Aretha Franklin - It's Gonna Get A Bit Better
Aretha Franklin - Only Star
Aretha Franklin - Ladies Only
Aretha Franklin - Honey I Need Your Love
Aretha Franklin - Reasons Why
Aretha Franklin - The Feeling
Having nearly upstaged Obama at his own inauguration not so much with her performance, but with her rather spectacular church lady crown, I was suddenly inspired to take a listen to Her Soulful Highness's much maligned 1979 'disco' album, "La Diva." After signing with Atlantic and subsequently going from strength to strength in the late 60's and early 70's; not unlike some of her contemporaries, the mid/late 70's and the onslaught of disco found Aretha in a commercial slump of sorts (the Sparkle soundtrack with Curtis Mayfield being a notable exception). Having the dubious distinction of being one of her most, if not the most ill-received album she's ever released, "La Diva" was the first of her Atlantic studio albums to miss the Billboard top 100 altogether, and to this day, with barely any critics out there having anything good to say about it, it has ultimately gone down as one of the undisputed low-points in her career.
During this time, her classic hits behind her and with her mentor, the late Jerry Wexler gone from the label, none of the changes in direction that she embarked on seemed to stick. While "Sparkle" (1976, Atlantic) was a bright spot, its follow-up with Mayfield, "Almighty Fire" (1978, Atlantic) failed to sustain any of it's momentum. In her autobiography with David Ritz, "From These Roots," Aretha briefly touched on this period, saying: "my records were falling short of the mark for gold. I began to feel that the label's promotion and marketing were not creative enough and wondered whether a change was in order." Not too surprisingly, "La Diva" would be the last album she would do for them before jumping ship to Arista.
While her career context wasn't exactly rosy, the run-up to this album's recording sessions and eventual release seemed to be fairly turbulent in itself. A quick glance at the album's thank-yous, with Ahmet Ertegun's assistant and executive vice president Noreen Woods credited for "being a swellegant mediator in getting the LP out" along with a special thanks to "all musicians and singers, Marvin Gaye and George Benson, and numerous other artists whose LP's I enjoyed through numerous delays while waiting to finish mine" seemed to reveal as much. Biographer Mark Bego in his book "Aretha Franklin: The Queen of Soul" suggests a disco album from the Queen of Soul was apparently highly anticipated at the time, calling it "a logical move..an assured bet that Aretha could go into the studio to create the hottest disco record of the year." Given that, I'd imagine that it was Atlantic's suggestion to usher in this change of direction by pairing her with a couple of the label's hottest producers at the time, Chic's Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards.
Aretha claimed in her autobiography that the proposed Chic collaboration had gone into the actual pre-production stage, claiming that she'd originally been given the two tracks which would later helm Diana Ross' "Diana" (1980, Motown) album. Although as far as Nile and Bernard go, The Queen, it appears, was not impressed.
"I liked some disco and thought that certain singers - Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor - were well suited to the style. Later during the disco era, I met with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, whose group, Chic, was burning up the charts. They presented me with material that I liked. Good songs, in-the-pocket grooves, and cute lyrics. But when preproduction started, things cooled off in a hurry. Their idea for me was 'just come in and sing impromptu and we'll take it from there.' Well, I hadn't worked that way. I'm an interpreter, and I need to be involved with the total musical environment. I was game, but my relationship with Rodgers and Edwards ended before it even began. There were unmentionables concerning their attitudes, which just didn't fly with me. They took those songs - "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" - to Diana Ross. I had no regrets." (pgs 160-1)
To supplement Aretha's recollections, Nile Rodgers related his own in Daryl Easlea's book "Chic & The Politics of Disco," which at least on the surface, seem to counter Aretha's recollections somewhat.
