they want to talk about,” Mavis Staples reported. “They just love him.” Mayfield appreciated the reception. “You have to remember that when I was having all my hits in the States, my records really weren’t being exposed properly in Europe,” he told soul journalist David Nathan at the time. “So maybe this is like a catch-up situation. People seem more loyal in Europe. I see some of the same faces at my concerts each time I come over, and that’s a comfortable feeling.” He was looking forward to another overseas tour when the tower fell on him.
As he underwent the interminable tests and round after round of physical therapy, Mayfield looked back over the path he’d traveled. The thing he regretted most about life after the accident was that he could no longer play guitar: “For expression and harmony, my guitar was like another brother to me. I mourn my guitar to this day.” In his first public interview after the accident in 1993, Mayfield had given thanks that he possessed his full mental faculties, but he lamented his inability to realize his musical ideas. “I have lots of thoughts and visions and ideas,” he said, “but that’s all they are until they can become compositions and then finally be recorded to do the magic with somebody.” That somebody would turn out to be Roger Troutman of the eighties funk powerhouse Zapp, who would introduce Mayfield to the computer technology that allowed him to create New World Order.
Mayfield took pride in his ability to provide for his large family despite the injury: “You just try to do the right thing for all that are immediate to you. My particular thing is how, within my limits, to still find ways to earn a decent living, just prove to myself that I’m doing the best that I can do. How many fifty-four-year-old quadriplegics are putting albums out? You just have to deal with what you got and try to sustain yourself as best you can and look to the things that you can do. So that’s how I’m looking at things. I’m devoting what time I have to my children. I’m trying to get the rest of them out of here to college.” He laughed, then paid tribute to his second wife, Altheida, whose strength helped see him through his darkest moments. “I got a very strong woman,” he said. “You never know who’s going to take that stand and say, ‘Hey, I’ll do it.’ Nobody wants to do it, but she’s been around all these years.”
Mayfield’s publishing ventures enabled him to withstand the financial stress caused by the accident. When Rod Stewart’s version of “People Get Ready” and En Vogue’s remake of “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” became smash hits, Mayfield collected substantial royalties. Similarly, he benefited when hip-hop producers enriched their records with samples from “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly.” He expressed satisfaction with the way the record industry came to terms with sampling: “James Brown’s voice sort of taught everybody to work it out and get your credits. His ‘owwwws’ were the whole record, they were on everything. But now it’s been standardized, and one must be given the proper credits. It becomes a residual for you even if it’s not just but one beat. So it works out where you can make a decent living.” Marv Heiman, who managed Mayfield through the later stages of his career, elaborated: “Sampling allowed him to keep his dignity and self-respect. He had health insurance, but his injury cost the insurance company over $1.5 million. Sampling let his family be financially secure.”
Aware that the business acumen he had shown from the beginning of his career allowed him to support his ten children by three women—“you know I wouldn’t do that to one woman,” he laughed—Mayfield maintained deep empathy for the writers and singers who lost control of their material. Despite his own secure economic position, he joined in a 1995 class action suit filed to gain remuneration and a pension fund for soul acts exploited by unscrupulous labels. “Publishing was the foundation of large estates, I found out as I got older,” he said with an uncharacteristically hard edge to his voice. “And learning the value of that, I found it’s better to keep your song and bargain with them and try and be strong and resist taking the one hundred or five hundred or whatever it might be. The value is in you the person.”
Mayfield supported the lawsuit as a gesture of respect for a community and a tradition. “That’s why I did it,” he said. “I’d always hear the old guys saying you gotta pay your dues. Yeah, I paid my dues; a lot of people paid their dues. It’s true, you do have to pay your dues, but sometimes you pay so much out that you find you have to buy yourself back if you could afford to do so.” He expressed particular concern for artists who had lost the rights to records sampled by hip-hop acts: “Not all of that is properly standardized, and anyone who uses a rhythm piece out of a song or something, whoever owns the masters has the right to collect residuals. Even if it’s a voice, the money goes back to the label.”
While Curtis never became a national icon like Stevie and Aretha, other musicians recognized what he had given them. Two 1993 tribute albums, People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story and All Men Are Brothers: A Tributeto Curtis Mayfield, featured performances of Mayfield songs by a who’s who of the rock and soul worlds, including Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Butler, Stax guitarist Steve Cropper, B.B. King, David Sanborn, and Whitney Houston. Both Stevie and Aretha contributed to the latter, performing “I’m the One Who Loves You” and “The Makings of You,” respectively. A third compilation, I’m So Proud: A Jamaican Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, includes recordings of Mayfield’s compositions by Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Heptones, and Marcia Griffiths. VH1 produced an hourlong documentary on Mayfield as part of its “Legends” series. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 as a member of the Impressions and again in 1999 as a solo act, the NAACP Hall of Fame in 1994, and the Soul Train Hall of Fame in 1996. He received the Grammy Legend award in 1994, and the R&B Foundation Pioneer award in 1997.
As he contemplated the world and life from his wheelchair, Mayfield worried about the decaying conditions of life in inner-city neighborhoods like the one he’d grown up in. Although his physical condition prevented him from joining Stevie Wonder and the scores of musicians who lent their support to the Million Man March, he approved of the impulse driving it. Painfully aware of the self-destructive forces turning some urban areas into war zones, he expressed a deep sympathy for young people deprived of hope. He saw the march as a logical response to a growing sense of despair. “You might sense a mass of people wanting to find some answers,” he said. “That’s really what a lot of young blacks and young people in poverty want. They need answers. You’re not the smartest person in the world. It don’t look like with what’s happening in the schools, you’re going to be. You need answers. How do you get from here to there when you want to be a righteous person? I don’t want to do crime, hey that’s risky, and it takes smarts to even do that. So the young kids need something to believe and to prove and to be proven to that it works.” Mayfield traces the problem to the divisive forces he had targeted at the outset of the Reagan era in “Dirty Laundry.” “The bigotry, the discrimination and the selfishness and the greed. All these things really come from the top down. Those at the bottom of the totem pole don’t have things. They have to carry the load by sweat and labor, cheap labor. Whether they’re black or white, they’re being manipulated by the higher powers that be.”
