Aretha Franklin passed away on August 16, 2018. She was a giant in the music industry, and one of our greatest artists. It would be impossible to summarize all of the contributions made by Aretha to our music and culture. In honor of Aretha Franklin’s genius, we are re-posting our blog that originally appeared on May 10, 2016.
That post featured the song (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. It contains two performances that were important indicators of her greatness. The first was Aretha’s inclusion in the VH1 TV special Divas Live 1998. The second was her appearance at the 2015 Kennedy Honors celebration, where Carole King was one of the honorees. If you ever asked yourself the question, “Why is Aretha Franklin acknowledged as the Queen of Soul?” these performances should provide the answer.
Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. This is not only a wonderful R&B song by Aretha Franklin, but one that has become a feminist anthem. After discussing the original song, we will review a version by Carole King, who co-wrote the song. We will also show the song being spotlighted in two different award shows that feature both Carole King and Aretha Franklin.
Aretha Franklin and A Natural Woman:
We previously encountered Aretha Franklin for her cover of Otis Redding’s Respect. So we will briefly review her life and career here. Also, we recommend David Remnick’s recent article about Aretha Franklin, Soul Survivor, in the April 4, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Aretha Franklin has rightfully earned the title of “Queen of Soul.” One of the most successful and iconic artists of her time, she was ranked #1 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. At left is a beautiful photo of Aretha by Richard Avedon.
She was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She has sold over 75 million records, won 18 Grammys, and had over 100 songs listed on the Billboard charts, including 17 top-10 pop songs and 21 R&B singles that reached #1. No other female artist even approaches those numbers.
Aretha’s father was a highly charismatic preacher who moved to Detroit when Aretha was five. She began to sing in her father’s church and accompany him on gospel caravan tours. There she met Sam Cooke, who was in the process of switching from gospel to pop music, and who mentored Aretha and introduced her to music-industry executives.
The great John Hammond signed her to a record deal with Columbia Records. With Hammond in her corner, stardom seemed like a “can’t-miss proposition.” But Columbia seemed unable to determine a “niche” for the young artist, primarily because they had her singing old standards instead of exploiting her affinity to gospel music. Aretha herself was reluctant to apply gospel techniques to pop music, for fear of upsetting her father, her friends, and her faith.
However, beginning in 1967, everything changed for Aretha Franklin. First, she switched labels from Columbia to Atlantic Records; second, she was introduced to the Muscle Shoals musicians; and third, she teamed up with producer Jerry Wexler.
Wexler had been a successful journalist whose beat included black music. Wexler turned out to have a fantastic feel for rhythm and blues, the good fortune to hook up with record executive Ahmet Ertegun, and an ability to spot and nurture great musical talent. His stable of artists included Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Dusty Springfield, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin. Wow!
The song (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman was written by one of the greatest songwriting teams of the early rock music era, Gerry Goffin and Carole King.
Gerry and Carole met when they were students at Queens College. They became a couple, and formed a team where Carole would write the music while Gerry provided the lyrics. The photo below shows the teen-age couple Goffin and King in the RCA recording studio in 1959, looking like the personification of young love.Embed from Getty Images
The two were married in 1959 and they began working part-time, Gerry as a chemist and Carole as a secretary. However, in the evenings they wrote pop songs at Don Kirshner’s Aldon music publishing company, part of the famed “Brill Building” pop music scene in New York. Their first hit song, the 1960 Shirelles’ song Will You Love Me Tomorrow, became the first girl-group record to reach #1 on the Billboard pop charts.
Once they got started, Goffin and King churned out a series of impressive hits. They were a dynamite song-writing team, pairing King’s wonderfully catchy hook-filled tunes with Goffin’s uncanny ability to produce lyrics that accurately encapsulated what it was like to be a teenager in the 50s – the combination of youthful idealism, ambition, doubt and horniness. Furthermore, in their best songs the lyrics and melody mesh perfectly.
The genesis of A Natural Woman is fascinating. One day in 1967,
King … and Goffin were in Manhattan, walking along Broadway, and Jerry Wexler … pulled up beside them in a limousine, rolled down the window, and said, “I’m looking for a really big hit for Aretha. How about writing a song called ‘A Natural Woman.’ ” He rolled up the window and the car drove off. King and Goffin went home to Jersey. That night, after tucking their kids into bed, they sat down and wrote the music and the lyrics. By the next morning, they had a hit.
And what a great soul tune Goffin and King created! In gratitude, they also assigned song-writing credits to Jerry Wexler. The song vividly describes a woman whose new love pulled her out of depression, and gave her something to live for.
