I was around 8 or 9 when I got my copy of Aretha Franklin’s Young, Gifted and Black. It arrived via one of the storied, long-defunct CD clubs (some do still exist but now exclusively push DVDs). For those who weren’t attune to those clubs, they would send alluring catalogs in the mail that advertised a quantity of CDs for a ridiculously cheap price. My parents indulged my budding interest in Aretha Franklin by ordering me a series of her albums through these clubs. As my memory recalls, Young, Gifted and Black was one of those albums.
The album artwork depicts Aretha quadrupled and fragmented like the glass on a church window mosaic. It feels holy, though the lyrics are far from the holy homecoming Aretha staged 10 days before the album’s January 24, 1972 release. In my single digits I knew little of that (although I received my copy of Amazing Grace: The Complete Recordings for my 9th birthday). With all that said, Aretha infuses her gospel intensity into every lyric she delivers across the album.
In an effort to further support my burgeoning musical interests, my parents bought me a Sony boombox for my bedroom. Very excitingly, it also included a remote control and had a ‘sleep’ function, which began my years-long routine of falling asleep to music. I have vivid memories of throwing Young, Gifted and Black into that CD tray and hopping into bed as Aretha opened the album playing the piano on “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby).” Over the years I was fortunate enough to see Aretha perform live a dozen times, and amidst those performances I saw her run through a quarter of the album (and one b-side) live in concert.
Aretha Franklin hit her true artistic peak in the early 70’s. She soared to the top of the charts in the late 1960’s incorporating rhythm and gospel into the blues to help create the sounds of R&B and soul music. Her soulful voice was so immense it turned every head it reached. She demanded equality at the height of the Civil Rights movement. In the midst of a tumultuous marriage, Aretha put her pain and trauma into her music, creating some of the most crucial recordings of the 20th century. Then she rose up, divorced herself from her marriage, and trudged onward.
1971 marked the only year in Aretha’s 12-year tenure at Atlantic Records when she didn’t release a studio album. She wrote and recorded though, and released a crucial piece of her musical tapestry: Aretha Live at Fillmore West. As she began work on her next LP, she was in a position she hadn’t been before: Aretha was truly happy. She was in a relationship with Ken Cunningham, who would be her partner for years, and had given birth to her fourth child, Kecalf. The joy she felt poured out of her musically throughout Young, Gifted and Black. The album was released on January 24, 1972, 5 years to the day that she cut “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and found the sound she’d been in search of since signing her first record deal in 1960.
Sessions for Young, Gifted and Black commenced in the summer of 1970 and wrapped up five months later in February 1971. The album was recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami and both Atlantic Recording Studios and The Record Plant in New York City. The album’s production was led by Jerry Wexler, who exclusively produced Aretha’s Atlantic recordings until 1973. Arif Mardin, who handled arrangements and Tom Dowd, who led the engineering were both also receiving production credits by this time. Aretha also deserved a production credit, though she didn’t receive one until later that year on 1972’s Amazing Grace. She was backed by some of the strongest band members that ever played with her. Much of the album is credited to Cornell Dupree on the guitar (he’d also worked on Spirit In The Dark, along with Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on the drums and Chuck Rainey on the bass.
Two other giants of music also participated in the sessions. Billy Preston and Donny Hathaway traded off duties on the Hammond organ, and Hathaway also played the Fender Rhodes into the clouds on “Day Dreaming.” Dr. John even pops up to contribute additional percussion to the ever-funky “Rock Steady.” Background vocals largely alternate between two of Aretha’s greatest backup groups: The Sweet Inspirations, and Aretha’s sisters Erma and Carolyn.
More than twenty songs were recorded during the sessions, which were tailored down to a twelve-track album. Three cuts went into the vault until 2007. Three were released as singles unaffiliated with the album, and one was one of their b-sides. Those singles are among her best covers: “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “You’re All I Need To Get By,” and “Spanish Harlem.”
Aretha wrote four of the album’s twelve records, tying it with both its studio predecessor and successor as the most Aretha-penned songs on an LP. She also wrote one of the album’s four b-sides. But unlike the last LP, these songs have a brightness to them, even in their darkest moments. Over the five months the album was worked on, Aretha wrote some of her finest material, and delivered some of her finest readings of others’.