BY THE TIME ARETHA FRANKLIN SANG the national anthem to open the second night of the Democratic National Convention on July 14, 1992, black America was sick and tired of the powers that had occupied the White House for the last twelve years. The quarter century since the last time her voice had called the party’s convention to order had thoroughly reconfigured the American political landscape. Presenting himself as the last, best hope of a liberal vision that had somehow lost the moral high ground to unabashed proponents of privilege, Bill Clinton had rendered himself electable by repudiating Jesse Jackson. Setting out to recapture the “Reagan Democrats,” Clinton sent racially coded symbolic messages. He played golf at a segregated country club, creating a “scandal” that worked to his advantage. He executed a mentally retarded black man in Arkansas. The sobering reality is that Clinton’s strategy—organized around the mantra “It’s the economy, stupid”—was probably the only way of bringing the Reagan nightmare to an end.
Clinton’s election signaled a major change in presidential style. Setting aside any feelings she might have harbored over Clinton’s summary disregard for Jackson, Aretha supported the new administration’s campaign to establish its credibility with black America. In turn, she credited Clinton with giving a boost to the music she loved: “The president let everyone know he loves straight-up soul. To have a fellow baby boomer—and a bubba and a saxophonist to boot—in the White House, well, let the party begin.” Clinton was fully aware of Aretha’s symbolic importance. On January 17, 1993, she performed at an event called “A Call to Reunion” at the Lincoln Memorial, the site hallowed by the voices of Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, and Martin Luther King. Two days later she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” at the inaugural gala.
The Clinton inauguration ushered in a new era in the nation’s public culture. African American artists, including a few R&B stars like Ray Charles, had previously received recognition from the White House, but when Clinton made Aretha a centerpiece of his administration’s cultural presence, he meant it. Aretha and Stevie Wonder, both of whom sang at Clinton’s second inaugural celebration, had become national icons, their status confirmed by a litany of awards and highly visible performances at events that weren’t primarily about the music. They sang at Super Bowls, the NBA All-Star game, the World Series, and the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. They received honorary doctorates, humanitarian awards, and lifetime achievement awards from the Kennedy Center and the Grammys. They were inducted into every vaguely appropriate Hall of Fame. As they had in the eighties, they gave freely to charities, played at benefits, and made guest appearances with everyone from Prince to Frank Sinatra. A few of the events—notably the gospel version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that Wonder performed at Bob Dylan’s 1992 birthday party—managed to transcend the photo-op feel that was so difficult to avoid in a media world where scores of cable stations demanded around-the-clock infotainment.
Aretha’s performance of “Nessun Dorma” at a dinner honoring operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti on February 23, 1998, set off a chain of events that resulted in even broader recognition from the cultural elite. Two days later Pavarotti himself was scheduled to sing Puccini’s aria as part of the Grammy awards telecast. Shortly before he was scheduled to go on, however, Pavarotti developed a minor throat ailment, and his doctor advised him not to sing. Scrambling to keep the show on track, the producers turned to Aretha. She described the last-minute preparations: “There were eight minutes to go, and they ran upstairs with the boom box and a tape of the rehearsal Mr. Pavarotti had done that afternoon, so I could hear the arrangement of the orchestra. I knew the aria because earlier in the week I had performed it for him at the Waldorf. But I had crammed for it then, and when you cram, you kind of forget it. So I had to scramble to put the pieces together.” The music for the telecast was in Pavarotti’s key and, Aretha noted, “someone was kind enough to remind me that 1.5 billion people throughout the world would be watching.”
Aretha came through with a transcendent performance. Soaking in the accolades from the world press, she savored her triumph: “I did it. I sang the aria and the ovation from my peers was wonderful. I sang Puccini because I love Puccini. It was God who gave me the gift of song, and it is God who keeps me strong in that gift.” Encouraged to pursue her interest in opera and classical music, Aretha presented a concert of what she called “symphonic soul” that November with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The program included orchestrated versions of “Freeway of Love,” “Angel,” “Think,” “It Hurts Like Hell,” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” as well as “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s Tosca. Commercially positioned to release an album of operatic arias if she chose to do so, Aretha emphasized, “No matter how far I may venture into other genres, my heart remains in soul and the soul of my people.”
Keeping that connection alive presented real challenges to both Aretha and Stevie as the millennium neared its end. Soul music had allowed singers to tap in to the driving energy of the freedom movement and broadcast it to the world. The connection between the singers and their communities, forged in churches, nightclubs, and the theaters of the chitlin circuit, wasn’t abstract. In their teens and twenties Stevie and Aretha regularly sang for audiences that included a cross-section of black America and an increasing number of relatively ordinary whites. Changes in politics, the music industry, and the cultural meaning of celebrity began to loosen those bonds during the seventies and eighties. Although the streets and churches of black America continued to produce new singers on both sides of the R&B/hip-hop divide, it became increasingly difficult for even the most determined stars to maintain contact with the roots of their art.
