On Aretha: 2 duets

On Monday, The Singles Jukebox tributed Aretha Franklin. I had a pair of entries that I meant to get in, but didn’t make the deadline. Here’s the first, on two of her ’80s duets.

“I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (Duet with George Michael) (1987)
“It Isn’t, It Wasn’t, It Ain’t Never Gonna Be” (Duet with Whitney Houston) (1989)

The first a global #1 smash in 1987, the second an R&B-only hit two years later (interestingly, both peaked at #5 on the Billboard R&B chart) these songs have a lot in common, apart from their differing chart fortunes — proof that you never can tell what’s going to be a hit and what won’t. Both are duets Aretha recorded with artists who a) were younger than her, b) were hotter than her (in commercial terms, at their respective times), c) preceded her in death. Arista Records impresario Clive Davis just loved, in the ‘80s, to pair Aretha up with artists who were, or who he perceived to be, hotter than her, to help give her singles added relevance/charting potential. Davis also loved Narada Michael Walden, who was essentially Davis’s pet pop/R&B producer for much of the decade, helming lots of tracks for Franklin and for Whitney Houston (his two top priorities at the label).

“It Isn’t,” which only made it to #41 on the Billboard Hot 100  — when Houston was in the midst of her Imperial Phase — is a cluttered, overly busy production, full of orchestra hits (the song opens with one) and synth handclaps. It’s a New Jack Swing production by someone who wasn’t really equipped to make New Jack Swing, and for that you can blame Walden. For the song, however, a fairly silly catfight between two women over a man (like a much lesser version of Brandy & Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”), you can blame Albert Hammond and Diane Warren; it sounds like an attempt at “hipness” by a couple of songwriters who wouldn’t know it if it hit them in the face. All isn’t lost, though, thanks to the banter and “battling” between the divas singing it. Much of the song was clearly recorded with both Franklin and Houston on the mic simultaneously, as evidenced by their back-and-forth at the song’s end. Genius.com provides a handy guide to what it calls the “Spoken Interaction.” Here’s an excerpt:

A: You know, I realize that you’re under pressure
W: Yes, I am
A: And that you are suffering from delusions, but uh
W: Well
A: Don’t be ridiculous
W: I’m not
A: Get Real!
W: You better get real!

It’s clearly playful, though, as Whitney’s heard not only saying “That’s Aretha” after a bit of Franklin’s scatting, but pointing out “Well you know that’s what you are,” in response to Aretha referring to herself as “the queen.” Franklin seems to bring out a playfulness in Houston that had already vanished by the end of her second album cycle; don’t forget that Houston’s mother Cissy was a member of the Sweet Inspirations, who backed up Franklin on a number of her Atlantic singles, so there was already a relationship there.

In contrast, “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” did something else: its intent, ostensibly, was to elevate Franklin, but it ended up doing that instead for her duet partner, Michael. The single was released as the second official single from Franklin’s 1986 album Aretha, and it did something that not only none of her Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Singles did, but none of her singles, period, had done on the Hot 100 in two full decades: it went to #1. Michael was in the midst of his transition from Wham! heartthrob to international superstar (“I Want Your Sex” would follow “Waiting” into the top 2 just four months later), but Franklin would never hit the US top 10 again. However, artistically speaking “Waiting” made the world look at Michael in a new light, as a soul/ful singer who could actually keep up with Franklin. (Her duet with Eurythmics on “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” two years prior, simply sounded like Annie Lennox was attempting the impossible, to outsing the Queen of Soul.) The song’s video is a joy, as well, with the pair initially singing to each other on video screens (first verse), then in front of old videos of each other (second verse), not appearing together until 2:33 in. The exultation on Michael’s face is obvious, to be singing with the Queen.

Walden produced this one as well, but went for a much more classic sound, featuring revved-up (synth) guitars alongside bass (from Randy Jackson!), drums, and Simmons percussion. Accordingly, it’s held up much better across time, as is still heard on Classic Hits radio stations the world over. On both records, Aretha herself sounds incredible, wailing yet still controlled (she was the master of that vocal technique) and always 100% committed to servicing the song’s lyric. You can hear her giving her all on every single record she ever made, good or bad. And she brought different things to each duet partner, because a singer like Franklin couldn’t help but bring out things in other singers; that was part of her brilliance. Rest In Power, Queen.

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About thomasinskeep

I write about music.
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