Updated: Mar 29
Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner within Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we'd like to shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in some cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their full length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of the music today and continue to shape the future.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re honoring this occasion with none other than The Almighty Queen of Soul herself, Ms. Aretha Franklin by reflecting on the countless occasions her music has lifted our spirits to some otherworldly heights. It is truly remarkable just how many molecules Aretha has moved in the most profound, divine and permanent way. When it comes to expressing oneself through song, there is and was no one who can touch her in this realm. Today would have been her 79th birthday. So it only feels like the right time to celebrate her life with a deep dive into one of her finest creations. She has made some of the best tunes of the 20th century, her catalogue is immensely broad and choosing just one album to focus on seems almost impossible, though at the same time, trusting one’s instincts is what she herself firmly stood for her entire life.
So this time, let’s go with the soul masterpiece, her 20th album. ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. The 1972 Atlantic Records release that is as much of a personal and emotional statement of the female experience as an emblem of social justice at the height of the new defining era that followed the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The Black Power Movement underscored a defining transitioning period for black people in America, moving forward with determination and pride, demanding more than legal equality in a country that thrives on the concept of systemic racism. This album in particular has been an important moment in the midst of this ongoing socio-political unrest that provided a soundtrack just as much as the needed comfort for the soul at the time. The 44-minute long journey unfolds in the most flawless way and each single track deeply moves you to the very core, if you’re human. Welcome to the love-fest.
When Rolling Stone ranked Ms. Franklin as the greatest singer of the rock-and-roll era, Mary J. Blige, declared: “She is the reason why women want to sing.”
We hope this piece inspires you to embark on a spiritual experience and listen to this album from start to finish and rediscover the marvel of its contents with fresh ears. This whole record must be amongst the best curated soul records out there, because the way each song flows into another is just so pure, creative and honest and the amount of goosebump moments on here is impressive as well. Listening to this whole album in its full length from top to bottom even for the hundredth time, you’re still gonna go on a rollercoaster ride and you’ll most likely enjoy every minute of it each and every time, over and over again. It’s like, even if you know the original songs like the back of your hand, you’re constantly blown away by the spectrum of real emotions presented on here.
The powerful image of Aretha on the cover, dressed in a whole new aesthetic with a West African garb completed with a head wrap, in front of a glass-stained window of a church, laid out in four parts, is a striking statement in itself. On this record, she reinvented her image and her sound while reinterpreting a number of Pop and R&B classics of the time with her own unique approach, which she was ultimately The Best at. (Many are not aware that it was Otis Redding, who actually recorded ‘Respect’, before Aretha’s version became the most monumental anthem on empowerment of women, but that was a few years before this album came out). On top of that, her powerful presentation and own original composition and piano skill are a common denominator throughout the joint and they confirm the raw genius and virtuosity of Aretha as we know and love.
The record opens gently with Aretha's solo on piano, ‘Oh Me, Oh My (I’m A Fool For You Baby)’, originally a minor hit by Lulu in 1969.
“We'll blow a genie from a cigarette, and then we'll take a magic carpet ride”
Sublime ballad ‘Day Dreaming’ follows, with the one and only Donny Hathaway on piano, Bernard Purdie on drums, Cornell Dupree on guitar, Chuck Rainey on bass and Hubert Laws on flute, as a courtesy of A & M Records. These gentlemen worked their magic on majority of tunes throughout this album and each one of them is a legendary soul musician in their own right. If you have a moment, we recommend looking into each one of their catalogues in your own time, you definitely won't regret it.
‘Rock Steady’ is probably one of Aretha’s funkiest grooves ever laid on wax. It later became an anthem in the hip hop world and the drum break around the 2:30 mark is definitely one of the most legendary b-boy breaks ever. The song also supplied the name to one of the top breakin' crews in history: Rock Steady.
“I don’t know anybody that can sing a song like Aretha Franklin,” Ray Charles once declared. “Nobody. Period.”
‘Young, Gifted and Black’, the official Civil Rights anthem and title track to this album has been written by Weldon Irvine in 1969. ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ was originally a dedication to Nina Simone’s friend, Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote the play A Raisin in the Sun (the first black woman to have a play performed on Broadway). Nina Simone said she wanted this song to inspire black children to feel good about themselves forever. And we can all agree that that message is just as important today, as it was 50 years ago.
“To be young, gifted and black, Oh, what a lovely precious dream, To be young, gifted and black, Open your heart to what I mean, In the whole world you know, There are a million boys and girls, Who are young, gifted and black, And that's a fact!”
Soul singer Donny Hathaway, who plays electric piano and organ throughout this record, has also recorded this song 2 years earlier and the same year, in U.K., Elton John recorded his version ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’, prior to his solo success.The remaining two tracks on the A-side of this record are the heartbreaking ‘All The Kings Horses’ and ‘A Brand New Me’, an inspiring take on a Jerry Butler song (also covered by Dusty Springfield and Leslie Gore).
The B-side starts with Aretha’s romantic re-interpretation of a Percy Faith evergreen, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David - ‘April Fools’. ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ is another Otis Redding classic that has now been elevated to new soul-stirring heights.
The beautiful Aretha composition, ‘First Snow In Kokomo’, might as well be some of the most tasteful winter classics on your holiday playlist. ‘The Long And Winding Road’ is an absolute breathtaking take on The Beatles classic (also beautifully sampled by Ayatollah in Pharoahe Monch’s ‘The Life’) and the following take on Delfonics ‘Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)’ just hits you straight in the heart. ‘Border Song (Holy Moses)’ was originally a gospel-inspired piece from Elton John’s self-titled second album. The song is widely seen today as a song of tolerance and acceptance and the most beautiful note to end this album on.
“Holy Moses, can we live in peace?
Let us try to find a way to make all hatred cease
There's a man standing over there
What's his color; do you care?”
Rest In Paradise, Queen Aretha <3
Steppin' Into Tomorrow stands with artists & labels and encourages listeners to support by buying their music directly from Bandcamp.