On January 17, 1969, The Queen Of Soul released her fifth LP for Atlantic. Soul ’69 is a covers album with a misleading title. Aretha Franklin uses this record to delve into blues and jazz, pairing her regular Muscle Shoals backing band with some mighty names from the jazz pantheon among them Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Grady Tate, Joe Zawinul, and David Newman, all arranged by the legendary Arif Mardin. The result is every bit as good as you’re imagining right now.
The horn line is bombastic. With the possible exception of Etta James or Janis Joplin, I cannot imagine another singer of the era with the pipes to stand up to the onslaught. But Ms. Franklin does more than hold her own. Her voice is the centerpiece of the whole album, and rightfully so, tearing through “Ramblin’” and “Pitiful,” crooning through her cover of “Bring It On Home To Me,” which features a couple of Latin accents in the arrangement.
I haven’t heard this record on vinyl yet, but after listening to it several times today, I’m of a mind to track down a copy. The warmth of the brass really deserves to be heard on a high-end analog system as do Aretha’s vocals.
I had never come across discussions of this album, and in doing a bit of research for this write-up, I discovered that it is now considered an overlooked classic that was barely noticed upon its release. I’m guessing this was due in part to the fact that it was something of a departure from her Atlantic catalog to date. The four albums prior had been straightforward soul records; as I mentioned prior, Arif Mardin went with more jazz arrangements and jazz musicians on Soul ’69. Aretha even gives more of a jazz delivery on cuts like, “Tracks Of My Tears” and plays up the blues side of “Today I Sing The Blues.”
The record is fantastic, front to back. Some of the covers, like “Elusive Butterfly,” could have slipped into lounge territory without care and careful attention, but they shine here. It’s hard to imagine, listening to this today, that it wasn’t an enormous success upon its release. The good news is, most people probably haven’t heard it yet, so there’s still the joy of discovering it with fresh ears to look forward to. Enjoy.