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Soft Around the Edges

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Aretha Franklin, Jerry Butler

Arie Crown Theater, February 25

Soul music is a dying art form. Contemporary artists are producing emotionless interpretations of black musical traditions, since soul, rooted in the African American experience, is often considered too black to have crossover appeal. But the artistic compromise that crossover demands is a heavy one--less authenticity for the possibility of more money. It is rare for contemporary soul to contain what were once its signature ingredients: gospel's emotional delivery and R & B's bass-heavy sound. As a result, it sounds hollow and often sells really well. Many producers and record company executives believe that soul has to be toned down to win a wide spectrum of record buyers. But this was not always the case. Nor does it have to be.

When Aretha Franklin waltzed out onto the Arie Crown stage in a red velvet ball gown, it was not just the 54-year-old singer the crowd roared for, but the living legacy of African American musical history and culture. She belted out "I Say a Little Prayer," "Chain of Fools," and "Think" with the "don't take no stuff" conviction and ferocious soulfulness she's famous for. These hits, and others like "Dr. Feelgood" and "A Natural Woman," made her a star with black and white audiences, without any crossover concessions. She sings true, undiluted soul, and the power of its purity, not a trendy image, not whitewashed delivery, won her a following that's still loyal decades later.

At the beginning of her career in the early 60s, Aretha actually did attempt crossover. She sang pop standards like "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" for six years on Columbia Records and got little notice. The pop arrangements were constructed for people with lighter, crystalline voices, like Dionne Warwick, who was striking gold with Burt Bacharach's soft melodies. Aretha's powerful voice wasn't truly expressed unless she was able to pour emotion into a song, and these tunes didn't call for that.

It wasn't until she signed with Atlantic Records in 1966 that she started singing the gospel-flavored songs that showcased her vocal style. She gained the musical backing of a band versed in R & B tradition, which allowed her the artistic freedom to take a sappy tune like Bacharach's "I Say a Little Prayer" and fill it with such spirit that it was almost unrecognizable as the song that Warwick had originally performed. Aretha's fiery four-octave voice gained the recognition it deserved, and she never looked back to those days of crossover frustration.

So it was with more than a little agitation that I and the rest of the audience watched Aretha spend at least 15 minutes covering the songs of the reigning stars of crossover.

After a tepid performance of her signature "Respect" and an extended version of "Freeway of Love," the queen of soul launched into Mariah Carey's "Hero." Even though Aretha's gritty singing lent needed substance to the syrupy tune, it still sounded like what it is: a frothy ditty.

But it was when she started Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" that the mostly 30ish, African American crowd started to fidget in their seats. Not only did she overlook some of her most soulful songs, like "Ain't No Way" and "Do Right Woman-Do Right Man," but she was performing the music of two plastic pop princesses who do poor imitations of the soul she pioneered. Though both Carey and Houston were trained as gospel singers and possess undeniable vocal talent, their music can't escape the emptiness that's the unfortunate by-product of their crossover aspirations. Their slick production and lightweight lyrics have wiped away any connection to the black experience and the emotion that goes with it. Their music is pretty and enjoyable, but it's not moving. And the power to move has always been the hallmark of soul.

It's not like Aretha's fans want her to remain in the past. Her current singles "Willing to Forgive" and "Honey," which eloquently display her emotionally powerful singing, get frequent radio play and the audience sang along when she performed them. Aretha's soulfulness is the key to her talent and she needs songs that allow her to express this. Staying true to yourself and your music can bring the same wide crossover audience without the emptiness.

Jerry "The Iceman" Butler, who opened for Aretha, proves this. At about the same time Aretha was struggling with pop covers, Butler and Curtis Mayfield founded the Impressions, the group that put "Chicago Soul" on the map with classics like "For Your Precious Love" and "People Get Ready."

Butler's polished yet gruff baritone glided through Impressions hits, drenching them with soul. He treated his solo hits "He Will Break Your Heart," "Brand New Me," and "Western Union Man" like the old friends they were, effortlessly moving over the notes with forceful emotion. But Butler also did some covers, a medley of Chicago-style blues by Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, with some Duke Ellington thrown in. Butler sticks to material that does justice to his smooth, powerful voice. A rendition of a Tevin Campbell or Keith Sweat song just wouldn't have cut it. The Iceman has a new album out and manages to tour the country, playing to throngs of people who appreciate his soulful voice and music.

Aretha is a notoriously inconsistent performer and it's possible that she'll come back for her scheduled performance in May and rock the house as only she can, with gritty, heartfelt soul, leaving behind the crossover attempts.

Until then, new jack performers like Mary J. Blige, who's already been crowned "Queen of Hip Hop Soul," will continue to interpret Aretha's style. You can hear strains of Aretha's fierce soulfulness on Blige's current, noncrossover hit "My Life." The legacy has been passed on, I just hope its spirit is kept alive.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Nathan Mandell.

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