Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity (Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Phoebe Snow)

Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity (Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Phoebe Snow)

by Michael Awkward


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Soul Covers is an engaging look at how three very different rhythm and blues performers-Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and Phoebe Snow-used cover songs to negotiate questions of artistic, racial, and personal authenticity. Through close readings of song lyrics and the performers' statements about their lives and work, the literary critic Michael Awkward traces how Franklin, Green, and Snow crafted their own musical identities partly by taking up songs associated with artists such as Dinah Washington, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, George Gershwin, Billie Holiday, and the Supremes.

Awkward sees Franklin's early album Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington, released shortly after Washington's death in 1964, as an attempt by a struggling young singer to replace her idol as the acknowledged queen of the black female vocal tradition. He contends that Green's album Call Me (1973) reveals the performer's attempt to achieve formal coherence by uniting seemingly irreconcilable aspects of his personal history, including his career in popular music and his religious yearnings, as well as his sense of himself as both a cosmopolitan black artist and a forlorn country boy. Turning to Snow's album Second Childhood (1976), Awkward suggests that through covers of blues and soul songs, Snow, a white Jewish woman from New York, explored what it means for non-black enthusiasts to perform works considered by many to be black cultural productions. The only book-length examination of the role of remakes in American popular music, Soul Covers is itself a refreshing new take on the lives and work of three established soul artists.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822339977
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/04/2007
Series: Refiguring American Music Series
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

Michael Awkward is Gayl A. Jones Collegiate Professor of Afro-American Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Scenes of Instruction: A Memoir, also published by Duke University Press; Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality; and Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels.

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soul covers

Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity (Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Phoebe Snow)
By Michael Awkward

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3997-7

Chapter One

"she's the next one"

Aretha Franklin's Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington and the Black Women's Vocal Legacy

In Queen of the Blues, a biography of the singer Dinah Washington, who "from 1949 to 1958 ... joined the ranks of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald as one of the most popular blues and jazz singers of all time" (Bego 34), Jim Haskins discusses his subject in a way that suggests the sometimes pernicious effects of the tendency of fans and critics to evaluate new artists as virtual replicas of earlier performers so as to satisfy their own, seemingly insatiable need for artistic continuity:

Dinah ... had to contend with the pressures of stardom and with the inevitable comparisons with Bessie Smith, whom Dinah resembled somewhat in appearance, as well as in style. Old-timers who were nostalgic for Bessie kept looking for a new Bessie in Dinah. And none other than John Hammond, record producer and star-finder, said, "Dinah's stage behavior is very similar to Bessie's. I am struck by it each time I hear her sing. [But] she's no Bessie, not yet." Dinah knew that there were other, private comparisons between her and Bessie-that they were both unattractive, rough-hewn, and moody-and she disliked the comparisons, good and bad. Still, there were bases for them. (60)

According to Haskins, Washington created herself in large part by appropriating aspects of the styles of established performers whom she found compelling. Indeed, he insists that she utilized as models such entertainers as Roberta Martin, who "started that fad of the gospel sound on the piano"; Bette Davis, from whose engrossing cinematic characters she learned to speak "beautifully"; and the "mesmeriz[ing]" Billie Holiday, whose subtlety and economy of vocal gestures she so admired as a young singer that she ultimately "tone[d] down her own [extravagant] presentation, trying to see if she, too, could hold an audience with the sheer power of her singing" (18, 21). While openly acknowledging the other influences, Washington disliked the Smith comparison for three reasons: first, the resemblance between the two singers, in the estimation of onlookers so ready to seize upon apparent affinities, was such that they ignored the differences between the firmly established and emerging artists; second, the link was based largely on what she knew others thought were unappealing physical and behavioral traits; and third, given the "nostalgic" lens through which such affinities are gazed, she must have felt that others would conclude that she was unable to match the artistic acumen of her predecessor.

