Aretha Franklin learned to sing in Detroit's New Bethel Baptist Church. Gladys Knight learned A in a similar church in Atlanta. Patti LaBelle in a Philadelphia church. In these inner city churches, gospel singers begin with a straightforward version of a hymn. As they get worked up and the spirit takes over, however, their voices push the rhythm, spin off the melody and climb octaves into a falsetto shuddering with ecstasy. These three women possess unusually large capacity and range, so their voices stayed strong high into the emotional stratosphere.
Unfortunately all three singers have often had to battle pressure to calm down and become sedately stylish. In small doses these pressures lend necessary tension and shape to gospel shouting. In larger doses, such pressures tend to smother the fiery instinctive singing. The new albums by Franklin, Knight and LaBelle are each a mixed bag of smothered embers and crackling fire.
Aretha Franklin is probably the greatest soul singer of all time, but most of her career has been a tug-of-war between the emotional freedom of her gospel singing and the glossy constraints of pop formulas. When Columbia Records' John Hammond signed her at 18 in 1960, he called her "an untutored genius, the best voice I've heard since Billie Holiday." During the six years she recorded for Columbia, though, she never fulfilled those expectations, largely because the company producers distracted her from her best church instincts.
Yet her genius was being tutored in those school years, and it finally erupted between 1967 and 1970 on Atlantic Records. The best work of her formative years with Columbia has finally been collected on a double album: "The Legendary Queen of Soul" (Columbia, C2 37377). This anthology contains her rhythm and blues work for the label in 1960-61 and 1964-66, and leaves out the intervening bloated show tunes. The best tunes are the four from her very first sessions with Hammond and a loose small combo, where her raw talent is obvious. The later, slicker soul with producer Clyde Otis shows hints of the great singing to come, but never becomes overwhelming. All in all, this record is interesting only if you already own all her great Atlantic albums.
Franklin's newest album, "Love All the Hurt Away" (Arista, AL 9552), reunites her with Arif Mardin, a producer and arranger during her peak Atlantic years. Unfortunately, Mardin teams her with facile L.A. session musicians who sound as if they never set foot in a holy roller church. Moreover, Mardin tries to give her that slick West Coast pop-soul sound that's all flash and no fire. Despite all this, Franklin sings with more freedom and feeling than she has in years. Though the song selection and arrangements ruin most of side one, side two is a welcome reminder why she's called the "Queen of Soul."
"Truth and Honesty" builds from a catchy midtempo pop song into a feverish hymn testifying for truth between lovers. A compelling urgency grips Franklin halfway through the song and her rocketing voice rips holes through the simple melody. She invests Chuck Jackson's ballad, "Search On," with the quivering intensity of a true believer.
The album contains one masterpiece: "Whole Lot of Me," which Franklin wrote, co-produced and co-arranged. She plays piano and sings all the overdubbed voices herself. Over a sharply swinging rhythm, Franklin cries out joyfully: "Let me treat you to a whole lot of me!" With that, half a dozen of her dubbed voices proliferate through the mix, yelping and squealing with intoxicating lust till there is indeed a whole lot of her.
"Touch" (Columbia, FC 37086), the new Gladys Knight and the Pips album, is largely written and produced by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. About half the album is thrown away on underwritten and overproduced songs. The remaining half, however, shows off Knight's accelerating gospel shout to good advantage. Significantly, the best song is "God Is," an explicit gospel. A persistent snare drum drives the uptempo rhythm faster and faster, and Knight's enormous voice rushes out in eagerness to testify. "Changed," another religious song, is slower and sparser but just as powerful. Knight's breathily emotional whisper floats atop Simpson's understated piano.
The highlight of Patti LaBelle's "The Spirit's In It" (Philadelphia International, FZ 37380) is the gospel-rooted title track. It opens with LaBelle's gospel wail over Joel Bryant's old-fashioned gospel piano and then segues into very modern funk. Though the backing changes from sacred to profane, LaBelle's voice never loses its churchly swoon. LaBelle's album is largely written and produced by the architects of the Philadelphia soul sound: Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Like Ashford and Simpson, Gamble & Huff often go overboard in their attempts to sound sophisticated. They construct formula songs that anyone could sing and thereby waste the very special voices of Knight and LaBelle. In their attempts to fashion a crossover hit, they succumb to a television-style blandness and betray the roots of their music. Fortunately, Knight and LaBelle are such distinctive singers that no one can render them bland for an entire album.
Franklin, Knight and LaBelle each try songs made famous by other people. Franklin, who will perform at Constitution Hall Oct. 31, attempts Sam & Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming," and the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." The former is ruined by an embarrassingly awkward rap by Franklin; the latter by Arif Mardi's overkill prodcution. Gladys Knight & the Pips, who will perform at Constitution Hall tonight, sing Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Knight tries to remove the disco arrangement, but only succeeds in removing the momentum and credibility.
Patti LaBelle, who will be at Constitution Hall Nov. 27, has more luck with Huey Piano Smith's "Rocking Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" and Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow." She approaches Smith's old hit as Tina Turner approached "Proud Mary," with much the same results. The New Orleans Funky rhythm is emphasized and several singers shout at will as the song gathers momentum. Even better is "Over the Rainbow." LaBelle starts off easily but gets more and more worked up till she is skidding across octaves by the end. The song ends with the line, "If Bluebirds fly over the rainbow, why can't I?" She holds the "can't" for effect and then shoots it up through several octaves, up through the church roof and straight to heaven.