Sunday, December 7, 2008

Border Song — Aretha Franklin (1972)

Rock lists are, by nature, contentious things but I'd be surprised if there was any significant opposition — outside of the Michael Bolton fan club — to Rolling Stone's decision to anoint Aretha Franklin the greatest singer of all time. Even the most cloth-eared must recognize her voice is a force of nature; an eighth wonder of the modern world. Recently, I've been digging into her back catalogue and realizing that, like Dylan, in the long shadow of her landmark records (Lady Soul, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You) resides a treasure trove of less-heralded, second-tier albums that are 'merely' jaw-droppingly awesome. The fact they're untouched by overfamiliarity only adds to their appeal.

Spirit in the Dark, her bluesy breakup record from 1970, is my favourite Aretha album and listening to it on vinyl is one of life's simple pleasures. (Hence, the cover's appearance on the new-look Bongo Jazz masthead.) She followed Spirit with the brighter, less anguished Young, Gifted and Black; today's post is the 1972 disc's closing track and arguably the definitive version of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin song. The mostly cryptic Border Song had appeared two years prior on Elton's self-titled, sophomore album; its overt gospel flavour and plea for racial tolerance ("Holy Moses, let us live in peace/ Let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease/ There's a man over there/ What's his colour, I don't care/ He's  my brother/ Let us live in peace") must have resonated with Aretha, who pushed to record it and release it as a single prior to Young, Gifted and Black's completion.

Aretha's Border Song features Billy Preston on church organ, a watery guitar solo from Cornell Dupree that could have been lifted from The Beatles' Let It Be and a divine choir of soul voices, led by The Sweet Inspirations — yet the song peaked at a lowly No. 37 on the pop charts in October 1970.  Jerry Wexler, who produced the session with Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, wasn't surprised the song underperformed as a single. 

"What's finally wrong with The Border Song," he told Blues & Soul magazine in 1971, "is that the black audiences don't know what the hell the lyric is about."

Should it matter, when the music sounds this heavenly?

Border Song (link expired)

Here's footage of a 22-year-old Aretha — then just a struggling R&B-jazz singer with Columbia Records —  and Ray Johnson performing Mockingbird on a Shindig episode that aired March 10, 1965. This performance certainly sounds like the  blueprint for the Carly Simon-James Taylor duet that scaled the pop charts nine years later:



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