Much as I love Aretha, though (and I really do), I don’t know that she is far and away the undisputed Queen. I’m certainly not gonna throw anyone obscure into the conversation. Diana Ross is more of a pop vocalist than a soul vocalist, and even though Mary J. Blige has been a more consistent hitmaker than even Aretha was in her prime, it seems wrong to put her into the conversation. Let’s focus on two divas that I think are very qualified candidates for the crown. Certainly as qualified as Aretha, anyway…Patti LaBelle and Chaka Khan. All three artists have a lengthy resume-both Aretha and Patti’s careers began in the early Sixties, while Chaka came on board a decade later. All three are celebrated for their voices as well as their live performances, so I’ve put together a decade-by-decade comparison of the three singers, as well as a couple of bonus “competitions” that might lead you to wonder who the “Queen of Soul” really is. Check it out.
The Sixties: Patti struck first, as a member of The Bluebelles, hitting the charts with “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” and “Down the Aisle (Wedding Song)”. Around the same time, a young Aretha was cutting her teeth on jazz standards at Columbia. However, later in the decade, Aretha hooked up with Atlantic Records & Muscle Schoals studios and hit her stride (in the understatement of all time). She reeled off hit after hit, including her signature song, “Respect”. There was also “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)”, “Chain of Fools”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Think”, and a sea of soul classics. While ‘Reefa was revolutionizing R&B, Patti and her bandmates were attempting to switch stylistic gears, and Chaka was just a teenager singing around her hometown. No question, this decade goes to Aretha, by the biggest of landslides.
The Seventies: Aretha continued her hot streak into the early part of the Seventies, with hits like “Angel”, “Rock Steady” and “I’m in Love”. Another streak she carried into the Seventies was her streak of winning the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female; an award she took for eight consecutive years. By the middle of the decade, however, she’d begun to lose steam. After a brief renaissance with the Curtis Mayfield-helmed Sparkle soundtrack, her success declined sharply at the end of the decade. Meanwhile, Chaka jumped onto the scene in 1974 with “Tell Me Something Good” and established herself as one of the pre-eminent vocalists in R&B for the rest of the decade. Along with her bandmates in Rufus, she scored hits with “At Midnight (My Love Will Lift You Up”, “Stay”, and “Sweet Thing”. In 1978, she established a dual solo career with “I’m Every Woman”, a #1 R&B smash that has since become a standard.
Patti LaBelle and the other members of LaBelle hooked up with British talent manager/songwriter Vicki Wickham and embraced rock and roll, with excellent covers of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, The Stones’ “Wild Horses” and a spirited rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. They also cut an album of soul covers with Laura Nyro-the excellent Gonna Take a Miracle. Finally, the trio headed down to New Orleans and adopted the space-suited persona that gave them their biggest hit, “Lady Marmalade”. It topped the pop and soul charts and turned Patti, Nona and Sarah into superstars. LaBelle went on to record two more (excellent) albums before splitting up. Patti immediately started making solo records, although, for the time being, major successes seemed like they were behind her.
Aretha had the most commercial success during this period, but Chaka wasn’t too far behind, and it could be argued that both she and Patti made more consistent music during the time period. Aretha’s golden period ended around 1973-4, at which point Chaka scored pretty much continuous hits for the remainder of the decade. Not to mention the fact that Chaka was a sex symbol and a fashion icon, two things that Aretha couldn’t really claim. People might argue, but I’ll give the seventies to Chaka, by an Afro puff.
The Eighties: Chaka didn’t score a #1 pop record in the Eighties. Actually, Chaka’s never had a #1 pop record at all. However, she popped up in the #1 position on the R&B charts four times during the decade: twice with Rufus (“Do You Love What You Feel” and “Ain’t Nobody”) and twice solo (“What’cha Gonna Do for Me?” and “I Feel for You”). The latter track was one of the decade’s defining songs, becoming one of the first to successfully merge R&B and hip-hop. She recorded consistently throughout the decade, and was a constant presence on the charts. Aretha’s cool streak continued until 1982, when “Jump to It” jumped straight to the top of the R&B charts. Her pop comeback came in 1985, with the Who’s Zoomin’ Who? album and hits like “Freeway of Love”. She took three tracks to the top of the R&B list (“Freeway”, “Jump to It” and 1983’s “Get it Right”), and the George Michael duet “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” made it all the way to the top of the pop charts, her first chart-topper on that list in twenty years.