"'We never wrote anything for her,' Rodgers remembered. 'We had one meeting with her and we were so turned off, we couldn't believe Aretha wanted to do disco.'..... 'We were not going to go down in history as the producers of Aretha Franklin's disco record! In the end she went with Van McCoy - we were shocked he would do it - but then, he did write "Do The Hustle" which IS a disco record. I thought of her history and we certainly weren't going to produce her. That was the only time that we ever met her.' " (pgs 190-1)
with Aretha and her Kools
(picture from vanmccoymusic.com)
Whatever the case, we obviously didn't get a Chic produced Aretha album (and perhaps for good reason, looking at their comments). The album we did end up with however, produced largely by the late Van McCoy (whose songs Aretha had recorded in the past) and his right-hand man Charles Kipps, with the exception of two tracks (one produced by Aretha and one by Skip Scarborough) was largely a collection of lightly treaded disco fluff and drippy ballads, broken by the occasional soul-funk throw-down as 'Ree herself might put it. Putting it frankly, it probably wouldn't be anyone's idea of a classic, especially in the shadow of her earlier and truly classical, enduring Atlantic albums. Whether it be because of my own disco attachments, being somewhat removed from the time and not nearly as steeped in her 'Queen of Soul' mythology to have taken this seriously enough, or me just being my usual contrary self, I've honestly never found this album to be anywhere near as horrendous and awful as it's been made out to be. While I can understand critics not rating this favourably, I've always been surprised at just how many make it seem like "La Diva" was the absolute worst record of her entire career. However, having heard the albums she did in the late 80's and early 90's for Arista, I'd honestly be hard-pressed to put any of her Atlantic LPs (even less well recieved albums like this one) in that category..
The disco portion of the album was helmed by two of Aretha's own self-penned efforts, "Ladies Only" and "Only Star," (which began Side One and Two, respectively) - a couple of slick, pleasantly produced and orchestrated disco-lite numbers. Both produced by McCoy and Kipps, I'd venture a guess to say it was probably these songs which led Rolling Stone to deride the album as "over orchestrated pap." Given that they were the most obvious disco tracks on the record, in the end they probably ended up missing the mark somewhat. Despite their redeeming qualities - the rich melodic orchestration and the enthusiasm in Aretha's performances, they were perhaps lacking in the sort of groove or energy to have seriously competed with the sort of disco that was lighting up the dancefloors at that period in time. In fact, out of the two of them, "Ladies Only" (an attempt, it seems, at a "Last Dance" knockoff) was released as a single (peaking at #33 Billboard R&B) and yet as far as I know, had no 12'' remix or release for that matter, which is probably saying something in itself.
YouTube has a live performance of "Ladies Only," apparently from the Mike Douglas Show, backed with a rather Vegasy arrangement, which only serves to emphasize the overorchestrated pappiness of the whole thing. Though, still, delivered with an impressive vocal from the lady herself, whose wearing the full outfit from the album cover, no less (note the flower fall at 1.45).
Aretha Franklin - Ladies Only (Live)
Uploaded by yaskam
While they are pleasant enough melodically speaking, lyrically however, I'd have to admit that they sound like precisely the sort of thing one would expect from a disco amateur scraping for ideas. Which is to say, overly self-conscious, formulaic and entirely lacking in any clever lyrical subtlety; as if a disco song had to use the words 'party' and 'disco' at least half a dozen times, mention both "The Rock," and "The Freak," and at some point in the song declare one's self a 'disco queen' to even qualify.
"Only Star" on Side Two would probably be considered the worst offender. A slightly narcissistic lyric, with the verse "I'm gonna be the only star tonight at the disco" heading up the chorus; the background singers (which in the general credits included notables like sister Carolyn Franklin, Zulema Cusseaux and her former group Faith, Hope & Charity along with future one-shot disco singer, Sharon Brown) had the dubious honour of reciting the song's unforgettable spoken section: "We're disco queens, you know what that means? We're disco queens!.. Sophisticated, magnifique, we get down with the rock and you've got to see us freak!" which is complimented by a bit of clumsy Spanish that's even a bit more embarrassing than the French in "Ladies Only." To top it all off, Aretha follows that by bellowing out her own intentions: 'I'm gon' BOOGIE DOWN! BOOOOGIE DOWN!.." which in itself was probably enough to make legions of unsuspecting rock critics cringe in the sheer abject horror of it all.