This comparison troubled Washington, who was struggling with a quandary faced by many emerging artists: how to construct a sufficiently individuated mode of self-expression while employing, and even calling attention to her utilization of, cultural codes and styles whose guiding principles informed not only her aesthetic choices and formal concerns but also her listeners' notions of her prospects for future significance. But however problematic such comparisons proved to the young Washington, it would appear that-to cite a more recent example-the situation of Natalie Cole was even more daunting because of her connections to two already famous singers. She was burdened, in particular, by the legacies of her iconic father, the smooth crooner Nat "King" Cole, which she confronted in her celebrated tribute album, Unforgettable: With Love (1991), and of this chapter's subject, Aretha Franklin, who succeeded Washington as the dominant black female singer and after whom Cole patterned her own vocal style. In her autobiography, Cole relates an early manager's contention, offered after her performance of "a string of Aretha Franklin songs one night," that if she hoped "to establish [her] own distinctive sound," she should stop singing songs associated with her "idol," whom he believed she "sound[ed] too much like." Subsequently, Cole sought "to finesse a little bit ... and still interpret ... in [her] own way, without outright stealing" from Franklin's style (103). Soon thereafter, she was chosen by Marvin Yancy and Chuck Jackson to record material that became Inseparable, her first album, precisely because, having failed to interest Franklin in their songs, the producers changed their emphasis from recording the established Queen to "looking for the next Aretha" (108).

During her three years of phenomenal success, Cole felt compelled to deny that she "had really begun to believe that [she] was the new Queen of Soul" (131) because golden record sales, critical acclaim, and promotional efforts by Capitol Records and by her producers, Yancy and Jackson, who "had been hyping her around the music world as 'the next Aretha Franklin'" (O'Neill 232), all led people to believe that she posed a serious threat to her idol's reign. This threat is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that at the 1975 Grammy Awards, where Cole "became the first black ever voted Best New Artist" (O'Neill 231), her initial single, "This Will Be," was deemed to contain the Best Female R & B Vocal Performance, "a category," notes Cole, "that Aretha Franklin had won every year for the past nine years." She adds, "I took away what would have been her tenth" (131). Although her facts here are a bit askew-Franklin had won eight, not nine, consecutive Grammys, and was not nominated in the category in the year of Cole's initial victory-her emergence at the point when her idol's popularity had begun to wane positioned her, in the minds of music critics and fans (and, apparently, of the older singer herself ), as the first serious rival for the symbolic title Queen of Soul, to which Franklin had held exclusive claim since a Chicago deejay conferred it on her after the release of her debut Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, in 1967.

In the following discussion, I examine Franklin's Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington (1964) as a compelling manifestation of this singer's early attempts to master the nuances of black vocal traditions. Her lengthy apprenticeship at Columbia during the first half of the 1960s, where her encounters with commercial and aesthetic failure were perplexing and dispiriting, clearly forced her to assess both the field itself and her potential contributions to it. Among the choicest fruits of these assessments is her first "album concept" (Franklin and Ritz 82), a collection of interpretations of songs closely associated with an idol who, before her death in 1963 at age thirty-nine from an imprudent mixture of diet and sleeping pills and hard liquor, was so highly esteemed that, more than thirty years later, she remained one of the twenty most popular acts in the history of the genre, sandwiched between the Four Tops and Earth, Wind, and Fire (Whitburn, Singles 621). I am particularly interested in considering her tribute as evidence of how the young Aretha, whose dominance of the field of black singing had been prophesied by Washington herself before she was a teenager, responded to evidence that she had not mastered her craft sufficiently to garner either commercial success or widespread critical acclaim.

