There are few training schools for singing as good as black fundamentalist churches. By the time Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Etta James had grown and left home, they had spent enough time in church singing gospel hymns to develop unshakeable rhythm, firm tone at any pitch or volume and effortless transitions.
Yet there is more to being a great singer than technical skill. It comes from the singer's drama and personality, it requires the cooperation of the producer to provide the right stage for that drama; and for these three women, it depends on their ability to apply the lessons of gopel hymns to the demands of other styles.
No one has applied gospel's inspirational sense of drama to popular styles more successfully than Aretha Franklin, and seldom has she done it as well as on "Almight Fire" (Atlantic SD 19161). For example, on "I Needed You, Baby," she sings the lyrics about needing her man in the same barely controlled quiver one finds at the start of gospel songs about needing Jesus.
The quiver reaches higher and higher flights, often taking one midline syllable through seven notes before returning on beat. Eventually, her feeling breaks loose completely and her voice is skipping all over four octaves. It is a glorious release, fin-apply the lessons of gospel hymns where language can't follow.
Any well-trained singer can leave a melody line and jump into a falsetto counterpoint. But Franklin's genius is to make such a shift sound like the inevitable breakthough of too much emotion.
"Almighty Fire" is her strongest work since the nine brilliant singles she recorded in 1967-68. She has teamed up again with producer-songwriter Curtis Mayfield, who helped her with her most recent success, the sound-track for "Sparkle." Mayfield is one of the strongest songwriters in soul, but he always sabotages his own works by singing them in a thin, narrow voice. So his collaboration with Franklin is a natural merger of strenghts and weaknesses. Mayfield wrote eight of this album's nine songs, all in the vocally dominated soul tradition. His production anchors Franklin's soaring gospel voice with melodic hooks, a sharp snare-drum arrangement and intimate lyrics, and she makes the most of his support.
The importance of the producer's role is evident on Nina Simone's "Baltimore" (CTI 7084). Her voice is deeper and more raw than Franklin's but is capable of bursting loose with the same intuitive surety. On this album, however, producer Greed Taylor keeps her under tight wraps.
Taylor goes all out for a smooth, lush atmosphere with huge string and choral sections, and directs Simone to parallel that feeling rather than counterpoint it. On must cuts, her distinctive gospel fervor is swalowed in the production. He also gives her ill-suited material like Randy Newman's "Baltimore" and Judy Collins' "My Father." Simone's aggressive syncopation on "Baltimore" destroys the elegiac sadness of the original; and "My Father" needs an understated delivery that it does not receive.
Simone has moments on the album; she is too good a singer not to. She shows off her gospel training, for example, in the call-and-response closing of "If you Pray Right." But too often, just as the tension is gathering to a peak, it is dissipated by the strings and Simone backs off into a croon.
On "Deep in the Night" (Warner Bros. BSK 3156), Etta James works with producer Jerry Wexler, who gave Franklin her biggest singles. Wexler gives James an excellent setting, with the best session musicians from L.A. and Muscle Shoals playing tight, crackling arrangments, and she rides with skill and style through a well-chosen selection of recent rock and R & B tunes easily adapted to her build-and-release gospel voice. On "Only Women Bleed," she starts with a shudder that builds into bursts of joyful shouting; and on "Laying Beside You," she eases off lines with a reflective purr reminlscent of Bonnie Raitt.
But as good as this album is, James lacks a strong point of view, lacks Franklin's ability to push a melody to the very edge and still keep control. (This is most obvious when she mistakenly attempts Janis Joplin's showpiece, "Piece of My Heart.")
Beyond its vocal dazzie, gospel music is filled with fountainous dreams of a better world, dreams that are too vague for the immediacy demanded by pop music. The trick of these singers is to combine the physical directness of pop with the spiritual idealism of gospel.
Nina Simone's "Baltimore" never allows the music to go all the way in either direction and ends up sounding half-heartedly safe. Etta James' "Deep in the Night" is charged with the physical heat of rhythm-and-blues, but lacks the transcendence of true belief. Aretha Franklin's "Almighty Fire," however, is a rare example of the two impulses working together. She communicates not only a release from physical tension, but from the anxieties and insecutities of life as as well. It is a coupling of the immediate and the larger dream that is the mark of musical genius.