SECTION ELEVEN

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COLUMN NINETY-TWO, JUNE 1, 2003
(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)

ARETHA LIVE AT FILLMORE WEST

 [The following was written as new liner notes for the forthcoming Aretha Live At Fillmore West, a vinyl re-issue on the For Men With Beards record label.]

"Are you getting the spirit in the dark??

Some works of art are born purely from inspiration. But even when the agenda of commerce intercedes, the results can be just as compelling, sometimes even more so. It's common knowledge that Aretha Franklin was the most talented daughter of Reverend C.L. Franklin, a successful Detroit preacher who recorded many a sermon for Chess Records in the 1950's. Aretha toured the country with her father and recorded sacred music for Chess (actually their sister-company, Checker) before making her first mainstream gesture. Moving to New York City in 1960 she took dance lessons, received additional vocal training, and signed a contract with John Hammond at Columbia Records to make "pop? recordings.

After recording nine albums with Columbia, Aretha's crossover dreams remained unrealized. While Hammond himself produced some artful recordings with Aretha, his successor Irving Townsend was unable to properly tap into Aretha's deep gospel-soul-blues roots, which drove her straight into the waiting arms of producer Jerry Wexler at rival Atlantic Records. To be sure, Atlantic had a wonderful history working with great black artists since the late 1940s, recording everyone from Professor Longhair to John Coltrane and Ray Charles. And with her earthier roots well accommodated by Wexler at Atlantic, Aretha quickly garnered an impressive number of Top Ten singles and albums on both the R&B and pop charts.

Of course, Atlantic was seeking wider acceptance for Aretha and remained eager to increase her record sales. Considering the 'secularization of gospel music? as a commercial enterprise to begin with, Franklin's gigs at the Fillmore should have been no real surprise to anyone. Back then (as now) the record buying public included a large youth-based demographic. Many of those teenagers also happened to be hippies, the same crowd that was drawn to the Fillmore in San Francisco. But in 1971, white kids weren't regularly exposed to the soul sounds of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, or Aretha Franklin. In the weeks before Aretha arrived at the Fillmore, typical shows featured the countrified jams of The New Riders of the Purple Sage and the hard rock grind of Steppenwolf.

Clearly, the prospect of winning the hearts and dollars of the love generation outweighed any fears of a rock audience rejecting Lady Soul. Having enjoyed a bounty of success with Atlantic since 1967, Aretha had already ascended to the status of diva and was simply looking to expand her fan-base in new directions. Fillmore impresario Bill Graham maintained an unusually progressive booking policy, (he paired Miles Davis with the Grateful Dead that same year) and was more than eager to have Aretha perform at his famous venue.

While the spectacle of the reigning Queen Of Soul was highly anticipated, it was still business as usual when Graham approached Wexler to have Franklin play. For all Graham's enthusiasm, he was unwilling to meet Aretha's hefty performance fees by himself.  "Bill Graham proposed that I bring her to Fillmore West," says Jerry Wexler.  "However, Bill couldn't pay Aretha what she wanted so I made up the difference. Atlantic underwrote the shows but we got our money back because they were so well attended." With the sum of $20,000 per show promised to Franklin's agent Ruth Bowen, the key players finally converged at the Fillmore.

To maximize the return on their investment, Atlantic elected to record Aretha's Fillmore performances, just as they had done with jazzman Charles Lloyd (to great commercial success) a few years earlier. Aretha Live At Fillmore West is a carefully crafted memento of those concerts, assembled by Wexler and Atlantic co-producer Arif Mardin after recording Aretha for three consecutive nights at the hallowed hall.  While the dates have been misstated in the past, the shows actually occurred on March 5, 6, and 7 with Bay Area heroes Tower Of Power opening for King Curtis and the Kingpins?who after their own forty-minute set proceeded to back up Aretha in all of her soulful glory.

