Yesterday was the birthday of Aretha Franklin. Yes, the Queen of Soul is 72. Paying tribute takes me back, once again, to 1967, a banner year for Ms. Franklin, for in that year she released four of her signature songs: “Respect,” which had already been a hit for Otis Redding, but without the “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” of Aretha’s vocal, “Baby I Love You,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and today’s track, “Chain of Fools.” Great as they all are, it’s the fourth that I have most affection for. The song breathes a kind of rhythmic trance, sucking you in, till you feel like one of the fools on the chain, trapped in its groove.
To see people moving around a dance floor to this song is to see an illustration of what I mean. “Every chain has got a weak link”—who’s the one not able to keep up? The way that counter rhythm comes in with the vocal saying “chain, chain” is something I always listen for. In fact it’s almost like call and response and you start to think Aretha and her backup singers can keep this up all day, finding unending ways to spin out “chain” and “chain chain chain.” It ends way too soon.
I can’t say I’ve followed Aretha’s career through the many long years. Like Otis Redding, who died in 1967, I associate her with that early period of American soul singers. Seeing her on TV shows through the Seventies demonstrated that she didn’t lose the power of her voice, and the hair just seemed to get higher and the eyelashes more extreme. Back in those days, she had a particular kind of instant recognition, both on sight and on sound. There was no other voice like that. I suppose that she defined what soul singing was supposed to sound like, not just to me, but to the entire industry.
What I like about the song is that, though it’s a harangue against a man who has treated the speaker badly, it’s one of those “yeah it hurts but it feels good” kind of songs. It’s the self-appraisal of someone who realizes this isn’t what she hoped but she’s gonna get all she can out of it. “One of these mornings, / That chain is gonna break / But until that day / I’m gonna take all I can take.” You can see how many situations that might apply to.
It’s hard to feel sorry for Aretha while she’s singing this song, so powerful does she sound. And it’s hard to feel bad for the fools in the chain because, it seems safe to say, they all really got their groove on. They’re living it, ya know? One of the great qualities of R&B was the ability to say too things simultaneously: I’m suffering, but I’m loving it. I’m loving you, but you’re hurting me. I want your love more than life itself and I’ll kill you for it. It can get pretty intense.
And that’s probably why I like this song so much, because it’s like people in purgatory or something, chained together, making very slow progress up the slope to some kind of salvation or clarity, but meanwhile they’re still in the mire where it hurts so good. In those days of the Sixties, I was more likely to respond to Motown sounds which had a more infectious pop quality to them, lots of big blasting horns and overlapping harmonies. Singers like Otis and Aretha were the other side to that: unmistakable voices that seemed to put on record what it was like really to feel things. Though I have to admit that I'm still learning how to hear Aretha's singing style; she often sings in a register hard for me to listen to, which is not the case in this song. And I love how she says "I ain't nothin' but your fool." Recently I picked up the Sundazed vinyl reissue of Aretha Arrives, from 1967, and will have to seek out Lady Soul, which contains "Chain of Fools."
It’s an interesting fact that, even, if you were growing up in an all-white suburb back then, the “blackness” of this music, coming at you from radio and TV, created a sense of a different kind of experience: rhythm and blues. You could hear it in lots of white bands that were inspired by it—the way you can hear Aretha in Janis, for instance—but the effort to make “white versions” of “black hits” had ceased by the mid-Sixties, largely because of Motown and the breakout talents like Aretha. Except there isn’t anyone else “like” Aretha.