Young, Gifted and Black
In 1972, Aretha Franklin was coming off a wave of successful albums—all part of a remarkable run that began in 1967, when she transitioned to Atlantic Records. After years of working as a singer, songwriter, and performer, Franklin finally had exposure, respect, and the financial rewards commensurate with an artist who by now had sold millions of records. Franklin was at a perennial career peak, and on 1972’s Young, Gifted and Black, her confidence in her abilities—and in her instrument—are abundantly manifested. It’s a record that finds her writing from the perspective of a mature adult woman who knows herself, and who’s enjoying her life and her relationships. And, as with all of Franklin’s albums from this era, Young, Gifted and Black teams Franklin with some of the best musicians of the day, including Billy Preston, Donny Hathaway, and Bernard Purdie (backing vocals, meanwhile, are provided by Franklin’s sisters—Carolyn and Erma—as well as The Sweet Inspirations). They all come together on an album that’s split between daring cover songs and a handful of stunning originals—including the ballad “Day Dreaming,” which topped the R&B charts in America. “First Snow in Kokomo,” meanwhile, is the only song Franklin wrote with no rhythm or groove; instead, it’s a quiet, pastoral account of spending the holidays in the country. Then there’s “Rock Steady,” with a flat-out hip-shaking groove—Donny Hathaway plays that opening riff—that leaves no doubt as to the song’s subject matter (and, thanks to that undeniable rhythm, “Rock Steady” remains Franklin’s most sampled song). Elsewhere on Young, Gifted and Black, Franklin takes on tunes from such acts as The Delfonics, Otis Redding, and, most importantly, Nina Simone, who co-wrote and originally performed the title track. The song immediately resonated within the rising Black Power movement of the late 1960s, and dovetailed with Franklin’s increasing involvement in the movement. Franklin would also receive acclaim for her renditions of Elton John’s “Border Song (Holy Moses),” as well as for her soulful interpretation of The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road”—one of the finest Fab Four covers of all time. On Franklin’s version, Billy Preston plays Hammond organ, and Carolyn and Erma Franklin bring a church choir into what was already a hymn in its own way.