If economics didn't factor into things enough with the recording of Aretha's performances, Wexler and company were also shrewd enough to tape King Curtis? set on those three nights, which they then released as?you guessed it?"King Curtis Live At Fillmore West. Texas-born saxophonist Curtis Ousley was Atlantic's dependable arranger/in-house bandleader who was called upon to organize a group of musicians, one that could turn in a quality performance far above that of Aretha's usual, Detroit-based touring unit.  Curtis? ensemble was well suited to Aretha's diverse musical needs and after warming up the crowd with soul-jazz versions of popular rock tunes like Whiter Shade Of Pale and Whole Lotta Love as well as his own funky instrumentals, Memphis Soul Stew and Soul Serenade, King Curtis and his Kingpins got down to business, working it out onstage with "Miss Re."

In addition to the presence of King Curtis, Aretha commanded the estimable talents of guitarist Cornell Dupree, bassist Jerry Jemmott and drummer Bernard "Pretty? Purdie, as well as some truly special assistance from Billy Preston on the organ. Add to this the piano work of Truman Thomas on the tunes where Aretha wasn't playing herself, percussion from conga player Pancho Morales, the rambunctious sounds of The Memphis Horns and a trio of female background singers, The Sweethearts Of Soul. Let's not even begin talking about the surprise guest appearance of Mr. Ray Charles?not yet. 

Although technology in the early 70's may have been primitive compared to the ways and means of our current digital age, Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin used every trick at their disposal to create a top-notch document of Aretha's show. Parking Atlantic's mobile recording unit right outside the Fillmore, the two men worked in tandem to achieve an authentic live sound.  With Arif supervising the recording process in the mobile unit, Wexler took a hands-on approach with the Fillmore's sound system. "I had Arif out in the truck while I sat with the sound engineer and mixed the sound inside,? Wexler recalls. "Because, when you do a live broadcast, the guy in the truck has to take what he gets. If you depend upon a house amplifying system, you better be there and get it right."

According to Arif Mardin, some of the performances were quite lengthy and required a great deal of editing. Of course, recording three concerts and condensing them down to a fifty-minute live


The response
of the flower children
was 'tremendous'


album without sacrificing the organic experience of an Aretha Franklin show is no small feat.  One thing Arif did do to insure a convincing end result was to include the Fillmore crowd in the album's overall sound. "My goal was not to make a sterile mix with [just the] music," says Mardin. "I made the audience tracks part of the mix. I believe in the live mix. Usually live albums sound sterile. I made the audience part of the band."  Clearly, Mardin understood that to diminish the ecstatic response of the crowd would have removed the essence of Aretha's compelling live show.

In the course of her four years with Atlantic, Aretha had truly blossomed into a musical force of nature, playing piano and writing songs with confidence as well as singing up a storm.  Still, producer Jerry Wexler was unsure as to how Aretha would be received at the Fillmore. "When we got out there, I had trepidation because [Aretha] had never been exposed to the patchouli crowd," says Wexler. "But I was astonished to see the certitude of response by the flower children. They responded to all the right things. They got it and it was tremendous."

After opening with a churning version of her biggest hit, Respect, Aretha tells the crowd to relax, feel good, and let it all hang out. Then with the Kingpins vamping away like a Saturday night party turned Sunday morning church service, Aretha promises the audience "and perhaps herself? 'that when you leave here, you will have enjoyed this show as much as any that you have had the occasion to see."

Much like King Curtis, Aretha wooed the "flower children? with funky tunes by some of the foremost pop-rock songwriters of the day. In short order, she runs through Steve Stills? Love The One You're With, Paul Simon's Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Beatles? Eleanor Rigby and Bread's Make It With You. Infusing soul into songs by Bread and The Beatles may have seemed questionable at the time, but Franklin had already been recording contemporary material like Elton John's Border Song and was eager to connect with a younger audience.  Closing out side one with a strutting version of Ben E. King's Don't Play That Song (her hit single at the time), the stage was then set for the focal point of Aretha's show'some bluesy gospel soul of the highest order.

Top 40 covers written by white rock artists dominate the first side of this LP, and those performances were all recorded on the first night of Aretha's Fillmore run. The flip side, mostly drawn from her final night, emphasizes Aretha's own majestic artistry, that of a soulful entertainer skilled at bridging sacred and secular music like no other. Seated at the piano she asks, "Does anybody feel like hearing the blues?? Aretha then launches into her dynamic, self-penned classic, Dr. Feelgood.

