My way of paying a tribute to Aretha Franklin

With the sad news that Aretha Franklin passed away yesterday, I thought I’d write my own tribute from a dancers point of view, by giving you some background to two of her dance classics – Respect and Think.  These two tracks are legends in their own right, but I want to focus on their contribution to the development of dance music and to try to explain how they became Modern Jive classics.

That Respect and Think were picked up by Modern Jive DJs was initially down to them having a beat that was perfect for our style of dancing.  But it was more than that.  These two tracks have something else that makes them perfect for people who want to fully express themselves on the Modern Jive dance floor.  In trying to define just what that something is, will be my own way of paying tribute to one of the greatest voices to ever adorn a dance record.

The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section play their part

Aretha’s fabulous vocal delivery was always going to get her some recognition, and it was no surprise that in 1960, by the tender age of 18, she was given a recording contract by CBS.  Aretha achieved some success with CBS, but it was her transfer to Atlantic Records in 1967, under the tutelage of  record producer Jerry Wexler, that Aretha found the sound that would propel her to greatness.

Atlantic Records at this time was home to some of the greatest Black R&B voices ever – Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave and perhaps the owner of the greatest soulful voice ever Otis Redding.

When it comes to making great dance music, the role of the producer and the musicians are sometimes as important as the vocalist.

The Motown house band The Funk Brothers are now seen as important to the success of Motown artists, like The Supremes, The Four Tops and The Temptations, as their respective lead singers.

At Atlantic Wexler would call on the talents of a session band, that would later gain fame as The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.  It was this rhythm section that would give the dance floor energy to the backing tracks that Aretha sang over on Respect and Think.  I don’t want to underplay Aretha’s vocal talents, but it’s often the instrumentation of the backing track that I connect with first as I walk on to the dance floor.

A Cover of an Otis Redding Track

Aretha’s breakout track was actually a cover of an Otis Redding track, recorded a few months previously at The Stax Studios in Memphis.  Respect was written by Otis himself, and on his version the backing track was provided by the house band at Stax, which included Booker T and The MGs aided by Issac Hayes (he of The Theme from Shaft) and backing vocals by William Bell (who duetted on Private Number with Judy Clay).

The record was produced by The MGs legendary guitarist Steve Cropper, who would later co-write Reddings Sitting on the dock of the bay.  I mention all these people to show how the dance records that bring us so much joy, are the result of many peoples’ talent and creativity.

It’s the same with the modern tracks we dance to.  The record producers, who mix the layers of instrumentation in to the tracks that fill our dance floors, are often given equal billing to the vocalist.  The current Ceroc and Modern Jive floor filler One Kiss is credited to Calvin Harris featuring Dua Lipa.  For Calvin Harris read Jerry Wrexler or Steve Cropper.

Aretha makes Respect her own

Of course Aretha’s version of Respect would not be the same record without her unique soulful delivery, but two lyrical additions were made that helped make this iconic song her own.  The female backing singers are Franklin’s sisters – Erma and Carolyn.

It was Carolyn along with Aretha who are said to have come up with the idea of the line ‘Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me’, and Carolyn is thought to be the person who came up with the idea of Aretha spelling out the chorus ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’.  These two additions to the Otis Redding lyric helped make this song the iconic crusading anthem of both Afro-American Blacks and women.

A guitar lick, sax solo and ‘Ooh’s in the background

The lyrics are one of the reasons for the tracks iconic status, but I want to try and understand what makes it a great Modern Jive track.  The song starts with a simple, but very engaging horn refrain and guitar lick.  Then Erma and Carolyn mark time with some backing ‘Oohs’.  Even before Aretha starts singing you feel the raw funkiness of the track.  That’s the mark of Wexler’s production and the input of the house bands musicianship.

It’s that funkiness that gives this track it’s dance appeal. But there’s more.  I’ve learnt that in slower bluesy music you should listen for the breaks, and use them to accentuate your musicality.  It’s not long before Aretha comes in with the line:

What you want, baby I got it. (Ooh) What you need, you know I got it. (Ooh)

You soon realise that these ‘Ooh’s are the breaks that you can play with.  They hit you because Aretha’s voice is pitched so high that the softer Ooh’s really stand out.  The biggest break comes just before Aretha goes in to the ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ refrain.  It just takes a couple of times of listening to the track before you recognise the breaks, and then you can really play.