When my soul was in the lost and found
You came along, to claim it
I didn’t know just what was wrong with me
‘Til your kiss helped me name it
Now I’m no longer doubtful of what I’m living for
And if I make you happy I don’t need to do more
‘Cause you make me feel
You make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman
The line “my soul was in the lost and found … you came along to claim it” provides a great visual image of the ability of true love to lift and transform one’s life.
So here is the original recording of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, released on Atlantic Records in 1967, where it rose to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 listings.
This tune is a perfect vehicle for Aretha Franklin. The song begins at a stately pace, with a few piano chords accompanying Aretha’s vocals. At the end of each line, the backup singers chime in with a memorable “aaaah-oooh.”
The song then really soars in the chorus, with horns, violins and the accompanying singers complementing Aretha’s powerful voice. The backup singers follow right along as Aretha sings “you make me feel like a natural woman.” The connection to gospel music is extremely clear — one can follow the echoes in this song straight back to the choir at Rev. Franklin’s church in Detroit.
And what a timely song as well! It was written in the late 60s, just when the feminist movement had gathered steam. No wonder that scores of women artists have covered this tune, and that A Natural Woman remains an icon of feminism even today.
Despite the fact that Aretha has won nearly every imaginable honor in the music business, and the great respect she receives from her peers, her personal life has been marked by challenges and setbacks. Aretha’s father C.L. Franklin had a scandalous reputation as a womanizer, and there are allegations that he fathered a child by a 12-year old girl.
Aretha herself had her first child shortly after turning 13 and her second at age 14, and rumors abound regarding the identities of the anonymous fathers. Her father was shot and became temporarily comatose after a home robbery in 1979, and her sisters Carolyn and Erma died of cancer in 1988 and 2002, respectively.
Aretha was the victim of reportedly rather violent domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband. She has had several health issues, some of which are related to dramatic swings in her weight over the years. This was combined with her long but eventually successful struggle to stop smoking – a habit that was clearly detrimental to her voice, though efforts to quit her two-pack-a-day habit were also correlated with rapid weight gain.
However, Aretha Franklin still continues to perform, and despite her health issues, she remains the uncontested “Queen of Soul.” We wish for Aretha a long and sustained reign in that position
Carole King and A Natural Woman:
Earlier in this post, we discussed Carole King’s incredible song-writing partnership with Gerry Goffin. Carole had a terrific musical pedigree – even in high school she was dating Neil Sedaka and producing demo records with Paul Simon. Then she and Gerry Goffin became mainstays of the great Brill Building stable of pop music writers and performers in the early 60s.
Unfortunately, Goffin and King divorced in the late 60s.
Following her breakup with Goffin, Carole King moved to Laurel Canyon in California and made friends with many of the talented musicians living there at the time. In particular, she became good friends with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Hooking up with lyricist Toni Stern, King embarked upon a solo career, singing and playing piano.
Everything came up aces with King’s second album, Tapestry, in 1971. That record became one of the seminal releases of the 70s – it was the best-selling album of all time from a female artist, until surpassed by Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard.
With Taylor and Joni Mitchell providing backup vocals, Tapestry has sold 25 million copies worldwide. The album contained a mixture of old and new songs from King, where the new songs combined King’s melodies with Toni Stern’s lyrics.
Tapestry was a genuine blockbuster – it received four Grammys, including Song of the Year. This award was particularly noteworthy as Carole King was the first woman ever to win the Song of the Year Grammy. Her bio in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes Tapestry as
A tour de force of confessional songwriting and understated performances, Tapestry held down the top spot on the album charts for 15 weeks, earning King a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1971.
Over her career, Carole King has continued to be a songwriting whiz. Over 100 of her songs charted in the Billboard Hot 100. In addition to induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 2013 King became the first woman to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
And King was not only a superstar musician, she is also recognized as a feminist pioneer, for Goffin-King songs like Will You Love Me Tomorrow and A Natural Woman that are considered as feminist anthems.
Below is a photo of Carole King performing on the NBC Today Show in August, 2015.Embed from Getty Images
Here is the “official live video” of Carole King singing A Natural Woman.
What a lovely rendition! It’s incredibly simple — just Carole at the piano, accompanied by double bass. Carole King doesn’t have Aretha Franklin’s great voice, but then again nobody does.
It’s easy to picture Carole and Gerry Goffin sitting at the piano one evening, and working out the music and lyrics to this song. Carole King does a great job bringing out the joy and wonder in her own composition.
This was one of the great virtues of her Tapestry album – it managed to simultaneously introduce a group of new songs by Carole King, juxtaposed next to interpretations of her own classic pop tunes.