As we have seen, Cole responds to the "immense anxieties of indebtedness" (Bloom, Anxiety 5) by avoiding tunes associated with her idol while seeking the artistic "finesse" to reference Franklin's style without imitating it. By contrast, the young Aretha is quoted in her tribute's liner notes as saying that she recorded Unforgettable to honor a singer with whom she wished she had "been close personal friends," and to give "people some idea of the way [she] felt and [would] always feel about Dinah" as an artist and as one of the many famous adults who visited her childhood home because of their fondness for her father, Reverend C. L. Franklin. Her anxieties concern not mimicry, as do Cole's, but discovery of the limits of her own prodigious gift that obliged her to approach the songs in "the way they felt best, whether [the results] happened to be similar [to] or different" from Washington's recordings. Staking a claim to a place within the regal black female line, Franklin uses her idol's songs to construct "a distinctive voice ... differentiated from its precursors" (Bloom, Anxiety 148) through interpretations of work associated with the Queen of the Blues.

Indelible Marks and Erasable Imprints

The explanations that singers and producers construct to justify their tributes to other artists are often as arresting as the discs themselves. This genre-which in the vast field of black music includes Motown's covers of songs by the Beatles, Marvin Gaye's of those by Nat "King" Cole, and contemporary artists' tributes to Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and Luther Vandross-displays a pull of tradition, nostalgia, and influence as profound as, for example, the stirring commemorative tracks that mark and mourn Gaye's own passing (including Maze's "Silky Soul Singer," Teena Marie's "My Dear Mr. Gaye," the Commodores' "Night Shift," and Diana Ross's "Missing You"). If we exclude from our consideration the proliferation of tributes to young artists such as Norah Jones and Ashanti-the lasting significance of whose recordings is still very much in question-this genre seems generally to reflect efforts on the part of singers and musicians to acknowledge the work of infirm, recently deceased, under-appreciated, or highly esteemed predecessors whose music represent a high point in what is often an obsolescent style. In addition, tributes generally reflect a cagey selectivity on the part of the performer, who chooses songs on the basis of personal taste, the extent to which they can be made to fit his or her style, and their familiarity to the general public.

Focusing on the issue of selectivity enables us to consider both the nature of performers' recognition of earlier artists and their uses of such projects to initiate, preserve, or crystallize the specific directions of their own careers. In the case of Regina Belle's Reachin' Back (1995), an album of songs originally recorded in Philadelphia during the 1970s by Teddy Pendergrass, the Spinners, the O'Jays, the Stylistics, Blue Magic, and the Delfonics, her selection of romantic tunes such as "Could It Be I'm Falling in Love," "Just Let Me Make Love to You," and "You are Everything" and her exclusion of songs featuring turgid social commentary such as "Ghetto Child," "For the Love of Money," and "People Make the World Go Round" are noteworthy. For those who associate R & B music produced in this city during the 1970s with examinations of social inequality, with (in the words of Philadelphia International Records' company motto) a sociopolitical "message in our music," her concentration on love songs might seem at least curious. Belle's (re)collection of Philly sounds, then, is not only partial, as all such tributes are by necessity, but appears to depoliticize the city's black musical output. It is not that she distorts or recklessly reimagines the music of her formative years-years that are generously referenced through her inclusion in the disk's insert of photographs of herself at various stages of development-but that, in her choice of lush love songs whose chief architects are Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their frequent collaborator, Thom Bell, she constructs the city as a romantic setting where the politics of romance exists as a crucial musical subject alongside economic inequity, racial unity, interracial and intraracial strife, familial dysfunction, and materialist excess.

A track on Belle's second album, Stay with Me (1989), conflates Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free" and Marvin Gaye's "Save the Children," demonstrating that she was not uninterested in the types of messages that Philadelphia songs of social protest represent. Given that demonstrated interest, we might speculate that her extended nostalgic journey to an earlier point in the history of her chosen field of artistic expression constitutes a critical response on Belle's part to the directions of black popular music after the 1970s, when the City of Brotherly Love ceased to be the epicenter of recorded soul. The work of an artist who entered the scene in the mid-1980s, a period notable both as a low point for R & B vocalists and for the emergence of politically engaged rap as a dominant form, Reachin' Back offers Belle a way to connect herself to obsolescent modes of singing, revive a style of expressive romantic satisfaction, longing, and pain imperiled in the age of songs with titles like "Do Me Baby" and "Rub You the Right Way," and contest a reduction of 1970s Philadelphia music to a largely political register that serves implicitly to devalue remarkable records that emerged during her childhood and helped to shape her notions of the aesthetics of romance.