Neither Stevie nor Aretha really figured out how to handle the problem; at times it didn’t seem that they realized it existed. Surrounded by people charged specifically with shielding them from the swarms of fans and attention-seekers, both grew increasingly idiosyncratic. At a major New York concert in her honor, Aretha insisted the air conditioning be shut off, leaving her fellow musicians and the audience to swelter in the closed-in summer heat. She suffered through major fallings-out with many old friends and fellow singers including Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, and Mavis Staples. When her long-awaited autobiography Aretha: From These Roots, written in collaboration with ace music writer David Ritz, finally appeared in 1999, few readers or reviewers felt that she had provided the kind of deep insights and revelations they had hoped for.
Meanwhile, Wonder solidified his reputation for marching to the beat of his own rhythm section. On the increasingly rare occasions when his staff agreed to let him talk with outsiders, he invariably failed to show up on schedule, sometimes keeping reporters waiting for days. Both Stevie and Aretha found their private lives dragged into the tabloids. Besieged by reports of unpaid bills, heavy drinking, and her children’s legal difficulties, Aretha issued angry denials, filed several suits, and withdrew further into her protective cocoon. Although he maintained a much more positive public persona, Wonder was forced to counter accusations concerning his sexual behavior and was hit with a huge palimony suit.
On one level it was all simply part of the price they paid for their celebrity. On a deeper level, the constant buzz obscured Stevie’s and Aretha’s potential role as elders for the emerging musical generation. The concept of “elder” has never fit comfortably into a popular culture that from fifties rock ’n’ roll to the self-proclaimed “hip-hop generation” has celebrated youth for its own sake. Popular music, in a sense, has always served as a generational marker for the young. But in a world where the quality of education provided by most urban school systems remained unspeakable and a quarter of black children went to bed hungry, the voices of the elders were desperately needed. As the nineties unfolded, there was reason to hope they might be heard.
Stevie’s and Aretha’s music was easily accessible, if often in forms that presented the singers as celebrities, icons, or oldies acts. As she had done since moving from Atlantic to Arista, Aretha sought out vocal partners and taped a television special consisting of duets with Gloria Estefan, George Michael, Bonnie Raitt, Smokey Robinson, Rod Stewart, and Elton John, who joined her at a double grand piano to sing “Border Song” and “Spirit in the Dark.” Both Aretha and Stevie contributed to Frank Sinatra’s duet albums, although neither was actually in the studio with him. Aretha contributed the British dance hit “A Deeper Love” (produced by Robert Clivilles and David Cole aka C&C Music) to the Sister Act 2 soundtrack. She offered up a moving blues “It Hurts Like Hell” to the multiplatinum soundtrack for Waiting to Exhale, which amounted to a multigenerational summit conference of black women singers including Patti LaBelle, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Brandy, Chante Moore, and Faith Evans. At the 1997 Grammys Aretha performed a medley from the soundtrack along with Blige, Houston, Brandy, Khan, and CeCe Winans. Like Aretha, Wonder contributed material to several movies, most notably Jungle Fever (1991), the first of several collaborations with black filmmaker Spike Lee. Apart from “Lighting Up the Candles,” which Wonder had introduced in 1984 at Marvin Gaye’s funeral, the Jungle Fever soundtrack album consists of pleasant but unremarkable material from one of Lee’s least satisfying movies. For some reason the best song from the actual soundtrack, “Feeding Off the Love of the Land,” which plays over the closing credits, was left off the album.
BEGINNING WITH THE BRILLIANTLY realized box set of Aretha’s Atlantic years, Queen of Soul, a confusing array of compilations and retrospectives arrived in the Stevie and Aretha sections of the record stores. In addition to Queen of Soul, the best of the Aretha collections were Jazz to Soul, an excellent winnowing of her Columbia material; The Delta Meets Detroit: Aretha’s Blues, which highlights the bluesy side of her Atlantic material; and Greatest Hits, 1980-1994, a collection of most of her Arista hits along with four new songs, two produced by Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds. One of the Babyface cuts, “Willing to Forgive,” reached number five on the R&B charts. Wonder released a comparable number of retrospectives, beginning with an excellent live album, Natural Wonder, recorded in Osaka, Japan, and Tel Aviv. Presenting Wonder and his band in full orchestral settings, Natural Wonderintroduced four new songs, including the mesmerizing funk fusion jam “Dancing to the Rhythm.” In 1996, Wonder released a double-CD greatest hits compilation, Song Review, followed in 1999 by a four-CD box set, At the Close of a Century, and in 2002 by a single volume Stevie Wonder: The Definitive Collection, which, despite its title, wasn’t. The most valuable Wonder compilation, however, was probably Stevie Wonder: Early Classics, which complemented his hits from “Fingertips” through “I Was Made to Love Her” with some of the best cuts from his early albums.
While the Stevie and Aretha compilations ranged from excellent (The Queen of Soul, Natural Wonder) to redundant (the overlapping Song Review and At the Close of a Century), Rhino Records’ refusal to let Curtis Mayfield’s work slip into obscurity deserves special commendation. The three-volume compilation People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story provides a near-flawless overview of his career with an appropriate emphasis on the later, difficult-to-find material. In addition, Rhino released a series of single CDs focusing on specific periods (The Very Best of the Impressions, The Very Best of Curtis Mayfield) and styles (gospel, love songs), along with enhanced versions of Curtis, Curtis/Live!, Roots, and Superfly. Greatest hits albums by Gene Chandler and Major Lance, a compilation titled Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago Soul, and a series of British anthologies, The Class of Mayfield High, TheCurtom Story, and the Grammy-worthy Impressed! 24 Groups Inspired by the Legendary Impressions and Curtis Mayfield, made it possible for dedicated fans to experience something approaching the fullness of Mayfield’s genius.