Nile Rodgers has a particularly hilarious anecdote about this song in his recollection of his and Bernard's meeting with 'The Queen,' also from "Chic & The Politics of Disco," which I thought was well worth citing here:
"Bernard and I were sitting in the Queen of Soul's house, this beautiful mansion in Los Angeles and she was singing 'I'm going to be the only star tonight down at the disco.' And Bernard and I were looking at each other in disbelief, thinking 'holy shit! We're with Aretha Franklin and she's telling us she's going to be the only star in the disco tonight...Is she nuts?' We were stunned and dumbfounded. We were sitting at the piano with her and we couldn't say anything. If we told her that was great, she would say 'are you kidding me, you want me to sing some shit like this?' We didn't know if it [was] a joke." (pgs. 190-1)
As is sometimes the case with ill-reputed albums like these, I'm usually able to come away enjoying something, in spite of everything. This one is no different (so much for good taste, I suppose). All criticisms aside (because really, it's just way too easy), I must admit that I actually enjoy these tracks to bits, in spite (or perhaps because) of their faults. There's something about Aretha talking about getting herself another fashion faux-pas, or in her words: "a dress with the fringes flyin' high" (referring to that low-cut yellow leather get-up she's wearing on the cover, I'd imagine), threatening to show everyone up at the disco and "do it up right tonight..and then some," or Aretha in her inimitable French, asking her ladies to "party down, s'il vous plait"in "Ladies Only," that while perhaps awkward and slightly delusional, is to me, much more unpretentiously endearing than anything else. While I suspect these songs might have cleared a dancefloor in record time in 1979; given some of these songs' limitations; Van McCoy's and Charles Kipps' production values, trendy or not, really did seem to make the most of these two tracks, at least to my ears. The slow-building intro to "Ladies Only" ends up showing off her voice in its full splendour while Arthur Jenkins' arrangements on "Ladies Only" create a backing that is as warm and inviting as her infectious performance. And really, being Aretha's own compositions, while in this case lacking in the lyrical department, they never really fail as far as their chords and melodies are concerned.
One track however, that needs no criticism or defense is the album's second track, "It's Gonna Get A Bit Better," one of the songs which has been unjustly buried beneath this album's reputation. Written by the late Lalomie Washburn, who had worked with Rufus & Chaka Khan (and had done a stellar album of her own for Casablanca's Parachute imprint), and arranged by Richard Gibbs, the orchestration ends up taking a backseat to the groove on this one. With it's simple, uplifting "try dancin'" refrain, lyrically it manages to pay tribute to disco with much more grace and verve than either of Aretha's disco contributions. Musically, with the Queen's vocals on fire and the track's scratchy guitars and in-the-pocket basslines, it's one of the funkiest tunes on the record and one of the album's ultimate highlights. Aretha wouldn't rock a groove this tight until hooking up with Luther Vandross for "Jump To It" some three years later.
While her disco tracks weren't the best showcase for her songwriting, Aretha's finest contribution here as a songwriter is without a doubt, the rousing, gospel-tinged "Honey I Need Your Love." A brief return to classic Aretha territory, not only written, but also produced by Aretha herself; the song showcases the lady at her finest - at the piano, singing - or rather, sangin' her butt off.. Musically, with its piano driven intro and build-up, it also ends up sounding like her reply to Natalie Cole's rather Aretha-esque breakout hit, "This Will Be." Perhaps a reply not only to that but to certain segments of the press who had reportedly taken to calling Natalie "the next Aretha," which given some of her recent declarations, must have had Queen Ree in a righteous regal huff. While Aretha has since dismissed their legendary feud as a bit of press manufactured publicity (partly encouraged by Natalie, according to Aretha of course), one still can't help but think of this song as perhaps the Queen Of Soul's way of exercising some of her property rights, so to speak.
Luckily, there's some live TV footage of this song archived (for now) on YouTube. Not sure which program this is from, but with Aretha on piano with a full band behind her, she delivers a practically flawless performance.
Aretha Franklin - Honey I Need Your Love (Live)
Uploaded by arethafan2006
Another one of the album's high points is the only other track not produced by McCoy & Kipps, the second track on Side Two, "Reasons Why." Produced by the late Skip Scarborough (Patti LaBelle, The Emotions, Phyllis Hyman) and written by Scarborough, Wanda Hutchinson of the Emotions and Wayne Vaughn (who had also produced The Emotions and Earth, Wind & Fire), it's a pity there weren't more like this on the album. With a groove held down by a heavy bassline and a killer horn section topped off with some of Aretha's most spirited vocals on the album; it's one of the most assured performances on the record. A standout simply because it's one of the songs on the record that managed to both boldly step her out in a new direction, yet still managed to bring out the best in Aretha.
As far as the album's ballads go, it's there where the drippy, overwrought orchestration really starts to weigh things down. While songs like "I Was Made For You," penned by son Clarence (and performed as a duet with Van McCoy), McCoy's own "You Brought Me Back To Life" and co-producer Charles Kipps' "What If I Should Ever Need You" (recorded not long before by Gladys Knight & The Pips) are decent enough; unfortunately Aretha ends up sounding far too constrained by the maudlin production to really give them the sort of intimacy and feeling that the ballads on her earlier albums had. That said, the best of the bunch would have to be Zulema Cusseaux's contribution as songwriter and arranger, "Half A Love," which allowed her a brief respite from the flowery arrangements into something displaying a bit more attitude and range.
