Spirit In the Dark

Spirit In the Dark

Aretha Franklin was so busy and prolific in the late 1960s and early 1970s that some of her albums tended to be overlooked—especially within the popular media, where some writers didn’t consider pop singers to be serious artists. Remarkably, 1970’s Spirit in the Dark is one of those lesser-heralded albums, despite the fact that it features multiple hit singles, including “Don’t Play That Song”—a deceptively upbeat tale of infidelity and betrayal that became a chart success. “Don’t Play That Song” had originally been recorded by Ben E. King, but Franklin had a way of making other singers’ tunes her own—and here, she just walks in and takes over with her version. That sense of confidence would help steer much of Spirit in the Dark. Franklin walked into the recording sessions for the album just five weeks after giving birth to her third child, bringing along two B.B. King songs she wanted to perform. While her interpretation of King’s “The Thrill is Gone” is sultry and smoky, it’s her piano-playing that shines here—and that’s saying a lot, because her vocal is absolutely impeccable. She shows it off again later on, with a committed version of King’s “Why I Sing the Blues.” Elsewhere on Spirit in the Dark, Franklin bridges the sacred and the profane on the title track, yet another number that leaves listeners torn over what’s more overwhelming: Franklin’s vocals or her piano-playing. Meanwhile, “When the Battle Is Over” is a slice of New Orleans funk that could easily be sung at church, one that features Duane Allman on guitar. He’s just one of several talented players on Spirit in the Dark, which also features turns from the Dixie Flyers and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section—the kind of session players who understand what Franklin’s trying to do, appreciate her talent, and support her without showboating. They knew that anyone would look stupid trying to look superior next to Aretha Franklin.

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