As reports carry the grim news that Aretha Franklin is “gravely ill” and that family and famous friends like Stevie Wonder and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have paid visits to see her at her Detroit home, where she is reportedly in hospice care, countless fans the world over have pulled out their old Aretha Franklin records and CDs and taken to streaming sites.
So many of us are reacquainting ourselves with music from the Queen of Soul — not that it’s ever really been off the radar. She has a new album due this fall. And Clive Davis, her former label head at Arista Records, which released her 1980s’ hits “Jump to It,” “Freeway of Love” and “Who’s Zooming Who,” is organizing an all-star tribute concert to Franklin in New York City this fall, Rolling Stone reports.
But some of the best of what everyone is hearing this week from Franklin is homegrown Miami soul.
The Memphis-born Franklin, 76, is so identified with Detroit, the home she has known since age 5. And, true, some of her most famous recordings, like “Respect” and “Think” and the landmark 1967 album, “I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You,” were cut at Atlantic Records’ New York studios or Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the mid 1960s.
But Miami was ground zero for a number of her most timeless projects at the peak of her creative and commercial popularity.
Franklin didn’t like to fly. But she found her way to South Florida in the spring of 1969 to join her core producing, arranging and engineering team Jerry Wexler, Arif Mardin and Tom Dowd, at Criteria Studios in North Miami.
At Criteria, where classics like Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California” would come to life in part, or in whole, Franklin showed them all how to get the best out of a recording studio. Franklin helped make Criteria, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, a world-renowned recording hub tucked away at 1755 NE 149th St.
Here, a few miles from the Overtown clubs she’d perform at years earlier before she earned her Queen of Soul tag and a few miles from the beaches tourists still flock to, Franklin and her boys cut classics.
Franklin’s “Spirit in the Dark” sessions would yield two pop and R&B hits via “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)“ and the title track when the album was released in the summer of 1970.
Wexler, Mardin and Dowd, along with Criteria studio fixtures, brothers Ron and Howard Albert, helped the singer-musician build “Spirit in the Dark” inside the wood-paneled Studio B. Her backing musicians in Miami were no slouches:
Duane Allman, the guitarist who would, with baby brother Gregg, give the Allman Brothers Band its name, played on the album’s “When the Battle Is Over.”
Franklin’s musicians for these South Florida sessions, the Dixie Flyers, included keyboardist Michael Utley and drummer Sammy Creason who would individually go on to play with artists like Jimmy Buffett, Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson.
Another standout in these sessions, jazz and R&B guitarist Cornell Dupree, would play on more than 2,500 recordings for a slew of artists including Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, Carly Simon and Miles Davis.
But they were all here to serve Franklin. And though she’s known for the volcanic force of her vocals, she was their peer as a musician.
The signature piano intro of “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)“ was played live inside Criteria by Franklin on a Baldwin grand in Studio B. Ron Albert recalled the sessions in a feature in the recording industry trade magazine, Mix in 2013.
The album’s bigger hit, “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” which hit No. 1 R&B and earned her a 1970 Best Female R&B Grammy, was vintage ‘Retha, steeped in the church’s gospel sound she’d known growing up as the daughter of the Rev. C.L. Franklin.
Franklin, a Kennedy Center Honors recipient, cut all of her vocals live while seated at that piano, Ron Albert told Mix.
“It was a bit of a challenge because Aretha was playing the grand piano live with the band as well as singing the song live with the band. So it was our job to get as much separation and sound quality as possible, because all of her vocals were keepers. She may have overdubbed a line here and there, but Aretha Franklin never sang a bad note in her life.”
Another piece of Miami lore helped the team get Franklin’s sound right. “We always got pizza from Marcella’s,” Howard Albert told Mix. Marcella’s was an Italian restaurant back in the day nearby at 13886 W. Dixie Hwy. in North Miami. “That was also part of the piano sound—the pizza box on top of the piano,” Albert said.
Franklin stayed at Criteria to record a single for her “Aretha’s Greatest Hits” collection in 1971. That 45, her cover of “Spanish Harlem,” previously a hit in 1960 for Ben E. King, earned a gold disc and its plaque hung on Criteria’s then-shag carpet-covered walls in the lobby for years.
Franklin’s “Young, Gifted and Black” album was another Criteria production recorded by the singer in 1970-’71. When the album was released in 1972, it proved even more successful than “Spirit in the Dark.”
A landmark LP, “Young, Gifted and Black” spun off two sizable pop and R&B hits in “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady,” both Franklin compositions, and a memorable cover of Elton John’s “Border Song.” She earned one of her 18 career Grammys with this project, earning 1972’s Best Female R&B Performance.
Once again, Franklin was joined in Miami by the top session musicians, this time including keyboardist Billy Preston, a solo pop star who would soon hit with “Will It Go Round in Circles” and who also played with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, flautist Hubert Laws and guitarist Hugh McCracken.
But, again, Franklin more than held her own among that luminous grouping.
Albhy Galuten, who went on to co-produce a string of hits with the Bee Gees at Criteria in the 1970s, watched as Franklin played piano so that “Young, Gifted and Black” arranger Mardin could jot down chords, make copies, and put the notations before the other musicians. They were then often able to follow Franklin’s lead and get the music down in one take.
“She was astounding,” Galuten told the Miami Herald in 2007.
Wexler, Mardin and Dowd are all gone. Dowd’s daughter Dana keeps the memory of her father and his work alive through her Facebook pages.
In one of her posts when Franklin’s condition was first revealed through Twitter posts and news media, Dana Dowd shared an image of her father and Franklin enjoying a laugh inside Criteria nearly 50 years ago.
“They loved each other so much,” she said in the post. “Being in a room with them and watching them interact and converse is a cherished memory of mine.”