Patti also suffered through some lean years commercially before hitting her stride at the end of 1983 with the #1 R&B hit “If Only You Knew” and I’m in Love Again, which became her first Gold album as a solo artist. She broke through on the pop side with hit singles like “New Attitude”, “Stir it Up” and the #1 smash “On My Own”. Of the three women, Patti is the only one to score a #1 pop album, with 1986’s Winner in You. In addition to her musical successes, Patti also had a hit television special (featuring Luther Vandross and Cyndi Lauper), received good notice for her role in 1984’s film “A Soldier’s Story” and was a Broadway success in “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God”. All three women did well this decade, but I’d probably give this one to Chaka as well.
Nineties: After scoring fairly consistent success during the Eighties, all three women cooled off during the nineties. Patti cooled off the least, however. She started the decade by winning a Grammy for her Gold album Burnin’. Miss Patti also toured the world and found the time to guest star as Dwayne Wayne’s mom on “A Different World” and eventually got her own sitcom, the short lived “Out All Night” (which found her co-starring with a very young Morris Chestnut and Vivica A. Fox). Meanwhile, Chaka and Aretha only released four combined albums during the decade. Chaka struggled with personal issues in addition to an unpleasant divorce from her longtime label, Warner Brothers. Aretha seemed to be a little stung by the public indifference to her 1991 album What You See is What You Sweat, and didn’t appear again until her Gold-selling A Rose is Still a Rose in 1998. The title track (produced by Lauryn Hill) became her biggest hit in over a decade. By virtue of being the only one of the three divas to record consistently, I might have to hand this one over to Miss Patti.
Oughts…and Beyond: Aretha has only released two studio albums (along with a couple of compilations and a holiday album) in the past decade, neither of which have been particularly well-received commercially or critically. She’s made the most news in the past few years in regards to 1) her heavily-publicized (but unknown) illness of late last year/early this year, 2) the outrageous hat she wore to President Obama’s inauguration and 3) her somewhat snooty hissy fit after Beyonce referred to Tina Turner as “The Queen” during a Grammy Awards performance. Chaka’s also largely laid in the cut, devoting her time to touring and charity work. She released a standards album earlier in the decade, but regained her form with 2007’s Funk This!. Featuring three members of The Time, covers of hits by Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell, and an appearance by Rufus’s Tony Maiden, the album hit the Top 20 on the Billboard charts and won two Grammy Awards.
Meanwhile, Patti’s never really dropped off the scene. She’s continued to release albums consistently, has a line of best-selling cookbooks, is a spokesperson for diabetes, and even as she approaches 70, still brings it onto the stage with a vengeance. Patti and Chaka may have to duke it out for this one.
1) The Blue-Eyed Soul Connection
Aretha: Scored a #1 hit duet with George Michael. Also had hit duets with Elton John and Michael McDonald. McD later covered the George Michael duet, marking one of those weird moments when pop culture completely crashes on itself.
Patti: Spine-tingling televised duet with Cyndi Lauper on “Time After Time”. Participated in a female re-rub of Quincy Jones’ “The Secret Garden” with Teena Marie and others. Scored a #1 pop and soul smash with a Michael McDonald duet, “On My Own”.
Chaka: Arranged Robert Palmer’s #1 hit “Addicted to Love”. Sang very noticeable background vocals on Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”. Adult contemporary smash duet with Peter Cetera called “Feels Like Heaven”. Duetted with Michael McDonald-TWICE (on 1992’s “Time to Be Lovers” and again on a 2007 cover of his Doobie Brothers hit “You Belong to Me”).
2) Inside the Actor’s Studio:
Chaka: Performed in a European touring company of the hit off-Broadway play “Mama, I Want to Sing”.
Aretha: Her Eighties-era comeback began in earnest with a performance in “The Blues Brothers” movie.
Patti: Has maintained a pretty solid acting career, as referenced earlier. Has acted on Broadway, on TV, and in film. Definitely the most accomplished actor of the three.
3) The Luther Connection:
Chaka: Luther sang backup on (and later re-recorded) her hit “Papillon (Hot Butterfly) and the two later joined forces to sing background on David Bowie’s “Underground”.
Aretha: Mr. Vandross famously produced Aretha’s hit albums Jump to It and Get it Right, until the two had a diva fight and fell out for a couple of years. Loofa later appeared on Aretha’s 1991 song “Doctor’s Orders”, which was nominated for a Grammy. In the following decade, he designed some of the gowns Aretha wore on tour, although she gets docked a few points for an absolutely horrendous cover of “A House is Not a Home” she does on the posthumous Vandross tribute album.
