The music lovers that complain that they were born in the “wrong generation” or bemoan today’s music are so wrong. While I have yet to listen to a Chainsmokers song all the way through outside of an Uber and Maroon 5 still plays guitars in my head, I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be a music lover. The accessibility of deep tracks and “essentials” playlists provided by music streaming services makes music consumption an easy, almost indulgent experience. But while the saturation of old hits may diminish the authenticity of their consumption, streaming gives today’s generation an appreciation of music that peaked on the charts decades ago. It’s an advantage that allows us to see monumental music removed from the pop culture haze of when it was cut.
For instance, Aretha Franklin’s R&B opus “Lady Soul” was cut during one of those hazy times. When it was released In 1968, America was at a generational crossroads. “Lady Soul” should never be confused for a political album; there aren’t any mentions of the civil rights movement or Vietnam. But there are moments of profundity and empowerment throughout the album. The title itself—“Lady Soul”—conjures up an image of Aretha teaming up with other powerful women to embody the genre of soul.
After two pop, single-worthy tracks to open the album, “People Get Ready” plants its feet firmly in the realm of gospel. Before I start describing any of her lyrics, one thing must be understood about the voice of Aretha Franklin: There is no conventional way to express its magnitude. You can’t say she bellows or croons; that isn’t accurate. She is above adjectives: Her voice transcends common labels that music critics would use. You have to describe her voice by citing what one human voice cannot do alone. So she swells in the first lines, “People get ready/There’s a train coming.” You can almost see her shaking her head as those lines echo. She leaves the guitar and drums playing discreet fills as she thunders in what must be a small effort for her. The song picks up toward the end, adding trumpets, quickening the measure. But the whole brass section together can’t touch her alone voice.
“Lady Soul” was a victory lap, the third in a series of albums that changed the arc of Franklin’s career. She left Columbia Records in 1967. More than a change in studios, the move to Atlantic Records left her former big-band soul music behind in favor of modern, blistering rhythm and blues. At Atlantic, she leaned into the swagger for which she became fabled. For her first record with Atlantic, Franklin traveled to Muscle Shoals, AL to record with the legendary FAME rhythm section. There, she recorded her hit “Chain of Fools,” which headlines “Lady Soul.” The FAME group may have been the only rhythm section that could go toe-to-toe with Franklin. The motley, self-described rednecks of the Alabama delta and Franklin formed a perfect odd couple. The musicianship of the FAME crew is palpable in the articulate flairs from the horns and guitar that swing in and out of the foreground.
The group recorded the rest of the album at the Atlantic Studios in New York, where the rising star of Franklin was in full effect. She attracted some true stars of the era. On the song “Good to Me as I Am to You,” Aretha features a 22-year-old guitarist named Eric Clapton. In 1968, Clapton was speeding along on his own meteoric rise as a member of the supergroup Cream. The track starts off with a piano and slowbeat drum. But it builds and builds, breaking into a sweat at the three-minute mark when Franklin shouts, “Don’t you walk around here/feeling like you can treat me any old way/using my love, my time, my heart,” over cool blues licks on Clapton’s Gibson.
But the album’s most famous song, the song synonymous with Aretha Franklin and everything that makes her legendary, is the fifth song, “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” Its supremacy is verified from the degrees of separation it diminishes between powerful people. First, Carole King, a rock and roll legend in her own right, wrote the song. Then, at the Kennedy Center Awards in 2015 that honored King, Franklin performed for her old friend. The Obamas were in the audience that night. In footage from the evening, President Obama can be seen wiping tears from his eyes. Franklin’s performance, a half century after the song was originally recorded, represented everything that the record was meant to entail. Franklin stepped away from the piano and threw off her mink coat, stretching out her arms as she serenaded King in front of thousands of people.
In the months since her passing, I’ve thought a lot about that performance. I am in awe of the bravado that Franklin yields over the crowds, the confidence with which she performs, the public emotion she extracts right out of one of the most powerful men in the world. It reminds me that good music can’t possibly be generational. Aretha Franklin spent 50 years, not just in relevance, but in legendary status. The Queen of Soul can only be rivaled by the Voyager probe in her expedition into legendary perpetuity. Voyager transmits the conductive warmth of humanity as it speeds into icy endlessness. The celestial body of Aretha Franklin’s legacy does the same. After all, there will always be a place for music that makes us “feel so good inside,” that makes us “feel so alive.”