Because Belle does not discuss her project in detail, however certain I am of the implications of her choices and of the musical environment in which it appeared, my analysis of her intentions-which, according to her, was simply to "make an album that would remind folks of the blue light that hung in their basements or slow dancing with one's first love" (VH1 Biography)-is, at best, plausible conjecture. Other projects, however, provide significantly more in the way of explanation, including Dee Dee Bridgewater's dear Ella (1997), a tribute to the jazz stalwart that appeared a year after Fitzgerald's death. This album's liner notes, authored in part by Bridgewater herself, include the types of reverential comments younger people generally construct in response to acclaimed figures in their chosen fields. She acknowledges, for example, reacting "like a true fan" during her initial encounter with the legendary artist, whose incomparable work she had long admired, and her heartfelt commitment both to the older singer and to the imperiled music that connects them, a commitment that is encapsulated in her observation that "Ella Fitzgerald epitomized jazz singing, a style that seems destined for near-extinction as we move toward the 21st century. While there are some promising young jazz singers who've taken up the challenge of what we term today traditional jazz singing, the pickings are slim." Positioning herself as spiritual and artistic heir, Bridgewater speaks of experiencing "such a profound sadness that it almost frightened [her]" when she learned of Fitzgerald's death, like she might have felt if she'd "lost a member of [her] own family," and admits she had thought of her as "immortal, like a child does with its parents." And though recognizing Fitzgerald as part of a group of canonical female jazz vocalists (she places her "along with other great ladies we've lost, like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, [and] Carmen McCrae"), Bridgewater contends that "it is Ella who left the most indelible mark" because she was the best exemplar of the obsolescent art of "traditional jazz singing."

According to notions of artistic succession such as those described by literary critic Harold Bloom, potentially great younger artists strive to establish their own preeminence because they fear that the work of precursors will always be deemed more cogent, thematically compelling, and aesthetically satisfying than anything they can create, and that they will forever be seen as disciples of a "major figure" who have failed to create themselves. If artists are to become truly powerful in their own right, they must move beyond idol worship to discover and create their own voice by situating themselves energetically in terms of-but also, and perhaps more important, in marked conflict with-their forebears' daunting example. "Weaker talents idealize," Bloom declares, while the "strong ... wrestle with their strong precursors" (Anxiety 5).


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface: "How the Parts Relate to the Whole" xiii

Introduction: "I Live in the Lyrics": On Truth, Intent, Image, Identity, and Song Covers 1

"She's the Next One": Aretha Franklin's Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington and the Black Women's Vocal Legacy 25

"Something like Wholeness": Al Green's Call Me and the Struggle for Thematic Integrity 81

"Miss Snow, Are You Black?": Second Childhood and the Cultural Politics of Musical Style in the Post-Civil Rights Era 137

Coda: "Going Home" 201

Notes 213

Bibliography 225

Index 235

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Michael Awkward’s Soul Covers signals the beginning of a new era in the critical engagement with African American music of the 1960s and 1970s. Moving beyond the historical overviews and critical biographies that have defined the field, he provides three crucial albums with the kinds of close reading usually reserved for canonical literary texts. His choices are unusual and inspired, offering pathways into a richer understanding of Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and the greatly underappreciated Phoebe Snow. Awkward captures the complex music of the era in writing that, like its subjects, has real soul.”—Craig Werner, author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America

“With Soul Covers, Michael Awkward weds his devotion to close reading to his appreciation of rhythm and blues and soul music, creating a book that stands out as unique among the scholarship and criticism on black popular music.”—Mark Anthony Neal, author of Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation

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