The singer Aretha Franklin, who came to be known as the queen of soul, began her career as a child, singing gospel at a Baptist church in Detroit, US, where her father, C.L. Franklin, was a minister. Franklin senior, well-networked and highly influential in the community, used to have parties at his residence that were attended by, among others, famous musicians such as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum and B.B. King. In the recently released biopic on her, Respect, we see her father waking up a young Aretha at night to come and sing for his carousing guests.
Ree, as she was known in the family, was always willing to do that. And in one scene, we hear a guest ask another, “How old is she?” The other guest replies, “She’s 10 but her voice is going on 30.” For Franklin always had a magically gifted, mature voice, which got better and more versatile with time, and when she died at 76 in 2018, she left a legacy of recordings that spanned genres—gospel, of course, but soul, R&B, and even pop, rock, and hip hop. In Respect, the actor Jennifer Hudson, also an accomplished singer, plays Aretha, while her father is played by Forest Whitaker.
The film, which also covers Franklin’s tumultuous relationship with her father and her abusive first husband, brings to the fore the fact that her gospel singing in church was the founding ground for her successful career as a soul singer. As a recording artist, Franklin was prolific. She released nearly 40 studio albums during her career, besides several live recordings and compilations, and sold an estimated 75 million albums worldwide.
Not long after I finished watching Respect and marvelling yet again at Franklin’s talent, I heard a new album by another soul singer, Anthony Hamilton. And while any comparison with Franklin would seem specious, Hamilton too is a veteran, if not a king, of contemporary soul. At 50, he is a multi-platinum selling singer and songwriter whose wide influence on other soul singers is unmistakable. His new, seventh, studio album, Love Is The New Black, comes five years after his last one. Hamilton, raised by a single mother in Charlotte, North Carolina, and his grandparents, also began by singing in the choir of his local church. He was in his teens at the time.
After savouring Aretha Franklin’s music and her life story in Respect, it was delightful to segue into the music of a contemporary proponent of soul and R&B. Compared to many other modern male soul and R&B singers, Hamilton has a grittier vocal quality that has the imprint of a raw country music style. His singing is often compared to the late Marvin Gaye’s style of the 1970s. And, although Hamilton does go sometimes for cross-genre collaborations with other artists, his songs usually have a classic soul tinge to them.
Hamilton had a hardscrabble life and his success as a singer didn’t come easy—he had to take up various jobs, including working as a barber in his home town. His breakthrough came with his second album, Comin’ From Where I’m From, in 2003. That album sold 1.2 million copies in the US even though Hamilton was virtually unknown at the time. Some of the album’s songs, such as Charlene (a romantic ballad), Mama Knew Love (about his mother’s struggles in life) and Comin’ From Where I’m From (about growing up with an absent father), are autobiographical.
Hamilton’s lyrics are deeply personal. And they are underscored by a book he has published recently—the lavish Cornbread Fish’n Collard Greens, possibly the only one of its kind to be written by a soul singer. It’s a coffee-table extravaganza with Hamilton writing about his life, his family—his mother and grandmother, in particular—but also has the backstories and meanings of many of his songs. “This book,” he writes, “will give new meaning to songs that have lived in your hearts and minds for so long. I wanna take you all into the studios and allow you to travel through my pen; be the ink for a minute.”
He writes about his journey, from being broke and on the porch of his family home to the White House with president Barack Obama, and Nelson Mandela’s home. And about being asked by Prince to perform at his home, and of being on stage with legends such as the singers Stevie Wonder and D’Angelo. But it is the third part of the book that makes it unique. Growing up on “soul food”, the traditional cuisine of African-Americans from the south, Hamilton is a self-confessed cooking aficionado and the book has excellent recipes for dishes such as Garlic Shrimp and Butter Fettuccine, Cast Iron Cornbread, Collard Greens with Smoked Turkey, and Southern Trout.
His new album, Love Is The New Black, reaffirms his position as one of the foremost soul singers of his time. It has his signature style—southern grit and a 1970s’ soul idiom—and is stacked with songs that range from sad ballads (Mercy) to being spurned in love (You Made A Fool Of Me) and discrimination and justice (Safe). Watching Aretha Franklin’s Respect, which documents the singer’s struggles and success in a different era, and following it up with Hamilton’s songs and musings is like a deep immersion in the overwhelming genre that is soul.
THE LOUNGE LIST (Five tracks to bookend your week)
Respect by Aretha Franklin from I Never Loved A Man the Way I Love you
(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin from Lady Soul
Charlene by Anthony Hamilton from Comin’ From Where I’m From
You Made A Fool of Me by Anthony Hamilton from Love Is The New Black
Superstar by Anthony Hamilton from Love Is The New Black
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