Aretha Franklin, the queen of the soul

Aretha Franklin began singing gospel music when she was approximately eight years old. Reverend C. L. Franklin of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit was her father, and she used to tour with him on the gospel circuit. (Sam Cooke was also a member of the group.)

I'm not sure whether you're aware of the gospel circuit, but it's a separate entity. It's like when you've lived in New England your whole life and then discover that country music has its own scene in the South and West, complete with bars, stars, and tours.

Gospel music is a sincere and plain form of music. It's one of the few remaining musical idioms that doesn't seem to have been contaminated by commercialism. There's a lot of clapping and beat; there's also a guitar, piano, and organ, but there's not much music, just more rhythm.

The main instruments are the voices, which are fantastic. People like Aretha Franklin who truly understand what singing is all about—on key and singing actual notes with range, tone, grain, and even melisma (for a description of how Bobby Bland uses this stretching and twisting of vowels, see Charles Keil's Urban Blues, University of Chicago Press, 1966).

Aretha Franklin possessed probably the best singing voice in recorded music history, as well as the superhuman ability to improve songs beyond their original conception. One of those songs is Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "I Say a Little Prayer," which she sings to perfection in this performance.

I Say a Little Prayer

"I Say a Little Prayer," recorded by Dionne Warwick and published in the fall of 1967, was a hit for Warwick, reaching No. 4 on Billboard's Hot 100 and staying there for 13 weeks. But, Aretha completely changed the dimension of the song, as visible in this live performance.

Franklin's one-of-a-kind voice shines through in this arrangement, which transforms the song into something that climbs, yearns, and builds. It's as if she honestly feels that the person to whom she's singing is the only one for her.

The irony is that, despite the worldwide belief that Franklin sang the superior song, "I Say a Little Prayer" was a larger hit for Warwick. (Franklin's rendition reached a respectable No. 10.) However, if you asked me (or David and Bacharach) which one you'd want to hear live, at a wedding, or from someone who cares about you, we'd all say the same thing.

The song progresses from where she picks it from Warwick, with distinct rhythm figures in each verse and Aretha Franklin weaving in and out of the complex. What can I say—she just gets a lot of mileage out of a song, and only she can do it with such perfection.

If you are looking for a southern soul song with a perfect rendition, look no further than I Say a Little Prayer by Aretha.

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