Since then, Carole King has continued her career as a singer-songwriter. She never recaptured the smash commercial success of the Tapestry album, however she continued on as a class act for several decades. She and her song-writing collaborator Gerry Goffin were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
In addition, Carole King has received a slew of awards for her many contributions to the music business. In our final section, we will discuss two events where Carole King was honored.
A Natural Woman as a Feminist Anthem:
A Natural Woman occupies a fascinating place in pop music history. As a musical anthem, it offers great opportunities for a female vocalist to display her power and range. And its identification with the feminist movement is also very appealing.
So it should not be surprising that the song has been covered by scores of artists. In addition, in 1973 Bobby Womack switched the gender and produced a song called A Natural Man, and Rod Stewart subsequently covered Womack’s version.
In this section we will discuss two award shows that feature (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. In both cases, the song is presented in a setting that honors Carole King. And both of these situations highlight Aretha Franklin.
We will begin with a fascinating live performance from the “Divas Live 1998” show at New York’s Beacon Theatre in April 1998. This was the first of an annual televised series on VH1.
For this occasion, they assembled a dynamite cast of female performers, featuring Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan and Shania Twain. At left we see the cover of the album from the Divas Live event.
The show also highlighted some of the music of Carole King, so Ms. King was included as a special guest. Each of the divas was given a spot on the program with her own orchestra, and each artist performed one new song plus an old classic.
This was an extraordinary assembly of powerhouse women artists. Each was a premier performer in her own sphere – Celine Dion in adult contemporary Vegas-lounge pop; Gloria Estefan in Miami-based Hispanic music; Shania Twain in country music; and Mariah Carey in soul and hip-hop. In fact, each performer could legitimately lay claim to the title of “Queen of …” (insert name of genre).
However, in this particular event there was no real competition. As noted by Jon Pareles in his review of the concert for the New York Times,
six women performed … but there was only one real diva onstage: Ms. Franklin, who presented the true diva’s combination of a remarkable voice, a commanding presence and a whimsical, imperious assumption of power. With Ms. Franklin around, the rest were only troupers.
This was probably most obvious in the group’s performance of Carole King’s A Natural Woman, which is shown here.
Despite the fact that all six artists are tackling the song together, Aretha wastes no time in reminding the audience that, after all, this is her song. “Would you forgive me if I didn’t sing this song tonight … I don’t think so.”
And then we take off in a bravura performance that becomes a “can you top this?” contest. This is not surprising, as Natural Woman offers so many opportunities for a female singer to belt out or embellish the stanzas.
After Aretha begins the song, first Celine, then Shania, Gloria and Mariah get a turn. However, in the middle of what was intended to be Celine Dion’s solo, we see Aretha jumping into the mix. Near the end, Aretha introduces her own backup singers. Then finally, Aretha simply cuts loose with both barrels. Her voice soars into the stratosphere, descends to the depths, she growls and howls and whispers.
That’s it, folks: victory by TKO in the eighth round. The winner and still champion, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Below is Aretha Franklin with music mogul Clive Davis at the Kennedy Center Honors event from December, 2015.Embed from Getty Images
Our last video comes from the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors awards, one of which was given to Carole King. As part of the ceremony, Aretha Franklin presented a song. We heartily subscribe to David Remnick’s comments regarding Aretha’s appearance here,
Watch [this video] if you haven’t: in under five minutes, your life will improve by a minimum of forty-seven per cent.
Isn’t this an extraordinary performance by Ms. Franklin? She appears onstage wearing a mink coat, sits down at the piano, and begins singing A Natural Woman.
Although she is well into her 70s, Aretha’s voice still remains strong and powerful.
It appears that Carole King was completely surprised that Aretha would be singing one of her own great compositions. In short, Ms. King goes bananas; she is overwhelmed. Well, we all are.
This thrilling performance invariably brings tears to my eyes. I am in good company, as President Obama can also be seen wiping a tear from his eye. As Ms. Franklin rises from the piano and drops her mink coat, the audience leaps to its feet, as well they should cheer on this living national treasure.
If you ever find yourself asking the question “How does a diva act?” you simply need to re-play this video.
Wikipedia, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman
Wikipedia, Aretha Franklin
Wikipedia, Carole King
Wikipedia, VH1 Divas
David Remnick, Soul Survivor: The Revival and Hidden Treasure of Aretha Franklin, The New Yorker, April 4, 2016.
Jon Pareles: There are Divas, and There are Divas, New York Times, April 16, 1998
Bio, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame