It was 50 years ago today that the ‘Queen of Soul’ released one of the greatest albums of her career. The album surfaced as one of the most interesting and balanced soul albums of the early 1970s, a period where soul music would be at its most refined before becoming increasingly transformed to combine with a plethora of other genres in the mainstream. The album was a commercial success reaching number two on the R&B albums chart and 11 on the main US album chart; in Young, Gifted and Black we definitely saw Aretha Franklin at the height of her powers.
The album was recorded between 1970-71, Franklin had decided to work with producers Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd who had worked with her on previous albums. With a solid lineup of Atlantic’s greatest session musicians, as well as collaborative appearances from the likes of Don Hathaway, Billy Preston and vocal support from her sisters Erma and Carolyn, the music wasn’t short of precision and textural depth.
Young, Gifted and Black celebrates a healthy array of esteemed peers of Franklin’s with a carefully selected inclusion of cover songs. Among these, are covers of The Beatles, Elton John and Otis Redding. One of the highlights among the covers is her beautiful rendition of Nina Simone’s gospel anthem ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ which she used for the namesake of the album. The song is a soulful cover of the original that seems to bolster the important message in a more vivid and passionate, albeit less energetic echo of the fantastic original.
The collection of songs appears to fit together so seamlessly, which isn’t easily achieved on albums involving so many covers. Her original penned tracks on the album give it the balance it boasts, some of which are definitely among the greater tracks on the album. It is evident that Franklin has written the lyrics to meet her vocal talent to a tee. Personal highlights are the vibrant and jaunty ‘Day Dreaming’, and ‘Rock Steady’, which is probably the most explosive and danceable track on the album; I can’t help but get a little groove on when hearing it.
The album has had an incalculable impact on music over the years with David Bowie as a prime example of this. His love for soul music, and Franklin especially, would inspire him to take a turn from his glam rock era music towards the more soul orientated material heard on his 1975 album Young Americans. The album is, in my humble opinion, Franklin’s finest; while it doesn’t contain so many of her hit singles, it is definitely the most earnest example of her assiduous work in the studio. Most importantly, the album shows one of music’s most powerful black icons at the peak of her confidence and the message conveyed from the title of the album beams throughout the music in a gregarious and defiant manner.