Hello there! This week’s blog is part of our continuing salute to the memory of Aretha Franklin, who passed away just weeks ago. Here is one of her iconic R&B tunes, Think. We will first review Aretha’s original recording. Next we will feature the song as it appeared in the movie The Blues Brothers; finally we will discuss a cover of this song by Katharine McPhee.
Aretha Franklin and Think:
The late, great Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul,” passed away on August 16, 2018 from pancreatic cancer. We have considered her work in earlier blog posts, beginning with her cover of Otis Redding’s Respect; then her rendition of Carole King’s (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, in a performance that never fails to make me cry; her version of The Weight; and Aretha singing Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Below is a photo of a young Aretha Franklin from 1968.Embed from Getty Images
Aretha was one of the most successful and iconic artists of her time. There is no way we can do her amazing career justice in a short post. She received a slew of honors, all of them richly deserved.
Aretha was ranked #1 in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, and she was the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her career was legendary: she 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 introduced Aretha to music-industry executives.
When John Hammond signed Aretha to a record deal with Columbia Records, 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.
This all changed in 1967, when Aretha switched labels from Columbia to Atlantic Records; hooked up with producer Jerry Wexler; and was introduced to the Muscle Shoals musicians.
Aretha’s first big hit with Jerry Wexler was the Otis Redding song Respect. Aretha turned “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” into not only a gospel-blues classic, but a feminist anthem. After that auspicious beginning, Aretha Franklin turned out a series of iconic hits.
The song Think was co-written by Aretha and her husband at the time, Ted White. The song was released in 1968 as a single from her Aretha Now album. It made it to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles charts, making it Aretha’s 6th song to top the R&B charts.
Both the theme of the tune Think and Aretha’s performance are reminiscent of her great #1 hit, Respect. In both cases, a woman presents to her man a message of female empowerment. In the first case, she simply wants a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T; in the second case, she warns him to consider carefully how he treats her.
[CHORUS] You better think (think)
Think about what you’re trying to do to me
Think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free
Let’s go back, let’s go back
Let’s go way on back when
I didn’t even know you
You couldn’t have been too much more than ten (just a child)
I ain’t no psychiatrist, I ain’t no doctor with degrees
It don’t take too much high IQ’s
To see what you’re doing to me
Oh, freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom)
Oh, freedom, yeah, freedom
Freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom)
Freedom, oh freedom
So here is Aretha Franklin in a live performance of Think.
As you can see, this is basically a gospel song performed on a concert stage. There is a great call-and-response between Aretha and her backup singers, and The Queen of Soul appears to be thoroughly enjoying herself as her voice soars above the orchestra.
It is simply wonderful to watch how Aretha bends and stretches her vocals. Her voice appears to have infinite range and elasticity. Clearly, the appropriate response after the song would be to shout “Amen!”
Aretha was recognized by her peers as the unchallenged Queen of Soul. However, her personal life was marked by problems and setbacks. Aretha had her first child shortly after turning 13 and her second at age 14, and she never revealed the identities of the fathers.
Aretha was reportedly the victim of serious domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband, her manager Ted White. Her father was shot in his home by an intruder in 1979, and remained in a coma for five years before he passed away. And her sisters Carolyn and Erma died of cancer in 1988 and 2002, respectively.
But Aretha Franklin survived all these challenges with her amazing voice intact. She transformed every song that she encountered, and produced some stunning, unforgettable performances. We are shocked and saddened that she is gone, but we have her songs to console us.
Think in the film The Blues Brothers:
Here we will discuss the Blues Brothers and their iconic movie. “Blues Brothers” Jake (John Belushi) and Elliott Blues (Dan Aykroyd) first appeared in a Saturday Night Live skit in April, 1978. Following that, they assembled an all-star band and issued an album.
Below is a photo of the Blues Brothers in performance.Embed from Getty Images
After the runaway success of Belushi’s movie Animal House, the Animal House director John Landis was chosen to direct The Blues Brothers film. Dan Aykroyd’s original script outline was roughly three times the length of a normal screenplay, so John Landis re-wrote it.
The premise of the film is that ex-con Jake and his brother Elwood Blues decide to re-form their blues band. Their “mission from God” is to raise sufficient funds to pay off the property tax bill on the Catholic orphanage where they were raised.
Overcoming a number of obstacles, Jake and Elwood succeed in re-forming their show band. In reality, the Blues Brothers band was an ensemble of musicians from great 60s groups. It included Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn from Booker T & the MGs, drummer Willie Hall who had worked with Isaac Hayes, blues guitarist Matt Murphy, and horn players Lou Marini, Tom Malone and Alan Rubin from Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Various R&B greats, including John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, and Cab Calloway, are featured in guest spots in The Blues Brothers. One of the most memorable appearances is by Aretha Franklin.
Here is Aretha singing Think in The Blues Brothers. At this point, Elwood and Jake are re-constituting their band, and they have tracked down Matt “Guitar” Murphy to the diner where he is the cook and proprietor. When Elwood and Jake confront Matt and ask him to re-join their band, his wife (played by Aretha) warns him to consider carefully before he leaves her to go out on the road.
What a terrific performance! The orchestra lays down a compelling beat, and Aretha is in great voice. The backup singers are her sisters Carolyn and Erma, and the tune is punctuated by some terrific riffs from saxophonist Lou Marini.
Jake and Elwood clap and dance along with the waitresses, and the song is a show-stopper. However, it was apparently incredibly difficult to film this scene, for the simple reason that Aretha Franklin never sings a song the same way twice. As a result, Aretha’s lip-synching never matched the vocal track. Legend has it that John Landis had to film dozens of takes before he got a “keeper,” and even then had to resort to some inventive editing in order to get an acceptable print.