From the album’s opening cut, the tone deviates from her previous Atlantic albums. It’s the first Aretha album in her Atlantic years (and Columbia years too), to open with back-to-back love songs. This Girl’s In Love With You comes close, but “Son Of A Preacher Man” isn’t really about love. Like “Preacher Man,” though “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)” was both originally recorded by a British singer, and produced by Aretha’s production team of Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd. This time though, the singer in question was Lulu, who cut the record for her 1970 LP New Routes. The arrangement is very much pop, merging acoustic guitar with the dreamy strokes of the orchestra. It’s a typical pop arrangement of the era that could have easily suited Dionne Warwick or The Supremes.
Naturally, Aretha resets the arrangement and reverses the tempo downwards with her masterful piano playing. Her meandering keystrokes create a deceptively timid introduction to what becomes a magnanimous declaration of love. It sounds at first like the soundtrack to the shy, bashful girl with her head down and her hand covering her blushing smile of adoration. As she steers the expanding arrangement towards the chorus, it’s like watching that girl straighten out as she finds her confidence, loosens her shoulders, raises her head, drops her hand, and unabashedly declares her foolish adoration, as she pleads that he let his love light shine on her. Aretha sounds more impassioned with adoration than she ever has before, and the only true sin of this album is that this record fades out right when Aretha hits a vocal stride.
It constantly feels like Aretha has stumbled on clarity in her life throughout the album, even as she’s singing about being a fool and getting lost in daydreams, uplifting Black people and trudging forward, and the desire for peace and harmony in the world. No record better encapsulates this newfound clarity than her cover of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Dusty Springfield record, “A Brand New Me.” It could have been the album’s opener to tell the listener, “guess what? Aretha’s not down and out anymore.” She’s standing on her two feet, carrying a smile that could eclipse the sun. This is some footage I took one of the final times I saw Aretha. She breaks into a mean, minute-long piano solo just when the song would otherwise be winding down.
The quad of Aretha-penned songs on this covers album are undoubtedly her best compositions to appear on a single body of work. “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady” were both top ten top records and top two R&B records. “All The King’s Horses” is a powerful portrait of a deteriorating relationship. “First Snow In Kokomo” is an Aretha gem that still hasn’t gotten it’s due.
“Kokomo” marked the first time Aretha cut a record with no rhythm. Though Aretha and her piano drove many of her Atlantic hits, this time there’s no percussion to draw attention away from that crucial fact. It’s also a rare occasion when Aretha acts as a narrator instead of a main character. The song was originally a poem that Aretha put to music. It’s inspired by the happenings Aretha observed during a visit to Kokomo, Indiana, where Ken Cunningham’s mother lived.
On the contrary, “Rock Steady” is all about the music. That groove is infectious, and it is, “what it is, what it is, what it is” as the background vocals echo. It’s one of the funkiest records Aretha ever cut, and lives up to every bit of the “funky and low down feeling” she describes in the lyrics.
Though her relationship with Ken Cunningham and the birth of Kecalf informed this body of work, a chunk of this album have hinged on another man. Aretha’s affair with the Temptations’ Dennis Edwards began sometime around when her marriage to Ted White began to dissolve. Their short, torrid affair inspired the other two Aretha compositions on Young, Gifted and Black: the classic “Day Dreaming” and the underrated “All The King’s Horses.” This pair of songs bookends their affair, and it’s not unlikely that the affair informed some of the other material and the emotion Aretha put behind it.
She literally ascends into her dreamy musings on Edwards in “Day Dreaming,” one of the most beautiful love songs she wrote and recorded. It epitomizes romance budding on a breezy spring day. She takes a classic nursery rhyme and applies it to the end of she and Edwards on “All The Kings Horse.” It swaps out Humpty Dumpty for their hearts, as the object beyond repair. The verses are just as dreamy as “Day Dreaming,” but as the “walls started shaking” the dream screeches to a stop and the music starts to tremble. The song only has one short verse, and it’s filled out by Aretha lingering on the finality of their breakup.
If “Day Dreaming” and “All The King’s Horses” bookended Aretha’s affair with Dennis Edwards, Dionne Warwick’s “April Fools” and the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” are their connectors. On “April Fools,” the dream is over and she ponders the vitality of their relationship. The song alternates between zipping, fast-paced verses and sweeping, pensive choruses. It sounds as though she lets the thoughts run through her head and then pauses to marinate on them.
