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Lady Soul 1968
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Lady Soul 1968

Aretha Franklin seldom traveled to Europe, which makes the opportunity to see the Queen of Soul’s performance from Sweden on May 8, 1968—just months after she released her “Lady Soul” album—all the more invaluable. Backed by her full band and ensemble, including Cissy Houston (Whitney Houston’s mother), the 26-year-old singer makes you feel every note..

The People’s Queen

3 Min Read

When Aretha Franklin came onstage in Stockholm in the spring of 1968, her soulful coronation was already achieved. One year earlier, she began her half-decade run of massively successful albums and within a few months, would appear on the cover of Time. European concert-hall audiences responded to her with the same fervor as legions of fans across America.

More than 50 years later, this concert affirms why she had received such acclaim. But this footage also highlights how, especially in the ’60s, her personality could be far from regal. Just after turning 26, Franklin in Sweden appeared giddy and perhaps somewhat surprised to be receiving vigorous applause so far from her home. Showing grace and appreciation for her colleagues and audience, she was all smiles while linking arms with her backing singers (including sister Carolyn Franklin) or spontaneously choreographing her own steps.

Franklin’s delivery conveyed as much from her training and ambitions learning American songbook standards and singing in New York jazz rooms during her early 20s as it did from her teenage years on the gospel circuit.

That surface insouciance makes the way Franklin unleashes sublime vocal leaps all the more astounding. Franklin’s delivery conveyed as much from her training and ambitions learning American songbook standards and singing in New York jazz rooms during her early 20s as it did from her teenage years on the gospel circuit. This concert video shows these diverse aspirations, which has not been the case with most other documentation of Franklin’s 1968 European tour.

For instance, the “Aretha in Paris” album and “The Legendary Concertgebouw Concert Amsterdam” DVD only include R&B from her Atlantic Records era beginning in 1967, as if a slice of Franklin’s multifaceted foundational experiences in the early ‘60s never happened. But this performance begins similarly to how Franklin’s adult recording career (on Columbia) started, which was not far removed from Manhattan night clubs.

After conductor-trumpeter Donald Townes leads the band through an exchange of solos, she emerges with a bright rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” As Franklin segues into the Broadway show tune “Come Back to Me,” her inflections announce that she could have become a song stylist like such predecessors as Nancy Wilson. As the world knows, Franklin’s trajectory took a different path, and most of this Swedish concert is comprised of those hits from her initial landmark 1967-68 Atlantic albums: “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You,” “Aretha Arrives” and “Lady Soul.”

On these songs, her phrasing with its shouts formed a secularized gospel, most notably her anthemic version of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Experience singing in intimate rooms inspired the way she works with empty space before the horns enter on “Soul Serenade.” With a four-octave range and a skilled improviser’s sense of nuance, her ease moving above and below the main melody line stays earthy on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Her breath control and smart use of musical quotation on the Young Rascals’ “Groovin’” shows what she gained from sharing stages with the likes of John Coltrane seven years earlier. Franklin’s dramatic flair also comes through on “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream,” which she transforms into a soliloquy.

For a couple of tunes toward the end of the set, Franklin sits at the piano and reaffirms how that instrument shaped her sound. Strong chord changes on “Dr. Feelgood” anchor her vocal flights and show what she retained from the Baptist church. Franklin’s brief piano solo on “Since You’ve Been Gone” indicates that her greatest accompanist may have been herself.

Throughout, Franklin’s combination of vocal power and musical acumen within an upbeat public persona became a fixed part of her identity. This remains the way so many of her fans perceive her: Aretha became soul royalty but she will always be the people’s queen.

Aaron Cohen teaches humanities at City Colleges of Chicago and writes for numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat and Chicago Reader. He is the author of “Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power” (University of Chicago Press), which looks at the social and musical changes that shaped R&B in his hometown during the 1960s and 1970s. His first book, “Amazing Grace” (Bloomsbury), analyzes Aretha Franklin’s soul-gospel album. Cohen has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar and is a two-time recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

Aaron Cohen teaches humanities at City Colleges of Chicago and writes for numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat and Chicago Reader. He is the author of “Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power” (University of Chicago Press), which looks at the social and musical changes that shaped R&B in his hometown during the 1960s and 1970s. His first book, “Amazing Grace” (Bloomsbury), analyzes Aretha Franklin’s soul-gospel album. Cohen has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar and is a two-time recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).

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