The most significant recovery of Mayfield’s music, however, took place in Spike Lee’s film on the Million Man March, Get on the Bus, which uses four Mayfield songs—“People Get Ready,” “New World Order,” “We’re a Winner,” and “Keep On Pushing”—to open a cross-generational dialogue on the contemporary meaning of the gospel vision. The movie reaches its climax when a group of black men gather at the Lincoln Memorial in the shadow of the Great Emancipator. While Lee’s camera explores their thoughtful faces, the music reminds us of the ancestors for whom the promise of equality before the law sometimes must have seemed an unattainable dream. It spoke volumes that for Lee, a cultural icon of the hip-hop generation, Mayfield’s ancestral wisdom continued to point the way: “I’ve got my strength and it don’t make sense not to keep on pushing.”
During the first years of the new century, a growing group of African American intellectuals, including Bakari Kitwana and Todd Boyle, argued that the values and vision of the hip-hop generation represented a departure from, and to a lesser extent a repudiation of, the civil rights agenda. Still, there were signs that the hip-hop generation of the new millennium would be more responsive to the gospel vision than its immediate predecessors in the eighties and nineties. Drawing liberally on the music and message of the elders, the Fugees, the Roots, Common, Goodie Mob, Outkast, and gangsta-turned-ghetto-philosopher Scarface engaged in a dynamic call and response on the age-old questions at the heart of gospel and the blues. Many of the conscious rappers’ best cuts drew their power from samples taken from the music of Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Far from providing evidence of the collective failure of the African American musical imagination, then, hip-hop sampling encouraged communion with the spirits of the elders. When Outkast invited the movement to get crunk on “Rosa Parks” and Goodie Mob kicked off its brilliant Soul Food album with a gospel moan called “Free,” they were embarking on some of those paths. “Hush” by Mississippi rapper Afroman, best known for his tragicomic hip-hop blues “Because I Got High,” was a stunning example of the potential for cross-generational spiritual calls and responses. Speaking from the heart of the region that had given rise to the gospel vision that powered the movement, Afroman communed with the spirit of his grandfather and heard the voice of Jesus whispering that, someday, everything would be all right.
Frequently, hip-hop producers in search of spiritually resonant samples turned to Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield. Two huge hip-hop hits, Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West” and Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” clearly owed their success to samples from Songs in the Key of Life. Like “I Wish,” “Wild Wild West” tapped in to the good-time summertime energy with a bit of nonthreatening social commentary mixed in for those who cared to hear it. Organized around a sample from “Pastime Paradise,” Coolio’s near-remake took a more serious approach to the situation in black America. Refusing to limit his awareness to the violence and confusion surrounding him on the street, Coolio traced the problem to a collective amnesia that cuts off contact with the past. Stevie’s cut fades out with a haunting chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” which remains just barely audible in Coolio’s response.
Mayfield played an even more prominent role in the conversations between the hip-hop and the civil rights generations. “We’re a Winner,” “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go,” “Freddie’s Dead,” “Pusherman,” “Superfly,” and “Right On for the Darkness” echo through dozens of cuts by artists representing every corner of the hip-hop nation. A partial list includes old-schoolers Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, L.L. Cool J, and Stetsonic; West Coast O.G.s Ice-T, N.W.A., and Above the Law; white rappers the Beastie Boys and Eminem; R&B crossovers Mary J. Blige and R. Kelly; as well as Too Short, the Geto Boys, Digable Planets, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z, M C Hammer, De La Soul, Craig Mack, Brand Nubian, Gang Starr, and Eric B. and Rakim. It’s probably simpler to list the acts who didn’t sample Mayfield. His manager, Marv Heiman, emphasized that samples increase awareness of Mayfield’s own music. “It’s not even the financial thing that matters most. More important to me is that his name doesn’t die out,” he noted. “Maybe a lot of kids don’t read credits on an album, but the ones who do say, ‘Hey, Snoop Dogg sampled Curtis Mayfield. I like that cut. And oh, Tupac sampled Curtis Mayfield. Who the hell is Curtis Mayfield? Maybe I ought to go into a record shop and see if I can buy something on him.’ ”
Mayfield believed the rappers’ interest in his music reflected basic human needs that didn’t change from era to era. “I don’t see any great differences between what people are expressing now and what we used to do,” he commented. “There’s observations on contemporary goings-on, personal freedoms, civil rights, and discriminations of minorities. Then of course, there’s always love, the ins and outs and movements and the happenings of love.” As both a parent and an elder, he sometimes worried about the violence in hip-hop, but he trusted his children to come to their understanding of the harsh aspects of reality, as he had done himself. “When we were children, we knew there was room for the future, to pursue all the beautiful dreams of love and happiness,” he reflected. “Let’s face it, that’s not promised today. They see a weird jungle in the streets. It makes them have to live in the present. ‘Now! I have to have it now. Give it to me now.’ But the children understand the difference and still can be obedient and good. We sometimes forget their own ability to lay back and say no or ‘Hey, I’m not into this.’ ”
ARETHA’S MUSICAL CONVERSATION WITH the younger generation took a different, but equally significant, form. While hip-hop DJs rarely sampled her work, she provided inspiration and a creative role model for the parade of young female singers who dominated the charts from the mid-nineties on. Some of them were African American and a few were “white,” but many were hard to file away in a clearly labeled racial box. Inspired by Aretha’s musical daughters Whitney Houston, Natalie Cole, and the undervalued R&B singer-songwriter Jody Watley, Aretha’s spiritual granddaughters quietly reintegrated the pop music charts during the Clinton years. Stylistically, the new R&B varied from Mariah Carey’s pop confections and Faith Evans’s gospel love songs to the streetwise hip-hop fusions of Mary J. Blige and the gospel-meets-the-girl-groups fusion of Mary Mary.
