Living through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and a country still in upheaval around the Vietnam War and the beginnings of the Watergate Scandal, by the onset of the 1970s Aretha Franklin was also at a crossroads in her career, and personally. Maintaining her reign as the Queen of Soul started taking a toll on her personal life and Lady Soul needed a break.
After performing three nights in March 1971 at the Fillmore West, which would result in the release of Aretha Live at Fillmore West, Franklin was on a rebound and stepped back into the studio—at Criteria Studios in Miami and Atlantic Recording Studios in New York—to record her eighteenth studio album Young, Gifted, and Black.
The album, named after the title track, originally written by Nina Simone in 1969, Young, Gifted, and Black, released Jan. 24, 1972, spoke to the continued racial tensions in the country and more black empowerment through its 12 tracks, several of which Franklin penned for the album herself, including one of her biggest hits, the funkier “Rock Steady.”
Franklin was the sole writer.
Famously known for outdoing artists with her renditions of their songs, including Otis Redding on “Respect” and her Simone-penned “Young, Gifted And Black,” Franklin was also a gifted songwriter, and “Rock Steady” was one of four tracks on the album written solely by the Queen.
It all started with a drum beat.
Bernard Purdie, who began working with Franklin in 1970 and continued as her musical director for five years was playing a drumbeat that caught Franklin’s attention. “What he described as “a funky and low downbeat,” was the one that sparked her to begin writing “Rock Steady.” Purdie’s distinctive Jamaican drum feel complemented Franklin’s sassy vocals, bringing out the essence of the song.
“Backing her was like floating in seventh heaven,” said Purdie. When you listen to the lyrics and hear Just call this song exactly what it is, you know exactly what she’s talking about.”
Donny Hathaway brought the funk… and the Gifted musicians.
Franklin praised Hathaway for turning “Rock Steady” into one of her greatest hits. A funkier track on Young, Black and Gifted, “Rock Steady” was evolved into something bigger once Hathaway got his hands on the track. Contributing layers of electric piano and organ himself, Hathaway worked around the backbeat of Purdie’s drums, Chuck Rainey’s bass, and Dr. John on percussion, with “Rock Steady” rounded out by the Memphis Horns’ Arif Mardin, Jerry Wexler, and Tom Dowd.
It’s a song about grooving to the music.
Sandwiched between the more bossa nova-styled “Day Dreaming,” also written by Franklin, and her rendition of Simone’s “Young, Gifted And Black,” about the bond between church and the civil rights movement, “Rocky Steady” was the perfect fill and respite, a funky track about listening and grooving to music.
Rock steady, baby
That’s what I feel now
Let’s call this song exactly what it is
Step and move your hips
With a feeling from side to side
Sit yourself down in your car
And take a ride
And while you’re moving
Rock steady, baby
Photo: Aretha Franklin / YouTube