Dr. Feelgood builds gradually, embracing the basic blues in a languid mood. But the song inevitably grows in intensity with the Kingpins and the Memphis Horns all grooving behind Aretha?all locked in perfect sync. Franklin then begins to moan, scream, and shout in a near-carnal vocal exhibition, all the while encouraged by the Sweethearts of Soul. Well beyond passionate, Aretha's suggestive vocals cut through the hippie haze of the Fillmore, drawing the young crowd into the rocking dynamics of some vintage-styled, call and response, gospel-inspired R&B.

And then, slowly by way of the rhythm and the blues, Aretha Franklin brings her children home with Spirit In The Dark. Her reverence on this song is palpable, and the sanctifying education of Aretha's grand anthem transforms the audience into a congregation and the concert hall into church. Not that the song isn't as sexual as Dr. Feelgood. When Aretha sings, "Are you getting the spirit, getting it in the dark?? you know what she's testifying to. The dramatic rendition of Spirit was a fitting climax to Aretha's triumphant shows at the celebrated venue. "Aretha captured the Fillmore,? remembers Arif Mardin. "Bill Graham was a big fan of Aretha, [the Fillmore] was a rock Mecca, and she just captured the audience. It was an incredible, electrifying performance."

How do you top that? Trust Aretha to receive some divine intervention on the road to pop's promised land. "I discovered Ray Charles!" she exclaims. In a spontaneous moment, Aretha brought gospel-soul icon Ray Charles onstage for a reprise of Spirit In The Dark. Their ecstatic duet is surely a moment to remember but according to Jerry Wexler, the two golden voices were surrounded by chaos when they came together on the bandstand. "Yeah, that was an accident," Wexler remembers.  "Nobody knew Ray Charles was there and when he came out onstage it was one big ball of confusion. They started to vamp on the Spirit In The Dark and couldn't get it together.  Finally it had a semblance of agreement, but it was an unplanned mess and we had to do some very careful editing."

Brother Ray's singing and electric piano playing lends something extra to the live record, but his special appearance barely made it onto the finished product. "Because Ray remembered the difficulties [onstage] I had a very difficult job getting his okay to release the record with his voice on it," says Wexler.  "It took a lot of persuasion and argument, and Ray Charles is not amenable to persuasion once he makes up his mind. So that was a difficult part."

Encoring with Diana Ross? Reach Out And Touch (Somebody's Hand), Aretha gives a gracious nod to her old Detroit neighbors at the Motown Hit Factory. And with her reaching towards a commercially viable song by way of Miss Ross, one has to wonder what might have been if Aretha had signed her first recording contract with the budding Motown label rather the well-established Columbia back in 1960.

One thing is certain. Even if Aretha had scored some hits with Motown at the beginning of her career, she would not have received the aesthetic nurturing that she gained from the legendary Atlantic crew. Aided by the flawless ears of engineer Tom Dowd, sophisticated arrangements from Arif Mardin and the intuitive guidance of Jerry Wexler, Aretha Franklin matured into one of the most distinctive singers of her generation. And by making church music into pop, she exceeded all expectations of her commercial potential and became one of the biggest soul stars of all time.

This simple live album born from the dealings of an ambitious record executive and a resourceful concert promoter turned out to be a landmark in Aretha Franklin's career.  Of course the credit goes out to Aretha, but in terms of taking care of business you have to hand it to guys like Bill Graham, Arif Mardin and Jerry Wexler, Amen.

April 27, 2003
Chicago, IL

Postscript: Jerry Wexler felt there was one more noteworthy thing regarding the making of this record: Mr. Wexler says, "In live gigs, the horns and the background voices almost always sound out of tune, but they're not. That's because certain voices in the group and certain voices in the horns are too prominent and you can't change it on a live broadcast. So we redid the horns and the voices in the studio using the same people. That what's important, all they did was replicate their parts. We laid it over and it came out perfectly, there were no intonation problems but the trick was to use the Memphis Horns and the Sweethearts of Soul. So we called them back in, that's why it came out as good as it did."

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