The impact of the church-trained singers both reflected and contributed to a resurgence in gospel music. Gospel had never gone away, of course, but from the mid-seventies on, it had rarely made a direct impact on the pop charts, and its political statements were heard almost solely by a churchgoing African American audience. Summoning memories of Sam Cooke, Kirk Franklin emerged as the most powerful force in gospel’s reengagement with black secular music. Incorporating hip-hop beats and R&B production techniques into his gospel compositions, Franklin used his Gospocentric label to help reopen a crossover market that had been closed for the better part of two decades.
On the secular side of the black music scene, R. Kelly played a role roughly equivalent to Kirk Franklin’s in gospel. Although Kelly’s marketing team usually presented him as a cross between a thug and a blaxploitation lover man, his musical identity was pure gospel soul. When Kelly finished with the gangsta posing and bedroom boasting that scared most of the older generation away from his albums, he revealed himself as a sensitive storyteller who understood the connection between the romantic and spiritual quests. Beginning with his duet with Sparkle on “Be Careful,” Kelly produced a sequence of male-female dialogue songs (“When a Woman’s Fed Up,” “Reality”) in which he challenges both parties to accept responsibility for their actions. In “Bad Man” and the heartrending eulogy for a fallen homie, “I Wish,” Kelly assumes the robes of a kind of street psalmist, tracking a self-reflective sinner as he wanders the moral wilderness. Raising his eyes above the tormented streets to the spiritual sphere, Kelly composed a set of gospel soul anthems that appeal to both sacred and secular audiences.
“I Believe I Can Fly,” “Storm Is Over Now,” and “The Greatest” will be sung by church choirs and middle-school vocal ensembles long after Kelly’s reprehensible tabloid exploits have faded into musical trivia.
Fortunately, many musicians who came of age in the late nineties heard the call and responded by forging a neo-soul movement that turned to the elders for inspiration and guidance. One of the most compelling of the neo-soul artists, India Arie, made the point explicit when she dedicated the first track on her Acoustic Soul album to the “remembrance of our ancestors.” Invoking Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Donny Hathaway, she concluded with “You opened up a door, because of you a change gonna come.” A second invocation midway through the album expands the list to include a pantheon of jazz and blues musicians, including Arie’s female predecessors from Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie on. The bonus track on the album, “Wonderful,” a montage of lyrics and titles from Stevie Wonder’s songbook, makes it clear Arie recognizes the elders as ancestors-in-training. The neo-soul singers’ gentleness was both a strength and a weakness. A modern equivalent of Sam Cooke’s crossover strategy, their smoothly soulful tones and laid-back beats helped define the neo-soul sound. At the same time the restraint sometimes seemed to mark a generational inability to really cut loose with a scream of anger, pain, or rage. Arie, Angie Stone, D’Angelo, and R. Kelly certainly knew the pain was there, and they dealt with it in their own quiet way. Unlike Aretha and Stevie, however, they rarely let their voices swoop and dive on the wings of the spirit.
One of the most talented musicians contributing to the hip-hop-gospel-R&B hybrids, Lauryn Hill understood the point. Rejecting the highly polished studio styles that had characterized black popular music since the eighties, she cast her music as a direct response to the emotional depth of gospel soul: “Look at someone like Aretha. She didn’t hit with her first album, but she was able to grow up and find herself. I want to make honest music. I don’t like things to be too perfect, too polished. People may criticize me for that, but I grew up listening to singers like Al Green and Sam Cooke. When they hit a high note, you really felt it.”
So it made sense that Hill would help Aretha connect with an audience that knew her mostly through oldies radio and their parents’ record collections. Hill had a firm grasp on what was happening musically and an equally clear idea of the political changes she wanted to help sing into being. First as a member of the Fugees and then as a solo artist, she paid homage to her elders, invoking Nina Simone as the antidote to gangsta misogyny and releasing the first classic gospel hip-hop album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the nineties’ closest equivalent to Songs in the Key of Life. The only reason Stevie Wonder didn’t write “Every Ghetto Every City” was that Lauryn beat him to it. As a child, Hill had been immersed in soul music via her mother’s record collection. From the start she sensed the connection between music and politics: “Our podium, what we have to speak from, is the music. It’s really important that we stay focused, because things become misconstrued in the media. So we have to stick firm to who we are, and stand our ground musically. We have to make sure the music and the message and the words and all the elements come through in our songs and every time we appear in public. A lot of us are too busy focusing on what we think people want to hear, as opposed to just saying what’s in our hearts.”
When Hill approached Aretha about recording her song “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” the timing was ideal. About to re-sign with Arista, Aretha was seeking fresh material and a new approach for her first album in over five years. Aware that Aretha had never worked with a hip-hop producer, Hill anticipated a period of adjustment. But when she arrived in Detroit with her mother and infant son, Zion, she was pleasantly surprised. “The rhythm, the syncopation is definitely hip-hop,” Hill observed. “I expected to have to really go through it with her. But she took the demo version, came in the studio, and it was done.” Expressing her satisfaction with Hill’s conscientious grasp of detail and positive attitude, Aretha praised her as “a young woman who knows what she wants; she’s responsible and long on patience.” An ideal vehicle for the cross-generational collaboration, “A Rose Is Still a Rose” presents an older woman’s advice to a girl facing the end of a bad relationship. Aretha knew the story all too well. Responding beautifully to Hill’s syncopated rhythms, Aretha’s voice infuses the encouraging lyrics with sympathy and conviction. However battered she might feel, Aretha counseled, the young woman would go on to survive and bloom as long as she held on to the sources of her power, in herself and her God. “The song is about inner beauty,” Aretha reflected, “women understanding that the deepest validation comes from God.”
