NPR Music story by Mark Anthony Neal
In March of 1971, Aretha Franklin performed a three-night stand at the Fillmore West, promoter Bill Graham’s legendary venue and home base of bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Franklin’s band included saxophonist King Curtis as her musical director and Billy Preston on keyboards, fresh off his stint as the “fifth Beatle” and hard at work on his own breakthrough, I Wrote a Simple Song. Besides performing her own classics and some future pop standards, including Ashford & Simpson’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Diana Ross’ signature “Reach Out and Touch,” Franklin sought common ground with the so-called hippie crowd long associated with the Fillmore. Her covers of Bread’s “Make It With You” and especially Stephen Stills’ “Love the One You’re With” resonated in the house, but it was her introduction of the “sanctified church” to that audience that revealed the cultural force of Black music in this moment.
With help from Ray Charles, who joined Franklin onstage the final night, she turned her four-minute song “Spirit in the Dark” into a nearly 30-minute dissertation on soul. You can hear the crowd, already in a frenzy, lose it completely when Charles takes hold of the keyboard, still learning the song — repeating “Can you feel it? Feel it in your soul?” Preston’s later recollection that “the hippies flipped the f*** out” was not hyperbole.
In his book Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — The Year That Rock Exploded, writer David Hepworth makes the case for his subject as “the busiest, most creative, most innovative, most interesting, and longest-resounding year of that era.” But even that may be an understatement when considered in the context of the extraordinary flowering of Black musical expression that year. Established veterans like The Temptations and The Isley Brothers were altering their sound, as exemplified in the Isleys’ cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” a song written in response to the 1970 shootings at Kent State. Away from the pop charts, Miles Davis, The Chambers Brothers, Roberta Flack, The Last Poets and Alice Coltrane were unleashing a vision of Black music whose sound and form was every bit as political as the lyrics. The spirit of the ’60s lingered, but the tone of Black protest had changed — and some artists, like many activists, were no longer invested in presenting their demands with the elixirs of decorum and civility.
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