The Other Aretha’s “Skylark”
Before she was a soul singer she soared with the Classic American Songbook.
I’ve generally avoided writing about the same artist twice, but I can’t help myself this week. Shortly after the dazzling performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center tribute to Carole King (and others) in December, she was on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. It was an older interview, from 1999 — the Queen rarely grants audiences with mere mortals, and she spoke of life before her groundbreaking days at Atlantic Records.
Those days are exemplified by her rendition of “Do Right Woman Do Right Man,” which I wrote about in 2014.
As for her earlier work with Columbia Records, I’d always avoided those songs. The knock on them was they were too slick, too uptown and simply irrelevant to her career. I bought into this till I heard her sing “Skylark,” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. She was a young lass when she left the gospel field, with the full permission of her father, Reverend C.L.Franklin, a star in his own right. Her father didn’t regard talented secular performers as doing the devil’s work. A sane view, and not one always shared in that world.
No one can ever convincingly argue that what they call Classic American Songbook has ever been topped. They truly don’t write ‘em like they used to, and that’s natural and, I suppose, good. Time marches on and even though we seem to have entered a second age where producers and writers dominate artists, there’s no fair comparison to be made, so let’s not name names.The values and skill sets on display in this performance are disappearing fast from the cultural landscape, so let’s review them before we take them to the landfill.
Start with Hoagy Carmichael. His best known melody is “Georgia On My Mind.” He also wrote the music for “Stardust.” Hoagy was a melody man, long looping lines over unpredictable and innovative chords. Although Aretha plays with his melody a little here, it’s great as written. It swoops and glides above the chords just like the bird in the title. There are no Hoagy Carmichaels around today, trust me on this. And no Johnny Mercers either.
Mercer was a true poet: working with the cream of the crop, he produced more hits than can be listed here, mostly as a lyricist, but he also composed some. A favorite of Frank Sinatra’s, he wrote the lyrics for “One For My Baby and One More For The Road” (music by Harold Arlen) and “Moon River” and “The Days Of Wine And Roses,” both composed by Henry Mancini. His roots were in the deep South and they usually showed through in his laconic and thoughtful lyrics. For instance:
Have you anything to say to me
Won’t you tell me where my love can be
Is there a meadow in the mist
Where someone’s waiting to be kissed
Have you seen a valley green with spring
Where my heart can go a-journeying
Over the shadows and the rain
To a blossom covered lane
And in your lonely flight
Haven’t you heard the music of the night
Wonderful music, faint as a will o’ the wisp
Crazy as a loon
Sad as a gypsy serenading the moon
I don’t know if you can find these things
But my heart is riding on your wings
So if you see them anywhere
Won’t you lead me there
© Hoagy Carmichael / Johnny Mercer
Upon hearing Aretha sing this song, I tried to imagine a parallel career path for her. In my alternate history, she is something like a black Barbra Streisand, her label mate at the time. She gets hits with the same kind of repertoire and decides to stay in that field. Of course it’s unthinkable to picture life without the great soul recordings that began in Muscle Shoals so long ago. But if we’d never heard them, we wouldn’t have known. She would still be a major artist, probably not in The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, where she was the first woman inducted. Soul music would have happened without her, but it would have been diminished greatly. I like the path she chose, as do millions of others.
She could have had a career in opera, too. She filled in for Luciano Pavorotti at a moment’s notice for an unforgettable Grammy performance to sing an aria. I have heard it was in his key, because there wasn’t time to transpose the orchestral accompaniment. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know she hit it out of the park. Just like she did at the Kennedy Center, leaving President Obama wiping away a tear at her moving performance.