After the Blues Brothers re-form their band, they attempt to raise funds for the orphanage by staging concerts. However, they end up being chased by a number of different groups (including the police, a country band and a group of neo-Nazis). The film culminates in a frantic car chase involving an incredible number of car wrecks and death-defying antics. Eventually the Blues Brothers reach Chicago City Hall and pay off the property tax lien, before they are arrested by the entire Cook County police force.
Released in June 1980, The Blues Brothers film became a smash hit, grossing more than $100 million. The combination of Belushi and Aykroyd, classic blues by great 60s R&B artists, and several genuinely bizarre side-plots produced a cult classic.
Belushi, Aykroyd, and Landis were riding high, and it appeared likely that the Blues Brothers movie would jump-start a series of films and albums. Alas, all this was blown to bits when John Belushi died in March, 1982 after being injected with a “speedball,” a mixture of heroin and cocaine.
In 2000, Aykroyd and John Goodman teamed up with John Landis in a film sequel, Blues Brothers 2000. Despite the fact that the film assembled a dynamite cast of R&B artists, and like the original featured a significant number of car crashes, this movie was both a critical and commercial disaster.
Katharine McPhee and Think:
Not surprisingly, there are rather few covers of Think. Think about it (think, think): would you paint a copy of Starry Night, knowing that your work would necessarily be compared to Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpiece?
In a similar vein, not many musicians will release a copy of an Aretha Franklin song. It just doesn’t sound like a great idea. Now, it’s OK for Carole King to release a cover of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – after all, Carole wrote the original song, so it’s understandable that she would sing it.
So, where to find a cover of Aretha’s iconic song Think? Well, a natural place to look is vocal-competition TV shows such as American Idol, The Voice or The X Factor. After all, those shows frequently require their contestants to perform songs by a particular artist, or a specific genre, or songs released in a given calendar year.
Sure enough, I found this cover of Think by Katharine McPhee. She was a contestant on the 5th season of American Idol, where she came in second overall to Taylor Hicks. Below is a photo of Katharine McPhee.Embed from Getty Images
Think was one of the songs McPhee performed in the American Idol competition. And here she is performing it.
Well, what do you think? I found this a perfectly OK rendition of this song – however, it is not remotely in the same league as Aretha Franklin’s version.
We’ll talk about American Idol in a moment, but first we will review the career of Ms. McPhee following her success on American Idol. Ordinarily I am completely uninterested in such a show, or any of its contestants. However, there were some things that were noteworthy about Ms. McPhee.
First, she was quite open about her struggles with body image and eating disorders. In fact, she left rehab for bulimia only a month or two before her appearance on American Idol. Also, apparently she had a rough time in middle school and high school, where she described her reputation as “pretty, but stupid.”
It took several years before Katharine was finally diagnosed with an unusual vision problem. Once that was corrected, her grades shot up. Given the cruelty of young kids, Ms. McPhee must have had quite a rough time in school, and I was impressed at her willingness to discuss these incidents.
Anyway, McPhee parleyed her success on American Idol into a reasonable career in both singing and acting, and good for her; we wish her well.
I never watched American Idol, but for many years it was a blockbuster TV show. Like so many American TV programs these days, American Idol was copied from foreign hit TV shows. Producer Simon Fuller saw a New Zealand singing competition called Popstars. Intrigued by its format, Fuller created a British version called Pop Idol. At left we show the logo for American Idol.
Pop Idol was a hit in Britain, so Fuller attempted to adapt it for the U.S. market. It is interesting that for a full year, Fuller had no success in pitching his idea to American networks. He succeeded only because Fox mogul Rupert Murdoch’s daughter was a big fan of the British show, and persuaded her father to purchase the series.
The basic notion behind all of these shows is that unknown performers compete by auditioning songs before a panel of judges, and viewers can vote for their favorites using social media. The trick is to arrange a series of rules so the competition grabs the attention of young viewers and then to ratchet up the hype, suspense (and occasional outrage) while eliminating some competitors and retaining others.
Competitors on American Idol must be between 15 and 28 years old, must be U.S. citizens, and are not allowed to have signed either a recording or talent representation contract before the semi-final round of competition. The winner is guaranteed an initial recording contract, and generally goes out on tour as well.
American Idol appeared on Fox TV for 15 years from 2002 to 2016, and this year it is appearing on ABC. Ryan Seacrest has been the host of the show for many years. The show employs three judges who critique the performances, and initially one of those judges was the acerbic Simon Cowell, who had been a judge on the British series.
The show was a gigantic hit. For a period of 8 straight years American Idol was the top-rated TV show, and its success played a major role in making Fox the highest-rated TV channel, and Fox also ranked first with the coveted 18-49 year age group.
One of the major factors in American Idol’s success was allowing the viewers to vote through social media. In one year, 178 million votes were cast by viewers for the performers. Despite the show’s success, critics were deeply divided over the virtues of American Idol. Critic Michael Slezak summed up both the positive and negative aspects of the show as follows:
“for all its bloated, synthetic, product-shilling, money-making trappings, Idol provides a once-a-year chance for the average American to combat the evils of today’s music business.”
American Idol spawned a number of similar talent-competition shows, including The Voice, the X Factor, America’s Got Talent and Rising Star. Although the ratings of Idol have fallen drastically since the height of its fame, the show changed the landscape of prime-time television, and a handful of its most successful competitors have become stars in their own right.
Wikipedia, Think (Aretha Franklin song)
Wikipedia, Aretha Franklin
Wikipedia, The Blues Brothers (film)
Wikipedia, John Belushi
Wikipedia, Dan Aykroyd
Wikipedia, American Idol
Wikipedia, Katharine McPhee