On “Didn’t I,” she strips away the soulful Philly pop of the original and funks it up. Elements of background arrangement maintain the essence of the Delfonics, but echo Aretha’s lead vocal instead of accompanying it. On top of that, she injects “yes you did”’s that transform the titular statement into a question “didn’t I blow your mind this time?” with a resounding answer. It’s straight up empowerment.
As the Civil Rights movement wound down, Aretha also seized this moment and got more overtly political in her music. Prior to the album’s release, she made headlines for offering to pay Angela Davis’ bail, and doubled down by seizing Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” The title was shortened, the song was lengthened, and it became the album’s very fitting title. With a gorgeous introduction that plays like a gospel testimonial, she infuses a touch of funk and a gospel influenced rhythm into Nina’s prideful declaration and call to action. Aretha also makes the decision to cut lyrics that are specific to Nina’s experience and removes all the “I”’s except one: She changes the final line of the opening from “open your heart to what I mean” to “open your heart is all I need.” In that minor lyrical change, she transforms the song from an explanation to an opportunity to shift perspective. This is Aretha, ministering. It’s genius, complimenting genius.
A sentiment of “press on” permeates from Aretha’s piano accompaniment on her fourth Beatles cover, the originally melancholic “The Long and Winding Road.” She might as well just be singing “persevere” over and over again. Even though that’s not the subject of the song, every note she sings seems to imply it. There’s an unsaid sense that the road may be long, but it’s worth traveling. It could even be said that she’s singing to God.
Elton John’s “Border Song (Holy Moses)” closes the album in fantastic fashion. It feels like a call to action when Aretha delivers it with gospel fervor. Interestingly, the single version uses dual lead vocal tracks for the majority of the record. One Aretha is enough, but two?! It’s a powerful force. There’s only one known performance of the song, and it’s every bit as good as the record. In 1993, Aretha sat down across from Elton and the two played and sang their way through the song together for the first and only time.
Four additional cuts from the album’s sessions were also released. A heartfelt cover of Vivian Green’s “Lean On Me” was crucial enough to be issued as the b-side to non-album cut “Spanish Harlem” in 1971. It sounds right at home alongside the other material from the album, sonically and topically and could have easily been worked in. Aretha poured her everything and pushed her voice to it’s on this declaration of unwavering support. It came into the digital age along with three other b-sides on 2007’s Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Age of the Queen of Soul. In addition to the four b-sides, 2021 saw the release of a few alternate takes from Young, Gifted and Black on the ARETHA box set.
She also covered Edna McGriff’s “Heavenly Father,” at Jerry Wexler’s suggestion. It didn’t make the album because as Jerry told David Ritz in 2014’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Aretha felt it “didn’t belong on a pop album,” which he didn’t argue with at the time. One Aretha original also fell in with these covers, “I Need A Strong Man (The To-To Song).” It sounds like it may just be a demo.
“My Cup Runneth Over” was another cover recorded during these sessions. Originally written for the 1966 Broadway musical I Do, I Do!, it was a hit on the pop charts for Ed Ames in 1967. Though it wasn’t released until 2007, it was one of the only b-sides Aretha ever sang live. One of the many times I saw Aretha live was at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in March 2015. It was one of the best Aretha shows I saw. It was also a heavy Young, Gifted and Black evening, which saw her performing “Day Dreaming” and “Oh Me Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)” (which may have been the final live performance of the latter). When she reached the point of the show where she sat at the piano to obliterate the audience on an even higher level, something came over her and she began to sing “My Cup Runneth Over.” The band hadn’t even rehearsed on it. Whatever came over her stuck though, and the song became a mainstay in her live show from there on out; she performed it at most of her final concerts. It’s possible that this was the very first time she performed it live.
The legacy of Young, Gifted and Black demands that it be taken as one of the best Aretha albums. Rolling Stone named it among their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It also won the Grammy Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1973, becoming the first album to win in the category. It also marked Aretha’s sixth consecutive win in the category, which she was sole winner of from its inception in 1968 until another artist finally won in 1976.
I’ve been calling Young, Gifted and Black my favorite Aretha album for a good few years now. It’s always easy for me to put it on and just let it play through. The optimism Aretha projects even in the face of heartbreak always seems to be a bright spot for me. She sang her full and bursting heart out on every record she cut during these sessions. It is a crucial piece of Aretha’s discography, and an essential listen for anyone who wants to understand her music.
Listen to all the released recordings from the Young, Gifted and Black sessions: