Friday Five: Ladies of Soul

Aretha Franklin is going to live forever.

Not literally, of course.  But centuries from now, some people somewhere on Earth will know who she is.  They will be listening to and talking about Aretha Franklin.  Not only is she a significant figure in the history of 20th century popular music, but she’s recognized as such by just about everybody who knows who she is.

Many more centuries in the future, there will come a time when the aliens visit our completely destroyed planet and start to rummage through our cultural remains in order to retrieve artifacts for some kind of museum on their home planet.  Whether they know enough of the larger context to make informed and discerning decisions or not, who knows.  What I do know is that if they stumble across any of the following recordings, they just might name another woman “queen of soul.”

The following five songs are recorded by women who made some of the most amazing blues, R&B, and soul music of the last century…and they’re not named Aretha.

5. Irma Thomas, “Time Is On My Side” (1964)
Both Thomas and the Rolling Stones covered this song in 1964. It was originally written by Jerry Ragovoy (the man behind “The Hit Factory” recording studio) and recorded by jazz musician Kai Winding in 1963. Irma Thomas covered it before the Stones. The original was light on lyrics (“Time is on my side” and “You’ll come running back” were the only lyrics in Ragovoy’s version) and so songwriter Jimmy Norman expanded the song for Thomas’ recording. In a sense, the Rolling Stones covered her.

4. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, “Humble Me” (2006)
Born in 1956 in Augusta, Georgia, and raised primarily in New York City, Sharon Jones grew up listening to some of the best music ever made. While she tried to break into the music industry for most of her life, it wasn’t until she was 40 years old that it ended up working out for her. Known for her stupendous live performances, Jones passed away from cancer in 2016.  She was only 60.  She leaves us with 20 years of records crafted in the sound style of the best of the 60s and 70s, and made all the better by her talent.  This song, a play on the Otis Redding sound, is among my favorites.

3. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Strange Things Happening Every Day” (1945)
She was the first bonafide gospel recording star who climbed to fame during the Depression.  Her fame was the product of her moving voice but even more moving rhythm guitar.  She is often hailed as one of the most influential people of modern US music, one of a small group most responsible for giving birth to rock n’ roll. This 1945 hit of hers–featuring her electric guitar play–is some of the best evidence of that.

2. Ruth Brown, “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1952)
I love Ruth Brown.  Aside from her music (some of her songs I knew though I knew not who she was), I first came to know her through “The History of Rock n’ Roll,” a 1995 PBS series.  She was one of the stand out interviewees in the series, not only because of who she was but because she was there, through it all.  I’m never disappointed when I put on her music, a constant source of new “discoveries” and growing appreciation for her timeless classics. This was the first pop hit for this habitual maker of R&B greatness.

1. Big Maybelle, “Candy” (1956)
Mabel Louise Smith only lived 47 years on this planet. A gospel singer by upbringing (as were most), she struggled here and there in her recording career, achieving her greatest success in the 50s, when she changed her name to Big Maybelle and began recording for Okeh Records. “Candy” is perhaps her most well-regarded hit (it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999). She’s also known as the original performer of the song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” a song she recorded before Jerry Lee Lewis made it famous.

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40 years

I was listening to an interview with Priscilla Presley and Jerry Butler this morning and both were talking about the frustration and disappointment Elvis felt with regards to his movie career. He would read scripts and throw them across the room, deriding their quality and declaring that he wasn’t going to do it anymore.

But Elvis had little choice in the matter. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, had locked the King into these contracts without much regard for his artistic or creative desires. Ever the promoter, Parker just sought out the best ways for Elvis to make money while protecting the image of the star he used to make money.

In Priscilla’s telling, that’s one of the reasons Elvis got so excited about his television special in 1968, the event that has become forever known as his “’68 Comeback Special.” This was something he knew, and something he could use to express his creative self, maybe even enjoy control for a change.

On this 40th anniversary of his death it feels like an especially good event to remember. In light of the story above, the ’68 special carries more than just the excitement of the “comeback”–the raw, stripped down energy that reminds folks why he was who he was. It also carries with it a little bit of loss, of what could have been, of what he was never allowed to be. That, to me, is so much of the memory of the icon that is Elvis.

In this present moment of a white supremacist president and a resurgent white nationalism, there’s another way it all seems a little more appropriate right now, too.