“A Rose Is Still a Rose” was an ideal opening number for Aretha’s set when she joined Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan, and Shania Twain on VH1’s Divas Live show from the Beacon Theater in New York City in April 1998. While Aretha enjoyed sharing the spotlight with the young stars, she viewed the “diva” label with amusement. Aretha preferred to reserve the title for the “real divas, ladies like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland,” along with her personal inspirations Clara Ward, Dinah Washington, Shirley Caesar, and the “supreme diva” Josephine Baker. By any standard Aretha had earned a place in their legendary company, and her performance on Divas Live dispelled any doubts about whether she was still the Queen. Throughout her set Aretha demonstrated that when she cut loose or dove down deep, no one could come close to matching her. In addition to her current hits “A Rose Is Still a Rose” and “Here We Go Again,” Aretha welcomed Carole King for a duet on “A Natural Woman” and Mariah Carey, who mostly watched in awe as Aretha ripped through “Think.” Along with the ensemble finale on the gospel standard “Testimony,” “Think” made it clear that while the young divas might have surpassed Aretha as pop hitmakers, they had a lot—a whole lot—to learn from her about singing. Gracious in her triumph, Aretha reflected happily that it had been a pleasure to end the evening with a taste of “old-fashioned down-home, romping and stomping gospel.”
The Divas Live performance followed the release of Aretha’s second major comeback album, A Rose Is Still a Rose. (Depending on your criteria, the first had been either Jump to It or Who’s Zoomin’ Who? ) The title song introduced the central concerns of one of Aretha’s most female-centered albums. Working with many of the hottest producers remapping the border between hip-hop and R&B, Aretha revisited the disappointment and determination that had defined her life from her teenage pregnancies through her failed marriages. The sound had changed, but the themes and the vocal intensity remained the same. The affirmation of “Never Leave You Again” (produced by Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs) and the dreamy romanticism of “In the Morning” run up against the world-weary realism of “Here We Go Again” and “Every Lil’ Bit Hurts” (both produced by Jermaine DuPri). Picking up the pieces and putting them together in a mosaic that expressed both the joy and the pain, “Watch My Back” and the final cut on the album, Aretha’s own composition “The Woman,” assure her musical daughters that, while the road will surely be hard, they have the strength within them to survive.
A Rose Is Still a Rose was the third in a series of messages from the elders that began with Wonder’s Conversation Peace and Mayfield’s New World Order. Together the albums amounted to a trilogy on the basic themes of the gospel vision. Wonder wrote many of the songs on Conversation Peace on an extended trip to Ghana in 1993. Mixing equal measures of political anger and spiritual uplift, Wonder brought a needed sense of balance to the musical mix just as rap and R&B began to reconcile their longstanding differences. Rage and redemptive love, he reminded his listeners, were equally necessary responses to the same world.
Jettisoning the mechanical percussion sound that had marred much of his work since Hotter than July, Conversation Peace was Wonder’s strongest and most coherent album since Songs in the Key of Life. The album consists of three sequences: the first five songs focus on the various dimensions of redemptive love; the next five reconsider that ideal in relation to a world of random and senseless violence; and the final three reflect on the consequences of failing to heed the redemptive call. Picking up the central themes of his work since “Heaven Help Us All,” the first sequence reiterates the connections between sexual, romantic, social, and spiritual love. Following the inspirational overture, “Rain Your Love Down,” Wonder defines the album’s conceptual center in “Edge of Eternity.” “A really heavy union between two lovers can be a link to God just as surely as a monk praying in a monastery,” he reflected. While his description echoed the mystical trappings of Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants and In Square Circle, the funky rhythms and appealing melodies of “Rain Your Love Down” and “Take the Time Out” had more in common with Talking Book.
Following a deceptively upbeat polyrhythmic opening, “My Love Is with You” shatters the mood. Intended both as eulogy for the innocent victims of street violence and a statement in support of gun control, the song recalls the ferocity of the second verse of “As” and redefines the emotional impact of the next four “love songs”: “Treat Myself,” “Tomorrow Robins Will Sing,” the sultry “Sensuous Whisper” with a lovely backing vocal from Anita Baker, and “For Your Love,” the latest addition to Wonder’s collection of classic ballads. In a world where meaningless violence can take it all away in an instant, focusing on personal connection seems less like romantic naïveté than a realistic refusal to surrender.
The final sequence of Conversation Peace reiterates the reality of the threat. As he had done so often, Wonder tuned in to the half-conscious hopes and fears that defined the moment. Taking personal stories and transforming them into social metaphors, “Cold Chill” and “Sorry” communicate a deep sense of foreboding and regret that sets the stage for his concluding tour de force, “Conversation Peace.” Without “My Love Is with You,” “Cold Chill,” and “Sorry,” the song might have seemed like a sermon left over from the In Square Circle sessions. Heard as a response to the political lives of ordinary people, it rings true. The lyrics restate Wonder’s longstanding concern with the many dimensions of human suffering—the Holocaust, Middle Passage, ethnic cleansing—and his belief in Christ’s resurrection as the path to salvation. As always in Wonder’s most effective songs, however, the sound communicates as much as the lyrics. The gospel call and response between Wonder and Sounds of Blackness, who provide the backup vocals, builds up to the concluding montage of voices offering the phrase “Conversation Peace” as a mantra for a world in need.
