The title cut from Aretha Franklin’s 1985 LP Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, is all based around a phrase Aretha Franklin said to Narada Michael Walden while they were working on the album. It was the first time the pair collaborated, though the success of Who’s Zoomin’ Who? forged a collaboration that lasted up to Aretha’s final live performance. Narada tried to get a feel for Aretha and her vibe so he could craft the perfect song for her. She told him “You play the eye game with somebody, it’s a who’s zoomin’ who kind of feeling.”
Aretha first heard the phrase “who’s zoomin’ who” in the early 1970’s when she was with her then-partner Ken Cunningham. As she recalled in her 1999 autobiography Aretha: From These Roots, “(Ken and his friends would) say “This chick or the brother really zoomed me,” meaning someone had pulled the wool over their eyes or conned them skillfully.” She continued, “Well, at the time (when we were working on Who’s Zoomin’ Who?) I was dating a gentleman who was… convinced he was zooming me… (but he) wasn’t zooming anyone, and certainly not me.”
Sonically, “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” fits the profile of many of the Narada Michael Walden productions of the time including Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”: it’s synth-heavy and rooted in percussion (Walden plays the drums), with a catchy hook to boot.
Aretha’s voice had begun to change throughout the 80’s; there’s more gruff and rasp to the profile of her voice than there had been in the 60’s & 70’s. Part of that can simply be attributed to the natural progression of time. The other part can be credited to Aretha’s affinity for Kool Cigarettes. Despite the change, songs like “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” lend themselves to the nature of her voice at the time and suit her perfectly.
The song’s personnel is a who’s who of names. Randy Jackson plays the synth bass, Walter Afanasieff (notable for producing “My Heart Will Go On” & his extensive work with Mariah Carey in the 90’s) plays the keyboards, and Sylvester contributes background vocals along with Aretha’s sister Carolyn Franklin.
Stream “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?”
“Freeway.” Aretha: from These Roots, by Aretha Franklin and David Ritz, Villard, 1999, pp. 209–209.