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Aretha Franklin’s ‘Sweet Passion’ Yielded Mixed Results

Andrew Martone | May 19, 2022

Very little has been written about Aretha Franklin’s 1977 album Sweet Passion. Of the three most significant written accounts of Aretha’s life, none of them dedicate more than a paragraph to the album, focusing instead on her budding romance with second husband Glynn Turman and the resurgence she experienced with 1976’s Sparkle. The album has also never been reissued, so in the eras of CDs, digital downloads, and streaming playlists, it has mostly been forgotten by the masses. The legend goes that the album was a flop, critically and commercially, but that’s not entirely true. Though it didn’t sell well, produce any long-term hits, or get received warmly by all critics, to simply write the album off as a dud diminishes even the one song that stands among her strongest late 70’s material. Sweet Passion is no classic, but it has some sweet spots.

“As America moved deeper into its love affair with disco, my sales stayed slightly off,” Aretha Franklin said of her mid-late 70’s slump. By 1977, the fusion of pop, gospel, and blues known as R&B that Aretha Franklin forged and drove to the top of the charts a decade earlier no longer had the chart dominance it did in the early 1970’s. In its place was a mix of genres and subgenres that were thrusted ahead by the beat. Funk and disco were dominating, and Aretha was struggling to find her place in the mix. 

With Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin, and Tom Dowd at the boards, Aretha forged a winning musical partnership that lasted from 1967 through 1972. In 1973 she branched out and worked with the brilliant Quincy Jones. The resulting work was a pretty, albeit lopsided and strangely presented album, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky) (seriously, have you ever seen the album cover?). Her return to Wexler and co. that year only resulted in one more timeless record, 1974’s “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” penned by Stevie Wonder. The old team made three albums together in 1974 and 1975 that failed to recapture the magic of years passed, so Aretha moved on. 

In 1976 Aretha partnered with Curtis Mayfield for the incredible Sparkle, which momentarily restored her to the summit she once occupied. Aretha hadn’t seen that level of success since nearly a half decade earlier, and was determined to sustain her resurgence. She kicked off 1977 on a high note, performing as part of President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration celebration. Her performance culminated in a chill-inducing acapella rendition of “God Bless America.” In an attempt to keep the momentum going, she shifted producers once again and enlisted Motown legend Lamont Dozier to produce her next LP. 

Dozier’s credits as part of songwriting and production trio Holland-Dozier-Holland speak for themselves: “Heat Wave.” “Where Did Our Love Go?” “Baby Love.” “Come See About Me.” “Stop! In The Name Of Love.” “Nowhere To Run.” “I Hear A Symphony.” “This Old Heart Of Mine.” “My World Is Empty Without You.” “You Can’t Hurry Love.” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” “Reflections.” “Give Me Just A Little More Time.” “Band Of Gold.” By 1976, Dozier was in a similar position to Aretha; His relationships with the Hollands and Motown were fractured, and he was in need of his own resurgence.

Slump aside, with a resume like that, who could resist such an opportunity? Not the Queen of Soul. Plus, the two had history dating back to their youth. “Aretha and I went to school together in Detroit, Hutchins Junior High.” Dozier revealed to Billboard in 2018. When Aretha reached out to Dozier, he quickly agreed to produce her next LP and the duo got to work. They brought their own compositions to the table, along with a cover or two, as well as one record that didn’t involve Dozier at all. The resulting album was 1977’s Sweet Passion. There’s some fine material that was received variably by critics, but it failed to continue the fire ignited with Curtis Mayfield the previous year. 

Unlike the sibling rivalry that prefaced the Sparkle sessions (another story for another day), or tension that existed during the Almighty Fire sessions, the album’s recording sessions reportedly went over without conflict. “She was probably the easiest act I ever had in the studio as far as directing… She made my job easy.” Dozier said.  “She just had a natural talent, and you didn’t have to direct her; She directed herself, mostly, and if there was something you wanted to hear she’d do it automatically and then had her own interpretation or her riff on whatever you wanted her to do, as far as the feeling was concerned.” 

Interestingly, the album’s lead single was outsourced. “Break It To Me Gently” was written and produced by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager and co-produced by Marty Paich and his son David, who formed a little band called Toto that same year. The structure of the song is interesting, with a psychedelic introduction, sweet strings, and randomly emphasized chords throughout. “Why’d you give me what you knew I would miss?” Aretha laments as she pleads to be let down gently. She suggests tomorrow instead of now, in hopes that in time, he’ll change his mind. Though it didn’t have any staying power, “Break It To My Gently” did top the R&B charts in 1977. 

Despite her aversion to disco, she takes another stab at it on “Touch Me Up” (there was another earlier attempt on 1974’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”) It’s a lively blend of brass and piano on top of a driving beat, and probably could have done some damage on the charts had it been released. She finds beauty and love on her own composition, the effervescent “Meadows of Springtime,” and proclaims superior devotion on Dozier’s “No One Could Ever Love You More.”  

Her cover of “What I Did For Love” from ‘A Chorus Line’ is another strong entry. Though in context of the show the ‘love’ sung about is dance, Aretha takes that and turns it into romantic love for another. She sprinkles in a “you” or two as she stakes her claim for all she’s done in the name of l-o-v-e. It’s a gorgeous reading of this Broadway classic. 

The 7-minute title track features nearly two minutes of an introduction. It defies the standard structure of a pop-oriented record, as does “Meadows of Springtime.” Aretha had previously experimented with song structures on the still-unreleased “Springtime In New York,” from the mid-70’s. That record is a complete rollercoaster ride of tempos, instrumentations, and moments in general. “Sweet Passion” isn’t that scattered, once the introduction cedes to the first verse, it maintains a largely standard, albeit extended structure. 