Curtis Mayfield’s contribution to the elders’ deep soul trilogy, New World Order, elicits a real sense of wonder. That’s a dangerous word, hard to take without irony. But it’s the right word. The creation of New World Order serves as a testament to advances in studio technology. Mayfield’s health made it hard for him to sing more than a couple of lines at a time. Throughout most of the recording sessions he lay on his back to conserve energy. Nonetheless, he felt the album represented his true voice. “Mostly what I had to change was that I don’t have the ability to sing the high falsetto nor do I have strength to really sing a song on stage as a performer,” he said. The producers’ collective mastery of sophisticated techniques for “punching in”—combining lines recorded at different times—leaves no audible evidence of the way the songs were recorded. Mayfield appreciated the advances in recording technology since he was last in the studio. “Two of the songs Roger Troutman did with me, he came right into my house with a little box of a console and a hard drive and I sang the two songs in bed. He ran it right in here into my speakers. I didn’t have to move, he put a mike in front of me and I sang ‘We People Who Are Darker than Blue’ right here.”
As consistent as any of Mayfield’s previous albums—and it’s only fair to remember that consistency was never the hallmark of an artist who created so much for himself and others—New World Order circles back to the clear-sighted gospel soul of the mid-sixties Impressions. Obviously written with his physical condition in mind, “Back to Living Again” spoke equally to the political needs of black America as it sought to renew its sense of purpose in the aftermath of Reaganism. “The Got Dang Song,” “Ms. Martha,” and the soulful remake of “We the People Who Are Darker than Blue” grapple with the continuing realities of poverty and despair. But images of rebirth resonate throughout the album, most notably in the title song. Happy with New World Order as a direct expression of his real voice, Mayfield viewed it as a reaffirmation of the faith that carried him through good times and bad: “Lyrically, my philosophy hasn’t changed. The concept of peace, love, get it together, and maybe there’ll be a new world order.”
Mayfield was particularly happy with the way the album merged classic soul and contemporary sounds. “Fusing elements of hip-hop on this CD was not so much a concession to the times, as much as it was a connection to the times,” he observed. “We all have to grow. You have to stay true to yourself while recognizing and acknowledging what’s going on now.” The album’s contemporary feel results in part from the contributions of its coproducers, including Organized Noize, best known for their work with TLC, Roger Troutman, the guiding spirit of the eighties funk group Zapp, Narada Michael Walden, and hip-hop pioneer Daryl Simmons, whom Mayfield credited with convincing him to return to the studio. “Fortunately we had a lot of the young people who always admired my work,” he said, “so they could put music together that was of the nineties and all I needed to do was just lay my signature down. They’re all great producers and have great ideas but they were all very kind and always left the parts for Curtis.”
On the soul side, guest appearances by Aretha and Mavis Staples deepened the spiritual feel, especially on “Ms. Martha,” a bluesy response to the gospel standard “Mary Don’t You Weep.” After the sessions Mavis announced that she was trying to convince Curtis to go on the road despite his injuries. “Prince can have a big old bed up there on stage,” she observed. “Why not Curtis?” More seriously, Mavis expressed her joy over Mayfield’s ability to maintain his spiritual mind in the face of his burdens: “Curtis is so unique. There’s a beauty about him, an angelic state. Everything he wrote had a whole lot of love. Curtis has influenced so many of these young people with his music and his guitar playing. Can’t nobody play it like Curtis. Curtis’s guitar will make you move. It’s so soulful. Curtis is just one strong individual. You know his heart’s got to be right with the Lord for him to be able to deal with what’s happened. And he still has his sense of humor. His music is healing, that’s the fact. He’s just a great great person, and I love him and I always will love him.”
Mayfield sensed his 1996 album, New World Order, would be his last: “At this point in my life I’m just glad that I was able to do it. That’s not to say I might not do a little something with someone else. But I’ve been doing this since I was seven, professionally since I was fifteen. I turned sixteen in the Apollo Theater. I’m a fighter, but it’s best at this point to go on and retire and be appreciated for whatever you have done. As I sum it up, I just want folks to say he didn’t do bad with his life in inspiring others.” Curtis Mayfield died the day after Christmas 1999.
Ancestors live in the voices and lives of their descendants. Monuments command awe, but rarely matter.
As the new millennium began with a disputed presidential election and the horrifying attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, those who remembered the way the gospel vision had shaped American life in the sixties and seventies struggled to keep the music that gave it voice from slipping into nostalgic inertia. It certainly wasn’t that Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin slipped into the obscurity that Curtis Mayfield had lived through in the eighties. Even the new Republican president validated his baby boomer credentials by turning out to see Stevie Wonder, and the accolades continued to flow as they had during the Clinton administration. Black Entertainment Television aired a three-hour black-tie gala celebrating Wonder’s enshrinement on the network’s Walk of Fame. Before treating the audience with “I Can’t Imagine Love Without” from his much-delayed new album, Wonder pointedly questioned the looming war in the Middle East and issued a moving plea for renewed commitment to community uplift. But despite the presence of neo-soul acolytes India Arie, Jill Scott, and Musiq, the evening felt more like a valediction than a call to arms.
Wonder joined Lauryn Hill, Eric Clapton, and the surviving members of the Impressions, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, to celebrate Mayfield’s legacy at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles on February 23, 2000. The First AME Freedom Choir backed the stars in joyous renditions of Mayfield classics including “Choice of Colors,” “I’ve Been Trying,” “I’m So Proud,” “People Get Ready,” and Hill’s soulful recovery of “The Makings of You.” Wonder added an affectionate version of “Gypsy Woman,” which had captivated him as a child huddled by the radio in his ghetto bedroom. After Clapton joined the Impressions for “We’re a Winner,” Hill and Wonder returned for a euphoric version of “It’s All Right” that shook the rafters. “I sort of went out there a bit”—Wonder smiled—“I was getting into it. But how can you sing it any better than Curtis did?” First AME pastor Steven Johnson delivered the closing eulogy, basing his words on what he called “the gospel according to Mayfield.” “It’s all right!” he shouted. “I’ve got to keep on pushing, I can’t stop now.”
At other moments, however, it seemed like the mass media could reduce even the most stirring event to a nostalgic sideshow in the celebrity circus. A striking example came following the fourth VH1 Divas Live special, “A Tribute to Aretha Franklin.” On April 12, 2001, a star-studded audience and a cast of performers from all corners of the musical world gathered at Radio City Music Hall to reaffirm Aretha’s place in the pantheon. Backed by a jazz ensemble headed by James Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Clark Terry, Aretha sang with the surviving members of the Ward Singers, Bishop Paul S. Morton Sr. of the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church Ministries, a few of the Backstreet Boys, Caucasian rock rapper Kid Rock, Jill Scott, and Aretha’s Cuban counterpart, the great Celiz Cruz. Mary J. Blige, who like Aretha had grown up in the unforgiving gaze of the public eye and whom many viewed as her heiress apparent, joined Aretha for a moving duet on “Do Right Woman—Do Right Man.” When Stevie Wonder took the stage for the encore, he was greeted by a round of thunderous applause. After the taping ended, Aretha and Stevie stayed onstage for a medley of Ward Singers classics. More than half the audience filed out. Apparently they were interested in the hits, not the story.
Wonder had drawn attention to the underlying problem in the two songs he contributed to the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s searing satire Bamboozled. Where Lee unleashed a ferocious barrage of images from America’s violent and unreconciled racial subconscious, Wonder encouraged the younger generation to reflect seriously on the call embedded in the surreal nightmare. “Some Years Ago” reminded those who had benefited from the movement of the time when black people had “more hope than money.” Musing over the movement’s unrealized potential, Wonder meditates on the paths untaken, the ones leading to a world in which even those with wealth and power take the gospel vision seriously. More effective musically than “Some Years Ago,” “Misrepresented People” identifies the first step toward reconstructing the movement. Restating the message of Black Power 101, Wonder exhorts his people to take control of their story, beginning with the stories they tell themselves about themselves when the white folks aren’t around. “Where do those images come from?” Wonder muses. “How can we change them?” Unless you’ve got a decent image of yourself to work with, none of the rest matters. That’s why the gospel vision insists that redemption begins at home. As both “Some Years Ago” and “Misrepresented People” suggest, the problem at the dawn of the new century was that most of us had forgotten what it felt like to really believe a change was still gonna come.
Change came to the United States on September 11, 2001. The portraits of the dead reflected the reality of twenty-first-century America. Black, brown, red, white, and yellow came together in shock, grief, and an anger that wasn’t easy to direct or control. Ten days after the fall of the towers, with fires still burning and haunting images filling the media and our minds, all of the major television networks and dozens of cable outlets turned to music to help work through the anger and grief. Young divas and country singers joined rockers and rappers on the America: A Tribute to Heroes special to raise a collective voice of sorrow and survival.
Sorrow and survival had been defining elements of Stevie’s, Aretha’s, and Curtis’s lives. Their lives and music told a story not of revenge but of redemption. Each had lived through experiences that would have crushed most people: Aretha’s teenage pregnancies, Stevie’s blindness and near-fatal auto accident, Curtis’s paralysis. Drawing strength from the spirit and from their ever-shifting communities, they transformed tragedy into some of the most deeply democratic art the tormented republic has ever known. Each had turned to music in times of trouble, and holding to the gospel vision, each transformed personal misfortune into redemptive art. Resonating with the hope and hardships of the community that had supported them in times of need, their music powered the civil rights movement as it demanded the end of Jim Crow; it meditated on the meaning of Black Power, and it lamented the dimming of the dream. At every turn it kept faith with the gospel vision, and reminded us that it was a healing way of life, not a rigid set of rules.
As the war drums began to pound, it was a desperately needed call, and it sounded throughout the Tribute to Heroes. Although only Stevie Wonder was there in person, the spirits of Aretha and Curtis were equally present. Aretha’s fear of flying, no doubt intensified by what had happened, kept her from participating in the Tribute to Heroes concert herself, but her vision echoed through musical granddaughter Alicia Keyes’s soulful version of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and Paul Simon’s meditative “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Curtis Mayfield’s voice and vision whispered through the chords and chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s “My City of Ruins” with its call to “rise up” in renewed faith and dedication. A year later Springsteen used the song to conclude his blue-eyed gospel masterpiece, The Rising. When Springsteen toured in support of the album, the highlights included his Sam Cooke tribute “Meet Me at Mary’s Place” and “Lonesome Day,” which built up to a chorus of “It’s all right”s. When he ended the concert with a verse from “People Get Ready,” he was simply acknowledging the debt to the gospel vision that his music had been paying all along.
Stevie Wonder followed Springsteen at the Heroes concert with a version of “Love’s in Need of Love Today” that summed up the meaning of the gospel vision in the post-9/11 world. Heard against the president’s insistence that the attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on “freedom,” his performance with the gospel group Take 6 conjured memories of the centuries-long struggle to make freedom real. Aware that the battle had not been won, Wonder cried out that the hate had already gone too far, that there had to be a better way. Even as the fires burned at Ground Zero and in our souls, he challenged all of us to look a brutal history in the eye and to keep on pushing until we reach the higher ground. If we hold to the gospel vision, we might yet, against all odds, begin to live the life we sang about in our song.