I’ve been going through a bit of an Aretha Franklin phase lately, so it seemed serendipitous when she popped up in social media for her latest album ‘Aretha Sings The Great Diva Classics’. It’s both a remarkable testament to her talent, as well as a saddening realization, that this iteration of Aretha Franklin is by far her weakest. Her voice- though still far better than most- is a shell of what it once was, and it seems shameless that she should have to stoop to cover “Rolling In The Deep”.
Her career followed a remarkable path from child gospel piano prodigy, to Sam Cooke protege, Columbia Records cast-off, and then her tremendous run with Atlantic Records before trailing off in the seventies with a period rivaling the decades’ own in a search for a new identity.
That is not to say that Aretha isn’t a masterful interpreter. “Respect” was an Otis Redding song, “Chain of Fools” was written by Don Covey, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” was a Carol King number, “I Say A Little Prayer” was Hal David and Burt Bacharach. Still, “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” was an outlier in her catalogue.
It was originally a Stevie Wonder song, though he hadn’t released a recording of it (and wouldn’t until his 1977 ‘Anthology’) before he showed it to Franklin. Listening to his original now only demonstrates just how much Franklin improves the bones of the original composition.
The chord progression is pure Stevie Wonder, though he buried the melodic motif that becomes the centerpiece of Franklin’s version. The rhythm section is also mostly straightforward, and Stevie’s singing conveys the material as almost naive heartbreak.
Truly, Aretha’s version is superior, thanks in part due to her magnificent backing band. Franklin plays the piano, Donny Hathaway fills in on the bouncing (and almost hidden) Fender Rhodes, Hugh McCracken plays the only guitar, while Chuck Rainey (bass) and Bernard Purdie (drums) fill out the rhythm section.
It’s Rainey and Purdie who hold the key, playing with a hitched gait that elongates Franklin’s vocal phrases and Franklin herself, who conveys that desperation as hopeful despair. The flute solo, in vogue at the time, is truly the only flaw.
Morris Broadnax, Clarence Paul, Stevie Wonder
Aretha Franklin: Piano, Vocals
Margaret Branch: Backing vocals
Pat Smith: Backing vocals
Donny Hathaway: Electric Piano (Rhodes)
Richard Tee: Organ
Kenneth Bichel: Synthesizer
Hugh McCracken: Guitar
Chuck Rainey: Bass
Bernard Purdie: Drums
Bonnie Raitt’s album ‘Nick of Time’. Similar vocal phrasing and dynamics.