It’s March 25, 2019, and today I’m remembering the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, who would have been 77 years old today.
Regardless of what kind of music you listen to, it’s hard to imagine a time when Aretha and her music wasn’t a part of your life. When I really started getting into music back in 1979, my knowledge of Aretha, as well as interest in her music, was embarrassingly limited. It took me about six years to climb on board the Aretha train, but after I did, there was no turning back.
After Aretha passed away on August 16, 2018, BILLBOARD published a list of Aretha’s 20 biggest Hot 100 hits. Overall, she made 73 appearances on the Hot 100 between 1961 and 1998, the most Hot 100 hits for women and a record she held onto until 2017. Out of her Top 20, nine of those hits, not surprisingly, were from the 60s, including her first No. 1, “Respect,” at No. 2 on the list, “Chain Of Fools” at No. 5, “Think” at No. 12, “A Natural Woman (You Make Me Feel Like)” at No. 14, and “I Say A Little Prayer” at No. 16.
Out of her Top 20 hits, four of them were from the 80s, including her biggest hit ever, 1987’s No. 1 duet with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” “Freeway Of Love” at No. 4, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” at No. 10, and her collaboration with Eurythmics, “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” at No. 20.
One thing I noticed about Aretha’s singles chart history is that she went 12 years without a Top 10 hit here in America. 1985’s “Freeway Of Love” returned her to the Top 10 (and Top 5) in high fashion. Her 1985 WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO album was her biggest-selling album ever. But, as awesome as “Freeway Of Love” is, it’s not what really started her comeback. That happened years before.
When film director John Landis was putting together a movie version of the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE skit for The Blues Brothers, Dan Aykroyd, who co-wrote the film with John Landis, lobbied, and in fact insisted, that Aretha and other R&B superstars James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles would appear in the film, replete with speaking parts that worked around the songs each of them performed in the film. Other Blues legends like John Lee Hooker and Pinetop Perkins appear in the movie too. The casting for this film, which also includes the wonderful talents of Carrie Fisher and John Candy, was absolutely brilliant.
The casting of Aretha was absolutely brilliant as well. She had gone through a rough time in the second half of the 70s, and several of her albums on Atlantic Records did not do well. In 1979, after 12 years, she left the label for which she had much of her greatest success.
In THE BLUES BROTHERS, Aretha plays the owner of a soul food restaurant, and the wife of Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who works in the restaurant as a cook. After John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s attempt (as Jake and Elwood Blues) to get Matt (lead guitarist) and “Blue Lou” Marini (saxophonist; who also works at the restaurant) back into The Blues Brothers Band, Aretha memorably bursts into song and dance to try and get Matt to stay. That song is her 1968 Top 10 hit, “Think.” When Aretha (as Mrs. Murphy) is unsuccessful at her attempt to keep Matt (and subsequently, “Blue Lou”) from leaving with Jake and Elwood, she ends her scene with one very convincing and hilarious word: “Shit.” Fucking brilliant.
And, I contend it was Aretha’s performance in THE BLUES BROTHERS that reignited her success in the 1980s, five years before “Freeway Of Love.” (NERDY SIDE NOTE: Even though Aretha had left Atlantic in 1979, “Think” was featured on THE BLUES BROTHERS soundtrack, which was on the label of The Blues Brothers — Atlantic Records.)
Also in 1980, the founder and president of Arista Records, Clive Davis, signed Aretha to Arista, a label she would remain with until 2007. Her first two albums with Arista saw her biggest album success since 1974, but it was 1982’s JUMP TO IT album that brought Aretha her first gold album in 10 years, and her first Top 40 hit on the BILLBOARD Hot 100 in six years — the album’s title cut.
The song “Jump To It” (co-written by then-up-and-coming R&B recording artist Luther Vandross) reached No. 24 on the Hot 100, No. 4 on BILLBOARD’s Dance chart, and spent four weeks at No. 1 on BILLBOARD’s R&B chart.
I didn’t get to pay tribute to Aretha last year, but on her birthday, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity (same goes for Matt “Guitar” Murphy, who sadly passed away a couple of months before Aretha).
You are definitely missed, and though it took awhile for me to jump on the Aretha train, I’m so glad I did. I’ve always had a special amount of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for you, and your scene-stealing performance in THE BLUES BROTHERS will always make me laugh and make me THINK! about your incredible contribution to music in the 80s and for all time…