“I got a call the other day, it was my sister Carolyn…”
Aretha Franklin’s younger sister Carolyn Franklin may have never achieved the level of musical success Aretha did, but she more than made her mark. As a singer, she released 5 LPs, and provided background vocals for Aretha on numerous occasions. She’s also credited with collaborating with Aretha on the version of “Respect” that would prove to be one of the most crucial moments of Aretha’s career. The thing Carolyn Franklin will best be remembered for though, is writing some of Aretha’s big hits.
One of the biggest songs Carolyn wrote for Aretha was 1973’s “Angel” from the Quincy Jones-produced Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky). The song opens with a spoken introduction that Aretha always included in her performances of the song:
I got a call the other day,
It was my sister Carolyn saying,
“Aretha, come by when you can, I’ve got something that I want to say.”
And when I got there, she said,
“You know, instead of going through a long, drawn out thing,
I think the melody on the box will help me explain.”
The “melody on the box” Carolyn and Sonny Saunders crafted is beautiful, haunting, and melancholic. As Aretha put it in her autobiography, “Carolyn had written soaring melodies before, but none soared higher than “Angel”. The song had wings. It combined loneliness and hope in a way that spoke directly to the heart.” And those are probably two of the best ways to describe the lyrics Carolyn penned for “Angel”.
Aretha and Carolyn’s sister Erma also landed on “wings” as a way to describe “Angel”. Erma told David Ritz that “Angel” was “a prayer with wings… Carolyn’s most beautiful song”. She elaborated, “that’s saying a lot because (Carolyn) wrote dozens of beautiful songs. But ‘Angel’ took it to a higher level- to the Curtis Mayfield/Marvin Gaye level, where there’s really something divine about her composition.”
The Franklin sisters’ observation that the song has wings is right on the nose; “Angel” takes flight, due in part to a flawless arrangement. Carolyn and Erma’s vocals back Aretha up, and sound impeccable behind her lead vocal. Elements of an orchestra from strings to french horns all strike at precisely the right moments, while the electric piano and other effects create a timeless, yet timely aura around Aretha’ poignant delivery.
Aretha’s ability to wrap her voice around a lyric like no other especially shines through on “Angel.” The tone she elicits on “Too long have I loved, so unattached within.” exudes a subtle tiredness, that’s still apparent enough to pierce the soul. The wail she conjures up between “There’s no misery” and “Like the misery I feel in me” is yet another vocally transformative moment for a singular singer in the midst her vocal prime.
“Angel” went on to be Aretha’s 13th number one record on the R&B charts, and one of her final top 20 pop hits for more than a decade. Aretha performed the song regularly throughout her touring, all the way to her final years performing (see below for performance footage).
In 2007, Ruben Studdard performed the song during a UNCF tribute to Aretha. Seated prominently in a raised area of the venue, Aretha is moved to tears as Studdard works his way through the hit. It’s one of the very few times Aretha is seen moved to tears by song, especially one of her own.
Listen to “Angel”:
And here are a few live performances from over the years, including a knock-out performance from 1973:
“Gotta Find Me An Angel” Aretha: from These Roots, by Aretha Franklin and David Ritz, Villard, 1999, pp. 157.
“Hey”. Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, by David Ritz, Little, Brown & Company, 2014, pp. 263