Patti: Luther and LaBelle were close friends. He was one of the guests on Patti’s 1985 television special (the first glimpse of Luther following his first major weight loss). However, the fact that trumps everything else: Luther was the co-president of the Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles fan club.
4) Mary J. Blige Connection:
Patti: Collaborated with Mary J. on a cover of “Ain’t No Way”, which was originally a hit for…Aretha Franklin.
Chaka: Mary counts Chaka as a mentor, and the younger diva returned the favor by producing the banging single “Disrespectful” on Chaka’s Funk This album. The song won the duo a Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group.
Aretha: Mary J. has not only written and produced for Aretha, but the two have recorded two duets. “Don’t Waste Your Time” found Ree playing the big sister role back in ’99, but a few years later the two reconnected for “Never Gonna Break My Faith”, a song from the movie “Bobby” that went on to become a Grammy winner.
Aretha: Has used very little of a hip-hop element in her music. The closest she’s come was her 1998 album A Rose is Still a Rose, which featured songwriting & production contributions from Lauryn Hill and Puff Daddy, but no rapping from either.
Patti: Miss Patti was one of the first R&B stars to feature a big-name rapper on a song with her Big Daddy Kane duet “Feels Like Another One”. Since then, she’s recorded with Wyclef Jean, DMX and Kanye West, among others.
Chaka: She’s kept her hip-hop collabos to a minimum (the only one I can think of is “All Good?” with De La Soul), but 1984’s “I Feel for You” was a breakthrough record; the first hit single to feature a big-name rapper (Melle Mel) alongside a big-name singer. Bonus points for “Ain’t Nobody” being in “Breakin”. Oh, and she sang the theme song from “Krush Groove”! Old school respect!! Let’s not forget that Kanye’s breakthrough hit (“Through the Wire”) featured a sped-up Chaka sample!
6) Colored in Purple
Aretha: Also somewhat strangely, Aretha has never collaborated with Prince, who obviously has a thing for R&B vocalists of a certain vintage.
Patti: Prince produced “Yo Mister” and “Love ’89” on Patti’s Be Yourself album, and (if you believe the rumors) was originally supposed to star in the role later taken by Mavis Staples in “Graffiti Bridge”.
Chaka: Prince worked with Chaka around the same time, producing the track “Sticky Wicked” (which was rumored to also contain an appearance from Miles Davis-later debunked…kinda). The two have worked together consistently since. When Prince broke off from Warner Brothers and started his own NPG label, Chaka was one of his signings. They put out the excellent Come 2 My House album. Most recently, Chaka covered “Sign ‘o the Times” on Funk This.
Did I mention yet that “I Feel for You” was written by Prince (and he won a Grammy for Chaka’s version?)
7) Works of Literature:
Aretha “From These Roots”: This book zips through Aretha’s life in vague detail. Just when you think she’s about to delve into a potentially deep topic, she zooms on to the next. You get the feeling she didn’t really feel like going in-depth about anything. You also get the sense that she’s kind of self-possessed and haughty. An interesting read, but you might not want to have dinner with the woman. I’m just saying.
Chaka “Through the Fire”: Chaka keeps it all the way real in this book; discussing the various abuse (of all kinds) issues that have threatened to derail her career. Much like you’d expect from Chaka, this book doesn’t pull many punches at all.
Patti “Don’t Block the Blessings”: Patti admits to growing up in an abusive household, being sexually assaulted as a young teenager, having issues with her skin color and the size of her nose, romancing a Temptation, not totally digging the concept of LaBelle in the early Seventies, suffering from post-partum depression and dealing with the fear of dying young after all three of her sisters died before the age of 45. It’s frank, but ultimately uplifting, and Patti’s sense of humor shines through.
If it were my vote to make, I’d probably go 1) Chaka 2) Patti 3) Aretha. Chaka’s made the most satisfying music of the three, even if we occasionally have to wait forever for it. Patti gets second by virtue of her phenomenal live performances, but that’s not to knock Aretha for even half a second. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that she’s absolutely a legend, although her status as the Queen is maybe by virtue of the other two artists’ relative lack of mainstream recognition as opposed to her catalog (or her voice) being better than anyone else’s. Maybe, for now, all three of them should share the throne?
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