“There comes a time in every woman’s life… when she meets… that special someone,” Aretha says during “Sweet Passion”’s opening stanzas. “And he makes her feel, like a woman… ow!” Who knew she was telling her own future? In the months leading up to the album’s release, Aretha connected with Glynn Turman, who would soon become her second husband in 1978. “Sweet Passion” isn’t about Glynn, but Aretha was certainly looking for her man. She had recently ended a long-term relationship with Ken Cunningham that dated back to the late 60’s. 

“Sweet Passion” was inspired by a different man, one whose identity remains unknown. Aretha referred to him as ‘Mr. Mystique’ in her 1999 autobiography, Aretha: From These Roots. She said she was moved to write the song after their first ‘real’ encounter. The man had missed his plane in New York and what followed was Aretha being “kissed, touched (and) loved” in a way that she’d never experienced before. They met at a hotel and got a room, something she’d never done either. 

The true gem of Sweet Passion is one of the compositions Aretha brought to the table. “When I Think About You” is a mid-tempo that hits all the right notes. It’s 70’s R&B at its finest, with an infectious blend of strings and brass that compliment Aretha’s earthy and intense ooo-ooo-ooo’s. Aretha does some real good singing throughout, making it all around one of her strongest songs on her final trio of albums for Atlantic. 

You won’t find Sweet Passion on Spotify… or Apple Music, or Tidal, or Amazon Music. Nor will you find it in CD bins anywhere. You might encounter it on vinyl though, because that’s the only format (aside from 8-track and cassette) that housed the album in significant quantities. It is one of five Aretha Franklin albums from the 70’s that has never been fully issued on CD or digital. 

The story goes that, when Aretha departed Atlantic Records in 1979, she left with the master recordings to these five LPs (With Everything I Feel In Me, You, Sweet Passion, Almighty Fire, and La Diva). That meant that it was challenging to acquire and reissue the albums, unlike her other Atlantic albums which were all issued on CD in the early 1990’s and digitally over the last two decades. 

Eight songs from these five albums have been remastered and pressed on CD. Sweet Passion is one of the lucky ones. Two songs from the album have been reissued. Lead single “Break It To Me Gently” was even reissued both on 1992’s out of print 4-CD box set Queen Of Soul: The Atlantic Recordings, and 2021’s 4-CD ARETHA box set, which brought both “Break It To Me Gently” and “When I Think About You” into the digital age.

It’s unfair that Sweet Passion gets the strictly negative rap that it does. In part, this dismissal is due to lack of awareness and accessibility. If the album was more accessible, more people would be listening to and analyzing it, creating more conversation and perhaps in turn shifting the conversation. The album’s reviews are impossible to find (unless, like me, you know someone with a stunning archive, thank you James!). Yes, there are biting, negative reviews, but there are also glowing, positive, and optimistic ones too. 

Reflecting on the slumps of both artist and producer, Paul McCrea offered, “So what odds on Sweet Passion reinstating them in the winners circle? Pretty good me-thinks.” Mike Duffy of the Detroit Free Press went a step further and called the album, “brilliant.” Granted, he spent half his review writing “I love you” over and over again, but he made it clear that Aretha, “puts every other female voice to shame.” “Note for note, Aretha is still unbeatable,” said another review. People Magazine went a step further, declaring that “Natalie Cole’s interregnum as Queen Pretender of Soul ends roughly midway through the first side of this LP.” 

New Musical Express’s Paul Rambali wrote one of the dissenting reviews. He observed that though “Aretha never really makes a bad album,” the arrangements and song selections, save for “No One Could Ever Love You More,” didn’t hold up.  Another review identified “three real duds,” going as far as to say that on “Sunshine Will Never Be The Same,” “Aretha sings it as if it matters, but it doesn’t.” Ariel Swartley offered one of the most critical reviews, calling the album largely “uninspired” (with “When I Think About You” as the sole exception), while noting that “her voice remains a presence, but that Midas touch that transformed lyrics… has disappeared.” A dozen years later in 1989, biographer Mark Bego dealt one of the harshest blows, calling the album a “disaster” and identifying “Mumbles/I’ve Got The Music In Me” as “one of her all-time worst recordings.” 

The shame of it all is that the critics aren’t wrong (although on that last note, there is a moment about two minutes into “Mumbles/I’ve Got The Music In Me” where Aretha, with two lead vocal tracks harmonizes with herself that’s chilling in the best way possible, and a 2001 performance of “Mumbles” at ‘VH1 Divas 2001: The One and Only Aretha Franklin’ more than redeems this 1977 version). There is something great here on Sweet Passion, but something is also missing, and it might just be the passion. No reviewer, nor this writer, is going to try to diminish Aretha’s voice, especially during this era. The late 70’s were some of Aretha’s best years vocally. But this material just doesn’t stack up, especially compared to what Aretha was able to achieve with Curtis Mayfield just one year earlier (although it’s worth noting that the next year, 1978’s reunion with Mayfield on Almighty Fire was “a rare Curtis miscue,” that “lacks fire” as David Ritz put it in 2014’s Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin). Was it the producer? The material? Or both? It’s hard to say. What’s easy to say is that as a whole Sweet Passion doesn’t come close to the best of Aretha’s material.

Sweet Passion may not be well-known or remembered, but visually, everyone knows it. The album’s cover was shot by photographer David Alexander, who’s best known for shooting The Eagles’ Hotel California. It is one of the most iconic photos of Aretha, featuring her against a black background with her hair in a tight, high bun. She’s wearing a string of pearls and a black strapless dress (which isn’t visible on the album’s cover). It’s an understated glamor headshot that captures Aretha at her finest, a morsel of redemption for the muted flavor of the record it houses. 

Listen to a full vinyl rip of Sweet Passion:

Written by Andrew Martone