Another part of the track that wasn’t in Redding’s original is the Saxophone solo at the bridge.  Wexler got Sax player King Curtis to add a solo at this point and it gives the track another rousing ingredient that adds to its overall dance floor appeal.

If you think that was funky . . .

At the end of The ’60s Motown was king of the dance floor, but change was on the way.  James Brown was about to unleash his version of funk that would change dance music forever.  We all know Get up (I feel like being a) sex machine, but three years earlier Brown started the funk revolution with Give it up or turn it a loose.

Of course Brown didn’t create funk in a vacuum and he would have heard Aretha Franklin’s Think as it rose to the top of the pop charts.  Aretha actually co-wrote Think and it shows that she was more than just an amazing soulful voice.  In fact Franklin was also an accomplished pianist and she plays the bluesy piano intro to the track.

Erma and Carolyn play their part again

The track has many of the ingredients of Respect – the great backing track from the The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and the accented backing contributions from sisters Erma and Carolyn.  The way they repeat Aretha’s chant of ‘Think’ gives the track its guts, and as they repeat Aretha’s key phrases throughout the track, they add to the tracks funky footprint.

Contrast this earthy gospel backing style to the prettier backing that Supremes Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson gave Diana Ross on Motown hits like Baby Love.

No one would doubt that Diana Ross deserves her place in the female vocalist Hall of Fame, but when you listen to Franklin’s rendition of Think you realise that she was aiming for a completely different delivery.  A delivery designed to raise the funk levels.

That deliver means that Think will always hit more buttons in your dance brain than Baby love can ever do.  Just listen to Aretha and her sisters as they chant ‘Freedom’ in the bridge section.  Aretha’s powerful delivery raises the emotions and that means more engagement on the dance floor.

The Blues Brothers pay their respects

It’s a mark of the reverence for Think that it was used in the soundtrack of the dance movie The Blues Brothers.  The original recording is perhaps a little earthier, but I’ve embedded the clip from the film because it shows its association with fun on the dance floor.

I love the coolness of the two Blues Brothers, played by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.  That coolness is something you can bring on to the Modern Jive dance floor.  Dancing is after all about having fun, so why not inject a little Blues Brother character in to your musicality.

There can be no better legacy than to know that people will dance to your music for eternity, so I’ll leave you with Aretha as she stars in this scene from the Blues Brothers film.  Just watch the fun everyone is having as they dance their way through this great song.

This weekend I suspect a lot of DJs will find a place for Respect and Think on their playlist.  Let’s show our appreciation that Aretha, with a little help from her friends in the studios of Atlantic Records, created these iconic dance tracks by dancing as joyously as we can.  There will be no better tribute.

POSTSCRIPT: The DJs indeed pay their respects

I’m sure that where ever you went dancing over the weekend the DJs paid homage to Aretha’s contribution to dance music.  On Friday night I was at the first-ever Ceroc Heaven Friesland Freestyle in Nottingham and DJ Mark O’Reilly mixed in eight of Aretha’s tracks in to his playlist, including the beautiful Say a little prayer for me.

It was another warm night and I’d worked up a bit of a sweet dancing to Mark’s music.  As I headed to the toilet, to change in to yet another shirt, I heard the intro to Aretha’s Respect.  Something told me that Think would be next up.  I changed shirts as quickly as I could (Respect is only 2 mins 30 secs long), and sure enough as I emerged I heard Aretha’s bluesy piano intro, shortly followed by her first strong demand that her man had better change his ways:

You better think (think).  Think about what you’re trying to do to me

I quickly asked someone to dance.  Once on the dance floor I had a smile on my face throughout, as I felt the joy of being fit and healthy that I could dance to this funk filled track.  You can’t help wonder how many trillion smiles have broken out across dancers faces over the years as DJs spun this track.  And all this joy from just one two minute twenty-one second take.  Take a bow Aretha, take a bow.