The main flaw with the ballads is highlighted and contrasted perfectly by another awesome live performance (also from Mike Douglas Show) archived on YouTube. A performance of Charles Kipps' "What If I Should Ever Need You," the live arrangement allows Aretha to take it to church as it were, and put her stamp on the song much more effectively than the studio recording on the LP.
Aretha Franklin - What If I Should Ever Need You (Live)
Uploaded by arethafan2006
Coming full circle, closing the album is another one of the album's straight-to-the-disco tracks, Van McCoy's "The Feeling." The most energetic of the disco tracks on the album, albeit still in the realm of run-of-the-mill disco dross, it's nothing that's exactly mind-blowing or potentially chart-topping. Vocally driven, light on the groove, but heavy on the orchestration, and without being marred by any of Aretha's cliched disco lyrics, they actually do manage to turn out a decent piece of safe, quintessential 'diva disco' on this track.
White not a total write-off; admittedly Aretha's 'disco' album does come off as an ultimately flawed and imperfect release in the end. Despite that however, it does have it's guilty pleasures and shining moments. And it's those bright moments in particular which really show what probably could have been, had circumstances been just a little bit better planned and guided. While no disrespect to McCoy and Kipps intended, perhaps instead of getting them to do practically the entire album, Aretha and co. could have gotten a few other outside producers to contribute and give some balance and perhaps a wider variety of updated musical settings. I'd venture to guess that the album ended up coming off as too far and too desperate of a 'disco' effort for an artist of her stature to really appeal to the general public or a good chunk of her fanbase. By the same token, the record probably sounded too watered down and not seriously disco enough (especially this late in the game) to make an impact on the disco audience either, for that matter. It's honestly one of those records which makes me understand the place of the oft-credited (though noticeably absent from this record) 'disco consultant' on some of the albums of the time.
However, the album as it is, is what it is, after all. And while it's not exactly "Young, Gifted and Black" (1971, Atlantic), thankfully with the calibre of its musicianship and with Aretha's voice in top form, sounding as golden as it ever was; dare I say, it's not nearly as awful and ill-advised as some of the dreck she would later release under the auspices of Clive Davis at Arista, either. Not to tarnish her entire tenure at that label, but for all the negative press on this album, and all the mythology about Davis' golden touch, I'd question whether "La Diva" is seriously any worse than, say 1991's questionably titled "What You See Is What You Sweat," for example (anyone remember that one?). Personally, I think not.
I'd imagine the growing backlash towards disco in the US, and the sheer horror of their beloved Queen Of Soul giving into 'disco fever' at that period in time likely also played a part in this album's reception and the almost fervent disdain that it still seems to inspire. While not exactly a record deserving of a complete re-evaluation and certainly far from the most graceful bid for disco credibility; in fact parts of the album are admittedly the musical equivalent of an Aretha fashion-faux pas with all of it's guilt-loaded, head-shaking entertainment value (admit it, you've all seen the photo, and had a private laugh to yourselves about it). That being said, it's certainly not an album without its salvageable high points, either.
Some Trivia: Notably, "La Diva" along with four of the other records she did in the late 70's for Atlantic are, to date, are some of the only Aretha albums that haven't yet made it to CD. It was revealed in a 2003 interview with David Nathan for Billboard (PDF file link) that upon her departure from the label, Atlantic had actually given her the rights to some those later albums - which included "La Diva," along with "You" (1975), " With Everything I Feel In Me" (1974), "Sweet Passion" (1977) and "Almighty Fire" (1978). Essentially all of her lesser regarded albums for the label and likely the most plausible reason for their continued unavailability.
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DISCOGS: ARETHA FRANKLIN - LA DIVA LP
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ALL MUSIC GUIDE: ARETHA FRANKLIN - LA DIVA LP
BLENDER: ARETHA FRANKLIN - LA DIVA (REVIEW)
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RATE YOUR MUSIC: ARETHA FRANKLIN - LA DIVA
EPINIONS.COM: ARETHA AS A DISCO QUEEN..YEAH, I BELIEVE IT TOO (FEBRUARY 19, 2007)
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BILLBOARD: FRANKLIN: 'I GUESS I WAS TRAILBLAZING A LITTLE' (INTERVIEW WITH DAVID NATHAN) (OCTOBER 4, 2003) (PDF FILE)
CATEGORIES: DISCO DELIVERIES, VISUAL DISCO