Young, Gifted and Black
Released: February 1972
Chart Peak: #11
Weeks Charted: 31
Certified Gold: 4/19/72
Aretha's new album is quite disorienting. Except for the single, "Rock Steady," there's nothing left of her old Memphis-Muscle Shoals soul sound; in fact it sounds closer to a pop record than a soul record. Two of the songs Aretha wrote for the album, "First Snow in Kokomo" and "All The King's Horses" could pass for tunes from old Broadway musicals if you didn't check the album credits.
There are also some jarring lapses in taste, like "jingle bells" backups in a Burt Bacharach song, and several lapses in just plain musicianship. The list of sidemen is impressive -- Cornell Dupree on guitar, Bernard Purdie on drums, Chuck Rainey on bass, plus guest appearances by Billy Preston, Dr. John, Donny Hathaway, and Hubert Laws on flute. But they don't play as tightly as Aretha's earlier bands used to. No one seems to be giving the band direction. Also, to varying degrees, the musicians seem to be ill at ease with the largely pop material on the album.
Nonetheless, Young, Gifted and Black is an extremely personal, beautiful record, and is controlled throughout by one sensibility, Miss Franklin's. Unlike some of her past records, this one is all hers -- the sloppy, occasionally awkward and erratic quality as much as the charm and naivetê, the warmth, and the emotional power she generates.
Aretha is trying to deal with delicate, private areas of herself on this record. Soul music deals with deep feelings, but the singer usually distances himself from the song, which he usually hasn't written to begin with. Material is most often handled in a spirit of sincerity, which has been consciously parodied by James Brown and Tina Turner, and unconsciously parodied by Isaac Hayes. Gospel singing -- and in a different way, some forms of white rock and roll -- at least sometimes reaches moments of more direct personal communication. This is what Aretha seems to be struggling to do throughout the record -- in the sudden "Thank you, Jesus" in "Young, Gifted and Black," through the careful selection of material that she could relate to personally, and, above all, in the songs she wrote for herself.
The four original compositions, with the exception of "Rock Steady," are much more sedate and wistful than the other songs on the album. They're also less flawed technically, and once you acclimate yourself to the pop idiom they're written in, quite moving and poetic. "First Snow in Kokomo" is the weirdest -- a memory-fantasy about people learning how to make music, and about giving birth. The other two are love songs -- they have a completely uncynical, dreamlike belief in the power of love, and complete incomprehension when things don't work out. In the midst of her best song. "Daydreaming," she sings "When he's lonesome and love-starved. I'll be there to feed him." And it evokes a flood of feelings -- empathy with the aspiration, sadness that things seem to never work out the way she would like them to, and, in me, a deep feeling of identification with her and what she's doing. And I suppose that's the reason that, with all its flows, this record has such a powerful hold on me.
- Russell Gersten, Rolling Stone, 3/16/72.
As is always the case with a new release by Lady Soul, this one will be scrutinized, analyzed and sell like mad, as well it should. Highlights of this package Include "Long and Winding Road," "Day Dreaming" and her recent goldie "Rock Steady." Simply the sweetest soul music heard anywhere.
- Billboard, 1972.
After the obligatory Live At The Fillmore West and Greatest Hits albums, Aretha is back with a new crop of songs that range from the sambaesque "Day Dreaming" to the pulsating "Rock Steady," both of which, incidentally, are Aretha's own compositions. The sound is predominantly soft, so if you're strictly into her funky stuff, you'd best wait for the next "Greatest Hits" package.
There's nothing wrong with the mellow mood the Queen is apparently into but after the incredible energy level established in "Rock Steady," many other selections seem to be too low key. Of special note is a fantastic version of the Delfonics' biggie, "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)." Aretha's recording of this Thomas Bell-Bill Hart song represents a synthesis of all that's great about the soul scenes in Philadelphia and New York. A real winner.
As with all Aretha albums, the best possible musicians are used throughout. From Donny Hathaway to Hubert Laws to Billy Preston to Cornell Dupree to Bernard Purdie to Chuck Rainey, the cream of the jazz-soul fusion is represented; augmented by the tasteful production efforts of Atlantic's top men, Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd.
- Bob Moore Merlis, Words & Music, 6/72.
This plays straight to the nouveau-bourgeois black album audience, with all the self-consciousness and instrumentation that implies, but though it's genteel it's never bloodless: Aretha's free-flight improvisations are vehicles of a romanticism extreme and even unhinged enough to soar from the Afro-American experience right into the blithe fantasies of pop. She makes "Long and Winding Road" rock and turns the programmatic title anthem into a hymn. She proves herself a fond observer of everyday life on her own "First Snow in Kokomo." And on "Day Dreaming" she provides a metaphor her American-dreaming sisters and brothers can relate to: the song is wishful thinking, but the man it's about may just be real anyway, and that's the way America is sometimes. A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
At the time of the release of Young, Gifted and Black, Aretha Franklin was in transition. Often referred to as "Lady Soul" in the sixties, the world was now beginning to know her as "The Queen of Soul." She was coming off her 1970 album, the underrated Spirit in the Dark, which hadn't sold as well as prior albums. On the other hand, she was gaining confidence as a writer. For Young, Gifted and Black she wrote four songs (one third of the album), which went a long way in displaying that she not only possessed great range as a singer, but also as a songwriter. "All the King's Horses" is a heartbreaking tale of a relationship that didn't make it, likely inspired by the end of her marriage with manager Ted White. "Day Dreaming" and "Last Snow in Kokomo" are gorgeous, lilting, dreamy ballads. On the other hand, "Rock Steady" showed that she could still kick out the jams and rock the party better than anyone when she was in the mood to do so.
Ms. Franklin's considerable composing chops didn't curb her enthusiasm for continuing to interpret other people's songs. For the third time, she dipped into the Beatles' songbook for "The Long and Winding Road" (having previously recorded "Let It Be" and "Eleanor Rigby"). She also did a track by the then-new songwriting team of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, "Border Song." Although Elton's version is one of his greatest hits, it seemed as if it was written with Ms. Franklin in mind.
The title track, a version of a song originally written and recorded by Nina Simone, was a powerful statement for Ms. Franklin, who was pictured on the album cover draped in African garments and a regal headdress. But perhaps the most revealing new song on the album was "A Brand New Me."
Young, Gifted and Black shows Aretha Franklin as emotionally honest and intimate as she's ever been, relating the pain of a failed relationship, the joy of a new one, her confidence in her songwriting, not to mention her piano playing, abilities, and her pride in being a black woman. Lady Soul was now ready for her crown.
Young, Gifted and Black was voted the 76th greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.
- Brian Ives, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.
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