Aretha Franklin has earned the mantle of the Queen of Soul, but her influences and her talents transcend any single genre, with the diversity of her recordings often freely crossing boundaries. These boundaries are consumed in the individuality of her personal mastery and amalgam of jazz, blues, soul, gospel, R&B, and pop influences. This is evident on her recording of “Ramblin’” from the Soul ‘69 record. The track mixes heavy doses of these elements in an incredible pyrotechnic display of all that was right with American music in 1969.
Even with the insulting beginning to his March 1st 1969 review, Stanley Booth labels Soul ‘69 as “the best record to appear in the last five years.” The album features a stellar jazz orchestra, with arrangements by Arif Mardin that would not have been out of place on a Count Basie Recording, or amongst Oliver Nelson and Thad Jones’ work of the period. Even with the presence of such soul icons as King Curtis, Tommy Cogbill, and Jerry Jemmott, this is a jazz band, and one that represents the height of talent working in the genre that were just at home helping Atlantic records produce studio hits as crafting cutting edge musical movements with Miles Davis and Gil Evans. The wealth of jazz talent is staggering:
Released January 17, 1969
Recorded April 17–18 & September 24, 1968
Aretha Franklin – vocals, piano (on #2,7,9)
Junior Mance – piano (1,3-6,8-11)
Spooner Oldham – organ (2,7)
Joe Zawinul – organ (5), electric piano (6,12)
Kenny Burrell (1,3-6,8-11), Jimmy Johnson – guitar (2,7)
Ron Carter (1,3-6,8-12), Jerry Jemmott (2,7) – bass
Tommy Cogbill – electric bass (2,7)
Bruno Carr (1,3-6,8,9,12), Roger Hawkins (2,7), Grady Tate (10,11) – drums
Jack Jennings – vibraphone (5,7,9,12)
Louie Goicdecha, Manuel Gonzales – percussion (5,7,12)
David Newman – tenor saxophone, flute
King Curtis, Seldon Powell – tenor saxophone
George Dorsey, Frank Wess – alto saxophone
Pepper Adams – baritone saxophone
Joe Newman, Bernie Glow, Richard Williams, Snooky Young, Ernie Royal – trumpet
Jimmy Cleveland, Urbie Green, Benny Powell, Thomas Mitchell – trombone
Evelyn Greene, Wyline Ivy – backing vocals
Produced by Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd
Arrangements by Arif Mardin
As the lineup suggests, the ensemble on the opening track “Rambin’” swings hard, as does much of the rest of the session. In that regard it is amazing how naturally and exceptionally Aretha leads this group in that groove. Not merely being accompanied, she strikes out and pushes the rhythm with vocalisms that would not be out of place coming out of one of the instrumental solos. Indeed, during the saxophone solo on the track Aretha reverses roles, and sings her own obbligato part as accompaniment. She invents her own riffs and counter melodies during the out vamp that, aside from not using identifiable scat syllables, match the bands when needed and consume them when she wants to. This is not surprising from a singer raised as much on Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughn as the richest of gospel traditions.
The blues element in the track is directly traceable to, amongst many other places, the original recording of Big Maybelle Smith from 1957. Smith’s version can trace a straight line back to Mamie Smith’s original blues recording, both with the informal yet virtuosic improvisations in the rhythm section and the upfront presentation of her volcanic and versatile interpretation of the lyric. Drums are placed far in the back of the mix, except for a decidedly insistent backbeat snare drum beat. The lyric of this 8-bar blues becomes more minimal as the piece moves on, leaving increasingly large amounts of space for her amazingly varied approach to coloring words and contrasting dynamics.
Aretha also takes advantage of this space, with expressive phrasing that at times serenades and alternately roars out of the arrangement. Huge crescendos and dynamic shifts play with emphasis on particular lyrics, including a delivery of the line “sick of your funky ways” that should be heard to be believed. The stop time break at 1:53 allows Aretha’s back phrasing to be heard alone, buoying the pulse but leaning back to create a pocket so deep you could drive a car through it. She effortlessly matches the world-class trumpet section, both in timbre, intensity, and often in volume. This is Aretha Franklin at her peak, both in terms of jaw dropping vocal ability, but comprised of a blues component that seamlessly integrates the jazz elements coming from the band and the arrangement.
The recording is amazing for these amalgamations, but not surprising given the influence of the singers named above, as well as Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Little Willie John, the Falcons, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. What is equally amazing that after a 6-decade plus career we tend to forget how incredible her singular contribution is. Recordings like this help shine the spotlight on Aretha as a crafter of groove that defies any simplified label, perhaps just the moniker of “Queen” should be enough.
 “It does no good to say Aretha Franklin can’t sing as well as Ivy Anderson; Ivy Anderson is dead, and not a dozen of the dedicated music-lovers who read this journal remember the great Duke Ellington vocalist. We must make do with what we have, and the best female singer we have now is Aretha.”