I’ll mention another of Mark’s Aretha Tribute tracks later.

Tel takes his opportunity to make a tribute

My mate Tel Jenkins was at The Friesland freestyle to make a photo album for the dancers.  Tel also took a lot of video clips of the dancing.  When it came to putting them all together, he used the original version of Think as the backing track.

Watching Tel’s video and listening to the original version again, makes me think that the version used for the Blues Brothers was a remix to make it work in the movie scene.  Sadly, as result Think lost a little of it’s earthy and funky vitality, so it’s good that the video gives me a chance to feature the original.

I also think (sorry for the pun again) that the track really brings Tel’s video to life, and works really well with the clips of Northern Soul dancing.  There is no doubt that Think would have found itself in the playlists of the Northern Soul DJs back in the ’70s.

Gary pays his own tribute

On Saturday night I was at Pirate Jive’s Shed freestyle in Nottingham with Gary Wharton on the decks.  Gary’s a bit of a Soul Boy, and always digs something out of the dance music vaults that brings a smile to my face.  Gary delivered one such soul filled track that I can’t remember dancing to before, and I instantly connected with it’s bluesy piano inspired funky beat.

This was going to be the special dance you hope for every time you go out.  As a joyous feeling touched my own soul, I realised who it was that was singing this fabulous song.

Here was Aretha doing what she was revered for – delivering as much soul in her voice as all the instrumentation in the background.

Having said that listen to the piano playing.  Take care, because it’s going to hit every button in your dance brain.  I suspect it is Aretha herself playing the piano – I never knew she was such an accomplished jazz and blues piano player.  Now listen to the piano solo.  It is something special, and makes the dance vibe that little more intense.

We all have to get a chance to dance to this special piece of blues music, so please Mr DJ dig out Try Matty’s, and let everyone connect with its blues infused dance vibe.   My thanks to DJ Gary for giving me the details of this fabulous track, and well done for finding it and showcasing it as a perfect tribute to the genius of Aretha Franklin.

John plays a 1962 gem as his tribute

After reading the above article DJ John Miller, who runs the Modern Jive freestyles at Great Bookham in Surrey, got in touch to tell me about his own tribute:

I played a few Aretha tracks at the Great Bookham freestyle last night, including this little gem – ‘Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive’.

Interestingly this track, with its big band feel was recorded in 1962 during Aretha’s stint with CBS records.  As I mentioned above it seems that CBS didn’t really know how best to showcase her outstanding vocal skills and simply had her doing covers of American Sing Book and Swing standards like Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive.

Having said that, Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive has proved to be something of a Modern Jive favourite when DJs want to add a little Swing in to their playlists.  The jazzy and slower tempo of this track offers plenty of breaks, that offer opportunities to play with your musicality.

You can hear the great range and quality of Aretha’s voice, in this recording, and you can see why CBS would have signed her, but Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records saw something else.  That something else just needed pairing with a different style of music – something rawer and funkier.  That pairing involved the The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and together they would start by creating the soul classics Respect and Think.

Mark plays a track that works for Modern Blues Dancing

DJ Mark O’Reilly also played both Try Matty’s and Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive in his own Friesland Aretha Tribute.  He also gave an airing to one more track that deserves it’s place in this tribute.  At the very end, as the lights came up and the crew started packing away, Mark played Aretha’s Doctor Feelgood (Love is a serious business).  I’ve just had another listen to it on my head phones and the track really blew me away.

The track was recorded for the same 1967 album as Respect.  It wouldn’t work in a main room setting, but’s it a great track for The Blues Room.  I still struggle with Blues dancing, but the one thing I’ve learnt and try to do, is to accentuate the breaks.

This track is full of well defined musical breaks, and is a perfect showcase for Aretha’s bluesy vocal talent.  I can’t help feeling that the guys who ran Blues and Smooth freestyles over the weekend, would have dug this track out and it would have given plenty of opportunities for some wonderful displays of musicality out on the dance floor.