As you listen to Aretha Franklin’s new album, it’s hard not to sense an unspoken message to the world: “Step aside, ladies — here’s how it’s done.”
Released earlier this month, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” is the first album under a new contract signed recently with RCA Records at the behest of music mogul Clive Davis.
“When an artist is as established as she is, every so often I’m motivated by the strong desire not only of the thrill of discovery — and I’ve had my share of those — but to extend the careers of the greats,” Davis said at his hotel in Beverly Hills.
Following her first wave of success in the 1960s and ’70s, Davis guided Franklin’s second major career rejuvenation when he signed her to his Arista Records label in the early 1980s. That period reignited her career with a new round of hits, including “Freeway of Love,” which made her newly relevant to the MTV generation.
Now the 18-time Grammy Award-winning Queen of Soul is drawing on R&B, jazz, pop and gospel music in putting her stamp on songs by her fellow female vocalists.
Among her “Diva Classic” choices are Etta James’ “At Last,” Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and a couple of more recent-vintage songs, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Alicia Keys’ “No One.”
“I feel wonderful — I’m just loving it,” Franklin said, speaking by phone before a recent concert in Miami. “It’s a very, very exciting feeling around it. People seem to be responding to it beautifully.” She performs at the Fox Theatre on Nov. 8.
For Davis, the “Diva Classics” album is a dream come true, and it has the hallmarks of the new life he helped breathe into Carlos Santana’s career with the “Supernatural” album in 1999. The big difference? The voice on “Classics” is all Franklin, with none of the big-name duet partners that helped fuel Santana’s return to the spotlight.
“How long can the career of a great talent last? So I came up with this concept for Franklin’s album, and I’ve been talking to her about it for a few years,” Davis said. “To hear this woman come back, and you hear one classic performance after another … it’s historic.”
Within just the first few bars of Franklin’s rendition of “At Last,” she demonstrates a completely different sensibility than James’ signature version. Franklin lies behind the beat the way Frank Sinatra often did, with the syncopated phrasing of a great trumpet or saxophone player.
A thumping disco beat kicks in on “I Will Survive,” and then — this was Franklin’s idea — it segues into Destiny’s Child’s “I’m a Survivor.”
She also concocted the merger of “Rolling in the Deep” with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which she performed on her recent visit to “Late Night With David Letterman.”
Since that appearance, Franklin’s version of Adele’s breakthrough hit has earned a combined 4 million views on YouTube, Vevo and CBS. That’s a strong omen for an album being released in the peak of the record industry’s all-important fourth quarter leading into the holiday-buying season.
Keys suggested giving “No One” a reggae lilt, and OutKast’s Andre Benjamin came in with a radical idea for “Nothing Compares 2 U”: a neo-bebop jazz arrangement.
“I had been working with it — sitting with it, singing it slow,” Franklin said. “Then Andre came in decided he wanted to do a 180-degree turn and take it up-tempo. So I went back to my jazz roots. I had sung in the major jazz halls with all the great jazz musicians: John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Freddie Hubbard and Blue Mitchell. I sang for months at a time down at the Village Gate when I was a very young singer, maybe 17.”
Franklin, who also is the subject of the new biography “Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin” by acclaimed music biographer David Ritz being published Oct. 28, said she’s actively working to pass along some of what she’s learned over the decades as she mentors one of her grandchildren, R&B singer Victorie Franklin.
“She wants to become a singer, so I’m giving her some of the same advice my dad gave me,” she said. “He coached me early on, and he took me to New York for my audition with fabled talent scout and record executive John Hammond at Columbia Records. I’m just telling her some of the same things, about phrasing and different things like that.”
And the most important words of guidance from the woman ranked No. 1 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time”?
“I want her to be her own singer,” Franklin said.
“I don’t want her to sing like me, or to try to sing like me. I want her to be herself.”
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